With a pinch of salt!

Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu is the second largest producer of salt in India. It employs around twenty thousand people, who work under extreme conditions sometimes even without using toilets and avoiding to drink water for a whole day.
Sonam, SBI Youth for India fellow, writes here about the conditions of the salt workers of Vedaranyam.

While the acres of saltpans that stretch out in Vedaranyam are best known for its second largest production of salt in the nation, it has been witness to the torments of laborers toiling hard under the scorching sun to produce salt which reaches our table daily.

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“I was 14 when I started working in the saltpans”, says 56 year old Shantana. “There is no work during monsoons; we have severe bleeding during menstruation; many of us have faced miscarriages. Skin, eye, bone disorders are common for us. I’ve seen women working till 8-9 months of their pregnancy and some of them work till the age of 70”.

Shantana, Saltpan worker

Due to monsoons during September to December, the salt pan workers have no work or income. They survive during these festive days by taking loans from their saltpan owners, which is deducted from their daily wages when they resume their work. This creates almost a “bonded labor” scenario.

Saltpan work: The ground is cleared of dust and segmented into pans with small wells dug along side. The pans are filled with water from these wells and trampled upon until the bottom layer becomes firm. The briny water is then transferred from one pan to another through narrow channels. The surface is frequently scraped with heavy wooden rakes to even out the salt which is gradually captured and dried by heat, transforming the pans into hard fields of coarse salt. The crystals are broken by trampling and raked into heaps.




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Women in particular are involved in land preparation, collection of salt which makes them to stand in highly concentrated brine under the ruthless sun with micron level salt crystals in the air for a long time. Anemia, cataract, irreversible skin problems, UTI, URT and LRT disorders, TB, hypertension, disfigured bones, arthritis, gynecological disorders amongst women are more prevalent. The workers do not opt for safety gear for some financial and comfort reasons. There is a lack of toilets and resting shades to have food, in the salt pans that spread across acres of land mass. Hence workers avoid consuming food and water before they leave for work, worsening their health status.

“The saltpans are sacred to them and hence they discourage any idea related to toilets/urinals in the saltpan”, says Mr. Mariappan, traditional village president.He believes it is critical that the village members have a robust source of income from saltpan work. However, it never serves as a reliable source of income due to unavailability of work in monsoons, fluctuating wages and a deteriorating work environment.

Mariappan, traditional village president
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Doctors suggest that the workers need to be rehydrated for them to withstand the harsh work environment. Zero-drainage urinals might help them get rid of the taboo associated with having sanitation facilities in saltpans. Dehydration being the root cause for the catastrophe of ailments, it can be combated by provision of urinals and awareness about significance of consumption of drinking water amongst the saltpan workers.

What is most disturbing is when workers address their issues as if they have accepted the wounds and pain as a part of their life. Being unaware of their language of expression, I am certain that the misery is far more intense than what I can perceive.11

A span of 11 months isn’t enough for mitigating the misery that the workers go through. Having said that, this fellowship experience so far has been an eye opener and is making me more responsible and sensitive.

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Workshop on ‘Jaarukta Prashikshan Karyakram’

Dr Suneeli Anand, SBI #YouthforIndia fellow, is working to create awareness regarding menstrual hygiene and health of women and adolescents and also is helping generate livelihood for the women SHGs at Dedtalai, Madhya Pradesh.

Read this short account of her experience in conducting a 2 day workshop, “Jaarukta Prashikshan Karyakram” with young girls and women from different villages


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I initiated my project by organising a 2 day workshop on the 15th and 16th of December. It was an awareness workshop, titled “Jaarukta Prashikshan Karyakram”, conducted on the 15th with school girls in Shekhpura Village. Next day around 55 women from different villages came to attend the workshop.



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The workshop was conducted by a trainer hired from National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and it also included a small movie on menstrual hygiene and related facts. Girls from the school and the women of the SHG were really excited to see the movie. Leaflets that included important do’s and don’ts during menstruation were distributed to them.

A SHG member, who is also a Deputy Secretary of the women federation formed over here, Geeta Jiji, shared with the women present at the workshop, her experience of severe stomach ache that had badly affected her for a long time and ultimately she underwent an operation. The reason behind her severe stomach ache was because of the usage of cloth during the menses. Some of the school girls also shared their first period experiences with the crowd.


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Need for a path

How do you think can the skilled youth of Kherwada, Rajasthan find for themselves a stable source of income?

Siddhant writes to us that they are all well trained in mobile repairing, plumbing, house wiring, tailoring, etc, but lack further information on extending their skills for income generation.

Reena Parmar is a native of Asariwada village in the Kherwada block of Udaipur District. Though she had to quit studying due to family problems at the age of thirteen, she didn’t just sit back at home doing the household chores. She joined 3 months of tailoring training course earlier this year at Aajeevika Bureau, an organization which deals with skill training of the youth.

Reena Parmar

With the help of the organization, Reena got a sewing machine on loan with no interest. But the problem she faces nowadays is the low income, which amounts to a hundred rupees for a day whenever she has some work, and those are very few days in a month. This is nothing compared with the ability and knowledge she has of tailoring. As you may see in the picture, the dresses hanging behind is her creation!

Right now, she wants to take up bulk orders for stitching or make market linkages to start something on her own. However, owing to lack of information and reference, she is not able to start up. At a young age of 20 she has long way to go and lots to achieve, but the thing she needs is a path through which she may prove her abilities and earn some valuable money for herself and for her family.

This is not the only case in Kherwada. Many young people, after completing vocational training in the different fields as mobile phone repairing, plumbing, motor driving, house wiring, marble & tile fitting, two wheeler repairing, etc., are not able to find jobs or start a business of their own because of the lack of information and support from skill training agencies.

In my opinion the requirement for an information cell, where anyone can find information regarding job vacancies and other business options in their respective fields is a must in this area and definitely the need of the hour.

Stop bargaining!

Gokul, SBI #YouthforIndia fellow who is at Ganjam, Odisha tells us that the farmers there who basically cultivate Mango and Cashew, sell their produce at around Rs 10 per kg, whereas the market price is above Rs 25 per kg!

A thought to chew on, Gokul writes more about it below.

Agrarian communities work hard collectively with their families to grow crops for their livelihood as well as for us, “the consumers”. Moreover their collective efforts are not paid off well or even respected. The aftermath of it, they fall short of meeting their break even most of the times. The situation is no different here in Odisha. Due to the isolation of villages and perishable nature of the produce, producers can never make it to a better place for better prices!

While we make exact payments to supermarkets and branded shops as given on their price tags, there is a common tendency amongst us to bargain with the street and small scale vendors. This way, somehow, it’s not just the middlemen, we are also part of exploiting their livelihood.  It is high time to see the world from their perspective and not to forget to think again before strangling a family somewhere isolated, to death. It is for us to remember that nobody has the right to set the price tag for somebody else’s hard work.


Voice matters!

It definitely does for these young girls who have never before spoken out aloud in front of village elders about gender violence, child marriage and trafficking.  Simren Singh, SBI YouthforIndia fellow, writes about her experiences at a community meeting at Kherwada, Rajasthan.

Never before has any girl spoken in a community meeting. Never before have any one of them found the courage to express their opinions before elders.

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The two girls in the picture, Kalpana and Regina, are fighting odds by doing the unconventional.  At the ‘Mahila Hinsha Virodhi Pakhwada’,  they took up the challenge of presenting their views on child marriage and women trafficking and why they think it should be stopped. The people listened patiently and not just understood the severity of the situation at hand but also decided in taking collective action against the same.

The girls on the other hand were filled with joy and were surprised to witness their own hidden strengths.  It is no wonder why they say that every voice matters and it is we who must learn to value it.

In the picture above, the girls are showing their solidarity against child marriage and human trafficking.
In the picture above, the girls are showing their solidarity against child marriage and human trafficking.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Bay of Stereotypes

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

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

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

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

Apni bahu betiyon ko baahar na jaane dein

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

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

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

Ghar mein hi shauchalaya banayein

(Build a toilet in your own home)

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

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

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

Nupur 1

Fellowship experience at Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu

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

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

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

Moving on and being serious!

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

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

At the Kolli Hills; Photo courtesy: Gautam Jayasurya

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

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

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

Village knowledge center (VKC) inauguration
Village knowledge center (VKC) inauguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHGs that rent DJ mixing set at Dang, South Gujarat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pusa diaries: Part 2

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

Of men of god

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

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

Pusa 5

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

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

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

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