Ray of hope

From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Mehak Aggarwal: working in association with BAIF in Shahpur block, Betul district, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is primarily a forest region populated by Gond and Korku tribes. I am working on a project to impart basic computer education to villagers in two villages – Silpatti and Rathamaati/Khokra.

So, why this project? (The fellowship gives us the freedom of choosing our project based on our interest, the need of the rural community in the place we are posted and also taking into consideration the influence area of the NGO) The government of India (GoI) has provided each panchayat building with a computer system complete with a printer and scanner. But in many panchayats that I have visited in Shahpur block, the computer system is disused or missing. It’s either not in working condition or lying at a panchayat member’s house, most frequently the Sarpanch. In some cases it’s lying disused in some Panch’s house. In one case, the computer was lying disused in the Panchayat house because the Panchayat house had no electricity connection!dsc_0113.jpg
Let’s look at certain aspects of why I chose to do the above project.

  1. Why are computers provided to the Panchayats?

The Government of India is moving the entire government apparatus online. All the government data (that is not secret) is now available online whether it be land records (Khasra nakal as they call it here) or contact information of various government officials. The form filling for various government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission and subsidies like the one on sprinklers is done online. To facilitate access to all these services and information by every village, computers have been provided by the Government to each Panchayat house. There is also a person who usually is believed to be the one using the computer called the Rozgaar Sahayak (a post created under MGNREGA). But in my observation, they do not really depend on the Panchayat computer to do their work. Either they have smartphones or come to the Janpad office in Shahpur to do their work.

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  1. Why are computers lying disused?

In almost all the villages that I visited, hardly anyone knew how to use a computer. When I say that , I also include the Panchayat members and the Sachiv( government appointee in Panchayat) in that statement. So what happens is when people don’t know how to use something, it means nothing  to them. It could be there, may not be there, may be at some body’s place – it’s all the same. No one bothers to ask about it or its well-being or its resting place!

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Disused computer in panchayat house with no electricity connection

  1. Why the project on computer training?

There is a huge gap between the government of India’s initiative to go digital and the villagers’ (that I work with) ability to go digital. That gap isn’t the infrastructure gap. It’s the knowledge gap. The tools to go digital have been provided by the GoI, but the knowledge to use them has not been provided. Through my project, I am trying to close that knowledge gap. I am aiming to provide the necessary know-how to fill forms of various government schemes. It will obviously go through the route of computer basics, internet basics and basic knowledge of using a search engine. After the computer education course is completed, the project entails documenting any changes in government schemes availed, increase in general awareness and the villagers’ willingness to take some time out from their daily grind and learn computers.

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  1. How’s the progress been?

I will say it has had it’s lows and some miniscule highs. But a lot of lows for sure. I started by visiting the Panchayat buildings of Panchayats that  BAIF is active in ( It is working in six panchayats in Shahpur block). The first panchayat I visited – Deshawadi didn’t have any electricity. So no go. The next – Sheetaljiri didn’t have any computer. The computer was lying at some computer repair shop in Shahpur since a long time. The third- Rampurmal also didn’t have a computer. The computer was supposedly lying in a broken state at a Panch’s house. The fourth had a computer and an internet connectivity through connection with Jio 4G on the phone. I must say I was relieved and surprised after all the previous experiences. Even though this panchayat was the farthest off from Shahpur without any bus connectivity, I was just happy that there was some possibility of starting the project. So, then I moved to the next step and talked to the Sarpanch about my project and how I would need the Panchayat house and it’s computer for it. The Sarpanch was a genial lady who agreed. Then I talked to the villagers in the Gram Sabha held on Republic Day-26th January and told them about my project. The response was enthusiastic. I got as many as 12 names for the course. And that’s a lot. Then when I started going to take classes, no one turned up. I was able to take a solitary class out of the seven scheduled. That too because I saw the three people who eventually attended that class loitering around Panchayat house and convinced them to attend. Not a very encouraging response. I also took a couple of awareness sessions to talk with the villagers about the importance of computer education.
One fine day, I got a call around noon from a youth of this village. I was at my place in Shahpur. He complained that a few of them had been coming to the Panchayat house since two days but  I had not showed up. I was taken by surprise, both pleasantly and unpleasantly. Pleasantly because this was the first time the village youth had actually come for a (albeit non scheduled) class on their own. Unpleasantly because I wasn’t there and no class was scheduled for the day! How did that come about?   A couple of days prior to the above mentioned day, I had called the CRP(community resource person) who works with BAIF to schedule a class the next day. But I had told him explicitly that I had no other mode of transport and he would have to pick me up halfway. The next day, I couldn’t contact him. His phone was switched off. And he didn’t call to ask me about when I am coming etc either.That means the class was off since I had no means to reach. But he didn’t communicate with me or the village youth. The village youth believed the class is rescheduled on their own accord.
To sum up, the travel arrangements to Khokra were not working out, the communication was erratic because of network issues and there was a definite gap in understanding between me and the village youth.
I was feeling hopeless about the direction of the project. Then I decided to follow my senior’s advice that I should try to take more villages under my project, with connectivity by bus or near enough that I could go on scooty. To be on the safe side, in case the project completely fails in one. I toured three more panchayats – Rathamaati, Baanspur and Silpatti. In Silpatti, things worked out quickly and I held my first class yesterday. I must say it felt good, just to have the first class on the day that the first class was scheduled! After the Khokra fiasco, it was a good start. I feel hopeful. And that’s what my title is all about.

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  1. What’s the next step?

Making this project a success in atleast one village. Right now I think that might be Silpatti.
When working in the development sector, one has to keep trying and not let failures bog one down. I keep telling myself not to give up. That I am learning so much even in my struggle. And I also try to not waste too much time on an initiative that looks doomed like all the Panchayats I checked out initially.It would have taken a long time to get electricity to the panchayat house or get the computers up and running where they were not there. “Fail fast” is a mantra I have taken to heart. I have limited time in this fellowship-13 months to make a small difference to the lives of people I work for. And more importantly, to document the lacunae in the current scenario and the solution that works and the many that don’t.

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“This Woman In Uttarakhand Is Beyond Conventional ‘Joys’ Of Motherhood”

From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Deepshi Arya: Motherhood is a bed of roses, in the lap of thorns with no prior inkling of the sleepless nights to come. The newborn ‘bundle of joy’ makes sure that you enjoy the late-night tantrums and of course, the scented potty. All these seem to joys of motherhood. But for Kamla who lives in Manarsa village in the state of Uttarakhand, the concept of the ‘joy of motherhood’ is nonexistent. She doesn’t consider it to be a privilege nor is it a sacrosanct feeling – for her it is a normal course in life. She goes about her daily chores with the additional duty of making sure her three-year-old, whom she still breastfeeds, survives. She does not understand the whole idea of reveling in the little moments of Divya’s first step or her first utterance nor does she bother about wiping Divya’s mouth or nose every time they get messy.

mother-new-3-450x400Kamla is not paranoid about the hygiene factor as I watched the mother and child sit on the rugged floor and giggle even as the flies rested on them. Kamla could afford to spend these moments with Divya because the community was in mourning due to a death in the neighbourhood. It’s fascinating how all villagers live as a family and they rejoice as well as mourn together. The neighbours usually perform the role of babysitters for Divya when Kamala has to go for  ‘ghaaskatai’, (cutting of the grass from farms for fodder), a duty which every ‘pahadi’ woman has to carry out. She is proud and not concerned about Divya being under the care a neighbour. The children are not given constant attention by their mothers and verbal encouragement for every little feat of theirs, most of them go unnoticed.

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“Apne aap chali jayegi,” (They will go on their own) said Kamla, when I tried to help Divya who was jumping down the rocky steps carved out of the hilly terrain, which looked taller than her little frame, clearly not matching the safety standards for my city trained eyes.

The pahadi way of life poses more challenges to the children in comparison to those living on the plains. It was a breath of fresh air to see Kamla teaching her child to accept sweets from a ‘stranger’ didi, while she welcomed me into her home with warmth and affection. It’s a different experience when compared to the air of mistrust that lingers in the lives of city dwellers.

unnamed-2“Apne aap chali jayegi,” (They will go on their own) said Kamla, when I tried to help Divya who was jumping down the rocky steps carved out of the hilly terrain, which looked taller than her little frame, clearly not matching the safety standards for my city trained eyes.

The pahadi way of life poses more challenges to the children in comparison to those living on the plains. It was a breath of fresh air to see Kamla teaching her child to accept sweets from a ‘stranger’ didi, while she welcomed me into her home with warmth and affection. It’s a different experience when compared to the air of mistrust that lingers in the lives of city dwellers.

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Many city-bred mothers are often fussy about sanitising their hands and also of others around her child, to ensure a germ- free environment. On the other hand, Kamla is proud of the fact that her little one ate every piece of her ‘toja’, even those that fell on the muddy floor while chewing away the plastic wrapper which is considered a ‘no-no’ by many.

Kamla may not teach Divya rhymes and alphabets but she makes sure that she teaches her life skills and values of their culture. The way Kamla is raising Divya does not match the conventional idea of motherhood or all that is considered safe and hygienic, yet, this to me is a different kind of motherhood created by the space they occupy; a motherhood that is usually not spoken about. A motherhood that is not about measuring the child’s height and weight regularly or paying attention to every babble and every smile. It is not a motherhood of the privileged; it is the motherhood that every pahadi woman knows to be true. Her moments of pride are not when the child recites a rhyme but when the child happily runs and plays with all and even a stranger, and is also independent in its own way, while the mother is away performing back-breaking duties from dawn to dusk.

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“The Unstoppable Women Of Mandapathar”

From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Piyush Kuhikar: “Yes, we all did”, Chandrakala Malik says proudly. A rare accomplishment of ‘open defecation free village’ has been achieved in Mandapathar where Chandrakala resides. Mandapathar is a small hamlet in the Gayaganda Panchayat of Ganjam district in Odisha, a state which is infamous for open defecation. Situated in the midst of dense forest, Mandapathar has nothing to boast about in terms of infrastructure. In this hamlet, which has no road and no electricity, life seems to be untouched by modern civilization.

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Just a few years ago, the situation was pathetic. Diseases ravaged this village because of unclean water. “We had no choice but to use the river water for everything from bathing, to cleaning the animals. Animals and humans used to drink water from the same river,” says Chandrakala. Because of this, 80% of the children in this village suffered from scabies. Some people even died because of diarrhoea.

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The village transformed because of Gram Vikas that came in the year 2011. When the Gram Vikas officials, during a meeting in the village, spoke of having sanitation facilities and 24-hour water supply in each house, the idea seemed outlandish to these villagers. With regular meeting, the women were gradually convinced. “The men couldn’t be convinced, so we went ahead with the idea,” says Chandrakala as the men sitting beside grin.

The process to get water and sanitation facilities start with each member of the family depositing ₹1,000 in a corpus which is deposited in a bank. The interest accrued on this money is used to build additional toilets when the family expands. Once the corpus fund is collected, the villagers are asked to bring the raw materials required for constructing individual toilets. The bricks are mostly made by the people. Sand and gravel required for preparing the concrete mixture are also paid for by the people. Gram Vikas helps them manage the meetings and teaches them masonry. The organisation also arranged a government subsidy for constructing these toilets.

The women had to face a lot of problems in raising the corpus fund. The men had simply refused to contribute ₹1,000 per family. Faced with stiff opposition and reluctance of the men to finance these toilets, the women took a call. The village’s Self Help Group, Maa Thakurani, pledged ₹16,000 to the corpus fund for 16 families. This was a risky but a very commendable action which made every one realize how determined these women were.

These women were really unstoppable. When men refused to help build these toilets, “We learnt masonry and started constructing the toilets ourselves,” says Hira Jani who served as secretary of Village Water and Sanitation Committee that was formed to monitor the toilet construction.

By 2013, all the toilets were complete. A tank that supplied water from a bore well through solar-powered pump was also built. This tank now supplies water 24 hours in the village; this is something that even the city folks would envy.

This village today boasts of 100% access to sanitation, thanks to Gram Vikas and the women. Every family pays a maintenance fee of ₹30 per month to maintain and repair the solar pump. This village does not have to rely on the government for water supply.
Children do not suffer from scabies anymore and diarrhoea has become rare.

Gram Vikas, which started with the sanitation project, now aims to provide income generation training to these highly motivated women. And, to this, the unstoppable women of Mandapathar have readily agreed.

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Living in the fire and haze

Amrita Bhattacharya joined SBI Youth for India fellowship and chose to work towards spreading awareness about environmental conservation and responsibility towards nature in villages. This blog post is her views about the monetary greed that drives man to destroy nature.

The forests in and around the area I live in Uttarakhand Pithoragarh Berinag Forests is on fire for close to a month, only now I have seen some posts in the media about the devastating fires that are raging in Uttarakhand. Reportedly nearly 1900 hectares of forest land has been destroyed and the fires still continue to rage engulfing the region in a haze of smoke. The locals say it has not been this bad in a long time, as the dry pine needles prone to fires are still more vulnerable in the drought like state where it has not rained for past several months.

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The concern is even more when you find out that the fires are often man made and intentional, showing a serious apathy towards the very forests that maintain the ecological balance of the mountains.

The pine trees which are often tapped for resin, is anyway left weak and the inflammable pine-resin-collection-trunk-india-346787861resin exposed on the bark. These trees after they are burnt in forest fires dry up and are cut and sold.

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As I in my fellowship journey spread awareness about environmental conservation and inculcate responsibility towards the nature, the deep sense of greed of men to destroy nature for fleeting monetary benefit hits me even more.

Some villagers trying to put out the fire

Man and fire

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Putting out fires with twigs!!!

As I remember Gus Speth, a US environmental lawyer said: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

The haze which hangs like a blanket on the hills

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Menstrual Awareness Workshop, May 28, 2015

After completing her Masters in Biotechnology from IIT Madras, Kavya Menon worked as a Technical Consultant. She always wanted to use her knowledge and experience for greater good. She joined SBI Youth for India and chose to improve health and hygiene in the villages through awareness camps on Female Reproductive Health and provision of free resusable pads for adolescent girls. This blog post is about one such workshop conducted with help and support from Ecofemme based out of Auroville.

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When I Decided.....

I have started the series of Menstrual Awareness Workshops on May 28, the World Menstrual Hygiene Day in a small hamlet called Puthu Road, which is in the Kodiakadu Panchayat, part of the Point Calimere Reserve Forest, in Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu. This introductory session was conducted with major help and support from Ecofemme, based out of Auroville. Harishini Mugundan of Ecofemme had led the entire session with ease and taught us enough to conduct future sessions on our own. 22 girls participated here.

The men folk in Puthu Road go for fishing in the swamps and seas and the women are mostly dependant on the salt pan labour for their daily wages. The children mostly go to school for as long as they feel like, mostly stopping after class 10 or 12. Girls start helping in household chores, and if there are younger siblings, mostly they drop out of school…

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Step by step journey of a SBI YFI fellow: Anirudh Prasadh

Many a times, we are asked questions about the fellowship experience. To help us answer many such questions, our fellow Anirudh Prasadh has decided to share the details of his journey. Embark on his journey and get an up close and personal experience of Youth for India fellowship through this series of posts.

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Part 1: Living in a village, miscalculations and understandings.

In this part, I wish to throw light on the first month in Kolli Hills (Oct-Nov).

Post induction and orientation in Pune and Chennai (for MSSRF fellows) respectively, our domain mentor, Dr. Oliver King, had informed us (Gautam Jayasurya and I) that initial accommodation arrangements are in place and that the local team would assist us in settling in. Now, moving to a new place is in itself a difficult experience; however, not knowing what’s in store makes it scary. If you haven’t been to an Indian village, especially ones at a distance from national or state highways, you are in for a certain degree of shock. Despite spending quite a significant amount of time imagining how rudimentary a lifestyle I would be partaking in for the next 11 months, Kolli Hills was quite unlike I had imagined.

Kolli Hills, for those who don’t know, is a quaint untouched hill station in Namakkal District of Tamil Nadu. Roughly 60 kms from Namakkal city, the road to Kolli Malai (as it is known in Tamil) is a scenic yet dangerous route (70 hair pin bends). The journey up the hills should be completed at least once in a local transport bus, preferably crowded, just to add to the spectacle that is Kolli Hills. (Curious eyes scanning and observing every trait of yours is an added bonus of a bus journey!)

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Our initial accommodation was with a MSSRF employee, who was kind enough to share his room until we found a place of our own. As luck would have it, another employee was planning to vacate his house and thus we soon had our own place. A couple of years ago, I would have probably (definitely) thrown a hissy fit if someone had asked me to live in a place like this. However, since the excitement of the fellowship was yet to wear down, I welcomed this change. It only took a couple of days to realize that lack of continuous water supply, and unwanted visitors crawling on you at all times would be a usual occurrence and something we just have to get used to. Add to that the mental image of finding a dozen 5 inch worms swimming in your sole water tank. A water tank supposed to be used for all purposes!

On the other side, how often does one get a chance to live amongst coffee and pepper plants or have an easy access to a vegetable garden? We had a kitchen garden (grown by our previous tenants and neighbors) that gave a steady supply of beans and pumpkins. Add to that a guava tree and pumpkin tree, one could truly say we were blessed. Now, before any one gets jealous, we couldn’t really enjoy the fruits of nature. The owners were quick to pluck the fruits when ripe, and the vegetables disappeared just as quickly. It didn’t matter much though; we hardly knew how to cook! Our preference was to survive on soup packets and noodles or make the short trip to 2 restaurants/hotels serving nothing more than dosa, idli and rice. I was lazy. On a plus point though, I had a steady supply of Sambhar. The Tamilian in me was happy.

In terms of work, we spent the first two weeks meeting local stakeholders and had a good grasp of problems affecting the area. We also realized that Kolli Hills was quite large, comprising of 14 panchayats and many villages. MSSRF and its staff were involved in a wide array of work in 8 villages from different panchayats. The average distance of each village was 20kms from the town centre, i.e. Semmedu (where we were based in).

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MSSRF had been working in Kolli Hills for well over 15 years. Their work was primarily related to agriculture and biodiversity, domains that require long-term interventions. MSSRF had recently setup Village Knowledge Centers (VKC) in 6 new villages. Each VKC had been provided with 2 computers and a printer to serve as a capacity building unit for villagers of all ages. The inauguration of the VKCs were carried out and during said functions, Gautam and I were introduced to the whole community as SBI interns who have come to the hills to study the problems faced by local communities and who will be available to help the community in tasks they see fit. This was the first time, we were able to meet the whole community and the reception was more than welcoming. Kids were curious to know more about us. Our conversations in Tamil were met with giggle and confusion; conversations in English were met with awe. It was at this time, that both of us began to formulate our project plans such that we could cater to all possible areas of intervention. Gautam chose to focus on education, capacity building of the community via VKC, English classes for students, etc., whereas my focus was on nutrition, hygiene and waste management.

VKC

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Part 2: The project plan dilemma

The SBI mandate required each fellow to provide a ten month project plan (Oct-End), which would dictate the area one intends to work in along with planned deliverables. Take note that the project plan was intended to serve as a guide for fellows to achieve self-set deliverables and was in no way a concrete work plan. We were advised (quite correctly) that it would be difficult to follow the same and that changes and modifications should be expected.

I had initially planned to work on 2 major areas:

Millet awareness for nutritional benefit, especially amongst women and children.

Improving Millet value chain system currently in place, i.e. increasing efficiency and bringing about quality control mechanisms in end-end process steps.

During the initial bedding in period, we were asked to interact with the community leaders and local stakeholders regarding the issues that they feel required intervention. These interactions obviously formed the basis of the project plan. At that particular moment, I was confident on the well thought out project plan; which if executed right could bring about positive changes in the community’s lifestyle. 

I’ve attached the project plan and hope it explains the reasoning behind choosing the areas of focus. Moreover in subsequent posts, it would help explain certain decisions that I made along with any deviations on my part from the project plan. Note that SBY Youth for India had informed us that each fellow has an option to either work on an individual project (not part of the NGO mandate) or work with the NGO in improving a particular aspect of a current project. This was an important consideration that influenced our final project plan. Do we decide to work on an individual project different from the NGO’s expertise? Do we work with the NGO in any capacity, thus missing out on potentially important areas of focus? Or do we do a little bit of both?

In the following parts, I intend to focus on the nature of work carried out, people and their stories, along with the future course of action planned for Kolli Hills by MSSRF for the fellow’s projects.

Kolli Hills 2

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Part 3: Trials, interventions, deliverables, failures and successes.

Following the submission of the project plan, the next task was to set out to achieve the mentioned deliverables in a timely manner. Work carried out in the months Nov-Present is mentioned in the following part.

Nutrition awareness

In order to understand the reasons behind nutritional deficiency and associated health problems, conducting a survey among the women was extremely important. The idea behind the survey was to understand local diets, consumption, personal hygiene habits and their thoughts on nutrition and millets as a valid food source. Considering that MSSRF worked with self-help groups, women centric groups were chosen for the controlled survey. This allowed me easy access to the community and aided in understanding their current lifestyle practices. As previously mentioned, since we were introduced to the communities of all 8 villages, I felt duty bound to carry out an extensive survey, such that work and interventions planned for the future would be carried out accounting for all 8 villages.

At the beginning, I didn’t realize the fallacy of such a plan. I genuinely believed (good intentions on my part) that in planning for work such that I do not disregard any particular village was the right way forward and could be achieved rather easily. Moreover, I was naïve in thinking that work carried out in one village could easily be replicated in the other villages. I failed to account for local differences and definitely did not account for smooth time management.

Discussions with our mentors in MSSRF helped us realize that having a controlled survey of only women SHGs would not be possible for a survey of such proportions. As a result, the survey was changed such that, local staff along with one VKC animator (local incharge) would carry out a randomized survey for a total of about 330 participants (1 out of every 3 homes). The reasoning behind it was, a large dataset would account for errors in data collection. The data would also serve as the foundation for all planned deliverables related to nutrition awareness. The survey conducted also included questions on topics based on Gautam’s project plan related to education, capacity building, VKC use, etc. Hence, focus was shifted from a women centric survey to a family centric survey.

The change is survey pattern was something I had not accounted for during formulation of the project plan. Moreover, I failed to even consider that the survey would be conducted with the help of locals. All this time, I was of the opinion that as fellows we would be able to finish it within a couple of weeks. I also conveniently forgot my ability (or lack thereof) to interact in Tamil (basic speaker). This aberration was huge and as one would expect, did eventually affect the planned schedule.

Professional experience taught me that following schedules and deadlines are the most important aspect of a successful project. I spent the better part of a month reworking the plan such that it could account for the delay in the survey. As a result, deliverables such as initial health camp, discussions on nutritious recipes, etc., were held back. I felt that it was important to have data in order to conduct these exercises for maximum impact.

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This Holi, He Plans to Beg – Story of a Nat

By Prakash Gupta, Youth for India Fellow 2014-2015

Nat

A Nat family sitting on the pasture land

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While walking through the village road to do my project work, I saw 8-10 people sitting in the farm land nearby. These people seemed to be more impoverished than any local resident of the area. However, this was not the first time that I have seen such a scene around my village. On most occasions, I was in the bus and never had the opportunity to talk to these people and know more about them. To satisfy curiosity and know more about them, I asked villagers about these people. These people belong to a caste called ‘Nat’. The word ‘Nat’ is derived from the Hindi word ‘Natak’ which literally means ‘drama’ or ‘play’. While there are number of popular folklores that mentions about ‘Nats’, it was strange that none of the local people talk to these people.

People gave a number of reasons like – ‘they have a different language’, ‘they are not indigenous people’, ‘they have really short tempers and tend to fight on trivial issues’, etc. The villagers were concerned about my questioning and warned me about them, before I went to talk to a family (in the picture). People said ‘be careful they have a dog with them, it would be better if you talk to them at least by keeping yourself 5 meters away’. Now being a local person myself, I adhered to the warning and talked to them from a good distance.

Who are they?

Nats are professional dancers, acrobats and dramatists who are nomadic (or semi-nomadic) in nature. These people travel from one place to another and have no permanent home. However, the family I met said that they are permanent residents of Chitorgarh and travel here for food for themselves and their animals.

What do they do?

Well, they beg. They go from door to door and ask for meals or money. Each family has a certain number of houses in the local area from where they have a tradition to take away some food or money. They have a fixed time to visit the places (after harvesting). Occasionally, they perform dances or acrobatic stunts in the area. According to folklore, decades (or centuries) before, people came to a consensus that the people who belong to the Nat caste will have the job to ‘beg’.

Villagers do give them food or money but in general, they don’t talk to them. They let them stay for a few days in their fields but they don’t let them come inside their houses to drink or eat. They carry food, utensils, sleeping mats, donkeys, goats and dogs while travelling from one place to another.

Damroo – A member of the family I talked to

So, I initiated a conversation with the family while heeding the warning given by the local people. I stood over the boundary wall and spoke to a young lad, standing near the wall. His name is Damroo. With curiosity, I asked him whether he goes to school or not. He said he is studying in class VI. I asked him, ‘what are you doing here? Don’t you need to prepare for the final exams?’ He replied that, he is enrolled in the school but was unable to go to the school regularly because of his work. , Damroo is unable to go to school, because his family migrates from one place to another for survival. He further added, “even if I go to school, the teacher doesn’t let me in. It is rarely that I get the opportunity to go to school.”

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Damroo and his sisters

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As we were talking, I could sense from his stares the he was hoping that I would give him something (money or food) at the end of our conversation. He asked me about the date of the Holi festival. I answered him promptly and asked what is so special on that day? He said, “I and my family need to go to the highway of Gogunda (nearest highway) to stop the cars that pass by and ask for ‘Holi’ (that’s asking for money).” What do they do with the money? Well, according to him, they cook sweet dish that day to celebrate Holi.

What is the reality of the ‘Nat’ caste?

The population of the Nats is less than 0.4% of the total SC population in Rajasthan. They were known to have their origins from the ‘Mewar’ region itself. Some of the Nats are also cattle traders. Majority of them, like Damroo’s family are landless and unskilled professional beggars. Many of them are also engaged in unskilled jobs as laborers.

After I finished my conversation with Damroo, he was still looking at my eyes with optimism that I would give him some money or food. I wasn’t sure if I should give him some money. Therefore, I started walking away saying ‘thank you’ for taking his time for the conversation. But he stopped me and asked for money. I generously gave him a note and his happiness and exhilaration at receiving that tiny amount was huge and was worth taking a snap. Unfortunately, I was unable to do that.

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Dungar Dev Puja

By Soaham Datta, Youth for India fellow (20014-2015)

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I recently had the opportunity to attend a most unique festival called Dungar Dev Puja. Every five years, an entire village or a family lineage comes together to pray to the God of their hill. Their belief is that the Hill God protects their crops and their families from droughts and diseases and ensures  overall good health. The uniqueness of the festival, however, lies in its customs.

Dang district is located in the southern fringes of the state of Gujarat. It has 98% tribal population and 70% forest cover. It forms one end of the Western Ghats and thus, is also host to the only hill station of Gujarat, Saputara. Due to the lack of irrigation systems, most of the farmers of the district can only grow crops in the monsoon season. The poor farmers are subject to distress migration during the other months, when they have to travel to Shirdi and other nearby towns and cities in search of livelihood. My project, developing rural tourism, aims to generate income for the local farmers by employing them in this commercial tourism venture.

As Bhaskar Bhai and I wound our way through the cold December night to reach the Nawagaon hilltop, we were welcomed by slow meandering notes of an instrument and eerie singing voices. As the spectacle unfolded, I noticed writhing bodies dancing around  a fire, high shrieking laughter, sombre women holding plates of offerings and lamps and people playing strange instruments and singing. Bhaskar Bhai explained the entire setting before me, “This is a special night for these people. It is the night that the spirits of the hill enter their bodies.” Against the backdrop of a dark Saputara, ancient rituals ensued. Bhaskar Bhai went on, “When these spirits take hold of a body, the man becomes infallible. We have seen men break stones with their own foreheads, walk on burning coals and lie on prickly thorn branches.” I simply stood startled for the first few moments, not knowing what to expect. A young screeching man came close, as I watched hesitantly. Without warning he shifted some burning logs, revealing smouldering ashes and splinters of burning wood. I remembered roasting tomatoes in my camping trips, on such glowing ashes. And he went on to trample these glowing ashes in brazen fury with his bare feet, howling into the night, before pausing and rejoining the singing dancing procession. Barely had I gathered myself that a bare-chested young fellow flung himself into a cluster of thorny branches, only to emerge visibly unhurt. All of them, one way or the other, corroborated the presence of the Dungar Dev spirit. While the young men continued to revel in their possessed state, it was the music that really drew my attention.

Two instruments were used, the Pavri and the Thadi. A Pavri is made out of the shell of a bottle gourd and horn of an Ox, decorated with peacock flowers and played by blowing into the mouthpiece. The sound of the Thadi is created by slowly running your fingers over the hollow stem of a ‘Sir’ plant that is placed on a metal plate with a small sheath of a beehive connecting them. While the Pavri is responsible for a throaty concoction of variable pitches, it was the sound of the Thadi that set the eerie undertone for the night. The surreal resonance of the two unusually talented singers from Maharashtra and their Thadi playing will remain with me for some time to come.

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Talent Facing the Barrier of ‘Conventionalism’

by Prakash Gupta

We were walking across the panchayat area from one school to the other and were observing a number of things around the panchayat area. While walking we saw a bunch of children playing with bows and arrows. We asked them, where did they buy it? They replied that they made it by themselves. When we inquired more, a few children among them knew to make even more toys from wood. Not all children had this skill though.

Most of the people living in Bagdunda are from Bhil tribe. Bhils are known for their archery skills. Archery and dramatics are part of their culture. Their role in the 1st war of Haldighati has been well acknowledged.

Lalit is from the community of Bhil tribe in the area. He demonstrated his skill by making a bow & arrow in front of us by cutting a piece of wood. He showed us a number of other toys which he made such as – bullock cart toy, cricket bat and sword. He said, his grandfather taught him this skill. When we inquired further, we came to know that Lalit do not go to school regularly. Rather, he hates studies and the school. He says,” I simply don’t get what they teach in the school”.

Lalit

Lalit

Lalit’s father is a migrant labor who is working at a construction site in Surat. Her mother takes care of the cultivation on the little land his father owns. Lalit helps her mother in farming. Both of his parents never went to school. They live in a BPL house provided by the government through ‘Chief Minister’s Housing Scheme’. Her mother wants him to study hard and lead a life of dignity but he never gets any interest in studies.

Lalit’s case is an example of how a child learns from the community he/she lives in. He learns from the environment. They don’t get fancy toys around this area. Therefore, they started making their own toys. The formal education system doesn’t have space for such traditional knowledge. Formal education system don’t even acknowledge this as a knowledge because the definition of knowledge is very narrow.

When we asked more people about Lalit’s skill of making toys out of wood, we came to know that it was very common in the past. It was now that people has stopped giving it any value at all. It was for a genuine reason- “What is the use of this knowledge? What this child will earn out of it in the future?” they said. It is a valid question indeed. But let’s give a thought to the reason behind this question itself.

Our society progresses in a particular societal structure where every skill and knowledge is appreciated by putting a value to it. This value, in general, is a monetary value. In such a scenario, a skill or a particular knowledge may not get acknowledgement for its novelty or aesthetic value.

Unfortunately, formal education system also progresses in a structure where traditional knowledge has been valued at a lower level. The knowledge of that we have got from the era of enlightenment in the west has been valued at a higher level. In this structure, any new addition to the knowledge is appreciated. But such kind of addition is within a given framework. The destruction of some existing knowledge is not even acknowledged.

As we were expecting, Lalit’s school teachers do not know anything about this skill. They rather replied back with the same set of questions that we rose earlier. They didn’t appreciate the skill of Lalit.

While writing this child’s biography, I could remember a few words of MK Gandhi when he said “The school must be an extension of home. There must be concordance between the impressions which a child a gathers at home and at school, if the best results are to be obtained”. But what we could witness here is completely opposite scenario, a complete disconnect of school’s learning with the learning of a child at home.

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Riding Poverty to a Better Future – Story of Radhika Prajapat

by Prakash Gupta

Radhika is a 12 year old girl who studies in class V in a private school near her house. She belongs to the ‘Kumhar community’ in the area. Traditionally, Kumhars belong to the ‘potter’ community. In this area, most of the Kumhar families still engage in their traditional occupation.

Radhika’s parents are illiterate and never went to school. Her father is a bus driver and her mother is a potter. They have a monthly income of around Rs. 8000. Unlike many other communities in the area, the Kumhars have lesser land holdings. Radhika’s father owns approximately 1.5 Bigha of land (around 0.3 hectare).

Radhika

Radhika with her mother and younger sister

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She has 3 siblings – two sisters and a brother. It was strange to know that despite having so many financial limitations, Radhika is studying in a private school. The Panchayat has 9 government schools and in most cases only children of higher income families send their children to the private schools. We were therefore quite eager to know about the motivation of Radhika’s parents.

In her mother’s view, education will lead her children to a prosperous life. They won’t be able to survive by doing prajapat’s work (i.e. pottery). She says, the standard of education in the nearby government school is quite poor and the teachers are not interested in teaching. Moreover, the environment in a government school is not suitable to learn anything whatsoever.

In this area, the motivation level for educating a girl child is also quite poor. Girls tend to get drawn into farming or traditional household jobs from a very early age and also get married at a young age. In the lower castes particularly, girls do not get education beyond class VIII or X. Most of the times, parents don’t even admit girls in school.

It was therefore good to see a passionate mother standing up for her daughters’ education. “I will make her study to the level she wishes to study”, Radhika’s mother said, as according to her  education is the tool for survival in the years to come.

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