‘Mahila Hinsha Virodhi Pakhwada’ – village forum which talks about gender violence.

In times like these, when we need more voices to be raised around gender violence, our SBI #YouthforIndia fellow Siddhant discovers in two villages, a discussion group where people come together and discuss issues related to women issues ranging from domestic violence to child marriage. 

As the name itself suggests, ‘Mahila Hinsha Virodhi Pakhwada’ is a place where not only women, but people from different age groups of the society, come together to discuss different issues related to violence against women. This meeting is organized every year all over India, from 25th November to 10th December by different organizations, NGOs, and SHGs.

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I attended two Pakhwada’s on the 5th and 6th of December, in my project location at Karawada and Kojawada, in Kherwada block of Udaipur District. Nearly 200 people comprising of men, women, elders and youths of almost 15 villages attended this ‘open ended discussion’ conducted by Seva Mandir in the respective Youth Resource Centres.


Topics like child marriage, increasing school dropout rates for girls, gender discrimination, eve teasing, early relationship between boys and girls in school and migration issues were discussed using the ‘problem, effect and solution analysis’ on a chart paper. There were groups formed according to varying age groups and each group had to come up with different success stories, case studies, problems and solutions.

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At the end of the day, it was decided that issues like child marriage and increasing school dropout rates for girls need to be immediately tackled in the villages as their rate is very high in this particular region.

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Bay of Stereotypes

Nupur Ghuliani, SBI Youth for India fellow, who is at Kherwada, Rajasthan, writes about her experience of the fellowship.

Being from Delhi, a city I love for the record, but also a city notorious for its instances of crimes against women, I am very alert to say the least especially while using public transport.  And as an SBI YFI fellow, public transport is my lifeline, the only way I get anywhere close to getting some work done. So here I was completely in control of my breath, painfully alert to every touch, every stare, onboard a public bus, when from the corner of my eye I see a pair of eyes trained at me like a predator’s. As per my personal set of rules, I looked at him and began the Stage1 ‘stare-back’ counter attack. With this counter attack, the enemy generally gets embarrassed and looks away. At least in 90% of the cases. In case of the other 10%, I have to eventually look away, a little shiver in the pit of my stomach determined to put my pepper spray to good use if need be. So cut to present, this man is slowly reaching the 10% category with full 2.7 seconds into holding my stare and then he clears his throat and says – ‘aap baith jaaiye please’ (Please sit down). I remember smiling to myself and making a short mental note (Lesson#1) – when a man here stares at you for too long, he probably means to offer you a seat.

Another such incident where I ended up having a full-fledged friendly conversation with a man on a jeep made me realize that I really need to rethink my pre-conceived notions about my interaction with people. Lesson #2 – when a man here asks too many questions, he’s probably fascinated by your urban origins; curious to know what brings you to his tiny town.

And then again there was another incident. As we crossed one house after another in the untamed wild landscape of Kotra (a tribal block in Udaipur district), some of the houses had a bunch of lines written in Hindi on their façade. Having last studied written Hindi in class 10, I shamefully accept that my Hindi reading abilities were handicapped by sheer lack of practice (though due to the continuous interaction with villagers coupled with designing and creating stationery in Hindi, my skills have improved manifold ever since). Anyway, as I crossed some of those houses, I happened to read the first sentence of the two written, it said:

Apni bahu betiyon ko baahar na jaane dein

(Don’t let your daughters and daughters-in-law step out)

I was horrified. How could these people be so brazen about their orthodox misogynistic views? This, when hundreds of us in the cities are standing up for women’s rights, trying hard to deconstruct gender roles and mouldy stereotypes?

These thoughts though intense lasted only for a few moments, right till I was able to read the next and last line:

Ghar mein hi shauchalaya banayein

(Build a toilet in your own home)

What looked like an oppressive instruction had now assumed its actual role that of being an advice to protect women from relieving themselves in public, that of guarding a woman’s dignity.

It opened my eyes to how short-sighted and assumptious we can be.

These incidents one after the other made me realize that I know this place and its people only as much as the village women here know about selfies. So let’s keep the stereotypes at bay.

Nupur 1

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Fellowship experience at Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu

Anirudh Prasadh, a SBI #YouthforIndia fellow, writes about his experience in the fellowship for the past three months, from the Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu.

Background: Born in Madras (now Chennai), raised in Bombay, educated in Pune, one year abroad for a Masters degree, and survived two years of a monotonous corporate life in Mumbai.

The last two years put a lot of things in to perspective. Early 2014 led to the realization that I no longer had the passion for any or all things ‘engineering’ and spent far more time filling and refilling reports. I began to lose focus and any passion that I previously had; and if continued would have been an anonymous face you see regularly amongst the Mumbai crowds; the potbelly, vada pav eating guy more concerned about the next local/BEST bus, and generally apathetic towards problems and situations around him. Although the generalization here is without any basis, safe to say if I hadn’t made an impulse decision to quit and pay my way out, I might have been that guy one day.

Moving on and being serious!

We all have a certain moment, or a collection for some, wherein we question our place and role in society at large. Mine were related to arm chair debates on socio-political issues, and turning patriotic under the influence of certain well crafted elixirs. So much so, that my friends used to dread those moments (Its charming once to be frank! Not so much when you wake up in regret when known as the Grinch of the weekend). Months of self-inquisition and the pressure to identify a calling (also pressure from parents and peers) led me to the SBI Youth for India program. It was through chance that while preparing (or lack of) for UPSC prelims that I felt rural experience would be beneficial in order to gauge my capabilities when it comes to serving the public.

SBI Youth For India, in partnership with prominent NGOs, is a rural development fellowship program that requires fellows to spend a year in a rural setting. Placed with MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), the Tamilian in me was excited about the opportunity to work amongst people and a culture similar to one I was raised in. I chose Kolli Hills based on the information I had received during the orientation program. The idea of working for tribal farmers was exciting and from what I understood it provided a significant opportunity to witness and gauge true rural lifestyle as compared to the education I had received of the same in an urban setting.

At the Kolli Hills; Photo courtesy: Gautam Jayasurya

To be honest though, nothing prepared me for what Kolli Hills really had to offer. The cynic in me, who always doubts another’s perception, did not once take in to account that the stories about this place might actually be true. Everything from its natural beauty, the wonderful sights, lack of infrastructure, and the people, surprised me.

(Note to any nature fans out there or avid riders, the route from Namakkal to Kolli Hills should not be missed. And once here, the routes to the different villages are absolutely mind-blowing. Recommend 10/10)

The first month was spent meeting relevant community stakeholders in different villages that MSSRF was active in. The mandate of the fellowship dictated meeting locals and identifying relevant issues areas that we would like to work in; be it education, nutrition, rural livelihood, etc. Initially it was awkward approaching people and introducing oneself as a fellow intending to live in Kolli Hills with an idea to serve the whole community at large. The first fear or doubt to conquer was my supposed right (or task) to approach a community and bring about changes in the name of rural development. The meetings however mellowed the self-doubt to an extent. The locals were welcoming and had no qualms in sharing their problems and challenges they faced in day-day activities.

Village knowledge center (VKC) inauguration

Village knowledge center (VKC) inauguration

Meeting government officials and dignitaries however painted a different picture. While the locals spoke about problems they faced in areas related to agriculture and related activities, when probed on personal issues related to hygiene, health and nutrition the answers were synonymous; i.e. no problems faced whatsoever. The health officials and ICDC personnel on the other hand informed us about the apathy that locals have towards important issues. Neglecting medication for serious illnesses like TB and AIDS, personal hygiene, lack of nutritional awareness in adolescent girls and young boys, pregnancy related issues, etc. are problems encountered that are far too common.

A little girl more interested in arranging chappals in a neat and ordered fashion than listen to speeches during the VKC inauguration

A little girl more interested in arranging chappals in a neat and ordered fashion than listen to speeches during the VKC inauguration

It’s been three months since the beginning of the fellowship and the fundamental cause behind issues affecting social and economic fronts of tribal life are dynamic and inter-woven. Although most of us fellows knew that prior to the fellowship, the scale in which this affects every small facet of life is surprising. The challenge for me (and another fellow) is to identify areas for interventions such that the community itself can carry forward the information disseminated. The fear being that any change, no matter how detailed in plan, could be far fetched in nature and thus not sustainable post the fellowship. Everyday, I remind myself that I am only here for a year and thus try to reign in my misplaced enthusiasm for bringing about change in various facets.

Passing free time playing cricket with our neighbors. Bruised body and ego!

Passing free time playing cricket with our neighbors. Bruised body and ego!

Although this journey has just began, hopefully I have something concrete to show in terms of results come September 2015 (and I might write one of these again. Looking at you Fareeda! No promises). One thing though will be certain; at the end I will be a better individual with a drive and passion towards bringing about social change (in any way I can contribute).

- Anirudh Prasadh; could be the potbellied guy (I’m hoping it will go away one day! Like I get up one morning and poof! It’s gone.) enjoying a vada pav that you see the next time you’re in Mumbai. You never know!

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SHGs that rent DJ mixing set at Dang, South Gujarat

Nagli papad, vermicompost…no, make way for event managment SHGs, who are also curbing alcoholism in their villages with this innovative initiative. Read what Gangaben tells SBI #YouthforIndia fellow Pooja Dewoolkar, who is now at Dang in South Gujarat.

“How often do we imagine markets in rural India? The newest lifestyle products which come out cater only to the urban population believing that rural population will never need it. This is where a lot of companies miss out on a fundamental market population.”

In my orientation week at SBI Youth for India Fellowship 2014-15, the idea of “imagining markets” stumped me. Mr. A. Murugantham, the man behind the sanitary napkin revolution of India, who created affordable, disposable sanitary napkins for women in rural India, highlighted this fact for us. Yes, the market is very different from the conventional one, but this does not mean that there is an absence of need.

Once the fellowship actually began, I had forgotten most of it until I visited Dagadpada, a village 11 kms away from the highway in Dangs district, South Gujarat. Nestled in the Sahyadri ranges, it was one of the villages I had visited in the attempt to meet as many diverse stakeholders as possible. The village is home to many self-help groups (SHGs) and it also had watershed development committee who I intended to interview in order to gain better insight on their workings. In this process I happened to meet Gangaben Sonjebhai Gaikwad, a woman about 60 years of age who is a trained auxiliary mid-wife nurse and an SHG member. Since most SHG have an income generation activity in that area, I inquired about her group’s activity. I was ready for a usual response of ‘making Nagli papad, vermicompost, and plant nursery management’ and other practices associated commonly to promote women’s involvement as a source of income for the household. “We rent plastic chairs for weddings and functions in the area. There is another SHG here which rents a DJ mixing set and a group of men who are involved in making mandap (construction of tents and skeletal structures in which events can be held)”, she stunned me into silence.

Gangaben Sonjebhai Gaikwad: She is a trained auxiliary mid-wife nurse and an SHG member at Dang, South Gujarat

These groups co-ordinate among themselves and form what can be called as an event managing team for all the events that happen in nearby villages. On further probing and analysis, I realised that apart from the initial capital, there is very less costs involved which makes the business very easy to manage and sustainable. The groups undertook saving activities like any other SHG, out of which the maintenance of the capital was taken care of, and shared the profits. Women did not have to devote all their time in the activity and thus could undertake other businesses if they wanted to. Every component of this business, the plastic chairs, the DJ set, the SHG which is involved in making food and the mandap group when separated, are still functional and don’t have to rely on each other in order to get an event. Therefore, they can individually carry on with their business as and when they have a demand.

Before they ventured into this field, the group used to buy cloth for sarees at wholesale rate from Surat to sell in Dangs region and this earned them a respectable profit. The idea emerged from the fact that people in the villages also desire to dress well and stay fashionable, and were okay with investing in whatever their means could afford. The big jump to event management happened when the women realised that their weddings and functions were turning into a boring affair with lack of entertainment before and after the ceremony. People use to drink heavy amounts of alcohol at such events since they said they had nothing else to do as source of enjoyment. “Now they don’t drink as much. They want to dance”, Gangaben tells me. In an area where alcoholism is rife due to extreme poverty and alcohol is used as a substitute for evening meals, switching their investment patterns with an innovative idea was mind-boggling.

Rural India is transforming with every innovation. If only we start realising how much it is a part of ‘mainstream culture’ the process will be much faster.

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Pusa diaries: Part 2

In continuation of his Fellowship experience, Somil writes about the problems of superstition in India that even haunts Pusa! 

Of men of god

In the wake of the recent crackdown on the self-styled godman Rampal and his so called ‘ashram’, that has conjured up a nationwide demand of putting behind bars such self-proclaimed messengers of god, I suddenly recalled that I had witnessed something similar, just a few weeks before – another example of how the marginalized and weaker sections of the society are exploited even more by dastardly acts of such corrupt individuals.

About a month and a half back, I used to travel up and down 25 km from Pusa to Sakra, when I was still deciding which location I wanted to work in. I would travel in a shared auto, the seating capacity of which was around 7-8, but on an average 12 people managed to sit inside, all crammed up, with some even hanging outside behind the auto, making it a bumpy, uncomfortable and yet eventful ride. The concept of sharing autos is very common here in Bihar- even in the capital city of Patna, the autos run only on sharing basis, unless one is in a hurry. Barring the safety aspect (I heard that a couple of autos turned upside down in the past), I think it is a good concept- it reduces the cost of travelling significantly and at the same time the driver gets all his returns on investment with a good profit margin. It also has a direct impact on the environment- instead of ten different autos for ten people; the job is done using one!

Pusa 5

During one such ride I was sitting right next to the driver right on the front seat. I always preferred sitting on the front seat- it was less congested, airy and relatively more comfortable. I used to look outside, think about the tasks that needed to be done that day, about this completely different world I had come to live in, which until now I had only either heard of or read about, and sometimes wonder about life and its meaning. That day, about half way through the journey, I noticed something different. There was a grey tent, roughly 10 metres long, right at the edge of the highway. In front of the tent, there were two rows of around 100 people each, seated facing each other with a gap of about a metre in between. It looked like they had made a path for someone to come out of the tent and bless them one by one. I noticed that they all were carrying a liquid that looked like oil, yellow in colour, packed in a small plastic bottle. Curious, I asked the people in the auto what it was all about. What I heard next was unbelievable! ‘Kuch dino pehle yaha phook baba prakat hue. Ye jab logo pe tel phookte hai toh unki saari beemariya aur saari dikkat khatam ho jaati hai!’ (A few days ago, phook baba appeared here. When he blows oil on people, their illnesses and problems vanish!). Apparently the liquid that the people were carrying was also an ‘exclusive’ product that phook baba had manufactured! “What foolishness! And people really believe in all this?”, I thought to myself instantly. But it was a rather pre-mature thought I later realized when I sat in rumination that night- were the people really at fault?

Over next two days, I saw swarms of people travelling 20-30 km, pay the auto fare and spend three-four hours to get their problems solved by one blow of phook baba. In a place where people do not have access to safe drinking water and bare minimum access to electricity, they pinned all their hopes in this one man who had just arrived a couple of days before! In our field visits, we saw that a lot of people were not at their homes- when we asked where they were, their answer was as expected- they had gone to visit the new problem solver! It wasn’t surprising that the news had spread like wild fire within two days. Everywhere everyone was talking about him, relieved that god had finally sent a savior.

It is extremely disheartening, the way such godmen function, thriving on the vulnerabilities of the poor and exploiting them on their insecurities. But there is no stopping such individuals, because if today you catch hold of one, tomorrow someone else will crop up. So whose fault is it in the end? Who is to take the blame? These questions linger on.

Instead, this issue must be tackled from the other end – the people. Any development activity being undertaken in an area should be coupled with extensive awareness. This can be done by building deep relationships with the community and breaking these archaic superstitions, while mobilizing and motivating them to think progressively. Because it is only then that the community will really be “empowered”.

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Pusa diaries: “You left Delhi, for Pusa!”

Somil Daga shares with us his initial experience of staying in Pusa at Samastipur, Bihar.

After 4 weeks of rigorous travelling [Delhi – Pune – Mumbai (transit)- Ahmedabad – Sayla –Ahmedabad – Delhi – Patna – Sakra – Pusa], I have finally found a room to stay in, into my 6th week of the rural development fellowship. Having lived out of the suitcase since September, I was eager to finally empty my bags and shift all my clothes into a closet.

So I bought a ceiling fan day before yesterday evening and started searching for an electrician to have it fixed in my room. As I started my approach towards what appeared to be an electronic goods repair shop, the shopkeeper saw me coming towards his store. By the time I reached, I could tell that he had already formed a perception about me, probably misconceived, having glanced at what I was wearing (simple jeans and a t-shirt, much different from the traditional lungi and banyan , or pant and shirt worn here). Anyway, it turned out that the electrician had gone somewhere and would be back in 15 minutes. I decided to wait and was offered a seat. What began as a casual conversation ended as an interrogation- I was bombarded with questions- starting from my educational background, to my family history, to my salary (by now I’ve become quite used to people here asking my salary directly without any hitch. It forms a major part of what your status is in the society and also determining to some extent how you are to be treated).

However, what stood out in the conversation was the look, not of shock, but of horror on his face when I told him that I lived in Delhi. “Aap Dilli, DILLI chhod ke yaha aaye ho? Bihar, who bhi Pusa? Kya soch ke aaye ho yaha?” He now had a smirk on his face, probably thinking what a half-witted person I must be! But I do not blame him for his misguided notion. For people living here, living in big cities is the dream and no wonder Delhi witnesses’ in-flow of a large number of migrants from Bihar every year so much so that I could not get a train back to Bihar from Delhi after Diwali, and had to fly back! Nevertheless, I was successfully able to convey to him my viewpoint, telling him that there is an increasing number of youth today striving to work in the development sector, and that it is not long before he will see more and more people like me coming and visiting his store. ‘A far-fetched dream?’, I thought to myself as the electrician arrived. I bid the shopkeeper farewell to get my fan up and working. It’s been two days since then, and my fan hasn’t started working yet! But let’s reserve this story for another time.

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Meetings Worth a While: Kripa & Kamlesh, Udaipur district, Rajasthan

As Simren goes around her project location trying to understand the underlying forces and issues, she finds rural migration to be a chronic problem. Here is an extract from her diary where she pens down her thoughts from a couple of such interactions.


“I thought I would be able to earn some money by going out to work. My mother worked as a NREGA worker in the village but was not paid her due wages. I wanted to make up for the loss. I worked for a month and half on a BT cotton field in Gujarat. I don’t want to go back. I want to study. I dropped out of school and I want to rejoin it.” (Translated version)

Kripa is a twelve year old girl from Sagwada village, Udaipur District, Rajasthan. Having worked as a child migrant in Gujarat for a while, she’s back home now and wants to rejoin school. Her story depicts the plight of many other young children from the village who are forced to drop out of school and migrate to nearby towns and cities in search of work to be able to fend for their families. While her story is engulfed with some light of hope for she may actually be able to continue with her studies from next year, the decision that the young girl had to make speaks in magnitude the kind of life that the people of this village are conditioned to live. Lack of non-remunerative and unsustainable agricultural practices along with no other alternative means of livelihood available in the village make men and young children migrate to cities on large scale. There have been incidents in the past when families as a whole have migrated, leaving behind locked doors with silent walls and shuddering tales of economic misery and impoverishment.

Kamlesh, a child migrant from Sagwada village has been working in Ahmedabad for the past two years now. Having completed school till 7th standard, Kamlesh and his sister Sangeeta had to leave home for work to be able to feed a family of nine. Kamlesh earns about 250 rupees daily and lives in a rented room in the city, shared by ten other children like him. Having switched jobs a couple of times in the course of two years, Kamlesh now works as a borewell worker. Life hasn’t been a bed of roses for either him or many others of his age. One has to work overtime to be able to bear the expense of living in a city and simultaneously save a miniscule amount of money to send back home. Despite facing difficulties at work place in terms of coercion to work overtime or possessing no bargaining power against the contractor, Kamlesh has accepted his fate and will continue to work in the same manner. However, on being asked whether he would like to receive training for a more decent work he confided in with his approval.

(Kamlesh will be off to work after Diwali whereas his sister Sangeeta would now stay back to do household work. She is 15 years of age and has studied till class 7th).

The only way to make these young children opt out of migration is to help them build their capacities to be able to take up alternative livelihood practices, hopefully in their own village. Please share with us your ideas/suggestions of any such training/skill that could be imparted to them, something that is viable and sustainable.

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