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 …

The Floods after Hurricane Phailin

In our last post of the India at Large series, we commented briefly on local media reports of the action taken by state governments and other bodies to protect hundreds of thousands of people threatened by hurricane Phailin and pointed to the political angle in the light of the elections next year.  Interestingly, the television reports which we saw on Sunday did not focus on the extent of the flooding caused by the hurricane.  On the other hand, it would appear that international reporting was already highlighting the damage and human suffering for which the floods were, and continue to be, responsible.  That said, we obviously had not surveyed a wide cross-section of India’s media.  During the week, we have followed developments in the Times of India and thought it might be of interest to share a few excerpts.

On Wednesday, the Times of India (TOI) reported on the flooding and statements by those in authority:

‘ “Flood water has started receding and we hope by Wednesday it will show signs of improvement,” special relief commissioner Pradipta Mohapatra told TOI. ( … )

As thousands of marooned people cried for food, the state with central agencies like National Disaster Response Force, Army and Navy, stepped up relief and rescue operations. Though the government said it had reached out to all villages, people complained relief was still trickling in. “We are not getting any food,” said Shyam Tudu, a flood victim in Mayurbhanj.

Mohapatra said: “ ( … ) Three IAF helicopters will continue airdropping food things in the quickest possible time. We hope to ensure relief reaches everywhere by Wednesday evening“.

Revenue minister S N Patro said although the situation in some worst-hit areas continued to remain grim, things were “under control”.

On Thursday, TOI reported:

‘Authorities in India’s Orissa state are intensifying efforts to provide relief to some 12 million people affected by a cyclone and subsequent floods.

Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit the state in 14 years, flattened homes, uprooted trees and blocked roads in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states.  Subsequent flooding has left 100,000 people stranded in parts of Orissa.  Officials said the cyclone and the floods had together damaged over 300,000 homes in 16,487 villages in Orissa.

Senior official Krishan Kumar told the Press Trust of India news agency that Ganjam was the worst-affected district. More than 240,000 houses had been damaged, power lines had snapped and nets, boats and fishing catamarans had been destroyed, he said.  ( … )

Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik said the government was ensuring “that relief materials, food, polythene, medical supplies and kerosene reach the affected people“.

Separately, Indian [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh has announced compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,234; £2,028) for the family of each person killed in the cyclone and 50,000 rupees for those seriously injured.  ( … )

The death toll in Cyclone Phailin remained low because of a successful evacuation effort described by officials as “the biggest in India’s history for such an event“.  ( … )

But the intense storm has made more than half a million people homeless, state government officials said.’

We visited Orissa and the coastline of the Bay of Bengal about a year ago.  It is a beautiful region with an incredible history and cultural and religious heritage.  It is not on the regular tourist itineraries but deserves to be.  Its welcoming and charming citizens certainly deserve support from all quarters now.

Back in Udaipur

As we left Robin and Mary’s on that first evening to head to dinner, Robin had explained that the throng outside were mourners.  A neighbour in the small alley leading to their door had died and the nine days of mourning were almost over.  As we picked our way past the separate groups of women and men, the women seated mainly on thin green matting on the ground while some of the men were on chairs, we pressed the palms of our hands together, fingers pointing skyward in front of our chests, and exchanged ‘Namaste’, good day, with individuals.  There was a small temple a little way down the alley on the left which appeared to be a focal point for the mourners. Its doors were open to reveal a shrine reverberating in yellows and gold contrasting with the faded colours of the doors and walls of the alley outside.  Many of the mourners were still there when we returned from dinner.  By the next day, the numbers had dwindled and nine days of mourning were over.

To find the main street between Jagdish Temple, one of the city’s landmarks and an important place of Hindu worship, and the City Palace, which presides over both lake Pichola to the south

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and the old city to the north, and the small band of tuktuk drivers based there, we climbed up steep steps and then made our way along a narrow alley parallel to the one on which Robin and Mary’s house is located, past the local dogs which have their own communities and take little notice of passers-by.

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Here, there were a few small businesses, one exporting Rajasthani craftwork, its industrious owner dressed in western style, with white shirt and dark trousers, filling the doorway on ubiquitous cellphone.  Two doors along was the local dairy complete with milking cows which spend their days wandering along these tiny streets and are brought into a small courtyard at night.

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When, if ever, they last saw anything resembling a green field, one can only speculate.  You see many cows living in the urban areas often ‘grazing’ on the plastic bags which are collected and dumped at specific points along the roads.  Local women buy some greenery in the morning from the roadside vegetable vendors and throw it down for the cows, but this offering is quickly devoured and the search amongst the plastic soon resumed.

On reaching the tuktuk drivers, there is a brief negotiation which results in a 60-Rupee (roughly 60 pence or 1 USD) put-your-hands-in-front-of-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best dash across town.  Udaipur was the location for the James Bond film Octopussy, still screened non-stop in local hotels and guesthouses.  Early on in the action, there is a famous tuktuk chase through the market streets of the old city with stalls overturned, bunting ripped down and trailed in the tuktuk’s wake and pedestrians scattered.  It is, however, a pale reflection of the real thing!  The tuktuk has one wheel at the front steered by handlebars on which the driver also operates the throttle and, very occasionally, the brakes; it is extraordinarily manoeuverable but, if you have not experienced this particular pleasure, you do not have this reassurance. Our previous close encounter with a tuktuk was in Pune earlier in the year and had resulted in what is known in aviation terminology as a ‘near miss’!  This time, we arrive in one piece, if slightly older than by the five minutes which the dash lasted.

The next few days were spent setting up the house.  (We are posting a separate account with more detail of these activities – see the first in our ‘Between the Lines’ posts.)

It is a very long time since we have equipped a dwelling from scratch.  Initially somewhat anxious about the availability of various key items, from fridges to loo brushes, we were soon visiting small retailers in Bapu Bazar as well as newer shopping malls with Indian supermarkets, like ‘Easyday’, which sell almost everything.  However, we had been advised by Mary not to buy fruit and veg in the supermarkets because the produce is not as fresh as that of the vendors. India has recently opened its doors also to international multiple retailers, like Walmart and Tesco, leaving it to the individual states, of which Rajasthan is one, to decide whether to accept them and, if so, how to regulate them.  The long debate leading to this decision highlighted the vulnerability of the smaller businesses, not to mention the street vendors and particularly those selling fruit and vegetables.  However, over 40%, if not more, of all agricultural produce in India is discarded as waste for the lack of refrigerated distribution and storage.  In a country in which malnutrition is still a huge problem, there are obvious potential benefits in the logistics systems of the experienced multiples.  How this revolution will play out and with what consequences for many aspects of traditional life in India, only time will tell – for now, we are grateful the service of the small retailers: ‘When can you deliver?’ ‘This afternoon!’

A number of you have asked about hurricane Phailin which hit the eastern coast of India, mainly the state of Orissa.  We were invited to dinner by our next door neighbour and were able to ask about developments and also catch some reports on one of the news channels.  Following a devastating hurricane in 1999 which killed 14,000 people in the same region, the state and national governments adopted a number of emergency measures in the hope of preventing a similar tragedy.  These included establishing a disaster recovery service and emergency shelters to accommodate those evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure.  It appears that, in the case of Phailin, the forecasters were able to give five days’ warning, which enabled the authorities to evacuate 700,000 people, a truly staggering figure.

As of the last report we heard, there were only four reported deaths attributed to the hurricane.  The prevention efforts were aided by a decrease in the intensity of the hurricane and its relatively short duration.

Further inland, in the state of Bihar, heavy rain and strong winds caused some flooding and led to the cancellation of all flights.  One dinner guest reported that her mother’s plant pots had been blown over, but otherwise limited damage!

There is a political angle to all this.  Next year is election year in India.  Whilst the national parties, Congress and BJP, are well represented in many states, there are local parties which have regional strongholds.  Some of these can and do hold the balance of power in a country in which no single party is likely to secure sufficient votes to form a government on its own.  Coalition government is the norm here.  Accordingly, state governments and the parties which form them are anxious to do well not only to retain or secure power at the state level but also to have the possibility to influence the formation of the national government.  As the plaudits pour in for the preventative actions taken in Orissa and also Andhra Pradesh, these state governments are basking in the glory of a job well done – at least according to the reports we have seen.

Here, in Rajasthan, on the north west side of India (please see the map below), we experienced some torrential downpours last week, but understand that this was the end of the monsoon rains.  The monsoon started earlier and finished (if it is finished) later this year than usual.  It will be interesting to see the effects in the rural areas of semi-arid southern Rajasthan which we will start to visit again shortly with Seva Mandir, the Indian NGO which we will be supporting while we are here.

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We thought it might be helpful to have two categories for our posts.  Those in this series are called ‘India At Large’ and those which provide more detail of specific activities and experiences for those thirsty for more ‘Between The Lines’.

Return to the Aravalli Hills

After three days in Delhi catching up with friends and contacts and attending to various administrative matters (most importantly securing Indian SIM cards for mobiles and a dongle for the laptops to connect to the internet), we started the journey south to Udaipur on Sunday.  It would be a long drive over a day-and-a-half, weaving between the once brightly painted Tata and Ashok Leyland lorries with “Blow Horn” and “Use Dipper at Night” on their tailgates.  You need a good driver in India.  The unexpected is the norm as we see a large bus heading north towards us on the semi-hard shoulder of the south-bound carriageway, followed by a tractor and trailer – not to mention the cows sleeping in the outside lane.  Maybe dodging and weaving describes the drive more accurately.

Leaving South Delhi and the well laid-out Paths of the diplomatic area, you soon see the high-rise buildings of Gurgaon, the new city suburb which is home to many international businesses and ex-pats.  We had spent the previous evening there with our friends Adrian and Helen, eating outside at a restaurant in their new apartment complex, complete with pool and gym.  The first part of the journey takes you over flat terrain with buildings of various descriptions lining the dual carriageway: shops, industrial areas, part-finished apartment blocks and vehicle repair workshops with worried looking drivers sitting on their haunches, elbows on knees and appearing to clutch their heads as mechanics lie on their backs under the vehicles searching for the problem.   The route is also peppered with lorries whose axles have broken, often tipping them into the roadside ditch from which a crane, which may have to come several hundred kilometers according to the signs at the toll booths, will be required to lift them. Eventually, there are fields which are green and fertile after the rains.

After six or so hours and a short stop for delicious, freshly cooked veg pakoras, there is a surge of excitement as the Aravalli hills become visible first to the right and then to the left.  The Aravalli hills, the oldest fold mountains in India, run northeast for about 800 km across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and then, as isolated hills and ridges, the states of Haryana and Delhi. The Aravalli hills surround us in all their glory at the house and are reassuringly welcoming, reminiscent of a camel train crossing the semi-arid landscape which is southern Rajasthan and our base for the next while.

At around 5 o’clock, we draw into a small heritage hotel for the night. Once the hunting lodge of the local royal family, it was converted to a hotel four years ago.  We are the only guests and are given the choice of his highness’ and her highness’ bedrooms on the first floor, reached by typically steep and turning stairs designed as a last line of defence, with sitting rooms, bathrooms and a veranda overlooking a small but tidy garden.  The correct and very polite senior man tells us that they have to water it as the rains have been poor and the water table is very far below the surface.  But the former lodge is surrounded by fields with lime, mango and guava trees and a variety of crops.  Having established that we had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, the senior man offers us a bullock cart ride to the local village to see the milking and visit local families.  We readily accept and arrange to start at half-past five.  We had chosen his highness’ rooms because they were, predictably, a little more spacious.  The plumbing seemed innovative as hot water responded to a pull on the handle and steam rose from the depths: a whole new slant on a hot flush.  We should have realized that this was not in fact standard procedure but hurried off to meet the bullock cart.

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The lodge is about a kilometer from the road and passes between fields planted with guar gum and dotted with neem and acacia trees.

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The village is a short distance on the other side of the road and we are soon greeted by lively women who invite us into their front yard where the cows, calves and buffaloes have been brought for the night.  We are too late for the milking but, camera in hand, John soon has the women and children, some very keen to have their photos taken but one little one appalled by the prospect, forming groups while exhorting them to smile.  Portrait photography is a challenge here: the subjects laugh and smile, flashing their beautiful white teeth, until the photographer raises the camera to his eye, at which point a studied seriousness descends on the faces.  We have seen this many times before.  Playing peek-a-boo from behind the camera and making funny faces usually does the trick but you have to be quick!  As soon as they see the camera approaching the eye, portrait mode is resumed.  The session is interrupted when one of the calves head-buts John firmly in the right buttock.  Now, that brings more smiles and hilarity to the proceedings: quick, aim and shoot while everyone is distracted!

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We move on to two other houses to witness evening activities: drawing water from the well and cooking supper.

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We meet, and exchange greetings with, a woman and then two young girls making chapattis.

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We are offered a taste by the girls.   Very good indeed!  Felicia says that we enjoy eating chapattis with chutney and vegetables.  They think we are asking them to offer us chutney and vegetables too.  Our bullock cart driver resolves the misunderstanding to their obvious relief.

It is getting dark and we head back for dinner set up outside by the new pool which is lit.  As we reach the reception room, the senior man anxiously explains that they have moved us to her highness’ rooms as there has been a flood in our bathroom.  Well, this was not an understatement: the steam was clearly the precursor of an exploding pipe and the formation of a small lake in the bathroom and adjoining room where we had left the luggage.  Fortunately, all the bags were dry except the one with John’s new laptop and various papers.  Why Felicia found the sight of John drying the equipment and spreading the papers while muttering in what sounded like rudimentary Hindi under his breath so amusing, one will never know.  Dinner was excellent and a well-earned G&T and glass of Sula sauvignon blanc prepared the way for a sound night’s sleep.

We were up at dawn and headed out with the bullock cart driver, this time on foot to walk through the fields.  There was early morning activity with women working watched by their children.  The out-buildings of the lodge were now storerooms for crops. We saw sesame plants drying so that the seeds would fall out with a gentle shake.  The bullock cart driver explained that they stored the crops until market prices were good.  Good old supply and demand.

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On checking out after breakfast the senior man announced that they had discussed the matter and decided that there should be no charge for dinner or drinks to compensate us for the “unnatural attack by water”.  They were very keen that we should be content with our stay which, we assured them, we were.  It was nevertheless clear that a decision had been taken, so we graciously accepted and said we would tell others and return ourselves.  (For those visiting the area, this is a true find: Bijay Niwas at Bijaynagar).

After another four hours on the road, guided all the way by the Aravalli hills, we arrived in Udaipur and went straight to the house where we met Manju, the caretaker’s wife, and two lovely children, Anita and Yuraj, three and one: Anita’s big brown eyes and blown kisses will break hearts; Yuraj is still not too sure about us, particularly John pretending to tickle him – plus ça change.  Manju was dressed in typically colourful, traditional Rajasthani attire with long head scarf with which she would gracefully cover her head to frame a beaming smile.  As yet, neither Manju nor Jagdish, her husband, whom we met the following day, speak any English and we speak no Hindi, but communication is about more than words (albeit that they do help).  Having dropped off some luggage, we headed to a small bed & breakfast in old Udaipur, reached on foot for the last few hundred yards up and down winding alleys, where we were greeted by Robin and Mary Thomas, whom we had met on our last trip.  Despite their names, Robin and Mary are Indians who were brought up in an area of northeast India formerly settled by Christian missionaries.  We would stay three nights there while we kitted out the house with essentials.  Dinner at the roof restaurant of the Jagat Niwas Palace hotel overlooking Lake Pichola, which is as full as we have ever seen it, blissfully rounded off the day.  We had arrived!  For several years a developing dream, and a year (almost to the day) in the planning.  Amazing!