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.
The wheat harvest has started and we pass fields strewn with golden sheaves awaiting collection.
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.
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,
and holes in the ground where trees will be planted for the same purpose.
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.
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!)
while our friends from Seva Mandir take a roll call – part of their job as agents for the MGNREGA work.
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.
The view from our vantage point is spectacular and our trek well worthwhile.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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!
We are invited to sit for a while in the house of one of the village committee leaders,
whose entire family soon gathers to welcome and peer at these strange beings from far away.
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.