The Village of Shisvi in Girwa

The visits of friends and relations provide excellent opportunities to go out into the field and see the work of Seva Mandir at first hand. With Maxine, Felicia’s cousin from Jamaica, making her first visit to India, we arranged with Narendra Jain, Seva Mandir’s Secretary of Girwa district east of Udaipur (as well as Programme Co-ordinator: Afforestation & Pastureland Development) to visit the village of Shisvi in which Seva Mandir has been working for some 14 years. Felicia and I had been to Shisvi on our very first visit to Seva Mandir in November 2012 and again for the Women’s Day celebrations the following year and had met a number of the villagers before.

To reach Shisvi, you take the main road towards the airport from Udaipur, heading north-east before turning right onto a smaller road which wends its way through the fields. A turn-off to the left leads up a narrow unmade road which becomes the main street of the village. It is not easy to drive up the street and the vehicle carrying us parks at the bottom of the hill and we start the walk up.

Shisvi is a wonderful example of Seva Mandir’s work with the local community, starting with the formation of a village council which is inclusive of women and young people and, as we are to witness, a true forum for discussion, debate and democratic decision-making. There are a number of examples of the benefits to the local community of cooperation with Seva Mandir and we are fortunate enough to see a number of them.

A short distance up from the vehicle, we meet Seva Mandir’s Co-ordinator in Shisvi who is our host and guide. We are first shown a women’s bathroom which has been built to provide women who have no private washing facilities at home with a safe place to wash out of the public gaze. Half of the cost was provided by the village and Seva Mandir provided the materials.

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Women from the village built the cubicles themselves next to a water pump. It is a very simple building which illustrates that the needs of rural people are often very basic and that small projects to provide basic amenities can make a huge difference to people’s lives. We are told that the washing facility also provides a place for women, who are not supposed, according to local customs, to visit one another’s houses purely socially, with a place to meet and chat. As we enter the village itself, we are shown some decorated mounds of cow dung (govardhan) at the entrance to a few houses. Cows are sacred and also an asset, including their dung (which is dried and used as fuel for fires). So, local home-owners decorate the dung with corn etc. at the entrance to their houses as signs of worship which are kept for 15 days.

As we progress up the street, we are invited into a house which has a small square courtyard in which a small amount of corn is drying.

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The elderly gentleman who has invited us in

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explains that he owns a field of about one tenth of a hectare in which the corn is grown and that he gives 50% of the crop to the farm labourers and keeps the rest. His own share is used to feed cows and pigeons, and ground to make flour for chapattis. He also gives some to his son in Ahmedabad.

Historically, houses in the village have not had toilets and even today there is a desperate need for sanitation. One cliché is that there are more mobile phones in India than toilets. We see two examples of new installations. First, an Indian-style toilet which is flushed with buckets of water from a tank on the roof. This toilet is used by one family. Secondly, we are shown an Ecosan toilet used by a family of four which works on the principle that wet and dry waste are kept separate.

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The wet waste is used on the fields and the dry, after six months in a chamber with ashes and sand, becomes odourless manure which is also used on the land. The family which owns this Ecosan have a flourishing vegetable garden.

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We are offered some juicy limes which make the best fresh lime soda you will ever have!

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Seva Mandir is installing these Ecosans, with government support, throughout southern Rajasthan. As they use no water, they are ideal for this arid state.

Seva Mandir has built 21 of the flushing variety and 118 Ecosan toilets in Shisvi so that approximately 50% of families now have their own toilet. When we ask why not all families have opted for their own toilet, our host explains that old habits die hard and that many people, including surprisingly women, still prefer to visit the open fields. Education and changing attitudes remain a huge challenge.

In the first house, we are also shown a traditional wood-fire cooking stove on which chapattis have been made that morning.

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A little further up the street, we are met by a welcoming party of villagers who hang garlands of marigolds and paint bindis on our (as well as some of the local elders’) foreheads as a sign of welcome and to help ward off evil spirits.

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This is all very jolly and lively and we are introduced to some very striking gentlemen who are local Mewaris – Mewar being the historic kingdom in which Udaipur is situated.

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These gentlemen then sit together in the courtyard of one house, smoking and discussing while they wait for the village council meeting to start.

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Another project on which Seva Mandir works with local communities is water harvesting. In this part of India, the monsoon rains are the main source of water for the year and fall in a short period from end-June (this year the rains were late and started in mid-July) to September. Whether for agricultural or for domestic use, it is essential to conserve as much of the monsoon gift as possible. We are shown one house which has a harvesting system to collect water falling on the flat roof via a downpipe

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into a storage tank underground.

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Again, this is a simple system but one which makes a huge difference for the family concerned: the tank holds 10,000 litres of water which will last three to four months, depending on use: washing, irrigation of local nursery gardens, cattle. So far, only 13 families have water harvesting and our host from Seva Mandir tells us that there is much more to do.

But Seva Mandir has also worked with the local community to replace a village well built by the local panchayat (the formal local council elected under the auspices of the state government). This well, connected to a large tank, had functioned for a year before the source dried up as it had been dug in the wrong spot. Seva Mandir brought in experts to advise on the best place to sink a new well and then worked with the village to provide a pipe and pump to bring the water to the large tank which now supplies 100 or so families in the village.

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These families contribute each month into a fund which is administered by a local committee of 17 people to pay for pump and pipe and to build a reserve to effect repairs when needed. The contribution is voluntary and roughly two-thirds of the families in the village elect not to contribute. Accordingly, they are not entitled to water from this tank and obtain their water from one of the few standpipes in the village. This is a good example of the importance of villagers making basic economic choices and deciding for themselves the value they attach to certain facilities which they then pay to maintain.

Close to the tank is a temple, the Dharmaraja temple, with an outside area used by villagers to cook communal meals to celebrate some auspicious event or simply to worship or request something from the gods.  Even a huge cooking pan is provided!

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The temple itself is, like many, very simple but decorated inside with peacock feathers.

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The temple is renowned for its powers to cure snakebites.

As we start our descent from the temple, we pass a house with goats in the front yard and several houses drying sesame seeds, before passing the village school with youngsters who are amused to see us.

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Older inhabitants stand in doorways

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and sit on doorsteps

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and exchange ‘namaste’ (good morning). We are greeted by one woman we have met before.

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She reminds us that she had helped to prepare the lunch which we had eaten on our very first visit in 2012. We had also seen her at the Women’s Day celebrations – a very striking face. She takes us into her house with a large courtyard shared by a number of family members of different generations

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and the woman picks up a baby who has just woken up.

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In the small room, there is a swinging cradle which looks most comfortable!

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We are cordially invited to masala chai, which we would eagerly have stayed to enjoy had it not been that the village meeting was shortly to start and our presence awaited. So we thank our generous hosts and take our leave.

Not that the route to the meeting is without its discursions. On our first visit to Shisvi, we had met a woman called Nirmala who had started her own shop with a micro-loan from the local Women’s Self-help Group. Her husband had been very sceptical but had been won over when he saw the success of the shop. We had then seen Nirmala at the Women’s Day Celebrations when she had spoken and presented one of the prizes, still a little unsure about her newfound confidence. But now she explains through our interpreter that the shop continues to do well, she is now also helping her husband with a small electrical repairs business (domestic appliances likes fan) and that they have saved up to open a shop on the main road.

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To add icing to the cake, her daughter is studying fashion design in Udaipur. Nirmala, too, invites us to stay for tea, but duty calls and we have to move on.

Before arriving at the meeting, we are invited to visit the house of an old family (from the Rajput warrior caste who were allowed to eat meat).

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It had obviously once been beautiful and still retains a certain grandness.

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In centuries gone by, the women of the house were not allowed out and remained in the inner courtyard so as not to be seen by men outside the family. The design of the entrance to the first courtyard and the entrance to the inner courtyard ensures that peeping Toms on the street cannot look in to see the women. The custom persists to some extent. John does not count for these purposes obviously, but it is noticeable that a woman in the inner courtyard hides her head behind a veil and does not approach us, unlike the woman who had greeted us and shown us her house and baby. So this is a caste-based custom rather than a local one. We have much to learn! On the way out, we pause to take in the family shrine

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at which warriors in centuries past would worship before heading off to battle.

Finally, we are shown the Youth Resource Centre, started four years ago by Seva Mandir, and are introduced to some of the young people who go there.

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The young, post-graduate woman leader of the YRC explains some of the activities, including a mock-up of a village newspaper prepared by the young people attending the centre which is proudly displayed on the wall behind her.

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Training in employment skills is a key activity for the 14- to 25-year-olds who attend, as well as discussion of health, hygiene and youth-related issues and gender-awareness training – an essential activity if old customs and attitudes towards girls and women are to be changed. There is huge encouragement in seeing this young, bright and confident youth leader who has clearly succeeded despite such attitudes but, as always, there remains much to do.

Leaving by the side door of the small room which houses the YRC, we are taken into the courtyard where the meeting is to be held but are first ushered into another small room off it to the back in which young women are undertaking training in machine sewing.

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The training is organized by a representative of Sadhna, now an independent women’s co-operative, but originally a project started by Seva Mandir to help local women earn some money making garments. Sadhna has now grown and its members, based in different locations, undertake promotional trips to other cities in India and sometimes even abroad. An older woman at the subsequent meeting recounts that she has been on such trips and met people like us – we hope this is a positive remark!

The sewing training is a relatively recent initiative in Shisvi and, at the village meeting, there is a long discussion of how the scheme might be expanded. It transpires that the organizers had invited local communities to send young male candidates to be part of the training scheme. Laudable as this clearly is, we suspect that part of the discussion focuses on the need to expand the training for girls and women. In any event, a positive development.

As were emerge once more into the shady courtyard, local women, girls and men (including our Mewari friends from earlier) come in and take their seats mainly on the ground. We are invited to sit up front facing the meeting which starts with Narendra introducing us and then asking if we have questions. We certainly do and there follows an increasingly lively discussion with detailed answers to our questions ranging from local agriculture to education (there is a government school in the village – the one we had seen) and health (there is one Ayurvedic clinic and one Seva Mandir-trained health-worker (who would typically assist pregnant women and accompany them to a state hospital some 10 km away but who would also perform deliveries at home if required) and a monthly immunization camp for pregnant women and babies; mobile phone usage (99% of the village has a mobile phone); television (75% of households in the village have a TV); types of local employment apart from agriculture (mainly construction and general labouring in the city) and unemployment. For the women and girls, there is no local skills training apart from the sewing: 55 women are engaged in hand sewing and 25, now, in machine sewing. Apart from Nirmala’s small shop, there are three others run by men and two others run by women. The shops run by women appear to be popular with the women of the village since, again, they also provide a forum to meet and discuss. The local village fund and self-help groups have provided small loans to individuals and groups to start businesses, including a flour mill, chai shop and, recently, a washing powder making initiative (of which more below). Future projects included developing horticulture and fruit-growing for sale (apples, mangoes, bananas, naseberries) and livestock.

In turn we answer, to the best of our ability, questions on agriculture in the UK, the weather there, attendance by children at school, women’s participation in the workplace, marriage customs … We suggest exporting British rain to Rajasthan and Rajasthani sun to the UK – laughs all round! One lady also asks how it is that if Felicia and her cousin are from Jamaica they are not black! Obviously not enough Rajasthani-type sun!

Our host eventually calls the meeting to order and the first part is devoted to the issue of cleaning the village. Notwithstanding best intentions at the time of India’s independence in 1947, the caste system is still integral to much of Indian life, particularly in the rural areas. In Shisvi, there are five or six castes, including Rajput families, but no families from the caste of street sweepers. Accordingly, there is an ongoing discussion in the village about how to engage sweepers from outside the village to come in on a commercial basis to keep the streets clean.

A village elder, a gentleman with conviction and persuasiveness in his voice and gestures,

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summarizes the negotiations with the external sweeping contractors who wants Rs 4,000 (roughly £40) a month for 1-2 days’ work sweeping the streets. He reminds the meeting that the counter-proposal is that every household would pay in kind 1 kg of grain each month to the street sweepers but that all households have to participate in the scheme. There is a long debate and it is apparent that there is some dissension, but the village elder holds his ground and the motion is agreed.

The meeting then turns to the sewing initiative and, apart from expansion of the scheme, touches on quality control, voucher payment, insurance, travel costs and comparisons with established Sadhna centres like the one in Delwara about 40 kilometres to the north of Udaipur which now features on a heritage walk of this ancient town conducted by Seva Mandir-trained local youth and well worth the visit if you are in the area.

One elderly lady explains that she spends much of her time cleaning at home and cannot work much to generate income: she earns only Rs 400 (£4) a month from Seva Mandir and needs to earn more. Another reports that her husband is sick and that she too needs the opportunity to earn more.

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After matters have been exhaustively discussed and debated and decisions taken in the best traditions of democracy, the meeting breaks up and we leave too to be shown the small upstairs room across the road where the washing powder is stored. A small number of local woman have started this initiative to boost monthly income while continuing to perform their usual roles. Chemicals, which have been tested to ensure relative eco-friendliness, are purchased in Udaipur and then mixed and bagged up by the small co-operative.

The bright blue powder is sold in the village and surrounds for Rs 50/kg which is competitive with other sources and nets a profit per bag of Rs 4 (4 pence). The women cannot charge more: if they did, their purchasers would go elsewhere. The total monthly profit is about Rs 100 (about £1) at the moment but it is hoped that the project will grow and profits as well.

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It has been a long morning and we are now well into the afternoon. We say our goodbyes and thank our welcoming hosts. Narendra suggests we stop in another village on the main road before rejoining the highway back to Udaipur to have some street food for lunch.

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It is delicious and very welcome!

Anglo-Indian Travels with my Fracture Boot

Why a fracture boot?           

Before setting off for our second autumn/winter sojourn in India, we managed to squeeze in a week with Toby, our youngest offspring, at Phinda in South Africa, the game reserve where he is a safari guide. On the last night of a wonderful safari holiday, I managed to miss two steps and fall heavily on my left foot. Midway through our 23-hour return journey, I finally had to concede that I would not be able to get any further unaided. So the first wheelchair arrived to take me to the gate at Johannesburg airport.

After the long overnight flight to Heathrow, there was a wait while one man ferried three of us in turn to the buggy at the end of this arm of Terminal 5. The BA Captain and the senior member of cabin staff kindly stayed joking with us on the plane, and eventually the Captain went to commandeer a wheelchair himself to speed things up. As he returned, my man arrived, so I missed out on the chance of being wheeled along by the Captain, which would have made a good photo!

As we were at this point one week from our intended departure to Delhi, I decided to check that my foot would recover without treatment. However an X-ray confirmed that I had fractured my 5th metatarsal ‘at the wrong end’, and, before I knew it, my left leg was in plaster up to my knee and I was given a pair of crutches and an elegant hospital gown to protect my modesty as I departed.

Anyone who has had to use crutches with only one weight-bearing leg for any length of time knows only too well how exhausting and difficult this is, particularly in a house with stairs. Worse still, the implications for our trip to India began to sink in. We had planned two weeks of travel at the start of our trip, and, setting aside the difficulty of getting around India on crutches, the GP and physio were muttering darkly about an increased risk of DVTs and advising me to reconsider the whole thing.

I was extremely fortunate to be able to see a very kind orthopaedic specialist the following Wednesday (two days before our flight to Delhi). He looked at the X-ray of my slightly displaced fractured metatarsal, said it would heal perfectly straightforwardly unless I tried really hard to stop it, gave me an Aircast fracture boot,said the additional chance of DVTs on the flight was ‘vanishingly small’, and wished me a pleasant trip. The relief was huge!

Off to Delhi

So two days later there we were again at Terminal 5, checking in for my wheelchair to the gate. Although I relished being a biped once more, the distances at Terminal 5 are considerable, and discretion seemed the better part of valour. Of course this was the day when a whole gang of novice wheelchair-pushers were starting, so several of them were milling around the assistance area waiting for their first guinea pigs and instructions. One senior but sprightly gentleman from the Middle East, who spent his time chatting up the female assistants who had great difficulty in persuading him to stay in his wheelchair, was clearly overjoyed about his trip to LA. We had our misgivings, however, when he was entrusted to one of the novices whose command of English and, as it transpired, his new role was less than perfect. We felt that LA might be much further away than our fellow passenger was entitled to believe when said novice stared blankly at the hand-held tablet he was given, with flight numbers, departure gates, departure times and much more besides to guide him to the departure gate on time. It didn’t seem to bode well when the supervisor asked, ‘Haven’t you used one of these before? Just press “Select”.’ The sprightly gentleman disappeared from sight and we were starting to feel slightly nervous.

As it turned out, we were lucky in that a senior supervisor came with us to guide my equally novice wheelchair-pilot through the maze. There was a moment of hilarity when, at the security checkpoint, I was stuck in my wheelchair, not daring to dismount, as I watched John, apparently taking part in some crazy version of a TV game show, struggle manfully to whip off the conveyor belt all of our hand luggage – picking up iPads, laptops, mobiles, his belt, hat and shoes, and both of our wheelie bags before they could disappear into the maw of the security conveyor belt never to be seen again!

Once through security, a backward glance confirmed our earlier reservations: the LA-bound gentlemen and his minder were still stuck in the process, having set off well ahead of us. Far from joyous and sprightly, our comrade-in-arms was ashen grey and looking despairingly at his watch, his chances of reaching Los Angeles receding rapidly, while his novice wheelchair-pilot desperately consulted his tablet! But our supervisor took them under her wing and we all set off. We were to wait in the BA Lounge until collected an hour before the flight, so waved goodbye to the LA contingent who had at this point only a short distance to travel, mostly in a straight line.

Needless to say, John had just disappeared to the facilities, leaving me in charge of assembled hand luggage (he always has impeccable timing in such matters), when there was an announcement asking me to contact the service desk. I looked around frantically and then spotted a member of staff to whom I explained my predicament. He offered to stand guard by our bags while I hobbled to the desk, where I was met by the next wheelchair-pilot. We eventually set off towards the buggy which would take us and others on the long journey through the bowels of Terminal 5. Our buggy driver proceeded to regale us with stories of his ‘great friends’ Roger Moore, Rod Stewart and Peter O’Toole, apparently frequent users of the buggy. When another passenger asked if he knew Richard Branson, he wasn’t quite so forthcoming, but muttered that he didn’t often use Terminal 5! Our driver confessed to being an Elvis aficionado and indeed tribute artist, bound shortly for another festival where he would sing and play the guitar, dressed as his hero!

So we made our flight to Delhi, and were heartily relieved to sit back and enjoy the journey. On arrival at Delhi airport I quickly realised that wheelchair driving in India is pretty similar to any other kind of Indian driving. I was a little alarmed to be the leading edge of our convoy as we jockeyed for position along the corridors and towards the lift, but Indians have excellent spatial judgement (even though decidedly un-western ideas of personal space) and we never actually made contact with anyone else.

Once we reached our destination in Delhi, I was able with relief to walk the short distances on two feet. It quickly became clear that fracture casts or boots are virtually unknown in India and mine drew much attention and many enquiries about what I had done. I encountered one fellow fracture-boot wearer, at our hotel, and we greeted each other with knowing smiles and exchanged tales of woe!

Don’t Lucknow…

Two days later we set off for Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, which I had long wanted to visit after reading accounts of the events during the Indian Mutiny or 1st War of Independence, depending on your point of view. Another wheelchair took me through Delhi airport, and an explosives wand was applied to my boot to make sure I was not hiding anything other than a broken foot within. On arrival at Lucknow airport we looked down from our small aircraft and saw a wheelchair heading toward us. At the foot of the plane steps John was told to get on the bus as I sat in the wheelchair. We proceeded to race across the tarmac, skirting planes and tractors, with me clinging on for dear life! The bus carrying able-bodied passengers was about as ancient and decrepit as you could imagine. John and his Indian neighbours agreed it was the archetypal bone-shaker, and one local said, ‘No need to go to the gym; with this bus you get a full-body workout!’ As the bus (top speed, according to John, 4.5 mph) began to catch up with me in my wheelchair, John’s neighbour said, ‘You know, I think we’re going to win!’ He had obviously failed to take into account the bus’ lack of anything resembling brakes and the necessity for the driver, with a hundred yards to go, therefore to take his foot off what might once have been an accelerator to allow his charge to roll to a standstill by the arrivals hall with wheelchair and its cargo gaining fast. But we were cut up by a passing tractor and had to settle for a close second. When we finally met up in the arrivals hall we were weak with laughter! Who would have thought that travels with a wheelchair could be so entertaining?

After this, I decided that it was probably preferable to take my time and walk through the small domestic airports from now on, so I dispensed with this mode of transport.

But I soon had my first encounter with an Indian historic monument which required all visitors to remove footwear. This was the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, an 18th-century Muslim shrine.

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There was no concession for my boot, so I had to wait outside, sitting on a bench. I sat happily watching the other tourists (almost all Indians) coming and going. One young Sikh woman (unusually, for a woman, wearing a turban and the Sikh dagger or kirpan) came up and chatted, asking about my foot and where we were from. After visiting the shrine she came up to me and sweetly told me not to worry as there were lots of Sikh gurdwaras which I would be most welcome to enter with my boot!

At the second monument, the Chota Imambara,

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a slightly more understanding supervisor agreed to let me enter with my right shoe off and a plastic bag covering the offending boot. So I hobbled unevenly through this interesting shrine most gratefully.

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The British Residency, site of the famous Siege of Lucknow in 1857, posed no such problems,

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and I was fascinated to see this huge campus, its ruins pockmarked by cannon shot,

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its cemetery containing the graves of many of the thousands of British who died during the siege, and to feel the atmosphere of this important site.

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A blessed boot

A couple of days later we travelled by car to Varanasi, a tough 7+hour drive on very poor roads, with only a stop at a closed railway crossing to allow for a stretch of the legs. When we went with our guide down to the ghats on the banks of the Ganges, I realised how lucky I was – never in a million years would I have got anywhere near the river on my crutches. We had to walk with many pilgrims

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and shoppers through crowded, dirty streets from where the car dropped us, down a number of steep and uneven steps to the river, and then climb onto a boat.

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Challenging with my boot, but quite impossible with crutches.

The dawn boat ride,

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as we watched hundreds of worshippers immerse themselves in the holy river

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and welcome the day as they prayed to the rising sun and Mother Ganges,

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was wonderful – so much so that we did it twice. Varanasi, with its jigsaw of decrepit palaces,

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interspersed with two burning ghats, lining the western bank of the river, and its deserted sandbanks on the eastern bank, is magical.

When we went for the evening ceremony or aarti at which Brahmin priests daily perform a ceremony putting Mother Ganges to bed,

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our guide asked if we would like to make a contribution to an NGO that worked to make the Ganges cleaner (very necessary) which would entail taking part in a short ceremony with the priests. Little did we know that within minutes we would be standing (John barefoot, me with one bare foot and my well-travelled boot) on the banks of the Ganges, receiving water and then rose petals from the priest, circling round clock-wise and throwing our petals onto the water – in front of thousands of spectators in boats on the river and in serried ranks behind us on the ghat. I did not dare look up, but just kept concentrating, in my unevenly shod state, on not falling in. Thousands of camera-clicking tourists must have some very strange photos indeed of that particular evening aarti!

From our rowing boat on the Ganges, we saw the burning ghats where all Hindus wish to be cremated beside the holy river,

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and the beautiful little leaf boats, laden with flowers, holy basil (tulsi) and candles, offered by many of the spectators and worshippers, floating down the dark water.

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Varanasi, as well as being a major focus for Hindu pilgrims, is a fascinating tourist destination, but is probably best tackled once you have become a seasoned Indian hand.

Southern Rajasthan

We are now back in Udaipur, and as the temperature inside the house with all the fans on rises to over 32 C, and up to 38 C outside, I am eternally grateful that I can remove my trusty boot to rest and cool my foot, and for sleeping and washing. I fear that it will be a little while before I am able to stride across the fields of southern Rajasthan on field trips with Seva Mandir, or trek up to the temple at the top of the hill behind us, but I am so lucky to have my boot and not crutches – and of course not to have done more damage. I dare say that having an X-ray here to confirm, as I fervently hope, that my metatarsal is healing nicely, will be a further adventure…

Kotra: The night before and the morning after …

After a day with the Seva Mandir team and members of the local community looking at water conservation and irrigation challenges, we have some free time before the team meets around a campfire to sing songs and tell stories.  This takes place in Hindi but we get the drift and are then asked to sing or tell a story.  After some deliberation, we sing ‘Kumbaya’ and then a few verses of ‘If you ever go to heaven’ – much to the amusement of the rest of the team.  After an excellent dinner, we head to bed.

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During the night we hear the rain.  It has eased by the time we arise in the morning but everywhere is definitely damp!

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As the Seva Mandir team congregates in the conference room to review progress on various initiatives and projects over the last month,

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we take the opportunity to walk the mile or so into the centre of Kotra town, passing small shops and stalls, and the local prison.

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The centre of town is a crossroads and the hub of activity but, after the rain, it is a grey day.

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The sight of one man cleaning his shoe was slightly comical: two steps later and the shoe would be back to its original condition.

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Nevertheless, the local shopkeepers and stallholders were plying their trade

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and children going to school.

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There is a small hospital in Kotra which attracts patients from the surrounding areas.  Its juxtaposition to the Post Mortem Room did not immediately instill confidence – on the other hand, where more logical for it to be?

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The road back to the block office reveals insights into pre-Independence with archetypal bungalows and gates recalling a different period.

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But it starts to rain once more and we are invited to take shelter in what turns out to be the office of the electricity sub-station.

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Our young hosts speak reasonable English

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and one disappears to bring us tea in a plastic bag which is then poured into small plastic cups which our hosts throw into the forecourt after use.

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While we are there, there is a loud bang and a flash from the sub-station next door.  A major fuse has blown and the technician turns his hand to some repairs before beaming a smile at us.

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We take our leave and head back, encountering more colourful locals and catching glimpses into the past

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but most grateful for the invitation and chat in the dry.

After lunch at the block office (the team meeting concluded), we set off back to Udaipur.   The sky was still full of foreboding and the light unattractive but we were still able to catch glimpses of the local scenery which we are growing to love.

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Water Conservation and Irrigation in Kotra

On our last trip to Kotra, the sun shone. On this occasion (end January), the sky was uncharacteristically overcast. Little did we know that it would rain heavily during the night. Such downpours occur once or twice during the winter but bring little relief to the local farmers whose struggle with the semi-arid conditions of southern Rajasthan is constant and the object of this field trip undertaken by Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development team. The goal is to explore, with the local community, opportunities for conserving monsoon rainwater, irrigating larger areas of local farmland and the best use of land so as to enhance the availability of water.

On the journey down, we pass local dwellings,


the occasional village and fields, some of which are dry


and others, which have benefited from irrigation, lush and green


with a variety of crops, including wheat and BT cotton, castor and lentils.  The local communities are poor but, from time to time, there are signs of investment in much needed agricultural machinery, including the occasional tractor.


On arriving in Kotra, we make our way to the local community which we visited on our previous trip to be shown the recently completed lift-well which enables more local farmers to irrigate a much greater area of their land and to increase their crop. The principle is that water is pumped from a local well to higher ground from which it can be used to irrigate land which would otherwise be impossible to cultivate.


The well is in good condition and the farmers proud of the new pump.


The first part of the day’s activities is to sit with leading members of the local community (men and women) to discuss water conservation and further irrigation.  There is a plenary meeting to outline the objectives and hear local input.


While they have representatives of Seva Mandir with them, the villagers are keen to learn of progress in providing them with Ecosan toilets (which use no water and turn solid waste into compost).  Seva Mandir has had great success rolling these out throughout southern Rajasthan, where 60-70% of families have no access to any kind of toilet. The farmers are also concerned that, whereas the lift-well used to provide water for six hours a day, now that the weather is drier the water is running out after only three hours, though the well does fill up again overnight. Work needs to be done on the system by which it fills up. A last point mentioned is the frustration at the lack of electricity in the village. It had taken two years for the electricity company to connect the lift-well (and even now the supply is irregular), but they did not connect the village at the same time. Whereas over the state border in Gujarat every remote rural shack has power, as can be seen by the pylons rising above the fields, the same is certainly not true in Rajasthan. This is all the more frustrating when the stark contrast is so visible.

After the plenary session, the NRD team splits into two groups. One team explores options for further expanding the area served by the lift-well and discusses with farmers plans to diversify agricultural activities so as to enhance the availability of water.

We join the other team exploring opportunities to conserve monsoon rainwater, which will involve repairing existing check dams, restoring drainage lines to channel water running off the hillsides and building a small dam in a riverbed so that water can be directed into nearby fields. Seva Mandir plans to work with farmers to strengthen the gravity flow of irrigation so as to save fuel and promote eco-friendly farming.

The initial exercise is to draw a map of the area. This is done as a group activity on bright yellow paper. Key points in the local landscape are plotted.


Once the basic details of the map have been completed, our team heads off to walk to the points of interest, starting with a drainage line which needs to be restored. Measuring and further mapping are undertaken.


It is clear that local families desperately need more water.


We slowly climb up to the main road where additions are made to the map.


The possibility is explored of planting more trees to give some protection against soil erosion when the monsoon rains pour off the hillsides.


This part of Rajasthan borders Gujarat and there are any number of local Gujarati taxis carrying passengers wherever they can find a seat (or standing room).  One senior local prefers to walk.


We proceed down the road past some wonderful banyan trees and local farm dwellings before making our way down to a riverbed, now largely dry but which is obviously an important source of water during and following the monsoon, thus supplementing irrigation from the lift-well.


This is where a small dam will be built and the senior engineer explains to us that dams up to a certain size can be built without permission from the relevant government department.


We also learn that, for the moment, no more water harvesting projects can be undertaken under the auspices of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), India’s largest public employment programme, which guarantees employment via development activities prescribed by the Panchayats, the village-level elected government bodies which are very influential throughout rural India. So many water harvesting and irrigation projects have been built through this mechanism that there are now apparently more dams than teachers or hospital beds. But there was no supervision of site selection or construction of these projects, so most have proved useless. Alas, an all too common tale of a good idea implemented inefficiently.

Along the way, we inspect a pumping system which, when the water level is high enough, is used to irrigate adjacent fields.


Leaving the riverbed, we make our way through fields planted with castor. The plant looks extremely prickly and we ask how it is harvested.  It transpires that the prickles are quite soft and that the crop is picked by hand.  ImageImage

Castor oil is produced from the seeds, which look like this.


Further along, castor gives way to wheat and we can see evidence of lift-well irrigation as water flows down from higher to lower areas along channels which have been dug to provide direction.


Our circuit takes us back to the meeting area and the teams convene again to complete the maps and summarise the activities which need to be undertaken.


After this exercise, by which time it is approaching mid-afternoon, our local hosts serve a well-earned meal in a delightfully decorated semi-enclosed terrace.  This is a good opportunity to practise our eating skills without utensils.

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We then head back to the Seva Mandir ‘block’ office where we spend the night.


It has been a fascinating day and we look forward to a future visit to see the progress made.  Once again, this is a wonderful example of Seva Mandir working with local communities to assist them improve the conditions in which they seek to cultivate their land.

Overnight it rains and we spend an equally fascinating but very different morning the next day visiting Kotra town.  Our next blog will report on our experiences.
























Immunization Camp

On the 4th of every month, Seva Mandir holds an immunization camp in a small village in Saru Zone, Girwa Block.  The village itself is no more than a few simple huts scattered across the hills



and a few goats.


The camp is very well attended by pregnant women and mothers with young children.  They know they can count on the regular attendance of Seva Mandir-trained medical staff who administer inoculations and antenatal care competently and hygienically, and are also at their disposal for advice.

Girwa is a rural area south of Udaipur.  We head out at around 10 am in a trusty Seva Mandir vehicle on the main road to Mumbai before turning off after about an hour to wend our way through fields


(a stretch of the route which tests the trusty vehicle’s suspension) to reach the camp.  The local dwellings are basic and the cattle shelters appear somewhat temporary. The hillside is starting to show the signs of several months without rain.



We are accompanied by Dr Kusum, a retired medical practitioner who now works in Seva Mandir’s health unit, Sana, who works in the Resource Mobilization Unit with special responsibility for website and e-newsletter communications and with whom we worked closely on the recently published brochure on Seva Mandir, and Nicola, a Scottish volunteer, with whom we also worked on the brochure.  Our mission is to make a photo essay of the proceedings for the e-newsletter while Sana and Nicola film interviews with the mothers and health attendants.

The vehicle slows to a stop and we survey a riverbed with little water in it.


We leave the vehicle to walk across the riverbed and up a gentle hill to the small, two-roomed building in which the camp is held.


The second room houses an Angawadi, a small pre-school centre with a dozen or so young children of different ages.  One had been herding goats as we walked up and was now sitting on the floor with her classmates.  Perhaps the smallest goatherd we have ever seen!


Big brown eyes stared enquiringly as our party arrived.


We are invited into the larger of the two rooms with Aesop’s fables depicted on the walls


to find two female Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), two female Balsakhis (infant health advisors)




and two male inoculation staff,


all trained and equipped by Seva Mandir, already hard at work.


Dr Kusum kindly explains proceedings to us,


and keeps a close eye on the care being given as well as offering guidance and advice to young pregnant women and mothers.


In ones and twos, mothers arrive on foot carrying their children.  Some have walked a considerable distance.



Over the course of a couple of hours, the two men administered inoculations against DPT (diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough, tetanus) measles and hepatitis,




as well as oral polio vaccine to about 20 children.


The infants ranged from three months to just a year,



and before long the small room was ringing with cries as startled babies objected to the injections.


All the mothers were sitting on the floor


or standing to rock their little ones in their arms,


and all comforted them by breastfeeding them.


The little ones soon recovered their composure.


As an incentive to bring children for immunization, mothers receive 1 kg of lentils after each inoculation, and a set of stainless serving utensils when their child finishes his or her course.


Each child has an immunization booklet with notes, a growth chart and a space for recording the regular immunizations, and the health workers keep careful records.  Mothers sign with a thumb print to acknowledge their child’s treatment and receipt of their gifts.


The Balsakhis examine the children and give mothers advice on feeding (exclusively breast milk up to six months), introducing solids, and also help with advice on common ailments and contraception.

After the babes, it is the turn of the pregnant women, who are examined by the TBAs.  Their eyes, nails, abdomen, blood pressure and weight are checked and their urine tested, and they receive iron and folic acid tablets.  The empty packaging appears to be a delicacy for some of the infants!


As the process of inoculation continued, we kept an eye on the Angawadi.  Inquisitive looks were changing to beaming smiles.



But one wonders what the future holds for these beautiful children …


Slowly, mothers and children started to drift away safe in the knowledge that they are protected against many debilitating and potentially fatal diseases,


even finding the time to pose for the photographer.


Antenatal checks and the immunization of infants are the responsibility of the government, and there is a clinic in the Zone, but it is even further for pregnant women and mothers with infants to walk, so they prefer to attend Seva Mandir’s regular and reliable camp.  A great job being done by dedicated and competent staff!

We too departed, enriched by the experience.


From the Monsoon Palace

We have been visiting Udaipur for over ten  years but, until this week, had never visited the Monsoon Palace, formerly the Sajjan Garh Palace.  The locals tell you, quite rightly, that it is good to visit on a clear day when you can enjoy the views.  Along with warmer days, this last week has seen a return of clear blue skies after more hazy conditions earlier in January.  We witnessed a spectacular sunset a few evenings ago and resolved to make the trip up to the Monsoon Palace on the next clear afternoon.

Leaving the outskirts of the city to the south west, you drive up through the Sajjangargh wildlife sanctuary which is home to leopard and doubtless other rarely seen species like sambar, wild boar and jackals, but alas no tigers these days.  The tigers were much hunted in the countryside around Udaipur by the Maharanas and the local aristocracy.  There is a hunting tower which we can see on the hill behind the house in Bedla, north of Udaipur.  Bedla takes its name from the family which owned much of the land there before Independence and who clearly hunted where now houses are being erected.

The palace was constructed in the late 19th century by Maharana Sajjan Singh, the 72nd ruler of the Mewar Dynasty, as a place from which to watch the monsoon clouds .  Made famous by the James Bond film, Octopussy, it is rather less glamorous than you might expect, but no matter: location is everything.

Nothing quite prepared us for the wonderful 360 panoramas from this, the highest point in and around Udaipur.  The first view is to the east across the Aravalli Hills which cradle Udaipur.  Lake Pichola, one of the five lakes in Udaipur and perhaps the best known, can be seen to the left of the image.


The second and third views pan north east and  capture more of the the city which has grown around Lake Pichola and between it and Lake Fateh Sagar.

Udaipur Pano 1 re-exprt


The City Palace sits regally on the north eastern shore of Lake Pichola and looks out across the lake to Jag Niwas, once the royal summer retreat and now the Taj Lake Palace Hotel.  Both are wonderfully located to capture the setting sun across the initially lower farmland to the south west on the far side of the lake, before the Aravalli Hills, rising steeply, close the circle of the natural fortress which protects the city.

The next view, coming further round to the north, shows Lake Fateh Sagar on the left and Lake Pichola on the right.


Looking due north between the hills below, we can see up to Bedla. The house is just hidden from view by the eastern slope of the hill to the left of centre, but we could clearly see the temple on the hill above the house and the hunting tower to which reference is made above.


Turning toward the west, you return to countryside with hills and valleys.

Udaipur Pano 2

It was a cloudless sky with just a little late-afternoon haze by the time the sun started to set.  The spectacular sunset we had witnessed earlier in the week was the result of some scattered cloud low over the hills to the south west.  As the sun sank down behind them, its rays caught the clouds and were reflected back down. On the evening of our visit, the sun sank with a warm glow but no pyrotechnics.  We will watch out for the right conditions and scurry back up to capture an amazing sunset to share on another occasion.  For now, we were blown away by the panoramas, feeling uplifted and very privileged.


I’ve been up early to finish the blog and have just pulled back the curtains in our small study to see the sun breaking over the hills to the east.  Another clear and bright day: perhaps one of those sunsets awaits!

Democracy in Kotra

Having arrived back in Udaipur on New Year’s Day fairly late, we set off the next morning to visit the fruit and vegetable vendors and pop by Seva Mandir to catch up with the team there and wish everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year.  As we were about to leave, we met Narendra Jain, head of the Income Generation Program (for rural communities) and the Secretary of Girwa “block”, one of the seven areas in which Seva Mandir works in southern Rajasthan.  We had earlier discussed with Narendra the possibility of accompanying him on a field trip to Kotra, the furthest of the blocks from Udaipur (about 150 km), which we had visited once before.  Narendra, who had been the Secretary of Kotra block for a number of years, informed us that he was going down to Kotra the following Monday for a special event and invited us to join him.

In Kotra, Seva Mandir has worked with several village communities to establish and develop a dal (lentil) processing mill as part of its Income Generation Program.  The dal mill, which is run and managed by the local community, has been successful in selling to purchasers in Udaipur, like some of the major hotels, and is now even attracting interest from Japan.  Last year, the President of the committee managing the mill had died and the special event that Narendra would attend was the election in Medi village of the new President by the local community.  It became clear later that this was the third attempt to hold the election meeting.

The trip down to Kotra takes one through some of the most rugged but beautiful countryside to a remote part of Rajasthan.


(More of the journey down in a future blog.)

Kotra borders affluent Gujarat.  This is evident when, to reach the dal mill, we take a road which briefly crosses into Gujarat.  Immediately over the state border, electricity pylons rise high into the sky: every house is connected to the grid in Gujarat, whereas many villages in Rajasthani Kotra have no electricity supply.  Mr Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP party in the forthcoming national elections, is the Chief Minister of Gujarat.  His supporters point avidly to the economic success of Gujarat and claim that their candidate is the man to bring much needed change to the national economy.  The opinion polls show the BJP with a clear lead but no single party ever obtains a majority of the national vote.  The question is which party will lead a coalition supported by a number of strong state-based parties.

The town of Kotra housed a jail in the days before Independence, the British believing that, if a prisoner were to escape, he would surely perish!  The jail is still there.

As we left the Seva Mandir block office after a stretch of the legs to head to the dal mill, we passed an accused, handcuffed to one police officer and guarded by a second with rifle slung over the right shoulder, being marched to the courthouse.  Without in any way wishing to impugn the right to the presumption of innocence, having glimpsed the accused’s demeanor, we both thought that it would be preferable not to meet this gentleman in broad daylight in the town square let alone on a dark night.  We suspected that he was not appearing before the judge on a parking offence.  We were told by our hosts that some of the local tribal folk were still expert with bow and arrow and that vehicle hold-ups did take place – a tyre deflated by an expert shot!  We were most relieved to be in good and locally respected hands.

On arriving at the dal mill, we were informed that we had a little time before the meeting started and would be accompanied by one of the young Seva Mandir field workers, Himanshu Shekhar, whom we had met twice before, and a local farmer to visit a small cluster of farms which had very recently started to benefit from improved irrigation made possible by a new lift well – of which more in a later blog.  It transpired that the lift well project had been started almost two years ago when Narendra was still the Secretary of Kotra block; however, it had taken a very long time for an electricity cable to be brought into the area and connected to the lift’s pump.  Even then, electricity was not supplied to the farmers’ houses.  More envious glances towards Gujarat!

We returned from that visit to find that the meeting had just commenced with Narendra ‘in the chair’, albeit seated on the ground (in fact on the dal drying platform) in the bright early afternoon sun.  We were invited to join the meeting and sit by Narendra.  The local villagers speak Mewari, a Rajasthani language, and the proceedings were in a mix of Mewari and Hindi.  Himanshu kindly interpreted for us.

It became apparent that there were far fewer villagers present than anticipated and that there were not as many dal mill committee members as had been hoped, although the ranks of the meeting increased as matters proceeded.  A first issue, therefore, was whether the election should go ahead.  Would an election be regarded as legitimate — a serious issue?


One of the special features of Seva Mandir’s work in the rural areas of southern Rajasthan has been the establishment of community governing bodies which are inclusive of women and which bring together all members of the community, regardless of religion or caste. This is an example of ‘democratic and participatory development’.  Whilst we are not enamoured of the terminology, the concept is extremely important and we were about to witness an exemplary exercise in democracy.

Narendra and the Coordinator of Kotra block, Sh Umed Singh, set out the issues and handed the debate over to those present. The meeting was attended by women as well as men,


including senior members of the Panchayat, the local council.


A number of attendees spoke, including the head of the Panchayat.  It was reported that this was the third attempt to stage the meeting and that each house in the seven villages involved with the dal mill had been visited; accordingly, due notice had been given.  Furthermore, all of the relevant villages except Ghodamari were represented at the meeting.

The production manager of the dal mill, who had kindly shown us the mill working on our previous visit, Sh Sanjay Vakode, was clearly concerned.


However, wise counsel prevailed and the consensus was that the meeting had the authority and indeed the duty to proceed to the election of the President of the dal mill.  This was obviously a matter of some relief to Narendra and his colleagues.

The most senior of the villagers present, Sh Dola s/o Kanaji, was consulted and added his support before being asked to pose for a photograph.


The participants also debated how best to proceed.  It was agreed that the meeting would elect a new committee of eleven members.  The number of committee members from each village would be based on their respective level of participation in the dal mill project.  At this point, the representatives of each village caucused separately to select their candidates for the new committee.  This process took about fifteen minutes during which there was serious deliberation.




Once each village had selected its committee member or members, the plenary session resumed and the 11 new committee members were introduced to the meeting: 8 men and 3 women.

The new committee then retired to the edge of the dal drying platform to elect not only a new President but also a new Secretary and Treasurer.  This process took a further fifteen minutes during which the various responsibilities were explained to the committee.


The committee appointed three of its members to the vacant posts (2 men and 1 woman, the new Treasurer) and returned to the full meeting where the new office holders were presented and signed in: Image

President, Sh. Kodar lal/Gala ji of Medi village; Secretary, Sh. Basanti lal/Dola ji of Hansreta village; and Treasurer, Smt. Phuli bai w/o Sh Ram lal of Medi village.

The Seva Mandir team emphasised the importance of the responsibilities that were being assumed and the new officers looked solemn.


The new President addressed the meeting.


But the attendees were clearly pleased that the democratic process had resulted in a new team and smiles started to break out, not least from the women.  A joke, doubtless in Mewari, brought laughter and even the new Treasurer, who had appeared somewhat daunted by the prospect of taking over responsibility for the financial management of the mill for the next three years, joined in.


We wish everyone concerned good fortune and success!  A wonderful example of democracy in action!