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!

Sunday at Kaya

At the end of our last blog, we indicated that we hoped to return to Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp at Kaya for some extracurricular activities.  Thanks to Vikas, who made the arrangements, and Prem, who accompanied us, and the wonderful staff at the camp (to all of whom, many thanks), we were able to do this last Sunday for singing and cricket!  Sir Neville Cardus would have been proud of us!

As we walked into the Camp we could hear lusty singing.  The children were in their respective classrooms singing cheerily.  When we were last there, it was the first day of this two-month camp and most of the children had just arrived for their first taste of education in this boarding environment far from their remote rural villages, parents, siblings and everything familiar.  I had been amazed and very touched that day to hear so many of the children singing in their classrooms, always led by one child who would sing each line before it was repeated by the others.  These were traditional songs and I wondered how much comfort the children were deriving from repeating these familiar tunes in this strange new environment.  So I certainly knew they could sing before I planned Sunday’s sessions.

On this visit, I spent a few minutes in the office finding laminated sheets to use as props for the songs I planned to teach the children, and then worked out that, with 197 children in the camp, it would perhaps be best to take four groups of roughly 50 – somewhat daunting, but there was no question of leaving anyone out.

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We walked out to the open area in front of the camp buildings to find all 197 children, already in the four groups, sitting on the ground, with attendant teachers and an air of expectancy.  The first group assembled in a circle and I began the session by introducing myself and asking a few of the children their names.  We then started on the first song, ‘Heads and shoulders, knees and toes’, complete with actions.

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Much amusement, particularly as we speeded up,

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bobbing up and down touching knees and toes, and as we pointed to ears and eyes and mouth and nose!

Projecting so I could teach 50 children a song they didn’t know, in the open air, was a challenge for a voice that was seriously out of practice and I wondered how I would be faring by the fourth group.

Each group resolutely stuck to the call and response mode, although I had hoped to get them singing along with me, so we had to adapt this song, and the others, to fit this pattern, repeating each line after I had sung it once.

Next up was the ABC song

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and I distributed A4 sized letters of the alphabet for every other child to hold up (feeling like a heel each time I passed over one child and gave a letter to the next – groups of 26 would be much easier!).

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I was very impressed by the confidence with which they could recite the alphabet in English.  Not many English children could say the Hindi alphabet, that’s for sure!  Indeed I can’t!

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The most popular song by far was ‘Five Little Monkeys’.  Whether it was the humour of the song itself, the fun of pretending to be ‘Mama’ on the phone to the doctor, or the doctor intoning pompously ‘No more jumping on the bed’ – or perhaps the ridiculous spectacle of me pretending to be a young monkey jumping on a bed and then falling off – who knows!  But they loved it, and were quick to supply the number of monkeys remaining on the bed each time one had fallen off and bumped his head!

The last song I had chosen, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ was the least successful, despite actions like clapping hands, stamping feet and turning around.  Note to self: must find a few more songs that work better in the call and response mode.  The clapping/stamping/turning bar in this song threw the rhythm as the children repeated each line as soon as I had finished the three bars of words.  Still, it bothered me but not them!

I was exhausted after the first group – only another 150 children to go!  Will I have any voice at all for the last 50?

As I glanced round the children in a circle round me there were some who were painfully shy, some a little puzzled, some on a little cloud of their own, most eager to engage.  Without exception they were well behaved, friendly, welcoming, smiling.  And they sang their hearts out, even though they clearly didn’t understand every word they were singing.  They could certainly teach a few English choirs a thing or two about singing lustily and projecting!!

They unanimously clapped at the end of each session and chanted ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.  I reflected, not for the first time, how different these children are from some one meets in the classrooms of middle-class Europe.  Absolutely no ‘attitude’, just a sense that they are here to soak up every drop of learning they can find as it may well be their only chance to have any kind of education.

I’m sure I learned far more than they did – and now I must work on a better selection of simple action songs and voice projection!

As Felicia moved on to the second group, John, with the help of some very keen members of staff, divided the first group into two cricket teams!  The stumps were set up and the captains tossed.  It soon became apparent, however, that some lusty bows risked disrupting Felicia’s second singing group, so the cricketers moved down to a larger area where there was a volleyball net which was soon taken down to accommodate the match.  Peace and safety for the singers!

On the newly established cricket pitch, the game was soon underway.  With 25 or so a side, it was a little challenging keeping track of the batting order and ensuring that all the children got into the game, but whilst some were keen to bat and bowl, others were happy to field or just observe.

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Whilst a number had clearly played before and displayed good technique,

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some of the bowling actions were slightly suspect albeit that accuracy was good, particularly one girl who had clearly honed the art by throwing stones – which she threatened to do with some vigour when, as the afternoon wore on, attention spans waned and one of the boys ‘stole’ the ball from her as she was preparing to bowl another over.  Much placating ensued and the match resumed.

With such good bowling, the most frequent call was ‘well bowled’ which the children echoed with great voice (the singing session had obviously been of lasting value); but there were a number of ‘good shots’ not least when some of the older boys and particularly the staff connected with a ‘length ball’ and dispatched it over the wall into the trees and long grass.  We had bought two bats and three practice balls which was just as well since, although there was a set of stumps and a couple of bats at the Camp, there were no balls.  It was easy to see why!  Nevertheless, on this occasion, with 25 fielders aside, a host of boys would leap over the wall to search for the ball, whereupon, John cried out ‘lost ball’, also voluminously repeated by batters and fielders alike, followed by ‘new ball’ when, pending the return of the search party, one of the spares was produced.

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The batsmen were not offered the opportunity to inspect the new ball in accordance with ICC regulations, but this did not appear to be an impediment to the next lusty blow and ‘lost ball’.

On a few occasions, when a batter was bowled when not ready or some other injustice had occurred, the diplomatic call was ‘no-ball’, the left arm held out horizontally and reprieve granted.  Little did I realise how important the call of ‘no-ball’ would be for the outcome of another match, of which more later.

When the second group left Felicia and presented themselves on the cricket ground, the staff judiciously proposed a girls v girls match.  The skills were excellent and the contest keen.

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Staff and pupils participated.

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In the later sessions, breakaway leagues were established in true Kerry Packer fashion

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and the ground soon resembled the Maidan in Mumbai, the home of India’s greatest, where multiple matches are played.  May be there was a young Sachin here too.

I was asked to bat and took guard as if at Brook, before doing a little gardening to the pitch, much to the amusement of these more rustic cricketers.  The first ball was glided to fine leg in the style of the great Ranjitsinhji and a comfortable single taken, whereupon my batting partner showed great disdain for singles and either swished and missed or swished and connected to send the search party back into frenzied activity.

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In any event, at the declaration, I was one not out having faced one ball.  That makes two undefeated innings in India, the other being at Samode a few years ago where I had to ask the camel behind the bowler’s arm to lie down and the locals, having seen my forward defensive, compared me to Dravid – is there any greater compliment?

My bowling (15th change) was a tad less successful – more work for the search party and little boys, unprompted for once, shouting ‘lost ball’, ‘new ball’.

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With the final match drawing to a close, it was time to head back up for some tea, here spicy chai which hit the spot.  After chatting with the staff, we took our leave, waving furiously to the children.

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That evening, we resumed our watching of the Bollywood film (with much singing and dancing along the way), Lagaan, the splendid story of a cricket match played in the time of the British Raj between the garrison side, led by its cold-hearted and mean captain, and a team of local farmers and villagers coached, initially covertly, by the lovely sister of the mean captain. The match is a challenge thrown down by the head of the garrison who has capriciously doubled the annual tax, Lagaan, to be paid by the locals notwithstanding that there has been no monsoon rain for two years and the fields are parched.  The challenge is to defeat the army side in a cricket match in which case the tax will be cancelled for the whole area for three years; defeat, on the other hand will lead to a ruinous trebling of the tax.  Much to the horror and consternation of the locals, the hero and skipper of the local team, Bhuvan, a courageous and honest young man adored by the prettiest girl in the village (and later by the lovely sister, who sees the potential injustice of a one-sided match and offers her advice to the home team), accepts the challenge and three months of training and preparation ensue.

Unlikely volunteers step forward to join the team.  An untouchable with a withered arm, for example, proves to be a Chandrasekhar, and spins the ball viciously, taking valuable wickets.  However, nothwithstanding his crafty bowling, the British amass 325 runs and the innings of the local team, after an encouraging start, collapses.  Enter the last batsman to join Bhuvan with many runs still needed.  It comes down to the last ball with 4 runs to win and Bhuvan, who now has a century, at the non-striker’s end.  His determined and loyal batting partner realises that the fate of the entire area is on his shoulders as he swings at the ball only for it to be fielded inside the boundary as the batsmen cross for a mere single.  Despair! But, as Bhuvan, head drooping, squats down at the striker’s end and the army side celebrate, the camera pans to the umpire standing, arm outstretched: “no-ball”.  Reprieve!  One last ball and Bhuvan on strike.  The mean captain exhorts his opening bowler to do the business.  He steams in, delivers and Bhavan swings, connects and the ball sails high towards the boundary.  The mean captain tracks back, eyes fixed on the ball and, spurred on by his team, catches it – but, yes, you guessed, he has stepped over boundary!  The locals have won. Bhuvan is embraced by his adoring girl, lifted high by the community and declared a true hero.  The garrison is shut down, the mean captain posted to deepest, darkest Africa and the lovely sister, having embraced Bhuvan’s adoring now wife-to-be, climbs back into her carriage, heartbroken, to start the journey back to England where she never marries.  Oh, and the heavens open as the monsoon blows in to irrigate the arid fields.

How important was that “no-ball”!

For those of you who have lasted the distance: Sir Neville Cardus was the renowned cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and also its chief music critic whose writings on cricket have been published in book form, for example Cardus on Cricket and A Fourth Innings with Cardus – no cricket library should be without them; Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, was one of the great pre-first world war batsmen who played for England; and Chandrasekhar, a cricketer who overcame polio and turned his disability to great advantage to become one of India’s most successful bowlers.  Kerry Packer was an Australian.  Ah yes, the second Ashes Test starts today!

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.

On the Road in India

I remember being told once that Italians view the white lines marking lanes on the roads and motorways as mere suggestions as to how they might like to use the space.  Indians have taken this concept of flexibility to an entirely different plane.  There are roads in towns and highways in the country areas that have carriageways divided by barriers, but any driver who allows that to lull him or her into a sense of security is dicing with death.  Dual-carriage highways are in theory (I think) for one-way traffic on each side, but if a driver (of a bus, a truck, a car, a motorbike or a camel or ox cart) has to get from A to B where the closest distance between the two involves going the wrong way down one of these carriageways he won’t hesitate.  So you will suddenly find one or a whole stream of them coming towards you in what you thought was the slow lane on your side.

In Tamil Nadu once, we were just admiring the brand new highway when we spotted an unexpected obstacle in the fast lane.  A farmer with a cunning plan had decided that a nice hot road was just the place to dry his grain.  So a tarpaulin on the tarmac, a few stones to keep it from blowing away, et voilà!  Sometimes on rural roads the plan is even more cunning.  Grain laid out on the road will be run over, doing the job of separating the chaff from the grain very easily indeed.

If you need to get off the highway onto a minor road to your right, you may well find that the only way across is to mount the central reservation (which will have been broken down – a bit – by others with the same mission) and drive for a few yards down the other carriageway until you can turn off.  Best to shut your eyes if you are of a nervous disposition.

The same is true in the towns.  One of our most terrifying journeys was in a cycle rickshaw (whose drivers are always the scrawniest souls around so that you feel hideously guilty accepting a ride from them) taking us from the Red Fort in Old Delhi to our vehicle, whose driver had parked further away.  The cycle rickshaw man headed down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, weaving between oncoming trucks and buses, and I have never been so afraid of imminent death in my life.

Many a time our driver here in Udaipur, realising that we need to go to a store on the other side of a crowded shopping street, has gone several yards down the road on the wrong side so as to deposit us right outside our shop.  When pulling away again, he will simply push into the traffic, into the path of oncoming tuktuks, bikes, cars etc, and make his way unhurriedly onto the right side of the road again.  This is entirely par for the course.

The other evening bringing us home he suddenly stopped as a young man riding a motorbike headed towards us on our side of a road divided by a concrete barrier, failed to control his vehicle (remarkably unusual) and clipped the front of our car.  Much consternation, the driver leaps out and harangues the sheepish young man, a crowd immediately gathers, a nearby policeman’s view is sought.  We stay in the car, thinking for the thousandth time that we will NEVER venture out behind the wheel here.  After much rather unproductive conversation, during which time the young man returns and surreptitiously wipes down the scratched bumper with a cloth, hoping to make the damage go away, our driver returns.  The young man has no money and no insurance, so beyond a bawling out there is not much to be done.  We ask what the policeman said – nothing much other than that our driver was in the right.

The only surprise is that there are so few collisions.  Indian drivers seem to know how far they can push in front of others, and our driver clearly had a sixth sense that, for once, this bike was not going to manoeuvre in time out of his way.

Police there are on the roads in town: rarely if ever singly, and generally in groups of 2-4, always to be found standing chatting to one another, their backs to anything they might actually be called upon to deal with.

Indian drivers love to ask you what are the three things a driver here needs: good brakes, good horn and good luck!  Horns are regarded as essential.  Almost every truck has ‘Horn Please’ (as well as the somewhat mysterious ‘Wait for Side’) on the back of them.  On the highways they drive in whichever lane they fancy (generally the ‘fast’ lane, for reasons perhaps explained above) so a speedier vehicle has to weave between them, the horn blaring repeatedly to try to ensure the driver has spotted it.  In town too, as one approaches a roundabout the tactic seems to be to drive straight onto it (Belgian style), horn blaring, as you play chicken with the other vehicles.  Of course you might decide that, if a big old bus is coming towards you with no obvious intention of stopping, discretion is the better part of valour.  But a mere car, bike or cart is simply to be honked at as you push in front showing you mean business.

The variety of the road users is something that takes a while to get used to.  I remember on our first trip to Jaipur some years ago, on a very busy main street, seeing a mouse crossing the road between trucks, cars, buses, scooters, elephants, camel carts, ox carts and pedestrians.  I thought it would never make it, but it was obviously a city mouse, much more skilled in braving these streets than I will ever be.

Some of the sights cannot fail to bring a smile to my face.  Today I saw a camel, snooty-looking with its nose in the air as always, pulling a flat-bed cart topped by an advertising hoarding forming a pyramid beneath which was a cassette player blaring out promotional messages.  Years ago, as we drove from Ranthambore and tiger-spotting towards Jaipur, we passed an empty petrol station where a camel had pulled up beside a petrol pump – perhaps to fill up a jerry can, who knows.  I always wish I had asked the driver to back up so John could capture the image with his camera.

Elephants are fairly common, sometimes carrying produce, sometimes wandering back home from duty trundling tourists up to a fort as at Amber near Jaipur, sometimes just carrying a mahout who is taking it to collect tributes at a temple in exchange for a ‘blessing’ from the elephant’s trunk.  (I once had to pay extra to get a second blessing as the camera wasn’t quick enough first time – no names! – and was dimly viewed by others in the queue!)  And I remember looking up from a major road in Delhi to see a couple of elephants carrying grasses crossing the bridge above us.

Camels are common too in Rajasthan.  They are often pulling carts carrying goods of one sort or another.  Donkeys are trained here to carry building materials from yard to building site without supervision.  You see them, sad little creatures, heading forlornly along the road, loaded up with bricks going one way, running a little faster on the way back, but never daring to deviate from the route.

Horses, particularly white, are hired out for ceremonies such as taking a groom to his wedding in procession with drummers and family members, and we sometimes pass stables full of surprisingly fine-looking beasts, their little ears endearingly turned inwards in true Marwari style.

Cows of course do their own thing.  They wander through the towns finding strange things to eat, before heading at dusk to be milked in a dairy which might well be in someone’s front room in the maze of backstreets of the old town, as John has described earlier.  There are ladies on the outskirts of town who sit with bundles of grass which they sell to passers-by who wish to placate their gods by feeding the cows.  One or two cows have worked out that this is a good place to hang around!   At night, they often lie down on the unlit roads, so that you have to pick your way very carefully around them.  Some of them respond to toots on the horn, some do not and have to be slapped on the rump or pushed out of the way.

One morning in Bikaner, on our way to a temple, the guide pointed out a line of dogs standing on the side of the road all looking in one direction.  There the locals would bring spare chapattis left over from breakfast and throw them at the waiting hounds, again to curry favour with the deities.

The saving grace amongst all of this chaos, as it appears to a western eye, is that the speeds are generally low.  Most of the trucks and cars do not look as if they were ever new, and buying a spanking new vehicle of any sort seems little short of folly.  One evening we came out of a restaurant in Delhi which clearly turned into a hot nightclub once the wrinklies had eaten and departed.  Hordes of well-heeled youths were hanging about waiting for the nightclub to get into gear, and as we walked outside my eyes nearly popped out of my head to see ranks of Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis lined up.  Where do they drive these cars?  Do they just sit in garages and have one trip out every Friday night?

As India ponders the value of its Grand Prix, I wonder about its relevance to 99.9% of the road users in the country.

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.