1

The truly unsung heroes

I am back in Odisha after a short vacation in Bangalore, the school was closed for summer holidays. Before I left for home, during the holidays, we had organized a week’s training for the teachers of all the Gram Vikas schools. It was designed to train them on using computers and use e-learning material in their everyday lessons as a first step towards keeping up with the rest out of the world where toddlers hold tablets and computer classes start at kindergarten.

What I realized was that I always spoke about the students in the blog and seldom about the teachers.

Teachers from Gram Vikas schools mostly come from small towns or villages and modest backgrounds. All our schools being residential schools, teachers are more than just teachers. They play the role of a parent, teacher, guide, mentor, warden, administrator, accountant, just about everything. A look at the schedule of the school will give you an idea of a day in the life of these teachers.

Kankia Schedule

The rigorous daily schedule at the school

Wake up in the morning before the students, make sure they are up, campus cleaning, drill, morning classes, breakfast, classes, lunch, post lunch classes, farming, yoga, prayers, evening classes, dinner, health checks, sleep. And when I say lunch, dinner, its not just eating lunch or taking a break- they have to manage the whole process and its no joke when there are 500 students in the school! The teachers also have to prepare for their classes, take care of accounts, prepare teaching material, organize events, procure material for the school – be it for the mess, stationery, to fix a tap or clean the water tank.

I am amazed at their energy and how they have been at it for such a long time now- some teachers have been around for 25 years now and counting! When I stay in the school, I am exhausted by the end of the day as I find it impossible to keep up with the pace at which these people work.  Now that I am planning to shift to the school to stay, I hope to learn a thing or two from these teachers.

So, when we were requested to help with training these teachers, we wanted to make sure they took a break and had a good time while they also learnt something. We’re no experts at teaching, our training programme included mostly what we could help them with- basic computers, internet, using e-learning, teaching English, the newly procured Math kit and the best of all – team building fun activities.

It was awesome to see these teachers participate with great enthusiasm in everything we did- be it dance or sing or do a computer quiz.  We even had a small trip to the nearby beach and spent an hour there and that was enough for them to have a ball – that is the only excursion they had for the entire year!

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Teachers learning to use the newly introduced Math Teaching Learning Material (TLM)

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Learning to use a computer in the new computer lab

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Having visited the villages where our students come from, I know the difference these teachers have made to these students; pretty much completely transformed their lives from what it would have been otherwise. If not the teachers, who could one give credit to, for all students of a rural tribal school passing class ten with flying colors?

A few years ago, once the govt started opening schools in all villages, Gram Vikas closed its non-residential day schools that were opened in all the project villages. However, students would not let them close one such school at Gatida as the teacher there was so good- loving, fun and simply exemplary at teaching.  The students come from villages as far as 6-8 kms  just for this teacher, through hills and streams on foot.

I was lucky enough to meet this teacher, Bhagya didi and fell in love with her!

The adorable Bhagya didi

The adorable Bhagya didi

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Oh I am just blissful that I have been able to work with these wonderful, loving and simple people.

They are truly champions!

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3

Kemiti Achanti?

One of the fears I had before coming to Odisha was about dealing with the language barrier. “How would I be able to work with people if I cannot speak their language?” I thought. The YFI team consoled us that the NGO folks would help us interact with the communities. I still wasn’t convinced. Tanay , a friend who is from Odisha had even offered to teach me Odia in exchange for authentic south Indian lunch, But I found no time to do it before leaving Bangalore. 😦

Once I got here, I realized that most people in the rural regions here do not understand or speak Hindi. In a typical hamlet, there could be 2-3 people, who might understand and speak Hindi because they migrate to other states periodically for work and pick up some Hindi. However, most people speak only Odia.

One option for working with the community was to work with interpreters – those villagers who could speak Hindi. Of course, there was a fear of not even knowing how much would be lost in translation. And what about that personal connection we wanted to establish with people?

In the school, the story was the same; a few kids in class, who probably watched more TV, knew a bit of Hindi and helped translate. English, of course, was almost out of question as I have mentioned in my earlier posts.
Soon, I started picking up some Odia by listening to people around me. Also, while teaching at the school, I would speak in English/Hindi and the kids in turn would tell me the Odia translation. The learning process was still slow.

Then I saw that Mansi, Ninoshka and Varun – three awesome fellow-fellows, who work in another school of Gram Vikas, had started learning to read and write Odia. Whoa!

I could barely manage to speak and understand tikke tikke Odia (little little Odia), while these kids (ok all 20 somethings are kids are according to me 🙂 ) were easily managing reading, writing and speaking Odia! I was astounded and really proud of them. They even coolly gave speeches at the school and the village communities in Odia!

Mansi writing Odia

Mansi writing Odia


My writing

My writing

Mansi's writing

Mansi’s writing

And what do you know, I was all inspired to learn to read and write Odia myself.
I borrowed a book from a Class III student at school and started learning to write. I can now manage to read and write a bit. I hope to be able to speak fluently in the near future.

There is always joy in learning a new language. Sometimes it’s an unconscious process, like how you just pick up the language your neighbours speak – Swat speaks fluent Marathi and Konkani and I can manage to speak a bit and understand most of it. Some other times though, when time is less and it’s a necessity, you have to make an effort to learn it. I guess an HR job wasn’t attractive enough for me to learn Dutch while in Amsterdam; but being able to interact comfortably with the kids here definitely is a huge incentive to learn Odia.

And Odia is such a beautiful language!
I love how proper Sanskrit words are part of the colloquial vocabulary. Imagine using kintu for but, asuvidha for problem, vartaman for now. I only remember listening to such words in the Ramayan or Mahabharat TV serials. I feel scholarly when I use such words.

A lot of the vocabulary is also similar to Hindi, the Aa sound becomes o or aw. Like Ghar is pronounced Ghawro, Rama as Rawmo. I was quite amused when I realised Ponda Babu is actually Panda and not Ponda! So if you know any Odia person with Panda as surname call him Ponda next time you meet him 🙂

I’m loving every bit of it.

Until next time. Asuchi.

Kemiti Achanti (pronounced Achonti) is How are you ?
Asuchi is used while saying bye- similar to Bartheeni in Kannada or Poyittu Varein in Tamil

8

The idea of development

So I am just going back in time a bit and jotting down some thoughts that came to me before and after I joined this fellowship .

Back in June this year, there I was, working as an HR Business Partner – fancy term I know, but not very fancy work! I wasn’t getting what I wanted at the end of the day – any kind of self-gratification or satisfaction. I know most jobs are that way and our generation is really spoiled for choice, but that’s probably a topic for another post.

I resigned without further ado and thought of possible options.

Waste management? Waste management is really the need of the hour in Bangalore and I was super enthusiastic about it after doing a few spotfixes with The Ugly Indian.

Study further? Hmmm… Going back to college did seem inviting, but what did I want to study?

Join some NGO, different role in HR, write UPSC exams (I even signed up for this), teach at a school, join politics(!)… the list was endless and the thoughts, utterly confusing!

All of a sudden, one day, Anand told me about this SBI Youth for India – rural development fellowship and I thought THIS IS IT!
It gives me a platform to work with an NGO – with the freedom of creating my own project but leveraging the expertise of the NGO. Wow! It seemed too good to be true. After a bit of coaxing my anxious parents (“You’re going to have to stay away from your husband! Oh no!”) and Anand’s cool parents, I applied, got through and was on my way to Ahmedabad for the orientation. I’ve written about it here already.

So when I got the fellowship, my thoughts were varying from:

Wow, I’m finally going to be able to actually LIKE what I do!

I will make a difference to people’s lives now.

I am going to transform villages and feel good about myself!

Let’s go bring some villages on the path of development!

Now, as I am visiting villages, the biggest question I have is :

What really is development?

These people in the remote tribal villages of Odisha seem to be far more developed than any city! Let me try to convince you through some observations I made.

Clean, really clean villages. Every single village we visited was spotlessly clean.

Village in Kalahandi district???????????????????????????????

Welcoming strangers with warm smiles. When did you last smile at a stranger on your street?

These people in the picture were so happy we visited their far-flung village; they thanked us wholeheartedly and said nice things to us, which we really didn’t deserve! Varun even wrote a beautiful poem about it here.

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Sharing food with strangers; when was the last time you welcomed strangers with food?

These kind people shared the roasted corn cobs from their farm with us. Yum! Never before had I eaten three whole corn cobs by myself!

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Time on your hands for yourself, family, friends, laughs. Let’s not even talk about the luxury of time in cities!

Time for some farm fresh Ganna

Time for some farm fresh Ganna

Clean drinking water , straight from the tap, in your toilet, bathroom and kitchen! Can you say the same?

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Lovely beautiful sights everywhere! Sigh…

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Happiness, peace, love, respect. LIFE! What more does one want?

I am not saying let’s all live in villages nor am I saying there are no problems in villages. There’s so much to learn from the simple life in villages, something our forefathers had the fortune of experiencing even in the cities we are presently in. Ok, I am not going to get preachy and talk about being content with what one has, etc.

I just thought I would leave you with this question: Does development mean creating more cities and towns?

5

House of Dignity

Having chosen Gram Vikas as the partner NGO to work with for a year, 13 Revolutionary Radicals, as Shalini called us, arrived at Bhubaneshwar after a 36-hour-long train journey. It had been a while since I did such a long train journey, but it was so much fun that I wouldn’t think twice to do it again!

After a couple of days of interaction at the new corporate-like administrative headquarters of Gram Vikas, we finally set out to visit rural Orissa. The plan was to travel across a few villages over the next ten days to understand the work being done by Gram Vikas. All of us were super excited – this is what we had been waiting for, this is what we were here for!

Beautiful Orissa

Beautiful Orissa

As we travelled to Mohuda, where the head office of Gram Vikas is located, we were treated to mesmerising views of the Eastern Ghats all along – Orissa is so BEAUTIFUL!

We reached the Mohuda campus – a beautiful green campus in the middle of a village – complete with massive and friendly trees, dogs, cycles, aesthetic brick red buildings covered with creepers, clear blue skies in the day and starry nights! What a treat it was! Not to forget, we also had comfortable rooms and a mess that served great food! Who saw that coming in the middle of nowhere, eh? : )

As we set out on our field visits, we first went to a closeby village, where we finally got to see the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project, which we had heard so much about. When Joe Madiath, founder of Gram Vikas called himself the SHIT guy, we knew this had to be something big! GV has completed WASH projects in 1200+ villages, impacting 70,000+ households.The intention of the programme is to enable the community to start living a dignified life by starting off with sanitation facilities for themselves. I have written about WASH in my earlier post, but as I gather my thoughts, I think the amount of work that is being done warrants a separate post by itself and looks like this might as well be that post! If you have already watched this video I had shared earlier, you would understand better what I am talking about.

So Orissa has the dubious distinction of being the state with the poorest coverage of water and sanitation! A very large percentage of the population in rural Orissa does not have access to proper sanitation facilities and resorts to open defecation – usually near a water source, thereby contaminating water sources and resulting in many water-borne diseases. (Imagine, the majority of deaths in such areas is due to diarrhoea. : ( This is also a huge problem for women, who have to wait until its dark to do something as simple as relieve themselves. Women also have the burden of fetching water from far off water sources before they go to fields for work. Access to protected drinking water is a huge problem as all these ponds are contaminated.

Gram Vikas’s WASH intervention provides 24×7 water supply, toilet and bath facilities to the villages, and they do it IF and ONLY IF 100% of the villagers agree. Imagine! 24×7 safe to drink water, something even major cities don’t have!

You might be surprised to hear that some people are resistant to the idea of using a toilet! Unfortunate though, they are!

You may wonder why 100% should agree then; why not just do it for whoever is ready to do it?

100% inclusion ensures that there is no single person who can contaminate the water because he doesn’t have a toilet. Even if one person defecates in a water source, the entire village’s supply gets contaminated. Another important result is that it removes the caste and gender barrier that exists in these societies. When Joe sir was telling us about the caste barriers that exist, he narrated an anecdote. Here’s a conversation between Joe Madiath (JM) and an upper caste Brahmin. (UCB)

UCB: Hey, we don’t want the lower caste guys to get a toilet, only the Brahmins should get them. We cannot be having similar amenities as those lowly people!

JM: Oh, then the lower caste guy will shit near the pond and the water that you drink will be contaminated by his shit. How about you shit near the pond and let them drink that water? Your Brahmin shit is holy and won’t really pollute anyway. So let them get the toilets and you continue without toilets!

UCB: Oops!

It was heartening to know that the whole implementation process of the water and sanitation has actually reduced caste and gender barriers to some extent by involving each and every member of the village in the decision making process.

The process of motivating and convincing the village is the tough part; they are shown 24×7 water supply as the incentive for accepting the project, apart from being educated about the importance of toilets and safe drinking water.

It is important to note here that the government’s Nirmal/Swachch Bharat Abhiyan only talks about a toilet for every household. There is no talk about water supply and also no bathroom. What good is a toilet if you have to walk 2km to the pond to fetch water in a bucket to clean up? People would most likely end up using the pond as their toilet.

Gram Vikas also strongly advocates a bathing room along with the toilet for a dignified way of living. Joe Madiath’s recommendations to the planning commission for making a bathroom mandatory along with the toilet was unfortunately dismissed and the panel called the bathroom as only ’desirable’. Sigh.

Gram Vikas believes that much of the problem is the engrained psyche that poor people only need poor solutions. Everybody deserves a dignified way of living and quality solutions.

Gram Vikas also ensures people’s ownership in the programme. A village committee is formed in the beginning for all the decision making, which includes people from all castes and equal representation of women as well. Every household contributes Rs.1,000 (sometimes more) toward the building of the toilet and bathroom. This cost sharing is very important to ensure ownership. The villagers are also trained in masonry, so they can be involved in the construction and also have an alternate means of livelihood later on.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that many villagers felt that their toilets bathrooms looked better than their houses and soon showed interest in building better houses, availing loans with the help of Gram Vikas.

Another interesting anecdote I heard was about brides’ parents asking whether the same facilities exist in the groom’s village. If not, the groom is being told he must build a toilet and bathing room first! How about that!

The majority of tribal communities that Gram Vikas’ works with is un-electrified. To bring 24-hours of piped water supply to un-electrified villages, water from perennial springs are harnessed and diverted through pipelines, from as far as six kilometres. The water is first collected in an in-take well near the beginning of the streamm where it is purified. Principle of gravity flow is used to traverse over small hills to ultimately reach a storage tank in the village and from there, to individual homes – with no electricity being used anywhere. As in keeping with GV’s principles, the villagers take full responsibility for maintenance of the entire water supply system, including safety of the pipeline. People contribute all unskilled labour, stone and sand, while the cost of external materials are sourced from govt. schemes or outside.

It was such a joy visiting these villages, they are kept so clean and people are so warm and welcoming.

I remember, we were told during the initial orientation at Ahmedabad to politely refuse water offered in villages in our do’s and don’ts.

Turns out, in the Gram Vikas villages, we actually ask if we can fill our water bottles from their bathrooms! Haha! Who would’ve ever imagined that!

Aaaand, I managed a slightly shorter post this time! Will be blogging often to make up for the lag, since I started a month late! Hope you guys continue reading with the same enthusiasm. Until next time!

8

The beginning of a new journey

My sis, Swat, has been bugging me to create a blog and pen down my experiences regularly. Her point is ‘write it for yourself to relive your own experiences, if not for anybody else.’

Fair point, I thought. And here I am.

So, to bring all readers and my future-self (hoping to relive these experiences sometime in future) on the same page, here’s why Swat thought I should start writing – I have just started a year-long Rural development fellowship – called Youth for India funded by SBI and in partnership with a five large NGOs.I get the feeling that the year ahead will be one of exciting adventures, immense learning, beautiful Indian villages and inspirational people – making the experience worth capturing somewhere.

In this post, I am writing about my experience at the week-long orientation into the fellowship programme, which happened in Ahmedabad.

My friend Sanju and I were due to visit Ahmedabad for a long time. When I heard the induction was to be in Ahmedabad, I thought there would be no better opportunity and Sanju readily agreed to accompany me, a few days before my induction. Four days of fun with Sanju and Goatee (who works in Ahd), exploring ancient monuments, the old city, Gujju thaalis, yum street food at 1 am, the best Gelato at Melt-in, cupcakes from Buttercup, volunteering at Seva café (where I actually did the dishes and Sanju waited tables all evening) – it was a really really good trip as Sanju would certify it later!

As I finally left for the SBI Learning Center on Sunday night, I was both anxious and excited. I was nervous, constantly wondering if I could really do something worthwhile and I was also guilty having left Anand behind, all by himself.

Did I make the right decision? Am I being selfish in leaving my family behind? What if I fail?

These were questions running in my mind.

I soon met the other fellows that joined me – 32 fantastic people from across the country, across age groups, varied experiences – all there for the same cause. It was wonderful listening to stories about why people were there – some very passionate, some confused, some, like me, still finding their way.

SBI Youth for India fellows- Batch of November

SBI Youth for India fellows- Batch of November

The week-long Orientation

The orientation was to help us prepare for the year ahead, considering most of us came from urban, relatively developed regions and had little context on rural development. We were told the dos and don’ts in the villages, what to expect, how to behave, etc.  Some oft repeated quotes:

Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.

Don’t be prescriptive.

Don’t think you can change the world.

The other person always knows better

I thought I’d share some thoughts about the most impactful sessions in the week-long induction.

Joe Madiath! What a man!

What stood out for me in the entire week was the talk by the awesome and charismatic Joe Madiath, founder of Gram Vikas. Again, What.A.Man! I have never met a humbler and simpler person, who can connect so easily with you even after pretty much single-handedly, selflessly accomplishing so much, changing lives of tens of thousands of people.

Joe’s story and thoughts are hugely inspiring. Joe was an activist since birth – standing up against his own grandfather and father – fighting for labourers. He set out on a cycle and travelled across India for more than a year to understand rural India better! Having moved to Orissa in 1971 after a devastating cyclone to help relief operations, Joe stayed back to work toward rural development in Orissa. You can read more about him here. Gram Vikas, which he founded in 1979, stresses on the importance of Water and Sanitation as the first step towards development. You can watch the video below to understand how providing water and proper sanitation can improve health, education, women’s empowerment and overall development of a village. (“Unbelievable,” is what I thought.) Gram Vikas has already transformed lives of over 70,000 households. Luckily for me, Gram Vikas is the NGO I am currently working with in Orissa!

Self Help Groups

Another interaction that was truly inspiring was with two lovely ladies, whose lives were transformed after they joined Self-Help-Groups (facilitated by the NGO AKRSP) in their villages. Munniben, who was from a village in MP, came from a family that migrated to the city to work as labourers. Families like hers had always lived in fear of the local moneylender as all their earnings went in returning as interest to him on the money borrowed. They had to live on a single meal for most part of the year. Things slowly changed and being part of a small self-help group transformed their lives forever. It was heart-warming to hear the story of how she – someone who did not dare to speak a word before – is now the leader of the women’s federation across a few villages.

Typically, SHG members make small regular savings contributions over a few months until there is enough capital in the group to begin lending within or outside the group. Self-help groups are usually started by NGOs and are seen as instruments for a variety of goals including improving socio-economic status, empowering women, developing leadership abilities among poor people, increasing school enrollments, increasing awareness on health and hygiene and improving nutrition.

It was a moving experience to see how lives were transformed and these women were truly empowered by providing them some basic guidance and awareness.

Naranpur Express

We spent an entire day with Naranpur express – which is a fascinating simulation game developed on the basis of the work in rural areas conducted by the faculty of IRMA. The game focuses on the decision making process of farmers, especially the small and marginal farmers. It also seeks to simulate how decisions taken by large farmers influence the fortunes of small farmers and landless labourers.

My assets and family members in the village life simulation game

 

Our group of 32 was divided into 14-15 families, each given a set of assets – cash, land, livestock, etc., and family members. It was a day long process and it was interesting to see how each of us soon empathised with the farmers’ families in the game – some landless labourers, some with large families to feed but with limited resources, some with abundant cash and assets. To make the game more realistic, we even had bouts of drought or pest attack like it happens in reality. Discussions around the room were about whether to grow cotton or paddy, hybrid or ordinary, if we should buy a cow or spend on a dug-well. The landless labourers found respite when a factory opened nearby offering higher wages and farmlands were left without labourers. I partnered with Ramandeep and we coolly took advantage of the increase in price of ghee in the market and bought new cattle with the money we had, to maximise our assets and all! While it helped us understand the realities of rural India better, it was also a good fun way to get acquainted with the realities!

SpitiEcosphere

The charming Ishita Khanna said it was a momentary lapse of sanity that made her leave the comforts of home and set off to start Spiti Ecosphere in the beautiful Spiti valley soon after she passed out of TISS. Ecosphere is a social enterprise that works on the sustainable development of Spiti valley.

Spiti Valley (Picture: The shooting star)

Spiti Valley (Picture: The shooting star)

sea buckthorn

Sea-buckthorn

 

Ecosphere’s responsible trips offer authentic homestays, biking, treks and hikes, volunteering options, monastery visits, etc. Ecosphere ensures responsible travel – ensuring all trips leave a zero carbon footprint by offsetting emissions through their renewable energy initiatives. They also work to improve livelihoods by encouraging local handicrafts and also cultivation of sea-buckthorn (also called wonderberry), which grows well in these parts. Various products are developed from the sea-buckthorn, which is known to be rich in nutrients.Preserving the beauty of the Spiti valley through responsible tourism and ensuring sustained empowerment of the locals is what ecosphere stands for and is hugely inspiring.

Oh we also had our first field visit- to a village near Sayla in Gujarat where AKRSP has done a lot of work in watershed management, rain water harvesting and also with self help groups. We interacted with the local residents of the village and the sense of pride they had in their work and progress they had made was heartwarming. And yes! They did have 24×7 power! Our interaction with them reinforced my belief that getting a sense of ownership and empowerment is appreciated more in the long run than just freebies.

Other noteworthy interactions were with Sristi Innovations (part of the HoneyBee network), which helps Grassroot innovators and Soumya Kapoor, who is a consultant with the World Bank. She shared great insights on working in rural India and also took us through the various administrative bodies we will have to interact with.

While the days meant serious business, the evenings were a lot of fun with late night banter, singing and poetry sessions with some very talented people amidst us! By end of the week, the fellows left for the respective NGO locations.

I set out on a 36 hour journey to Bhubaneshwar with 12 other fellows, excited about the times that lay ahead!

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The mad bunch on the train to Bhubaneshwar

That’s that. Looking forward to the next 11 and a half months! Will keep you posted. : )