Field Trip to Kotra


We are back on the road in late April, this time to Kotra block, the furthest-flung of Seva Mandir’s work areas. As ever, it is a challenge to persuade people that we do actually want to leave early and that 8 am really does mean 8 am, but we are finally on the way at 8.20 with a full day ahead of us. Two and a bit hours later we arrive at Seva Mandir’s complex in Kotra town and are met by the young and very efficient Himanshu, who has organized our 2-day trip. After a quick cup of chai we are on our way to see a number of the Ecosan toilets that Seva Mandir has installed in the area.

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In such a water-scarce region, where the cliché of more mobiles than toilets is absolutely true, this system has proved really successful. Solid and wet waste are kept separate. The former is stored in a chamber where it is treated with ash and, after a few months, has turned into odourless manure for the fields.

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The liquid waste is also used on the fields. As veterans of Indian loos, we were rather squeamish about inspecting an Ecosan when we first visited one a few years ago, but they are without fail kept clean and smell-free, and the families in whose yards they have been built are extremely proud of them. Persuading all the members of the family to use them and abandon old habits of using the fields is a challenge, but the success rate has gone up dramatically after the women were encouraged to help design an additional space in the small buildings where they can wash themselves and their clothes, both of which would otherwise have to happen outside.

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These loos with bathrooms (water not on tap, but carried in for washing from the nearby handpump) cost Seva Mandir Rs 21,000 (approx. £ 210) to build. The beneficiaries are required to make a contribution, which often includes materials and labour.

You may have read in the international press that India’s new prime minister, Mr Modi, promised that his priority would be ‘toilets not temples’, and indeed the government is building toilets all around this rural area, often right beside the Seva Mandir toilets. Unfortunately they build them so small and so poorly, and without digging the necessary pits, that they are almost never used. We see piles of concrete blocks left at a site ready for the construction of another of these abortive loos.

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Targets are clearly being met, but in a way that is a complete waste of money in an area so desperately short of so many basics.

We next visit a small house-cum-shop

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where the inhabitants are keen to show us their candle water filter. Seva Mandir has distributed these steel containers equipped with ceramic ‘candles’,

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which filter the water to make it potable, to rural inhabits who live too far away to benefit from chlorinated community water tanks.

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The owners have to be careful, though, as the containers can easily be knocked over by the ubiquitous goats, breaking the ceramic filters which can only be replaced in the city 150 km away.

Next stop a village water tank where the water from the adjacent well is purified with chlorine, making it safe to drink. Several women and children are collecting water in pots which they carry home on their heads. This is obviously a good place to meet and chat!

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On to some fields

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where the wheat is being harvested

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– as usual, by hand by the women.

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The wheat is separated from the straw by a threshing machine which works 24 hours a day to serve many local farmers, and is then winnowed by hand (this seems to be a man’s job, with the women carrying loads of grain to keep him supplied).

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Some very unseasonal rain and even hail has recently destroyed some of the crop, and there is a rush to complete the harvest before some more possible bad weather – quite unheard of at this time of year and devastating to these smallholders who merely scrape a living as it is.

We then have a demonstration in how to make panchagavya, a mixture of five ingredients (panch being Hindi for five): cow dung (that invaluable local resource), cow urine, jaggery (produced from sugar cane and found in all Indian homes and markets), curd and powdered pulses.   The ingredients are mixed by hand and then stored in a plastic tank – apparently becoming a bit smelly after a while!

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But it is not only organic and virtually free (the only cost being the very cheap jaggery), it has also been shown to improve the fertility and moisture of the soil. The farmers’ plots are divided into squares and the mixture is placed at all four corners, promoting fungal growth which spreads across the whole plot.

Our final visit before lunch is to a balwadi, another of Seva Mandir’s wonderful little day-care centres for children aged 1-5 which allow mothers and elder siblings to work and go to school.

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With a tiny budget, very few and very basic materials (a few sheets of paper, some stickers, some hand-sewn fabric bags for storing games, some plastic toys) and locally trained teachers, these institutions do a fantastic job – not just keeping the children safe, but also stimulating early development, monitoring them for malnutrition and providing meals and nutritional supplements.

On leaving the balwadi we find our driver talking to and photographing a group of men emerging from the bushes armed with bows and arrows and what looks like a blunderbuss. We had been told on our first visit to the area that the tribal people here have their own system of law and order, and frequently use bows and arrows to stop vehicles and rob their passengers. But this is the first time we have seen a group of armed men. At least they seem happy and unthreatening!

After a good, simple vegetarian lunch back at base we are on the road again, to visit some of the work being funded by a large grant from RBS (and so, I suppose, the British tax payer), God bless them. This project aims to increase the incomes of 1,000 local farmers threefold over three years. It involves physical work to increase the water supply, by building lift wells, check dams to divert water that otherwise flows off to neighbouring Gujarat, 3.5 km of channels to take this water alongside farmers’ fields and allow it to be used for irrigation,

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restoring old dams (anicuts) and 1,000 hectares of watershed development. In addition, it is enabling planting of useful species both in the common pastureland areas and on individual smallholdings, and providing those who are not able to benefit from any of the other water-related activities with livestock (hens and goats). This is a huge project with clear benefits to a very poor area, and Seva Mandir is working hard to get all the work done on time, writing and sending multiple reports to the donors.

Our next visit is to the dal mill, set up by Seva Mandir with the local farmers as a cooperative which buys in lentils from near-by villages and processes them,

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selling the resulting dal to an increasing number of buyers in Udaipur and further afield.

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This too has vastly improved the livelihoods of farmers who before had to take their lentils to Gujarat, depending on middlemen to buy their produce at frequently knock-down prices. As a venture it is close to break-even, but the aim is to scale up operations, if some working capital can be sourced, so that the cooperative becomes more successful.

On the way back to our base, we discuss the question of the armed locals. The tribe practises mohtana, the custom of seeking private compensation for any form of injury or accident. If someone is killed or injured (or simply thought to have been killed or injured), retribution is sought from the families of those held responsible, and indeed from whole villages. This takes the form of exorbitant financial claims (up to hundreds of thousands of rupees for a life – well beyond most of these locals) as well as physical beatings. There is apparently one village which has been deserted for years following its sacking by the inhabitants of another village. This system applies to any workplace injuries, bringing the almost unheard of (in India) concept of health and safety rather sharply into focus for Seva Mandir as it supervises the RBS work! It also explains why our Seva Mandir driver is the only one we have ever known to pull off the road when his mobile rings. You wouldn’t want to hit a goat or a cow, let alone a person, on these roads.

Before the light fades, John films a short interview for the e-newsletter with Himanshu, who is about to set off on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea, one of 9 young people from around the world chosen to attend a symposium on water. If his presentation on his Kotra model for clean drinking water and sanitation is chosen as one of top 3, he stands to win a large sum which will help Seva Mandir implement his solution to local needs. He is a sincere and impressive young man who deserves every success.

After a light supper and a surprisingly good night’s sleep on somewhat basic camp beds, we rise early the following morning and head off to visit another balwadi where John aims to take photos of children arriving for the day. Once again, actually managing to convince people that we do need to leave on time is a challenge, but we finally get to a little village day-care centre before the last of its pupils have arrived. It is set behind a house, facing a beautiful area of farmland dotted with tall palm trees as it stretches away to the Aravalli hills.   We see some raggedy tots arriving, often with siblings

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or with parents,

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but the mere sight of John with a camera terrifies them and they immediately start bawling – not quite the image we were hoping to capture!   A few are persuaded that we are not ogres and stop wailing long enough to have their photos taken.

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We then go inside the little room with its mud walls and see morning prayers. One child has the most rapt and fervent expression I have ever seen during prayer and I am captivated by her. She is radiant and when the children take turns to pick out the card with their name and drawing on it and announce their name to the class, she is bursting with joy and enthusiasm.

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On leaving the balwadi we stand for a while and watch a two women working in the fields

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and carrying huge baskets they have filled with wheat sheaves to the man at the top of the hill who is building up a pile ready for the thresher.

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On our way to our final destination we pass three vehicles loaded to overflowing with more armed men – brandishing bows and arrows, sticks, rifles and swords. Very sensibly, John does not attempt to take photos as we move swiftly on.

We park under a spreading banyan tree and set off on foot across some fields to inspect a large anicut Seva Mandir has built to store water that is then channelled into the fields.

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A cormorant dries his wings on a rock and a kingfisher makes a splash and retreats to a branch with his breakfast. As always, we have attracted a following of villagers curious to see us take an interest in their surroundings. On our way back to the car we watch a woman spreading moistened mud by hand on a patch of soil to make what appears to be an area for drying produce.

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This has been yet another very instructive field trip, and it has been wonderful to escape the town and our laptops to enjoy the fresh air for a while. We bid farewell to Himanshu and hope that his visa for South Korea comes through in time! [Post script: it did and Himanshu did indeed win a place in the top three. Warmest congratulations to him on this well-deserved success.]

 

Field Trip to Badgaon

It is always exciting to set off on a field trip with Seva Mandir: the countryside around Udaipur is beautiful, we always learn so much about rural ways and the NGO’s life-changing work, and we are always welcomed so warmly.

On this occasion, in April, our tasks are to take photos for this year’s Annual Report and collect material for the new e-newsletter, so we plan two field trips to help us with both.  The first is to Badgaon, a rural area close to Udaipur.  We set off with Victoria and Shahid from the Natural Resources Development team and head out of town on the highway that leads to Mount Abu, turning off for Haldighati and wending our way through really stunning countryside.

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The wheat harvest has started and we pass fields strewn with golden sheaves awaiting collection.

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Our first port of call is Losing. We spot a group of people working far up on the hillside and learn that this is what we have come to see.

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We find a place where we can scale the wall protecting this area of common land, scramble over it, and then begin to pick our way up the hillside, soon discovering that each step has to be carefully planned and tested as the stones move beneath our feet and it would be all too easy to slip back downhill. Another hazard at the lower level is evidence of one of the major problems of rural India, which Seva Mandir targets through the installation of Ecosan toilets – open defecation.

Shahid is very attentive and gives me his hand, guiding me towards the best route upwards. I bless the healing of the metatarsal that I broke last year. It is only when I reach the top that I learn that my guide himself had a bad accident some time ago and is in fact a bit wobbly on his own pins!  The sun beats down and its 40 degrees rapidly find the areas on my neck that I have omitted to plaster with sun cream.

We finally reach the spot towards the top of the hill where the activity we have come to see is taking place. A team of women are digging trenches to help prevent soil erosion once the monsoon comes,

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and holes in the ground where trees will be planted for the same purpose.

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These women, supervised by a couple of men, are working in the full sun, wearing floor-length skirts, long scarves-cum-veils and only flipflops on their feet.

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I ponder, not for the first time, how so many Indian men can claim that women have no place in society but are flowers to be cherished and carefully kept out of harm’s way, when in fact, in town and country alike, they form the backbone of the workforce, engaging in back-breaking labour, whether it be mending roads or digging trenches.

I think in particular of the defence lawyer interviewed in the BBC’s film, India’s Daughter, banned in India soon after its release, who makes these claims as a pretext for locking women and young girls in their homes lest they get what is coming to them from leading rapists into temptation.

This activity, like the one we will see next, is covered by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a government initiative to provide paid employment via development activities prescribed by the Panchayats or local village councils. Seva Mandir acts as agent, supervising work and checking on its quality, thereby ensuring that the development work undertaken is actually going on in the right place and will be of some benefit, and that it is not just ‘paper work’, claimed for but never carried out. In all too many of these projects up and down the country, money is either spent on totally useless works for lack of proper research and monitoring, or paid to local officials without a stroke of work being undertaken. Alas, even Seva Mandir’s supervision cannot guarantee that the wages due are actually paid in full or on time by the government departments, and they regularly have to explain to frustrated workers that they are unable to pay what the government owes them.

Discussing this later with a member of the SM team, I learn that women are more numerous in these teams undertaking MGNREGA activities because, while the wages paid (up to Rs 163 or about £1.65 a day) are quite good for women who don’t generally go far from home to work, a skilled male worker can earn up to Rs 350 so is more likely to travel further afield for such jobs.

John takes photos of the women (no one who reads the next Annual Report will realise quite how hard the photographer worked to get these images!)

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while our friends from Seva Mandir take a roll call – part of their job as agents for the MGNREGA work.

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John also uses his best Hindi to ask the men to undertake some actual work for the camera! Much amusement at the thought but the men do oblige.

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The view from our vantage point is spectacular and our trek well worthwhile.

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There is clearly some amusement and interest in what these unlikely foreigners are doing up this hill, so Victoria explains to them that we have come a very long way and are very old!!   I hope she also gave them some indication of why we had come! As I had been fearing all the way up the slope, the time comes to descend. The local supervisor of works suggests a vertical descent, which we decline. I have no doubt that we would reach the bottom, but probably rather too fast and I have no wish to renew my acquaintance with plaster casts. So we take the zigzag route we used to ascend. This time I am guided by a local man who seems a little timid about taking my hand, but does kindly guide me down, muttering gently in the tones I imagine he would use to encourage his goat along the same track. I find it rather charming. I also enjoy the clean, earthy smell of people who have been working in the sun – indeed, as smells so often do, this smell of honest toil takes me straight back to my childhood in Jamaica and makes me feel happy.

We congratulate ourselves on reaching the bottom safely and swig repeatedly from our water bottles, before setting off in the car for another MGNREGA site.

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This time teams of people are repairing a wonderful and very long dry-stone wall which encloses a village’s common pastureland. Each team consists of five people – three women who collect stones of differing sizes and weights,

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carrying them back to the wall where two men fit them onto the top and secure them. The women, as ever, wear long skirts, skimpy tops and long, long shawls that cover their heads and, when they feel it necessary or appropriate, according to the status of the men observing them, their faces. They are also decked in their jewellery – anklets, bracelets, nose rings and all, which are the traditional adornments (and indeed investments) of these country women.

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Without exception, they have such graceful posture and glide along this rough path with their loads on their head as if born to the catwalk.

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The views from this hill are breathtakingly beautiful, and we once again feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to visit these places and people that no tourists will ever see. The wall too is a thing of beauty, but also serves an important role. In this arid area common pastureland, which belongs to the whole community and provides them with fodder for their livestock, is of vital importance. It is also under constant threat from farmers who decide to ‘encroach’ or take for their own private use areas intended by the government for all the local inhabitants. Victoria points out to us several encroached fields on the opposite hill.

Once again, our NRD friends take the roll call, checking that all those who are signed up for this activity are actually taking part.

While out in the middle of nowhere, I hear two incongruous mobile ring tones: Schubert’s Trout theme and Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.   Not for the first time, I wonder what these eminent Austrians would have made of their music being used in this way and in such remote areas – perhaps they would have been rather flattered.

We then walk a different way to the village, passing an enclosure which one of the local tribes, the Gayeri, have built for their sheep. Climbing over another wall, we come into a schoolyard where the pupils at this government school pose for photos we hadn’t even intended to take. No flies on these kids!

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We are invited to sit for a while in the house of one of the village committee leaders,

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whose entire family soon gathers to welcome and peer at these strange beings from far away.

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Delicious lassi is brought out and John defends England’s honour by downing a vast number of glasses!

Our host is a farmer who has a sideline as an estate agent, enabling other farmers to mortgage or sell off parts of their land to city-dwellers – a somewhat shortsighted move which, we fear, is storing up problems for the future.

Time to return home, having discovered another remarkably beautiful area of Rajasthan that is completely off the beaten track.