Decoding Village Dynamics: My Initial Brush

By Alex Arockiasamy



From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Alex Arockiasamy: working in association with Seva Mandir in Kotra Block, Udaipur District, Rajasthan.

The first time I met someone from the community, I was offered chai (tea) without milk in a saucer. For someone who’s used to having tea in a cup, this was unusually hard.

I braved the chai with a smile while focusing on not spilling any of it. My host was anxiously looking at me while I had the first sip, waiting for a reaction. It was a scene straight out of MasterChef, how the show’s participants await critical judgment when the judges taste their creation.

Honestly, I would’ve preferred tea with milk, in a cup. However, since I didn’t want to be in the least bit offensive, I enjoyed the chai (with a smile). The villager seemed happy and proud. What followed was an interesting relationship that’s slowly getting me closer to the community.

While I can’t claim that I’ve cracked the code for bonding with the community, I sure can share a few observations that might help you better understand the dynamics of a village. q3



1. Trust.

I’ve slowly come to realize that trust is an indispensable attribute of development.

Why should they trust an individual whose world and way of life is mostly alien to them?

Inculcating trust requires sheer hard work and a deeply ingrained sense of dedication and commitment. For starters, you can initiate the process by sticking to your schedules, being there when they need you and not over-stepping.

Open up and be vulnerable to them from time to time. I once spoke to my mom over the phone in Tamil during one of the many casual meetups. After the call, I told them how I missed “Maa ka Khaana“. The villager’s wife prided herself with a smile and said: “Ma se bada koi nahi hai“. Little things matter.

Never promise what you can’t deliver.

If you’re noting something down, try using pictorial representations. This will enable them to understand what is it that you seek from them (in terms of information). This will also help in clearing any fears or doubts they might have but are hesitant to ask.

2. Competition.

Once you start living in the village, you’ll realize you’re not the first one to have entered their lives with hopes of betterment. People & organizations have come and gone. Promises were made and broken. Rural India has been exploited for long enough for them to enter a state of dissent and skepticism.

This is not just because of the government and politicians, though. There are private players as well – chit fund scams, private money lenders, MLM schemes etc – they have destroyed communities altogether.

You might be a recipient of this skepticism as well, in various forms and manner – lack of interest in your initiatives, constant probing and monitoring of your movement and no support whatsoever. This is demoralizing, but it also presents an interesting challenge in front of us.

It’s important for you to constantly innovate and creatively market your solution. In the past two months, I’ve had to change my plans twice based on the needs of a community.

Got a plan? Do a pilot; something minimal, and take it forward from there. This will enable you to stand out from the ‘competition’. It’s also important to know the other players in the area. There are 3 other NGOs and an agro-based company working in my region and I know what they’re up to.

While discussing minimalism over a phone call with a co-fellow, I realized that it’s really important for us to follow a frugal approach.

What should we do?

We kick-start a project with whatever limited resources we possess. Work on a solution that offers little risk to the beneficiary. By piloting a randomized controlled trial (just like how they do it with medicines), you will be able to figure out what works best*.

 How do you market your solution when you hardly know the environment and its people, you ask?

Observe. See what interests them and what doesn’t. During one of the meetings, we showcased videos on agriculture to the community and we noticed that they instantly became more attentive to what was being presented. Use visual appeal, wherever possible. Henceforth, I’ve decided to start all my meetings with a video or a presentation because dissemination of information is still a huge problem that’s not being adequately dealt with. If you can incorporate/ blend this factor into your project, I feel you have a better chance of connecting strongly with the community you’re working.

Each of us has a different story depending on the area we are working in. There is no standard way you can communicate and connect with the community. But, what does work more often than not is using your instincts and empathizing with them.

Don’t just say it, show them that you care.



Reference: Poor Economics: Abhijit V Banerjee & Esther Duflo.



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The Glories of Gundvahal

By Arunima Joshi



From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Arunima Joshi: working in association with AKRSP(I) in Ahwa block, Dangs district, South Gujarat.

The term ‘Women Empowerment’ always intrigues me. The definition seems straightforward. But, what does it entail? How do we measure it? When I began my journey as an SBI Youth for India fellow, I knew early on that I wanted to learn the answers to these questions. I wanted to work with and for women.

Keeping this in mind, I visited multiple villages across Dangs. Dangs, the region I chose to work in, is a tribal belt and one of the most backward districts in India. The village visits constituted discussions with women about their daily life and struggles. Each woman was kind and let me into her home with ease.

The visits were informative, but felt incomplete. Each woman’s story was alike. The villages were kilometers apart, but their daily struggles couldn’t be more similar. On my visit to Gundvahal, there was no reason to expect anything different. The remote location guaranteed isolation.

On reaching the village, I was welcomed by Mira Ben and all SHG[1] members. They showed me around the rice and flour mill provided by AKRSP(I)[2]. The women had asked for these machines and trainings. AKRSP(I) happily obliged. A papad making machine and plate making machine were also present. These were going to be used by other SHGs.

Once the tour was over, we sat to converse. What followed was the narration of an inspirational story of change. Back in 2008, alcoholism was a major issue in the village. A significant portion of the money earned through labour was spent on this vicious substance, alcohol. Cases of domestic violence, women trying to commit suicide by pouring kerosene all over themselves, fights, and murder followed.  Troubled by the unrest in the village, Mira Ben was motivated by an article in the newspaper about ‘daaru bandi’ (alcohol prohibition). She discussed the issue with a few other women. They decided to take up the cause.

The women spoke to the Panchayat who provided legal counsel and police officers provided security. Despite receiving death threats, the women rallied around the village, citing the benefits of alcohol prohibition and encouraging every villager to join their cause. This continued for about six months. Finally, all alcohol dens were shut. Currently, there is a 5000 Rs fine imposed on any villager who tries to open an alcohol den. The village has been alcohol free and at peace for almost ten years now.



[1] Self Help Group.
[2] Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India)



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Image: Conversing with members of the Jai Hind Juth in their rice and flour mill

Their micro-governance is second to none. Their rice and flour mill has no door. They appoint two women each night to guard the shed. On asking about this peculiarity, they proudly explain that having no door guarantees   that the mill is never shut. This way, business never stops.

In a district where SHGs are prone to shut, the women here have set their own rules. When busy, the women make sure SHG meetings take place at night. If a woman does not attend the meetings regularly, she is not allowed to avail any benefits arising from the SHG. Ten SHGs have formed a VO[1] and received five lakhs rupees funds. They plan to start individual enterprises like mushroom farming, motor repairing shop, and fisheries, by taking loans from the VO. They have taken the first steps to be the breadwinners.

These seemingly trivial roles taken on by the women are a huge contrast to the dynamics and workings seen in other villages of the region. These beautiful entrepreneurs are an anomaly, a welcome rarity.



[1] Village Organization



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Image: Mira Ben(R) and other members of the Jai Hind Juth sharing a light-hearted moment

Mira Ben, Kashi Ben, Sushila Ben, Leela Ben and the others made me realize what was missing in the other interactions. It was laughter. These women would start dancing and singing the minute they get bored of routine. They were empowered. They taught me more than I could ever learn by reading books and research papers. So, what is women empowerment? I think I am closer to the answer. Women empowerment is the resolution of a few women to change the course of an entire village. Women empowerment is the conviction to lead a better life, made by women and executed by them. Women empowerment metrics are singing, dancing, and laughing at will.



About the fellow.



After completing graduation in IT Engineering and working for 3 years in the IT sector as a Software Engineer, Arunima decided it was time to explore the road less travelled. Currently, she has begun her journey in the Social Development sector as an SBI Youth for India fellow in association with Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India). Travelling to new places, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, and having conversations which add to her perspective of the world are what keep her going. She says she is here to help people help themselves. She is here to learn as much as possible and contribute towards bringing a positive change to society. Arunima is located in Ahwa Block, Dangs District, South Gujarat.



 

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.

“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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