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

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

Anirudh Tippy Tap 4

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!)

Home3

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).

studyarea

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

VKC

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Part 2: The project plan dilemma

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

I had initially planned to work on 2 major areas:

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

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

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

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

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

Kolli Hills 2

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

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

Nutrition awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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Excerpts from a Fellow’s diary – A home away from home

SBI Youth for India alumni Vineet, adding manure to a field.

SBI Youth for India alumni Vineet, adding manure to a field.

In this write up, I wish to share my views about migration, especially related to the youth, from the little experience I have in this area. What does “migration” really mean? During my school days, my understanding about this term was just as much as the next person. Continue reading

Excerpts from a Fellow’s diary – Compromise!

Ankit Walia's Excerpt

While being a Fellow with SBI Youth for India, I had a heart-warming experience during a career awareness program that will always strike a chord when I remember those tear-filled eyes. One day an elderly man walked into the Village Resource Centre with his daughter, which seemed natural to me at first. There was curiosity in the girl’s eyes but the father appeared relaxed. The girl spoke simple English but the father didn’t.

The girl enquired about biotechnology and its career prospects. From my knowledge about a friend who had worked in a good Bangalore-based pharmaceutical company, I told them that the course had good career prospects if she was able to get admission into a reputed college. The girl was not satisfied with my answer and she wanted to know more about the colleges offering Biotechnology and the placements they provided. We called one Biotechnology professor whom I happened to know, to get answers for her queries. She spoke with the professor for a while and his opinion was that the field of biotech is still growing in India and though there is a lot of scope for research work, placements after a Bachelor’s degree are not assured.

I could see that she was disheartened. She conveyed what the professor had said, to her father in Tamil. Her father’s expression did not change much, he still appeared content. I however, felt that he still wanted his daughter to pursue the course, even though placements were not assured. By now, the girl’s eyes had moistened. I enquired more about how they earned their living and she told us that her aged father owned a small shop. I realized that the girl’s family was not well-off, rather they lived in poverty. I asked her why she wanted to opt for Biotechnology. She said that she was not sure, but I noticed that she was hiding her moist eyes from me. I tried to empathize with her by saying that when I started studying engineering, I was also not sure why I was doing it. I did well in maths and science and I liked computers, so I chose Computer Engineering.

My colleague at the Village Resource Centre, who was documenting and translating, looked at me hopefully. I sensed that he wanted me to suggest some career options for the girl. I paused to look at the girl and her father with admiration. I realized that like every other normal family, they had self-respect and did not want to talk about their financial problems, especially in front of a stranger. I thought to myself how could a compromise between her interests and the employment opportunities that were available to her, be justified. I thought for a while and asked her if she would like to opt for Engineering in Computer Science which could provide her a job in the currently flourishing, Indian IT industry. After graduation, she could work for a while and once she had earned enough to support her family, she could take up a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics; one of my friends had similarly studied Electronics and Communication Engineering and is currently working towards a PhD in Bioinformatics. Although Bioinformatics is not the same as Biotechnology, it involves the concepts of both, Information Technology and Biology. Once I had said this, the girl’s face lit up.

I don’t know if my suggestion was the ideal one but I asked myself the same question, regarding ‘Compromise’ – how justified is it? Some people can always find a way to be content with being hopeful. My friend, I feel that the life of a less-privileged person is a series of compromises, though there may be exceptions. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist Movement, said “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”

– SBI Youth for India fellow, Ankit Walia. His project was to set up a ‘Farmer’s Helpline using IVR’.

 

 

 

Akshay Kapur – What is he doing now?

Akshay Kapur

Akshay Kapur

An Electronics & Communications engineer from Harayana, AkshayKapur, had worked for a few years in Grail Research, a market research and consulting firm in the National Capital Region. His daily work usually involved data analysis.

Throughout his career he had noticed one thing – agitated talk. There was pointless chatter on all sorts of social issues, but rarely any constructive action to improve the situation. This inactivity from educated minds led to his personal turmoil and he took it upon himself to do something about it by joining SBI Youth for India. “Empty glasses and living room debates seemed to be the only tangible contribution of the majority of India’s so called intellectual elite”, says Akshay.

During the SBI Youth for India fellowship, Akshay worked closely with BAIF in Udaipur District of Rajasthan on improving the value chain for goat rearing – The IM Goat Project.

Akshay went through the drill of conducting a baseline survey, training the farmers, documenting and analysing the results. He worked on creating awareness amongst all the concerned parties – the producers and traders regarding the support systems available to them, how they can go about breeding the goats in a systematic manner to make it a more profitable activity.

At the end of the year, the project was a success!

When asked about his experience and learnings as a fellow, there’s only 1 sentence he reiterates “There’s a wealth of wisdom in our people”

He says the fellowship turned his thinking around. Gone were his thoughts of ‘helping’ the villagers, he has started learning different and new things from them. Gone were all the definitions and differentiations, washed away in a deluge of experience, no more did he see others as rural or urban, rich or poor, literate or illiterates, upper castes or dalits. Everywhere, all he could see were people!

Post the fellowship, Akshay decided against a corporate job but instead took up the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows’ Scheme to work in naxal affected districts. After going through the selection process which involved a competency test, written exam and personal interview, Akshay was selected to work with the prestigious PMRDF Scheme.

“The SBI Youth for India fellowship definitely gave me an edge over other applicants” says Akshay. Today Akshay is working in Chattisgarh and will be finishing his 2 year fellowship period in the next 2 months. Over the past 2 years, Akshay has worked on Watershed Management project, State Skill Development Enactment project and has acted as a Supervising Officer for 7 Gram Panchayats i.e. 15 villages.

He assists the District collector in developing various schemes and ensures that processes and procedures are set for their implementation. When asked if the SBI Youth for India fellowship helped, Akshay says “The fellowship gave me a deeper understanding of problems at the grassroots, preparing me for PMRDF.”

Are you also tired of just talking about what’s wrong with our nation? Then join SBI Youth for India and work towards inclusive growth.

Excerpts from a fellow’s diary – My Experiences at Jawhar

Ms. Geeta Verghese, Coordinator SBI YFI with Shri. Mavanji Pawar and his family at their home in Jawhar, Maharashtra.

Ms. Geeta Verghese, Coordinator SBI YFI with Shri. Mavanji Pawar and his family at their home in Jawhar, Maharashtra.

After spending almost a month at BAIF’s campus in Pune, interacting with some veterans in the field of rural development and attending numerous lectures on the subject, I was very excited to go to the real field and correlate the things which I had become aware of during the orientation sessions. Initially while in the process of selecting the project for the fellowship, I had a preconceived agenda to work on supply chain of mango & cashew in Jawhar area of Thane district. On my first day at Jawhar, I visited a village along with a field worker, to understand the dynamics of cashew collection as it was the cashew season at that time. On the way back, we stopped at one of the WADI (orchards of cashew & Mangoes) in Chowk village. The field worker took me to a hut built inside the WADI. There was no one inside but to my surprise it was very well organized, with some earthen pots filled with rice grains and some banners explaining about organic agriculture. Out of curiosity, I asked the worker accompanying me to explain the things to me. We had to wait there for some time before he finally came. He was a young man and during the interaction he willingly answered all my queries. I came to know about the basic technicalities and economics of agriculture which I was unaware of before, he also explained about the indigenous seeds and the need for sustainable agriculture in a very comprehensive manner, which motivated me to take up a project in indigenous agriculture. Subsequently, we talked about his personal life and how he had reached this level. To my surprise, he was only 25 years of age and his name was MAVANJI PAWAR. He had worked in a chemical factory in Silvassa from the age of 15, and continued working there till he was 20. But because of recurring health problems, he decided to stay back in the village and earn his living through agriculture and allied activities. He had tried various innovative and different practices in agriculture and in the span of 5 years through his hard work, innovativeness, and hunger to learn and had become a village resource person for various innovative agricultural activities. His belief in what he was doing was commendable and really motivated me to select my project for the fellowship (Conservation, revival and sustainable use of Crop genetic resources) which gave me an opportunity to work with him and learn from his experiences and in the process give my inputs to enhance his initiatives. – SBI Youth for India fellow Abhishek Prabhakar. His project was on ‘Conservation, revival and sustainable use of Crop genetic resources’

Excerpts from a Fellow’s Diary – Judging a book by it’s Cover

It was the Grama Sabha of a village located in the North-western part of Karnataka. I was present at the Gram Sabha along with the staff of BAIF, to present the list of beneficiaries in the BAIF-MGNREG scheme for the year 2011-12. The Gram Sabha is the local governing body where discussions are held on all aspects of the developmental schemes in the village with the elected representatives and panchayat officials in the presence of the villagers. The decisions arrived at the Grama Sabha are binding on the local government bodies. However, Grama Sabhas in these parts are notorious for either poor attendance levels or fractious faction fights!

Moving on with the story of this Grama Sabha, the venue was the local temple premises and the scheduled time for the meeting to commence was 11-00 AM. There was a sprinkling of people already assembled at the venue. A noisy drunkard attracted the attention of almost everyone; I was surprised that someone could get drunk so early in the day. I could not help but to nurse sympathy for a kindred soul. But then, the issue of alcoholism is a very sensitive and troubling issue especially in rural areas and almost everyone tends to paint the whole issue with a broad brush with utmost contempt for such people. The Grama Sabha was delayed for more than an hour on account of one Panchayat official. While all were seated and waiting patiently, our man the drunk promptly picked up a fight with one of the locals. By this time, most of the people in the Sabha had decided to ignore the drunk in their own self interest, given the man’s propensity to throw the choicest abuses at people.

The Sabha got underway with the elected members and the panchayat official leading the discussions on Indira Awas Yojana scheme and their potential beneficiaries. The drunk promptly interrupted the proceedings with an emotional outburst about democratic systems and the importance of the Grama Sabha, all this interspersed with abuses. He was shouted down by the rest of the crowd. He left the meeting in a huff to the collective relief of all. The discussion moved on to the topic of NREGA beneficiaries (work in private lands), and then the drunk made a dramatic entrance. Rumor had it that he had only gone out to fortify himself with more spirit and this time around he was not to be shouted down, he forcefully made his point about the primacy of citizen’s right to be heard in the Grama Sabha and some wild allegations of corruption in last year’s NREGA works. He simply had to be heard in order for the Sabha to move on, so with a weary approval from the crowd he was heard. He alleged leakages in the distribution of coconut saplings for beneficiaries who had set up a horticultural plantation. The main thrust of his argument was that the beneficiaries did not receive any amount for the labour for planting the saplings. This issue was immediately picked up by a couple of farmers who were the beneficiaries, and they demanded to see the relevant files for the exact number of saplings which were accounted for.

This sudden turn of events had the panchayat official (in particular) squirming; gone was the earlier confidence and authority. But it seemed that the files had managed a vanishing act from the office and were actually in the possession of a NREGA mate. This issue was again hotly debated as to why the files were not in the office. The official made a hasty exit to get the files, and returned with a sheepish grin on his face which said it all to the now animated crowd. The mistake was admitted and promises were made to ensure that the deficit was made good. Later on, I found out that – not only the veracity of the claims of the drunkard was confirmed, but also money reached the beneficiaries.
Personally, it was an experience that showed the danger of jumping to hasty conclusions with pre-conceived notions. But more importantly, it was really heartening to see the effective functioning of a legally mandated people’s body and the corrective mechanism of the Gram Sabha in overseeing the functioning of the local self-government.

– SBI Youth for India fellow Satyanand Mukund

Excerpts from a Fellow’s Diary – There is a wealth of wisdom in our people

 

It seems just yesterday when I decided to leave my job and enter a program that would supposedly help me to help my rural brethren. My reasons for doing so were many, so many that it is hard to pinpoint one of them as ‘the reason’ but the bottom line was that somehow I managed to convince myself to take the step.

There were questions of course, from others, from family and last but not least from my own self. Questions that were rooted in fears and inner contradictions riddled with self-doubt and colored in uncertainty.

The most common one, Will this benefit your ‘career’? (In essence, how will it help me make more money in the future?)- A concern, I found reflected across the tiny set of humanity that had leisure enough to give my life choices a thought and me advice.

I quenched their fires of criticality (or at least I hoped to) through stories of how this will help me in my higher studies, how the best universities value this stuff and how this will be a great learning. As for me, I was not sure of any one of them. Not that these things are not so – it was me who wasn’t sure if those were really my reasons.

There were other queries, like why are you doing this? This question it seemed was a tenacious little prick and had the knack of cropping up at the most uncomfortable of places (especially when meeting important personalities and delegations) and to add to the confusion I found myself giving a new answer each time, each one more and more unbelievable.

I have my doubts about my motivations, my conscience constantly pits my actions against beliefs, judging, unforgiving and ever so critical. Was it twists in personal life, or a genuine want to serve others? Was it a pure scholarly pursuit of learning, or a self-serving charade for getting into institutes of higher learning? Was service to others supreme or were the actions rooted in a want of appreciation?

Predictions were made, and many experienced elders commented that it was a mere phase, a break I needed from the routine and I would be back to their worldly ways soon.

A year into the fellowship, I have a few words to say though. All the academics in the world may write as much as they want, in as many fancy words as they can about this country and its people, their plight and their struggles but it will always be wanting. For it cannot and never will hold comparison to what is out there to be seen, to be felt, and to be heard on our own.

A year into the fellowship, gone were all the definitions and differentiations, washed away in a deluge of experience. No more was I able to see others as rural or urban, rich or poor, literate or illiterates, upper castes or dalits. Everywhere, all I could see as far as I could see were people. Same, in their needs and wants, their hopes and aspirations, their obstinacy and inertia, their efforts and struggles.

Gone were all delusions of ‘uplifting them’, wanting to make them more like us and it was replaced by shame, shame about my own superfluous sense of superiority that had led me to believe that my way of life was something better and worth being forced upon them.

The grass always seems greener on the other side. And what works elsewhere may never work here. We are unique, as like everyone else, no better, and no worse.

Inclusion is achieved not through criticism or rejection but only through deeper understanding. So I have quelled that bit in me that thought I am going to save the world and help the poor, for I believe I am poorer than them. The only way I can help is to serve but only after I have understood them myself. Only when I have walked the same paths as them, eaten the same bread as them, slept the same space, breathed the same air, shaken out of my trance of knowledge only then can I even start dreaming about service.

– SBI Youth for India fellow Akshay Kapur