Michael Wright: the last officer in the British Indian Army

The village of Kennington, where I live, is the only village in the country to have chosen to fundraise for an overseas project every year, since 1969. In the process, we have come to know some very remarkable people who have set up charities. They have gripping and heart warming tales to tell which I would like to share with readers. First up, is Michael Wright who runs ‘International Village Development Trust (IVDT) from his home in St John Street so he says,

‘IVDT incurs no rents, no salaries, no pensions or national insurance contributions.’ Despite that, he has delivered remarkable projects through Indian Non-Governmental Organisations, such as AID and Chale Chalo , whohave a high reputation for integrity and effectiveness. So I wondered how it all began and why India?

The immediate spur, to founding the charity, was the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, in 1982,  with which Michael was involved through his work with Shelter (UK), Help the Aged Housing Trust and other housing projects in this country. He was personally responsible for the UK end but the experience of the international elements tugged at distant memories. Memories of arriving in India, after Normandy Service, as part of the Indian Army Engineers such as

‘Getting off the train, I accidently trod on the bare foot of an Indian woman and not knowing the language turned to my superior officer and asked how I should apologise. ’You never apologise to coolies’ was his reply. I wondered what kind of place I had come to but over the following years I came to love India and fortunately my Commanding Officer in the Madras Sappers and Miners was an Indian, a younger son of the Maharajah of Chota Udipur. The regiment was run on lines of complete equality.’ Michael described another early experience.

‘We were based in Bihar. All the earth moving equipment was under my command and my task was to train my soldiers to use it. We noticed a crowd of local people watching us moving earth from one end of a field to another. They gestured to us.“What do they want?” I asked. My jamaldar went to investigate and returned saying “They say what we are doing is a complete waste of time and would like you to come to their village.’” I agreed and was soon digging wells and drainage ditches in the villages all around. I was just twenty and thought I should perhaps have the approval of my colonel and fortunately he said “Absolutely super idea”.’

So the young Michael saw the difference even small developments made to the lives of the villagers.I asked him to describe one of his favourite IVDT projects.

‘I think that has to be in Jharkand, one of the poorest states in India. I met Ravi Kumar of AID who described the lives of children as young as five or six, sold into bonded labour, chained to carpet weaving looms under which they also slept. There was no running water or electricity in these villages and so they worked in semi darkness until at fourteen their eyesight begins to fail and they are replaced. I asked Ravi what happens to them – “they end up as labourers and die young.”’

‘With my wife Margaret, I devised and, through AID, built a training centre where they would have good food, fun and pastoral care for the first time in their lives. We trained them to become car mechanics and bicycle repairers so they would have a future. Two ministers from the newly founded state (once part of Bihar) came to our opening and were impressed. So, from then on, the State has maintained it and opened a further five centres.

Similarly with a more recent project in Orissa, a state subject to dreadful floods. Because I have travelled in Malaysia, Burma and Kenya, I am familiar with mangrove forests, which protect coastal areas against natural disasters, like tsunamis. So far we have planted over 200,000 trees, set up 50 Women’s Self Help Groups and 60 Eco clubs in local schools. The project has been a resounding success and the local government is continuing and expanding the projects we start. We are currently working on building MANGRO Environmental Resources Centre to train volunteers to lead the new village Forest Groups and Eco Clubs. The simple building made from sustainable local materials will be solar powered.

Those readers who have seen Slumdog Millionaire will have an idea of the lives of rag pickers. IVDT is involved in a project in Delhi with such children. They use art, drama and music to inspire the children and draw them in to basic education. Michael described squatting on the floor drawing with a group of such children.

‘They dissolved into laughter at my failures in life drawing- their efforts were much better than mine!’

These are just a few of the projects started from a house in St John Street by the inspirational Michael Wright and his daughter Helen -sadly Margaret died in 2007. I have only been able to put a finger dip into the whirlpool that is Michael’s life and the impact it has had in the UK, in India and in areas where his beloved Gurhkas were recruited.

If you are interested in IVDT go to www ivdtrust.org.uk or ring Michael on 01865 513672 or email Mikemargaretwright@hotmail.com