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