12

How I Learnt Unlearnt Relearnt

Since I had not written for so long, I was wondering what I must blog about… I finally decided to write about some truly ‘Learn-Unlearn-Relearn’ moments that I have experienced here.

Not so long ago, I was completely against the caste based reservation system that exists in our education and government system. Like many others, I argued that it works against the merit system and thought that one shouldn’t be given any opportunity unless he deserves it by virtue of his merit.

When I went to B school, Azhar Khan our economics professor always tried to convince us on why the reservation system was necessary – ‘As these people were oppressed by the society for a long time, they are not on the same platform as others, It would take years for them to be brought on to a level playing field with others.’ I always argued against it, at least in my head and was never convinced.

Now that I am living amidst tribal children who hail from small villages in the hills and jungles, I truly appreciate the opportunity that this reservation system gives them. The school that I work with currently has more than 95% tribal children. What’s so different about them you may ask?  Here’s what :

Most of them are first generation learners – their parents never went to school.
To make things worse, their parents do not know the benefits of education and have other problems to worry about.
They hail from villages which are not easily accessible.
They hail from villages which mostly do not have functioning schools- either there is no school or no teacher or teacher is no good.
They hail from villages which have no healthcare.

As I am writing this, I remembered Bhima who is a student from our school currently studying medicine. It is a matter of huge pride for him, for his village and our school. He was a topper in class X in our school, but wouldn’t have made it to the medical college had it not been for the reservation for Scheduled tribes. The hardworking and sharp boy that he is, I am sure he will make a great doctor, one day.

From our school, the number of students who go on to study post class XII is not many, there are many barriers – lack of family support, money, language barrier (most UG courses are in English), lack of awareness, lack of interest even! So, when the few determined and hardworking students who want to go ahead and study- completely self motivated, imagine a situation that they are not able to because of their low income or not meeting the extraordinarily high cut off marks?

The Class X results are out today, I will soon know how our students have fared. I am expecting a couple of them to cross 85% which is a very big deal! These boys want to study in a good school in Bhubaneswar, but will they get a seat with their marks? I truly hope so.

My point is this, had they been in an urban school, they would have probably scored 95%+ like the toppers there these days do. But with the kind of exposure, the school and the teachers they had, this is the best they could have done.

These students who gave their exams in Feb this year came back to school to learn computers. The school received a donation of 10 computers and the lab was functional starting March and these students did not get the opportunity to benefit from it while in school. They came back to school, during their holidays when the rest of the children their age were just rejoicing having completed class X board exams – only because they were highly motivated to learn. Our infants in the cities today are born with tablets in their hand, parents can’t even imagine feeding their babies without their favourite videos from youtube and these sixteen year olds were just happy to touch a keyboard for 20 odd days!

There is a boy in class VI who told me he has to walk 50 kms from the nearest motor-able road to reach his village. He takes two days to walk to his village, (most of it a steep uphill climb) after the bus drops him off on the nearest road. Can you imagine how inaccessible his village is? And we expect him to be able to be just like you and me?

My biggest learning here is that:

Children everywhere have the same potential; it’s just the opportunities and platforms that are different.

Wouldn’t it be unfair if a child has to continue to suffer just like his forefathers who were denied equal opportunities? The reservation in education system for these children has the right intentions; you may argue that it’s highly misused, that these children wont be able to cope with the tough courses, that politicians use it for vote bank politics, meritorious students lose out etc.
The problems that are to be tackled are far more complex. The reality of the situation is that unless we are able to bring the education experience of these children on par with the urban system, until they get the same opportunities as the privileged, we cannot talk about doing away with reservation.

Also read post by a fellow-fellow Shriya Rangarajan who shares her thoughts and experience on the same topic.

Girls of class VII - super smart and eager to learn

Girls of class VII – super smart and eager to learn

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

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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!

IMG_20141110_212556830-1

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. : )