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!

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,

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the occasional village and fields, some of which are dry

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It is clear that local families desperately need more water.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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and a few goats.

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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

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Big brown eyes stared enquiringly as our party arrived.

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

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

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and two male inoculation staff,

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

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Dr Kusum kindly explains proceedings to us,

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

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

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

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as well as oral polio vaccine to about 20 children.

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The infants ranged from three months to just a year,

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

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All the mothers were sitting on the floor

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or standing to rock their little ones in their arms,

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and all comforted them by breastfeeding them.

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The little ones soon recovered their composure.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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

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

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even finding the time to pose for the photographer.

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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.

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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.

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(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?

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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,

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including senior members of the Panchayat, the local council.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The new President addressed the meeting.

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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.

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

Visiting Girwa

Sharing the beauty of southern Rajasthan intensifies the pleasure.  We were particularly privileged to be able to undertake a field trip to Girwa with Somerset and Emily on their recent visit.  Girwa is a beautiful rural area south of Udaipur in which Seva Mandir works closely with local communities on a number of vital projects including watershed, seed banks, pre-school day centres for small children and bridge schools for older children for whom there is no local government school.  Setting off bright and early, we were accompanied by two colleagues from Seva Mandir, Aarti and Chandra, and joined along the way by locally based members of the team.

Having turned off the main road, we were soon climbing up to about 400 meters and surveying the hills and valleys.

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Evidence of the watershed projects was all around and the benefits in terms of improved agriculture clear to see.

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We met local people who were proud of their countryside and welcoming.

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After a few stops to examine watershed projects which stop the rain water running off the hillsides causing soil erosion, and channel it for use by the farmers, our hosts explained apologetically that, in order to visit a pre-school day centre, Balwadi, and school, Shiksha Kendra, we would have to walk for a few kilometres.  But we were delighted.  The air was fresh and the sun warm but not scorching.

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Whilst Em had been to India before, this was Somerset’s first trip.  Seeing a camel asleep outside the Balwadi emphasised the distance from the City.  Inside the small hut, the children were seated on the ground singing.  They were bemused to see a group of strange looking guests

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and one burst into uncontrollable tears.  It was explained that the little girl was concerned that we might take her away.  There was a doubtless a story here but we did not probe.  The young teacher consoled the little one and calm returned.

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The Balwadis provide pre-school support for children up to the age of five.  They learn basic skills to prepare them for school and receive nutritional meals and immunization. With the small children cared for in the Balwadi, mothers are free to work, typically in the fields, and elder siblings are themselves able to attend school.

Outside, two women sat in their front yard where chillis dried in the sunshine.

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We thanked our gracious hosts and moved on around the hillside

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to find the Shiksha Kendra where the children, all together in one room, were reciting verse.  We were invited inside.  One of the senior girls was asked to recite a poem and did so with confidence.

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The pupils then played a game.  One of them was chosen to be the detective and went outside while the class picked one of the remaining youngsters to be ‘it’.  The detective then returned and was allowed two guesses to find the right classmate.  This was done by the detective walking around the class which was seated in a circle on the ground

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with the person who was ‘it’ leading some rhythmical finger clicking.  The detective had to observe carefully to try to work out who was leading the game.  No questions permitted.  After an initial unsuccessful attempt, the detective correctly identified the senior girl who had recited the poem.  How he knew we will never know, save that we suspected that the class might have selected her more often than not.  We said our goodbyes and took our leave to head back to the vehicle past homes

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and fields

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Time was running short and we did not visit the seed bank on this occasion but pressed on to Seva Mandir’s residential learning camp on the route back to Udaipur.  The residential leaning camp is one of our favourite places.  Built in the countryside, it is home to a hundred or so children from different rural communities who would otherwise receive no education, either because there is no functioning government school in their locality or because their impoverished parents send them to work in the fields, typically over the state border in Gujarat for the cotton harvests.  The residential camps are therefore held outside the harvest periods and last eight weeks.  The children may attend three camps in a year and are taught basic literacy and numeracy skills to equip them for formal education if the opportunity arises.

We arrived on the first day of this particular camp.  Most of the children had arrived but some were still expected.  The day was devoted to noting their details and measuring them for the two sets of clothing which are provided by Seva Mandir.  While they waited, the new pupils were encouraged to demonstrate their existing skill levels by drawing, which they did with great care and attention.

For many of the children, this was their first trip away from home.  Nevertheless, the smiles abounded at the prospect of learning.

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We hope to return on a Sunday to help out with extra-curricular activities including some basic language work in English and sports.

We took our leave as the children went for a well-earned lunch cooked on the premises and headed back to Udaipur.

A wonderful morning!

Field Trip to Kherwara

An early morning start.  Pick up at 6:45am for the 10 minute drive to Seva Mandir’s office to join the bus which would take us on our first field trip of this visit.  We are excited: field trips always exceed expectations and introduce us to some of the remoter parts of southern Rajasthan, areas we would otherwise almost certainly not visit.  Needless to say, we are amongst the few early birds and able to stake our claim to front seats on the venerable bus which radiates experience.  The announced departure time of 7:15 is both indicative and aspirational.  We are on our way with 15 or so of the Seva Mandir Natural Resource Development team by 7:45 to cross Udaipur from north to south through the early morning traffic, stopping first for fuel and then further members of the team along the way.  It’s reminiscent of school bus trips with laughter and jollity as new members of the team climb aboard.

As we head out of the town on the main highway which leads to Mumbai, the Aravalli Hills are once again our guide.  Our front row seats afford a clear view.

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After a little less than an hour, we turn across the highway and head down a rural road and back in time

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to Kherwara, a beautiful area surrounded by the Aravalli hills, with fields green after the monsoon, wandering goats and cows, and the occasional mud-walled house

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where morning washing

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and other domestic chores are underway.

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We are also struck by the cactus hedges: very practical when you think about it.

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The field trip is beginning in earnest.

One key area of Seva Mandir’s work is Natural Resource Development.  In this rural, semi-arid region such as southern Rajasthan, the rain falls only during a short period of the year in the monsoon, and the sun beats down relentlessly for long months on impoverished soil.  Local, mainly subsistence, farmers scratch a living from a few fields

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and, if they are lucky, a handful of cows and goats that might bring them a monthly income of Rs 600 (around £6 or $10).  It is therefore vital to make the best use of what water there is.

The NRD unit has many programmes in this area: watershed projects to ensure that the heavy rains, when they come, do not further degrade what soil there is,

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but the water is collected in the most efficient way; water harvesting, including creating and maintaining dams,

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and improving wells.  We pass several lakes filled by the monsoon but soon realise that it will probably not rain here again until next July.

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Measuring the results of such projects is important for Seva Mandir and its donors.  To ensure that data collection is reliable and consistent, systems have been devised to help the field teams carry out their measurements in a uniform and simple way throughout the areas covered.

The field trip which we have been invited to join involves 20 or so members of the NRD unit, from HQ in Udaipur and from some of the blocks further afield, and is designed to show the teams how to collect data and monitor the results of the various projects.

Our base for the day was the zone office in Kojawara, which houses a medical centre with permanent nursing staff and visiting doctors who give clinics on a number of days during the week.  There are wards for inpatients,

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but these are not in use at the moment.  The major problem faced by the centre is finding and retaining resident doctors.  A relatively remote rural area like this struggles to attract doctors, and those who might be interested are unaffordable.  It nevertheless provides a dispensary and delivers much needed and valued basic care and was clearly being used by the locals when we visited.

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After a light breakfast, armed with two specially-made metal frames measuring 1m2 (instantly recognised by Felicia – all those years listening to the Archers clearly well spent!), we set off to a field on a hill where watershed work had been carried out a couple of years ago.   This involved building a low wall to keep cattle out and planting grains.

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The team leader, Shailendra Tiwari, Head of NRD, and his team of experts, explained the process of taking samples of crop growth to monitor results.

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They marched up to the top of the hill to survey the field in question, divided it virtually into five areas representative of the field as a whole (taking poorer areas and areas of better growth), and proceeded to take a sample of the growth in each of these five areas.  The metal frames were placed on the ground

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and the plants within this square metre cut and weighed.

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The results were noted down and an average for the field calculated.  This information will allow the team to see whether the work of creating check dams and watershed trenches has improved the yield of the area.

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It was hot work and we have to admit to not going all the way to the top of the hill but seeking out the shade of a bamboo grove

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where we were entertained by one of the team members who delighted in telling us that he and his wife had four children all of whom had married and flown the family nest.  He beamed as he held the backs of his hands towards us, fingers pointing down and flipped his fingers upwards to simulate the flight of the siblings from the house.  Now he and his wife enjoyed peace and cooking for two.  On hearing that we had three children and one married, our host, with flashing dark eyes, emitted a huge giggle.

The next exercise was inspecting and measuring wells on the plain.

There are five wells within this watershed unit of 500 Hectares, and, once again, keeping accurate measurements of the water in the wells has proved challenging.  Shailendra explained that there was no need to measure the depth of the wells – obviously a difficult job.  The best way was to find a fixed point which could be marked and used every time, and to measure the drop to the level of the water.   The measuring would be done twice a year, before and after the rains.

This area also contains a camp where cattle are vaccinated twice a year, in an effort to reduce Foot and Mouth Disease and Goat Disease, which the team visited.  While the team accompanied by the intrepid Felicia headed down a steep slope,

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John, who had a slightly stiff ankle, stayed with our host to explore the evidence of successful planting projects along the road as it started to climb between the hills

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and then engage in interpreted conversation with a local goatherd and his wife who tended the cattle.  A charming couple who were clearly appreciative of the work done by Seva Mandir.  The wife, who was in the meadow below the road, clutched an old umbrella in her right hand as she hurried after one stray and then another, even though it was not apparent that they could have gone far.  Looking up to the road where we were discussing with her husband, she realised that, whilst in the semi shade, we would benefit from the umbrella and hurried up the steep path to offer it.  Apart from being extremely grateful for the shade, I realised that the quality of the light under the umbrella would be far more flattering for portraits than the harsh late-morning sun.  The goatherd and his wife duly posed for photographs

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before an errant cow hastened the return of the wife to the meadow. They, by the way, had two children, both of whom had married!  More giggles from our host.

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There followed a village meeting at the house of one of the villagers.  While we waited for the meeting we were invited to relax on a charpoy (string couch)

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in the shady garden surrounded by neem trees, marigolds (which a canny goat was surreptitiously trying to graze on before he was spotted and ushered out by the woman of the house) and drying chillies.  The presence of two unexpected foreign visitors was explained and we were made welcome, and proceedings began.

This village benefits from several of Seva Mandir’s activities: an immunization camp for pregnant women and their children, a Women’s Self-Help Group, a Joint Forest Management project, a Balwadi (children’s day care centre), a team of Balsakhis (who monitor and advise on child health and care), and a lift well.  It also boasts a Farmers’ Club (which has 1.2 Lakh Rupees, approx. £1,200, in its bank account and attracts a subsidy from the government).  The meeting was intended to monitor the effect of Seva Mandir’s work on village life and to give the farmers and their wives a chance to air their views.

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The farmers said that the water levels had certainly increased since the watershed project and they were pleased with the harvest of 1.5 quintals (150 kg) of rice, which was an improvement on previous harvests.  The villagers are now self-sufficient in grass and grains, which saves them the money they would otherwise have to spend on buying these in.

They have an area of 50 Hectares in common forest land, divided into three sites, and have qualified for Joint Forest Management, a scheme which allows the villagers, alongside the government Forestry Department, to look after their forest land, protecting it from fire, grazing and illegal encroachment, and to enjoy the benefits of the forest land and its products.  But they would like to achieve Community Forest Rights, which would allow them to manage the forest land themselves as provided for in Indian law but in practice extremely hard to win.   Seva Mandir continues to help the villagers try to win these rights.

The villagers also reiterated their desire to see Ecosan toilets installed, and were promised that a visit to another village was being arranged to allow them to inspect the Ecosans there.  The government will not provide these toilets (which use no water but instead use ash to convert solid waste into odourless manure) but Seva Mandir is a major provider of these throughout southern Rajasthan.

These hospitable villagers then thanked us again for our visit and warmly bade us farewell.

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Just time for a quick visit to an area which had been wasteland until recently but which, with Seva Mandir’s help, had now been planted with fruit trees (mango, amla, guava, papaya, lime) and also tomatoes, chillies and aubergines.

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A lovely spot, bursting with fresh produce, and clearly giving a good yield to its owner, a woman farmer.

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After a delicious and well earned late lunch (after all that climbing up steep slopes), the NRD team sat down to a meeting to discuss the day’s events

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and to plan its next field trip, which would include water harvesting projects (how to monitor water levels in anicut dams, assess leakage, monsoon damage, silting and the use made of the water), sanitation and safe drinking water projects and lift irrigation (where water is pumped up to higher ground from a well, enabling previously uncultivated land to bear crops).

The block officials then said goodbye as they headed back to their block offices in other parts of southern Rajasthan, and the HQ team piled back onto our bus

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for the drive back to Udaipur.  It was by now late afternoon and the sun was sending warms rays across the countryside.

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As the driver expertly guided the old Tata vehicle through the traffic (with a steering wheel with so much play that he was in constant motion with his arms and we wondered how he could possibly manoeuvre it so skilfully), and the NRD team laughed and joked all the way, we reflected on what a dedicated and skilled team of people this is, toiling away to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and to make sure that their work is bearing fruit.

The Markets around Delhi Gate

Rajasthan is known for the colourful attire of its inhabitants (some say that the more arid the state, the more rainbow-like the clothing) and, as in India as a whole, the vitality and character of its markets and market people.  Two of our favorites are the fruit and vegetable and spice markets of old Udaipur and surrounding streets, with hundreds of small but specialist retail shops, which are to be found close to Delhi Gate, and Bapu Bazar.  On Tuesday afternoon, we managed to escape from the rigours of equipping the house to indulge ourselves in one of our favourite pursuits.

With just a few words, we let the images paint the picture .

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An India of contrasts and striking juxtapositions

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A sadhu brings his elephant to the market, to the awe and delight of schoolboys well aware of the divinity of Ganesh, the elephant god.

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A few Rupees, put into the elephant’s trunk and passed up to the sadhu, ensure a good reception for the photographer.

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The market women sit on the ground surrounded by their produce. The market opens at around 10 am and goes through to after dark.

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We have been coming to this market since we visited Udaipur on our first trip to India in 2003. Over the years and a few photos here and there(!), a number of the market women now recognise us and will readily pose for photos; always we try to return with copies for them. Some are more reluctant.

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This woman, for example, was keen to have a photo with her bright-eyed young child. John took several on a trip in 2011 and tried to give her prints last year but she was not there. This time, she recognised us and asked to be photographed again. When we returned yesterday, armed not only with the most recent print (above) but also several from 2011, while other women received only one or worse still none, the decibels rose and Felicia feared that John was about to be lynched. Needless to say, John was customarily oblivious – just as well!

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Snacks made from batter poured through a sieve into hot fat

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Basket weavers in one of the small side streets

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Brightly coloured spices

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and pulses

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and just about anything else you might fancy

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Felicia buying supper

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Time for a freshly-squeezed juice

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Indians have a very sweet tooth!

Our lovely friend from Udaipur, Deepti, who is in England this year doing a master’s in Development Studies, told us that the fruit and vegetable market is her favourite too; her parents brought her to it when she was young and she was able to select the fruit and vegetables herself.

Another contact here , Paradhi, a keen photographer, told us that she had seen a Facebook posting of the photo of Felicia purchasing vegetables in the market  (above); she said that she had never thought of taking photos of the market — for everyone here it is just normal!  Of course, but it is this ‘normality’ which makes India such a wonderful place to visit.  One man’s normality is another’s adventure.

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We’ve been giving thought to a more permanent means of transport, having used the excellent services of a local taxi firm with a very helpful driver, Pakash, who has taken us under his wing. This smart model caught our eye …