An early morning start. Pick up at 6:45am for the 10 minute drive to Seva Mandir’s office to join the bus which would take us on our first field trip of this visit. We are excited: field trips always exceed expectations and introduce us to some of the remoter parts of southern Rajasthan, areas we would otherwise almost certainly not visit. Needless to say, we are amongst the few early birds and able to stake our claim to front seats on the venerable bus which radiates experience. The announced departure time of 7:15 is both indicative and aspirational. We are on our way with 15 or so of the Seva Mandir Natural Resource Development team by 7:45 to cross Udaipur from north to south through the early morning traffic, stopping first for fuel and then further members of the team along the way. It’s reminiscent of school bus trips with laughter and jollity as new members of the team climb aboard.
As we head out of the town on the main highway which leads to Mumbai, the Aravalli Hills are once again our guide. Our front row seats afford a clear view.
After a little less than an hour, we turn across the highway and head down a rural road and back in time
to Kherwara, a beautiful area surrounded by the Aravalli hills, with fields green after the monsoon, wandering goats and cows, and the occasional mud-walled house
where morning washing
and other domestic chores are underway.
We are also struck by the cactus hedges: very practical when you think about it.
The field trip is beginning in earnest.
One key area of Seva Mandir’s work is Natural Resource Development. In this rural, semi-arid region such as southern Rajasthan, the rain falls only during a short period of the year in the monsoon, and the sun beats down relentlessly for long months on impoverished soil. Local, mainly subsistence, farmers scratch a living from a few fields
and, if they are lucky, a handful of cows and goats that might bring them a monthly income of Rs 600 (around £6 or $10). It is therefore vital to make the best use of what water there is.
The NRD unit has many programmes in this area: watershed projects to ensure that the heavy rains, when they come, do not further degrade what soil there is,
but the water is collected in the most efficient way; water harvesting, including creating and maintaining dams,
and improving wells. We pass several lakes filled by the monsoon but soon realise that it will probably not rain here again until next July.
Measuring the results of such projects is important for Seva Mandir and its donors. To ensure that data collection is reliable and consistent, systems have been devised to help the field teams carry out their measurements in a uniform and simple way throughout the areas covered.
The field trip which we have been invited to join involves 20 or so members of the NRD unit, from HQ in Udaipur and from some of the blocks further afield, and is designed to show the teams how to collect data and monitor the results of the various projects.
Our base for the day was the zone office in Kojawara, which houses a medical centre with permanent nursing staff and visiting doctors who give clinics on a number of days during the week. There are wards for inpatients,
but these are not in use at the moment. The major problem faced by the centre is finding and retaining resident doctors. A relatively remote rural area like this struggles to attract doctors, and those who might be interested are unaffordable. It nevertheless provides a dispensary and delivers much needed and valued basic care and was clearly being used by the locals when we visited.
After a light breakfast, armed with two specially-made metal frames measuring 1m2 (instantly recognised by Felicia – all those years listening to the Archers clearly well spent!), we set off to a field on a hill where watershed work had been carried out a couple of years ago. This involved building a low wall to keep cattle out and planting grains.
The team leader, Shailendra Tiwari, Head of NRD, and his team of experts, explained the process of taking samples of crop growth to monitor results.
They marched up to the top of the hill to survey the field in question, divided it virtually into five areas representative of the field as a whole (taking poorer areas and areas of better growth), and proceeded to take a sample of the growth in each of these five areas. The metal frames were placed on the ground
and the plants within this square metre cut and weighed.
The results were noted down and an average for the field calculated. This information will allow the team to see whether the work of creating check dams and watershed trenches has improved the yield of the area.
It was hot work and we have to admit to not going all the way to the top of the hill but seeking out the shade of a bamboo grove
where we were entertained by one of the team members who delighted in telling us that he and his wife had four children all of whom had married and flown the family nest. He beamed as he held the backs of his hands towards us, fingers pointing down and flipped his fingers upwards to simulate the flight of the siblings from the house. Now he and his wife enjoyed peace and cooking for two. On hearing that we had three children and one married, our host, with flashing dark eyes, emitted a huge giggle.
The next exercise was inspecting and measuring wells on the plain.
There are five wells within this watershed unit of 500 Hectares, and, once again, keeping accurate measurements of the water in the wells has proved challenging. Shailendra explained that there was no need to measure the depth of the wells – obviously a difficult job. The best way was to find a fixed point which could be marked and used every time, and to measure the drop to the level of the water. The measuring would be done twice a year, before and after the rains.
This area also contains a camp where cattle are vaccinated twice a year, in an effort to reduce Foot and Mouth Disease and Goat Disease, which the team visited. While the team accompanied by the intrepid Felicia headed down a steep slope,
John, who had a slightly stiff ankle, stayed with our host to explore the evidence of successful planting projects along the road as it started to climb between the hills
and then engage in interpreted conversation with a local goatherd and his wife who tended the cattle. A charming couple who were clearly appreciative of the work done by Seva Mandir. The wife, who was in the meadow below the road, clutched an old umbrella in her right hand as she hurried after one stray and then another, even though it was not apparent that they could have gone far. Looking up to the road where we were discussing with her husband, she realised that, whilst in the semi shade, we would benefit from the umbrella and hurried up the steep path to offer it. Apart from being extremely grateful for the shade, I realised that the quality of the light under the umbrella would be far more flattering for portraits than the harsh late-morning sun. The goatherd and his wife duly posed for photographs
before an errant cow hastened the return of the wife to the meadow. They, by the way, had two children, both of whom had married! More giggles from our host.
There followed a village meeting at the house of one of the villagers. While we waited for the meeting we were invited to relax on a charpoy (string couch)
in the shady garden surrounded by neem trees, marigolds (which a canny goat was surreptitiously trying to graze on before he was spotted and ushered out by the woman of the house) and drying chillies. The presence of two unexpected foreign visitors was explained and we were made welcome, and proceedings began.
This village benefits from several of Seva Mandir’s activities: an immunization camp for pregnant women and their children, a Women’s Self-Help Group, a Joint Forest Management project, a Balwadi (children’s day care centre), a team of Balsakhis (who monitor and advise on child health and care), and a lift well. It also boasts a Farmers’ Club (which has 1.2 Lakh Rupees, approx. £1,200, in its bank account and attracts a subsidy from the government). The meeting was intended to monitor the effect of Seva Mandir’s work on village life and to give the farmers and their wives a chance to air their views.
The farmers said that the water levels had certainly increased since the watershed project and they were pleased with the harvest of 1.5 quintals (150 kg) of rice, which was an improvement on previous harvests. The villagers are now self-sufficient in grass and grains, which saves them the money they would otherwise have to spend on buying these in.
They have an area of 50 Hectares in common forest land, divided into three sites, and have qualified for Joint Forest Management, a scheme which allows the villagers, alongside the government Forestry Department, to look after their forest land, protecting it from fire, grazing and illegal encroachment, and to enjoy the benefits of the forest land and its products. But they would like to achieve Community Forest Rights, which would allow them to manage the forest land themselves as provided for in Indian law but in practice extremely hard to win. Seva Mandir continues to help the villagers try to win these rights.
The villagers also reiterated their desire to see Ecosan toilets installed, and were promised that a visit to another village was being arranged to allow them to inspect the Ecosans there. The government will not provide these toilets (which use no water but instead use ash to convert solid waste into odourless manure) but Seva Mandir is a major provider of these throughout southern Rajasthan.
These hospitable villagers then thanked us again for our visit and warmly bade us farewell.
Just time for a quick visit to an area which had been wasteland until recently but which, with Seva Mandir’s help, had now been planted with fruit trees (mango, amla, guava, papaya, lime) and also tomatoes, chillies and aubergines.
A lovely spot, bursting with fresh produce, and clearly giving a good yield to its owner, a woman farmer.
After a delicious and well earned late lunch (after all that climbing up steep slopes), the NRD team sat down to a meeting to discuss the day’s events
and to plan its next field trip, which would include water harvesting projects (how to monitor water levels in anicut dams, assess leakage, monsoon damage, silting and the use made of the water), sanitation and safe drinking water projects and lift irrigation (where water is pumped up to higher ground from a well, enabling previously uncultivated land to bear crops).
The block officials then said goodbye as they headed back to their block offices in other parts of southern Rajasthan, and the HQ team piled back onto our bus
for the drive back to Udaipur. It was by now late afternoon and the sun was sending warms rays across the countryside.
As the driver expertly guided the old Tata vehicle through the traffic (with a steering wheel with so much play that he was in constant motion with his arms and we wondered how he could possibly manoeuvre it so skilfully), and the NRD team laughed and joked all the way, we reflected on what a dedicated and skilled team of people this is, toiling away to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and to make sure that their work is bearing fruit.