Fellowship experience at Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu

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

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

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

Moving on and being serious!

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

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

At the Kolli Hills; Photo courtesy: Gautam Jayasurya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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