An Immunization Camp in Badgaon

In April we visited another of the immunization camps that Seva Mandir runs every month in a number of remote rural hamlets. The government does have an immunization programme, but in these rural areas staffing of the camps and surgeries can be erratic, and it’s tough for mothers to walk miles with babes in arms only to find that the doctor or nurse hasn’t turned up this time.

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An alarmingly small percentage of India’s rural children are fully immunized (35% in a recent study of the children attending Seva Mandir’s day-care centres) so providing a reliable service is very important.

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Records are kept and mothers who cannot read or write make a fingerprint in the register.

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In these remote areas one problem is making sure that all those who need the service are aware of when the camp will be held.  Another is ensuring that mothers understand what to expect after their child has been immunized (that it is normal, for example, for their child to run a low temperature and be a bit under the weather after some injections) and also how important it is to complete the series of inoculations.

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As an incentive, each mother receives 1 kg of lentils each time her child is inoculated, and a set of stainless steel serving dishes and utensils when the course is completed.

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Seva Mandir has trained a team of nurses to administer the inoculations (mainly diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles and hepatitis as well as oral polio vaccine)

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and to give antenatal check-ups to pregnant women.

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We drive out to a small hamlet in Badgaon block, north-west of the city, and take with us members of the SM team and a doctor who will have a look at any children in need of medical attention.

In attendance are Bal Sakhis (local women who specialize in the care of infants) and Traditional Birth Attendants,

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all trained by Seva Mandir. In an area where much so-called medical care is provided by totally untrained quacks, with frequently disastrous, sometimes fatal, results, this is a huge contribution to the region’s health.

As on our previous visit to an immunization camp, this one is held in a building which also houses an anganwadi, a government-sponsored mother- and childcare centre.

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This room, like others we have visited, is decorated with illustrations from Aesop’s fables, which seems curious in the wilds of rural Rajasthan!

Immunization camps are not quiet places: babies go instantly from contentedly lying in their mothers’ arms to curiosity when the nurse approaches, to noisy shock and outrage when the needle jabs!

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The fact that no child I have ever seen in rural India wears a nappy also makes for the odd accident, but that’s one of the advantages of sitting on a mat on the floor – easy to clean and quick to dry!

Women’s Day Celebrations

An invitation to a Women’s Day celebration in one of Seva Mandir’s rural areas is always one to jump at, as they are very colourful and joyous occasions. So when we were invited to join the festivities in Mohandungri village in March we didn’t hesitate.

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One of the key focuses of Seva Mandir’s work in southern Rajasthan is women’s empowerment. You may not like the slightly jargonistic term, but it is appropriate. In the 700 villages with which Seva Mandir works, the majority of the women are from tribal communities and, while they may have some freedoms not shared by women in other regions (notably the right to move around from place to place, and the right to choose their partners), they face significant disadvantages in other respects. They are traditionally excluded from the social institutions that regulate social behaviour in their villages, and frequently face domestic violence and abuse. Their access to education and health services and their ability to share in their family’s decisions on finances are very limited. None of this stops them doing their share of hard physical work – digging and repairing roads and walls, agricultural work, fetching water on their heads from miles away – as well as cooking, cleaning and child rearing, of course.

Seva Mandir has been working for over 20 years to make gender relations more equitable. In a nutshell, the work includes insisting that village committees, which are the starting point for the NGO’s involvement in the development of a village, contain women in meaningful roles; helping the women set up discussion and mediation groups to allow them to talk about domestic violence and to find practical solutions to cases brought to them (and, very importantly, bringing the men to accept these solutions); helping them set up cooperatives to which they contribute and from which they can secure loans at reasonable rates; providing reliable and regular health care for women and children; and encouraging parents to educate girls, and women to become teachers.

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So the tentful of brightly dressed women and children we encountered on arrival at Mohandungri had a lot to celebrate.

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As ever, the sexes sat mostly apart – women and children at the front, men at the rear (fewer than the women, but obviously interested – or perhaps drawn by the excuse for a day off, music and fun, and a free lunch!).

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There must have been over 500 people gathered in this open-sided tent set up in school grounds surrounded by the lovely brown Aravalli hills. The heat was intense.

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Being guests of Seva Mandir, we qualified as VIPs and were welcomed with a crimson dot carefully applied to our foreheads, a friendship bracelet tied round our wrists and a garland hung round our necks. Other VIPs included people from other organisations such as NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), the Village Watershed Programme, and a Seva Mandir-trained teacher from one of its schools who has been elected sarpanch (head of the village-level government body), as well as SM’s General Secretary and several staff from head office and the local block (or rural division).

As always, the speeches began with a recap of development activities in the village over the last 25 years – a new road, a federation of women’s self-help groups, loans from NABARD to facilitate much of the physical work going on in the area (added to by village contributions), health and nutrition initiatives sponsored by overseas institutions, and a celebration of the villagers’ ability to resist the temptation to opt for personal benefits over communal.

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A succession of local women were invited to summarise the previous day’s discussions on women’s health (in particular, concern with regard to female consumption of tobacco, which is chewed as well as smoked in the region, and even marijuana) the education of children and adolescents (the usual story in rural India – not enough good schools or teachers), and migration of young people aged 14-20 (who go away to seek work and live in difficult conditions). One new development that was welcomed was the building of a hostel for 100 girls near a decent school, thus allowing girls to continue their education in safety.

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Migration is a knotty problem in this whole area. The women felt that it wasn’t all bad. Young people who migrated for work (often to the neighbouring state of Gujarat to pick cotton) brought in more money, but they often didn’t use it very well, buying tobacco and mobile phones, going to the cinema, in other words spending it on themselves rather than circulating it within their community.   The influence of Bollywood films and the mobile culture is clearly not felt to be a healthy one. Girls who live away from their villages also strike up relationships with boys (something that is certainly frowned upon throughout much of Indian society), leading to an increase in teenage pregnancies. (Of course, after an arranged marriage, sometimes at what seems to us like a very young age, early pregnancy is not a problem, but it clearly is if the girls are not married and not with a boy chosen and approved by their families.) There is a link with the state of rural education here, as the mothers felt that, while in school, their daughters’ behaviour was under control but that, once they migrated, their teenage energies and hormones led them into trouble. The moral: spend more time focusing on school-age children and guiding them towards healthier behaviour.

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There followed a puppet show – along the lines of Punch and Judy. One man speaks in English, which the woman he is addressing doesn’t understand. ‘What is your name? How are you? Who are you?’ Hilarity all round!

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There followed a dramatic exploration of the topics just discussed – promoting schools, parent-teacher relationships, even giving birth in hospital – and finally some patriotic chants!

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After this interlude there were further recaps of the women’s discussions held earlier on the subject of maternal health – the distance and time taken to reach government health services which can be very inaccessible to these rural women. Some women feel they have no choice but to move somewhere nearer to a road in the last stages of pregnancy to avoid the need to walk miles to get help when they go into labour. They said the general feeling was that pregnant women were not fragile and needed no special consideration, but they agreed this needed serious consideration.

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Then we came to the musical part of the day: four girls came forward to dance, dressed in caps and sporting dark glasses and hair studs, scarves tied over their shoulders.

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Another group sang about the village coming together and taking control to solve its own problems.   ‘Let’s organise meetings, get more women to join.’

A newly arrived VIP from a government department talks about women’s role in society and the need to end discrimination against women and give them more opportunities to work.

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She points out an uncomfortable truth which is that it’s not just men discriminating against women, but often mothers giving preferential treatment to sons. Women do indeed have an important role in Indian society.

Another government representative arrives (promptness clearly not being a requirement for any official in India!) and talks about education and sanitation.

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The Seva Mandir General Secretary talks about the importance of physical projects such as watershed work aimed at helping the community to save water and prevent soil erosion during the monsoons, vital in this area which is dry for 9-10 months of the year. But he points out that managing demand for water is as important as its conservation. He says, ‘Seva Mandir is not just about providing schools, childcare centres and watershed projects. We are a family. You are Seva Mandir. We need to work together to make the government more accountable.’

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Before our arrival there had been various sporting activities and it was now time for the prize-giving. We were asked to give out some of the prizes – a huge and rather humbling honour for us.

A final speech from the local block coordinator thanks the local villages for contributing Rs 1,000 and 200 kg flour for this event. Cue drumming, dancing and very loud recorded music blaring from speakers,

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and lunch follows for all.

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♯SevaMandir

♯womensday

♯Rajasthan

♯migration

♯education

♯womeninsociety

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.

Three Children at Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp

We have written before of Seva Mandir’s wonderful Residential Learning Camps, which give out-of-school rural children two months of intensive education three times a year. During a recent visit on one of the last days of term, I met three children, chatting with them through two of their teachers. All the children’s names have been changed for this blog.

Anant is a tall young man of around 13-14 years old – like several of these rural children, he’s not quite sure of his exact age. He comes from a village in Girwa block and this is his second Camp. Anant’s father is no longer alive so he lives with his mother, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his younger brother. His older brother, who works in a marble factory, looks after the family, and the younger three children go to school while their mother stays at home.

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Anant did go to school at one time, but dropped out after his father died. He was sent to pick BT cotton across the state border in Gujarat for a while, then ended up washing dishes at a hotel in Udaipur for two months,

He really enjoys the Learning Camps and is particularly keen on maths. The chance to learn in groups of ten

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with a kind and inspiring teacher is one all the children really value, and it is striking that if you ask them what they would like to be in later life, they all reply, ‘a teacher’. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but it is interesting to see how much these delightful children appreciate the gentleness of these men and women who treat them kindly and open up for them the wonders of reading, writing and doing sums.

Anant is in A grade, the highest grade of the Camp, and we see for ourselves the impressive sums the children do in class.

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He loves cricket and is a keen fast bowler. He is also a very good dancer and when I first met him he was looking forward to performing at the Camp’s closing ceremony. There are about ten other children from his village at this Camp so he feels at home here.

Anant would very much like to attend a third Camp later this year if his mother agrees – and if the family can afford to let him go. The Camp is free, and provides board and lodging, books and school equipment as well as uniforms for all those attending, but the children are not earning money for their families while they are studying at the Camp so this can prove an obstacle.

This summer Anant will have a month off then he will work again until the next Camp. He would love to study more, but he wants to help his family and accepts that his income may be necessary to keep them going. There is very little chance of reading or studying while he is at work, unless he has a bit of time off in between washing dishes, when he might try to read a newspaper.

He will be sad to leave Camp at the end of his two months.

Jagdish is a small 12-year-old who comes from a rural village set amongst hills and rivers, quite a long way from Udaipur and the Camp. Jagdish’s parents are both dead so he lives with his uncle. He has a big sister and two younger ones. When he’s at home he looks after the goats, taking them off in search of pasture early in the morning, and bringing them back, with as much firewood as he can collect and carry, by dusk. He had never been to school but his uncle was persuaded by a Seva Mandir zonal worker to send him to the Learning Camp, which he loves.

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Another A-grade student who has been promoted from C to A over his three Camps, Jagdish’s favourite activities are studying (particularly maths) and playing. He loves a game that involves throwing a ring over some upright posts. In the forthcoming closing ceremony Jagdish will take part in a little sketch where he will play the god Rama. He smiles modestly at the thought of impersonating one of the chief Hindu gods!

Jagdish will be sad to leave the Camp and he’s not particularly looking forward to returning to his life as a goatherd. As this is his third Camp, there is little prospect of his returning for a fourth. He would love to study more – he too would like to become a teacher – but is realistic that his family’s financial position makes this unlikely. He says, ‘When I’m at home I have no one to play with. That’s one of the things I like most about the Camp.’ For so many of these children whose family circumstances force them to work and shoulder family responsibilities at such an early age, the chance to be children for a while is one of the most precious things these Camps can offer.

Manju is a shy girl of 13-14. This is her third, so probably last, Camp and she’s in B grade.  She too is an orphan and doesn’t go to school when at home. She has five brothers and four sisters, some of whom are married. As the youngest, Manju lives with her older sister and the sister’s husband in a rural area 150 km from Udaipur. She likes studying and when asked what she likes most about the Camp she says dancing, food and studies (perhaps in that order!).

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It was a Seva Mandir zone worker who managed to persuade Manju’s sister to let her attend the Camps, but she knows that once she returns home she will have to go back to working in the fields, carrying heavy loads of earth and stones for Rs 100 (about £1) a day.

Manju is tearful at the prospect of leaving the Camp and returning home, where, she says, they are not kind to her. Her sister is alright, but the sister’s husband is not. She makes it clear that there is a certain amount of domestic violence and I fear for this attractive, rapidly maturing young woman back in a home where her sister may not be able to protect her from the harshness of life in a poor rural area.

The children are understandably shy and a little nervous about speaking to a stranger – all the more so as we have to communicate through their teachers to get over the language barrier. They return to their classes and we then visit them in situ, seeing how diligently they are working.

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It has always been one of the most striking things about this Camp, the way the children, very polite when a visitor enters their classroom, demonstrate so clearly that they are well aware that this is a very precious chance to learn, perhaps the only chance they will get for the rest of their lives, and they are determined not to waste a minute of this opportunity. You can feel them sucking up all the learning they can get – something I have never experienced to this degree in any other school anywhere in the world.

A few days later we return for the Camp’s closing ceremony.

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The three children’s eyes light up as I spot them, the two boys dressed up for roles in the various performances: Anant dressed in considerable finery for his dance act, and Jagdish as the god Rama.

Anant sits patiently through the other routines,

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but when it comes to his turn to dance with a few of his companions he is a revelation! His teacher had said he was a delightful young man and a very good dancer, but nothing prepared me for his rhythmic moves and the way he commits totally to the dance in front of a few hundred children and adults.

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He is clearly delighted with the applause and keen to have his photo taken at the end.

It takes me a while to spot Manju, sitting with other girls towards the back of the hall. She does not have a starring role in the celebrations.

After the ceremony it’s clear that, the show for outsiders over, it’s time for these children to party with their teachers.

No one is thinking (for now) of what it will be like to go home on the bus tomorrow.

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All are determined to have one last afternoon and evening of fun. The music system starts up, the first children and teachers start dancing, and before long the courtyard is full of gyrating bodies.

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As we leave, Manju comes out to say goodbye, wistful and shy as ever,

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but keen for a last photo with her friends and me.

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I am almost in tears as we leave. How I wish I could scoop up dozens of these children – so bright, so enthusiastic, so talented, such lovely individuals with so much potential – and give them a chance to get an education, to be children a little longer, and to fulfil their huge potential.

The Learning Camp gives these children something beyond riches – a chance to gain a basic grounding in Hindi and maths, and an introduction to some English, to the elementary notions of science, in a gentle, supportive and inspiring environment (a million miles away from the government schools, where, even if teachers turn up, there may be a hundred children to a teacher, very few learning materials, a great deal of learning by rote and frequent beatings). The hope of Seva Mandir and the inspirational teachers in the Camps is that the pupils will get enough of a basic education to give them a taste for it so that they can then be self-motivated if they manage to go to school once they return to their rural homes. This in turn means that they have a better chance of staying in school rather than dropping out.

While at Camp they also have regular health checks and lessons in hygiene, they receive a change of clothes and regular meals – the latter not something that can be taken for granted and which they all comment on. As much as anything, the Camps also give them a chance, for a few precious weeks, just to be children for a while.

Clean Drinking Water at Dholi Ghati

Badgaon block (or administrative district) is one of the closest to Udaipur of the rural areas in which Seva Mandir works. Many of its villages can be reached by taking the main highway which runs east–west just north of Bedla village on Udaipur’s northern outskirts and heading west for 20 kilometres or so before branching off left to pass between fields bordered by dry stone walls. The countryside is hilly as this area nestles in the Aravalli hills which continue their ancient journey in a southwesterly direction towards Gujarat. Today, we are not going so far. Kotra, one of the farthest of Seva Mandir’s blocks from Udaipur, lies some 150 kilometres further out and borders on Gujarat, but our destination, the hamlet of Dholi Ghati, one of three hamlets near the village of Jogiyon-ka-Guda, is only a few kilometres from the highway.

Representatives of Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development (NRD) team are to hold a meeting with the inhabitants of Dholi Ghati to discuss the new water tank which has been built in their hamlet with Seva Mandir’s support to provide clean drinking water. The meeting, which will discuss how the local inhabitants will undertake, and contribute financially to, the maintenance of the tank, will be followed by a practical training session on chlorinating the water in the tank which holds 4,000 litres.

The new tank is part of a larger project started in December 2013 to support the three hamlets of Jogiyon-ka-Guda through the construction of three new water tanks fed by existing wells, the restoration of these three wells and the repair of a government-constructed water tank. A number of village meetings were held to assess the clean drinking water needs in three hamlets and to discuss the contribution to be made by the local people to the creation of these community assets. In line with Seva Mandir’s normal practice, 10 – 20% of the overall cost of the project should be borne by the local community contributing either in cash or kind. In this case, the local community contributed the stone to construct the tank and the labour as well as a small amount in cash paid into the village fund (the Gram Vikas Kosh).

The Seva Mandir team of Himmat, Victoria, Bhupendra and Mohan is accompanied by two volunteers.  The team has kindly agreed to collect me en route to the highway via Bedla.   Once underway, the first stop is for delicious chai and nibbles in Gogunda, which is no more than three-quarters of a cross-roads but bustling with life, to provide sustenance before we start the meeting and training. This is an NRD tradition and one which should most definitely be continued!

On arriving at Dholi Ghati, we are warmly welcomed by a number of local people who start to spread a large mat, partly in the shade of the beautiful neem tree, which will be the venue for the meeting. While this is happening, I visit the small balwadi, a preschool day centre for children up to the age of five, which is only a few metres away. The sanchalika (nursery teacher) and her young assistant are giving the toddlers their early lunch. The youngsters seem to be on good form — they have certainly eaten up well, judging by how little is left on their plates!

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The balwadis, in this and many other communities, were started by Seva Mandir and continue to be funded in part through donations raised by it from mainly international donors but with the local community contributing as it can. The balwadis provide preschool facilities which prepare the children either for attendance at a government school or, where there is no functioning government school, possibly at one of Seva Mandir’s own bridge schools or shiksha kendras.  Notwithstanding that the government has a statutory obligation to provide schooling for all children, more often than not in the rural areas there is no government school within reach of the village or, if there is one, no teacher who has been appointed to the school or, if there is both a school and an appointed teacher, the teacher is never or rarely there: on average, teacher absenteeism in government schools in theses rural areas is as high as 80%. In these cases, the Seva Mandir shiksha kendras provide essential education while villagers, again with Seva Mandir’s support, lobby for their rights to government education.

Outside in the warm sunlight, the locals begin to congregate and take their places on the mat. There is obviously a good relationship with the NRD team with whom they exchange news while waiting for others to arrive. The women are colourfully dressed and sit together partly in the sunshine (it is the beginning of winter after all!) whilst the NRD team and the volunteers find places in the shade.

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These meetings are always a challenge for the photographer, with bright light and dark shadows testing the camera’s ‘dynamic range’ (the spectrum from dark to light tones in the image which the digital sensor can record) and therefore the technical exposure skills of the photographer. The women ask Victoria why I am taking so many photographs and this is the reason. Diplomatically, however, Victoria does not explain that the photographer is ‘technically challenged’ but indicates that it is good to have a good number of images from which to make a selection for various Seva Mandir publications! The women are intrigued but satisfied.

The meeting starts and the first topic on the agenda is the new water tank. It is necessary to decide which members of the local community will take responsibility for cleaning the tank and also how much each household will contribute to a small fund to pay for maintenance and eventually repairs. There are both men and women from the hamlet present but it is striking that it is the women who take the initiative, led by the woman president of the Gram Samuh or local residents’ committee. This woman is a jolly soul with a big smile and obvious sense of humour. With one other woman seated close to her, she volunteers to take responsibility for cleaning and maintenance.

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The setting up of village committees which are inclusive, in particular, of women has been at the very core of Seva Mandir’s approach to development in southern Rajasthan for nearly half a century. Overcoming traditional divisions and prejudices in the local communities, whether based on gender, caste or age, and building consensus has been a vital component of securing the commitment of local people to the projects on which Seva Mandir has worked with the communities, be they setting up a balwadi and remunerating the sanchalika and, if there is one, her assistant; training traditional birth assistants who support pregnant women or bal sakhis who provide postnatal medical advice and support for mothers, their babies and young children; building a small dam (anicut) to help collect monsoon rainwater for irrigation; recovering and protecting common pastureland; building Ecosan or traditional wet toilets; or any of the other essential facilities which we take for granted in the so-called developed world. Without local residents accepting ‘ownership’ of the projects, the projects will not be successful. One of Seva Mandir’s strengths, born of years of constructive collaboration with the communities with which it works, is a bond with the local people and an understanding of the village institutions which they have established. This bond and understanding, so clearly evident in the excellent relationship which Himmat, Victoria and the two locally based or zonal members of the team, Bhupendra and Mohan, have with our hosts and the manner in which the meeting is conducted reflect mutual respect and shared experiences, but also Seva Mandir’s deep insights into the dynamics of village life which account for its ability to communicate meaningfully with the community and to advise and support in a constructive way. This long-term relationship is at the heart of the ‘democratic and participatory development’ fostered by Seva Mandir, which is typified by the meeting I am privileged to attend.

The meeting also agrees the sum that each household will contribute to the maintenance and repair fund before moving onto the next topic, the provision of Ecosan toilets.

It may seem remarkable to westerners visiting rural India, but many country folk here still have no toilet in or close to their homes and use the open fields. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that there are more mobile phones in India than toilets. Seva Mandir has worked with local communities to explain the benefits of installing a toilet: there is the security aspect for women and girls who are vulnerable to assault when visiting the fields, particularly before sunrise and after dark; there is a health aspect in the provision of proper sanitation: and, in the case of Ecosan toilets, an agricultural benefit. The Ecosan toilet works on the principle that urine and dry matter are kept separate. The dry matter is kept in a pit below the toilet, treated with sand or ash, and turns to odourless organic manure which is then used on the fields or small garden allotments in which the villagers grow a few vegetables and even fruit around their homes.

The woman president of the Gram Samuh explains that the villagers have seen examples of both the Ecosan toilets which Seva Mandir has helped build and government-built models. She is most definite that she prefers those built with Seva Mandir’s support. Victoria asks why. Well, the president replies, ‘I am not as slender as some of the women and I cannot fit into those government toilets!’ That settles it!   A new project for the NRD team in Dholi Ghati!

This important issue decided, the meeting breaks up and we walk to the new water tank, pristinely painted, where Himmat first explains the importance of chlorination

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before practical instruction is given on measuring the chlorine and mixing it well with the correct volume of water before the solution is poured into the 4,000-litre water tank. The president is nothing if not hands-on and steps forward to receive the training. She is shown how best to measure the chlorine before mixing it thoroughly in the water by pouring the solution from one bucket to another and repeating the process several times as the other women, a few children and the men look on admiringly.

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Ethel, one of the volunteers, remarks perceptively that there are in fact, apart from the toddlers in the balwadi who are now having a post lunch nap, very few children of school-going age in attendance. This is a good sign since it means that the local children are indeed in school!

Once the chlorine solution is well mixed, a local youth takes the bucket and scales the brand new ladder propped against the tank. The ladder is painted bright green and stands out against the freshly painted yellow walls of the tank. He pours the solution into the tank through an opening in the roof which he then closes again.

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Back at ground level, the locals gather in front of their clean water tank for the photographer. There are obviously immensely pleased and proud, as they should be.

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While waiting for the chlorine solution to mix with the water in the tank, the women ask Victoria about the colour of the hair of the other volunteer, Therese, who is a tall and striking Swedish girl with long blonde hair tied in a pony tail down her back. Victoria explains that the blonde hair and the fair skin go together and that it is natural. Some of the women tentatively stretch out a hand and stroke it with intrigue and delight. It appears that the women have also asked why the photographer has silver grey in his hair. Victoria, usually so diplomatic, responds candidly: ‘Oh, he’s just old!’ So, not just technically challenged but ancient too!

It is not clear whether sufficient time has passed for the chlorination process to be completed, but the women have waited long enough and one walks confidently over to the taps at the side of the tank with a drinking jug which she fills and then returns to offer water to her colleagues.

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There is much tasting and conferring as if sampling a beaujolais nouveau: yes, soft and delicious! The clean drinking water project is up and running!

As we wait for our vehicle to take us back to town, our hosts offer chai, not just one but several cups, which is most welcome. I reflect on the privilege of witnessing the fruits of Seva Mandir’s hard work and the dedication of its team members in leading this clean water project to a successful conclusion, and the evidence of strong local women taking responsibility for this new facility — perhaps only a small step along the road to empowerment, but an important one. All in all, an enlightening and uplifting experience!

My thanks to the wonderful Seva Mandir team!

Jawai: An Indian Paradise

Rajasthan is India’s largest state, but enjoys only one percent of India’s water. Half of that one per cent is to be found in a remote area called Jawai, about an hour’s drive to the west of Ranakpur.  Some 60 years ago, the daughter of the Maharaja of Jodhpur was to marry a young man from Jawai. As a gift to the local community, the Maharaja built a dam to create a wondrous lake which collects water from the surrounding hills of the Aravalli range and supports intensive farming.

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The lake can been seen from a number of vantage points atop the granite outcrops of these same Aravalli Hills which surround us in Udaipur, the views changing dramatically with the light from sunrise to sunset.

Soon after dawn, the local inhabitants head out to the fields which support a number of harvests during the year. We saw black mustard growing in fields which will soon be a brilliant sea of yellow, after which wheat and then sesame will be planted. Water is pumped from a series of wells into the fields in which the farmers employ the traditional system of gravity irrigation.

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The lake itself is also stocked with fish which provide a varied diet not only for the locals but a huge population of large crocodile, a species related to the Nile crocodile, which would bask on the lake shore in the warm sun later in the day and give a very different perspective to the unsuspecting on the blissfully peaceful waters.

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We met a local man with two of his three daughters. He has devoted the last five years to studying the wildlife in the area, in particular the leopard (of which more below). His obvious enthusiasm and dedication has inspired his daughters who all want to become involved with wildlife – a rarity for young women in India and to be encouraged. When we met him as we stood by the lakeside,

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he was about to give a lesson on how to row a small boat on the lake. Such fun – but watch out for the crocs!

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Many of the local people are Rabari, traditionally semi-nomadic herdsmen with distinctive deep red turbans. The turbans in rural Rajasthan typically denote an occupation. Late one afternoon, we meet a group of women, also with glorious splashes of deep red in their clothing, with a herd of goats returning to the village, large bundles of greenery balanced on the heads.

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A flashing smile reflected the warm and welcoming nature of the local community.

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The area is rich in culture, with temples built into the hillside. Some, like the one below, even have shelters at the entrance for the leopard.

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This one is a temple to the god Kali.

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A troop of langur monkeys below the temple have been treated to a large crop of peanuts, and young and old tuck in gustily.

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We had only recently learnt that a tented camp

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had been established in Jawai in December of last year to enable visitors to explore the beauty of the countryside and see at close hand the remarkable co-existence of the local community devoted to agriculture and livestock and one of India’s elusive wild cats: the leopard.

On our first afternoon, after some lunch and a brief rest, we headed out at around half past four as the sun, losing its scorching heat, began its slow descent to the horizon in the hills beyond the lake.

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The area is largely granite and the coarse nature of the surface of the rock enables a Maruti 4×4 to climb the steepest of slopes to reveal sensational vistas.

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We were accompanied by the head naturalist from the camp who had trained in South Africa and, by amazing coincidence, had been at the same safari reserve on the Sabi Sands as our younger son, Toby, and even played in the touch rugby games which Toby organised for the rangers. Adam is a big cat expert, having been involved in guiding and specialist projects not only in South Africa but Brazil (where he helped establish a reserve on which jaguar could be tracked and observed), North America (a cougar project) and now India. Adam has spent the last year studying the behaviour of the local leopard population, and has recorded sightings of over 25 individuals. We did not expect to see a leopard and were very happy to enjoy the scenery and learn about the local Rabari people who inhabit the area. But, as we scaled one of the outcrops, our local driver, Narayan, a young man with the sharpest of eyes, pointed to a far hill on which he had spotted what turned out to be a large male leopard – even Adam, with all his experience of finding wildlife, thought this a most remarkable spot. We drove to a vantage point and alighted from the vehicle to sit watching the leopard across a ravine, only for Adam to spy, on another hill not far from the male, a female with three cubs. Five leopards before our eyes as the sun set!

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We watched as cows and buffalo wended their way back to the village which, we were told, was just behind the hill on which the cubs were playing. On another evening, the Maruti climbed a hill from which we could see the lights of the village and, immediately behind it, the hill on which we had seen the leopard.

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The livestock were blissfully unaware of the dangers above them until the female leopard, coming down through the undergrowth, surprised a straggling group of one cow and three buffalo, one quite small and a possibility for the leopard’s supper. The prey scattered and headed to a rocky slope pursued by the female leopard. They were now trapped since they could not climb higher or move quickly on the rocky surface and their exit was blocked by the leopard, which crouched down and played a waiting game. As night fell, two local herdsmen could be heard some way off calling out in a vain attempt to locate the missing livestock. One felt that some small boy whose responsibility it surely was to bring these valuable animals home safely would be in serious trouble!

The leopard waited until the men’s voices could no longer be heard. She then circled around the petrified cattle under cover and found a spot just above them on the rock, ready to pounce on the young buffalo. We watched, spell-bound. Surely, we were not about to witness a leopard killing a domestic buffalo for supper!

In the end, the female, sizing up the adult cow which stood close to the young buffalo, and the cow’s impressive horns, must have decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that suffering an injury going for such an audacious kill would leave her three cubs unprotected and without food. Slowly and gracefully, she moved away – not that the livestock knew this: they were still rooted to the same spot the following morning when we came back to follow up on developments.

But the cubs did not go hungry. Their mother, as we were to discover the next day, then found a stray goat which she killed and dragged back up the rock to a safe cave to which she took the cubs.

Now, surely, the local Rabari goatherd would be out for revenge and hunt the leopard. Not a bit of it. The local people will candidly explain that they are the new residents in an area which is the leopard’s traditional habitat and that, over the years, they have killed or frightened off the wild prey species on which the leopard fed. The locals therefore accept that they owe it to the leopard population to allow them to take the occasional goat and even cattle. It is remarkable that man and leopard live in harmony in this area: there has been no report of a leopard killing a human here for over 150 years. The sheer proximity of these wild animals to the local population is extraordinary. We saw the female and cubs looking down on villagers and temple-goers a hundred metres below,

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and this is a daily and normal occurrence for both animals and humans.   ‘Unique’ is a much over- and incorrectly used word but, Adam assured us from all his experience, the right one to describe what we were witnessing.

We knew that the female leopard had killed a goat when, setting out before daybreak the following morning, Adam saw drag marks across a dusty road and surmised from the marks that it was a goat being dragged back to the cubs. There were two possible vantage points from which, with luck, to view the mother and cubs. The one selected involved a drive up such a steep slope that we dared not look back on the ascent (and going back down wasn’t much better!),

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followed by a trek across the rock

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to a point from which we hoped to be able to look down on the leopard but, in any event, watch the remarkable sunrise.

As it transpired, the cave into which the mother had dragged the goat was directly below us and we could not see the leopard, but we did see the sunrise

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and have a wonderful view of the countryside around stretching away to the hills in the distance.

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This was a true test for Felicia’s foot and the healing 5th metatarsal, which passed with flying colours, even if crossing some crevasses in the rock’s surface was a little hairy and required a helping hand from the attentive Narayan

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as Adam took the even steeper route all the way down on foot to look for evidence of the leopard kill!

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Without knowing it at the time, he apparently passed very close to the cave in which the mother and cubs were enjoying a goat breakfast.

Having tried one of the two viewing options, we later tried the second and were rewarded with a wonderful sighting of the mother returning to the cave and of the cubs. The light was good enough to take some sharper photos, even if at some distance.  John had not been expecting to do any wildlife photography on this trip to India and had not brought his longer lenses but, as Adam commented, the images show not only the animal but also the environment in which it lives on these rocky slopes in deepest India!

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We had been spoilt with the sightings we had been privileged to experience, but our luck continued when, on our last morning, again going out before dawn, we found the large male leopard sleeping on a rock in full view. He raised his head to observe us not far below him in the Maruti,

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before slumping back down to resume his slumbers. It is remarkable how quickly the leopards are becoming accustomed to the vehicles, recognizing that they represent no threat. On the other hand, as the locals start to head out to the fields on foot, the leopard finds a comfortable cave in which to spend the day away from human activity until dusk leads men, women and children home to the village, and the outcrops and fields below become the undisputed kingdom of these majestic cats – much larger, we are told, than the leopard we are more used to seeing in Africa: doubtless thriving on the local diet. We also see a nilgai, Asia’s largest antelope and a natural wild prey species for the leopard.

And the bird population is outstanding too with some 200 different species recorded by Adam and his team – a twitcher’s paradise.  This bee-eater was polishing off its breakfast as we headed back for ours!

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But that is what Jawai is: a paradise. We can’t wait to go back!