Menstrual Awareness Workshop, May 28, 2015

SBI Youth For India:

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.

Originally posted on 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 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.

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

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

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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Youth for India – A Journey of Innovation

By Ajay Kumar – SBI Youth for India Fellow 2014-15

Ajay

I was in Chennai, in the summer of 2013, learning life skills and visiting adventurous places with Rajiv Gandhi Youth Leadership Internship Programme. In a short span of a month, I met interesting people from various walks of life, right from civil services to defence, scientists to social activists and people from various village communities. It was an enriching experience for me.

One morning, we all visited MSSRF, Chennai to attend a full day workshop on the type of work and research being done at their institute. Prof. MS Swaminathan took us through the work and it was impressive to say the least. In that workshop, an executive from State Bank of India too made a presentation on SBI Youth for India Fellowship Program. The presentation was fascinating as he illustrated about how young people like me are spending one year of their lives in rural India and are helping rural people improve their lives. I was very keen on joining the fellowship, but, since I was doing my research work on thin films fabrication, I couldn’t.

After completing my graduation, I joined Gujarat Energy Research & Management Institute, Gandhinagar for a 2 month internship on developing solar thin films. During the second month, I got to know that SBI Youth for India was inviting applications for 2014-15 Fellowship. Although I was very keen on joining, I had few apprehensions as I was planning to join PhD to carry forward my research work on thin films. To my surprise, I discovered alternative energy as a project area in the YFI fellowship and I decided to apply for it as I thought that I could work on solar interventions and products to help rural communities. When I got through, my mother asked me if I knew what I was doing. She told me that the work in rural communities will take me on a different journey than what I had initially planned for myself. I convinced her by telling her that I will be doing the same work there and will use my knowledge in solar energy to help rural people.

I joined the fellowship and I was assigned to the NGO partner, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (India) to work in Sakara Block, Muzaffarpur, Bihar as the field location. Despite being from Bihar, this was the first time I was visiting Bihar after its division. Sakra is a block in Muzaffarpur that falls in North Bihar. It has plain land, which generally gets water-logged in the rainy season. I used to visit different tolas (hamlet of 50-60 households) and villages of Sakara Block every day. I figured that lack of electricity and quality education were two main problems of the area.

I faced various challenges on my fellowship journey but none was as big as cooking on my own. Except for Maggie noodles and Tea, I had never tried my hand at anything else. It was a big battle initially, but now I am getting better at it with every meal. I even learnt sewing kurtas from the sewing center in my office premises. These experiences, although small, gave me a better understanding of problems faced by rural people due to unavailability of resources.

There is a Mushar Tola in the district where there is no grid electricity supply even today. This community lives in darkness after sunset. The tola is a cluster of 35 households and the houses are made of leaves. When I expressed my concern about the lack of lighting, one person added that they also face problems in charging their mobile phones and pay five rupees every time to get it charged. This is when I decided to first set up a solar mobile charging station and then I focused on setting up a solar decentralized lighting system.

Security against fire and smoke were other problems being faced by households dependent on firewood for cooking. There were unfortunate instances, when due to winds, whole tolas or villages were razed to ground by fire. I tried to design a Chulha or stove with a tank fitted above the Chulha like flush system in toilet to put off the fire during heavy winds.

Since agriculture is the main source of livelihood and electricity is absent, farmers depend on irrigation using diesel pump set. Expenditure on Diesel increases the input cost by 30-35%. I have tried to design a low cost mobile solar pump which can be used with regular boring and can irrigate 10-20 kathha land. As it is moveable, it can be used by a group of farmers.

I am really enjoying my time in the real heart of India. The warmth and hospitality of the people never makes me feel that I have came from outside. I have been invited to local festivals, weddings and birthday parties as if I am one of their own. Almost on a daily basis, we all fellows share our ideas and help each other to sort out problems. Youth for India is a platform for people from different backgrounds to understand, think and act in order to help rural communities and achieve an inclusive growth.

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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

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

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)

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

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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