Field Trip to Kotra


We are back on the road in late April, this time to Kotra block, the furthest-flung of Seva Mandir’s work areas. As ever, it is a challenge to persuade people that we do actually want to leave early and that 8 am really does mean 8 am, but we are finally on the way at 8.20 with a full day ahead of us. Two and a bit hours later we arrive at Seva Mandir’s complex in Kotra town and are met by the young and very efficient Himanshu, who has organized our 2-day trip. After a quick cup of chai we are on our way to see a number of the Ecosan toilets that Seva Mandir has installed in the area.

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In such a water-scarce region, where the cliché of more mobiles than toilets is absolutely true, this system has proved really successful. Solid and wet waste are kept separate. The former is stored in a chamber where it is treated with ash and, after a few months, has turned into odourless manure for the fields.

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The liquid waste is also used on the fields. As veterans of Indian loos, we were rather squeamish about inspecting an Ecosan when we first visited one a few years ago, but they are without fail kept clean and smell-free, and the families in whose yards they have been built are extremely proud of them. Persuading all the members of the family to use them and abandon old habits of using the fields is a challenge, but the success rate has gone up dramatically after the women were encouraged to help design an additional space in the small buildings where they can wash themselves and their clothes, both of which would otherwise have to happen outside.

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These loos with bathrooms (water not on tap, but carried in for washing from the nearby handpump) cost Seva Mandir Rs 21,000 (approx. £ 210) to build. The beneficiaries are required to make a contribution, which often includes materials and labour.

You may have read in the international press that India’s new prime minister, Mr Modi, promised that his priority would be ‘toilets not temples’, and indeed the government is building toilets all around this rural area, often right beside the Seva Mandir toilets. Unfortunately they build them so small and so poorly, and without digging the necessary pits, that they are almost never used. We see piles of concrete blocks left at a site ready for the construction of another of these abortive loos.

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Targets are clearly being met, but in a way that is a complete waste of money in an area so desperately short of so many basics.

We next visit a small house-cum-shop

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where the inhabitants are keen to show us their candle water filter. Seva Mandir has distributed these steel containers equipped with ceramic ‘candles’,

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which filter the water to make it potable, to rural inhabits who live too far away to benefit from chlorinated community water tanks.

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The owners have to be careful, though, as the containers can easily be knocked over by the ubiquitous goats, breaking the ceramic filters which can only be replaced in the city 150 km away.

Next stop a village water tank where the water from the adjacent well is purified with chlorine, making it safe to drink. Several women and children are collecting water in pots which they carry home on their heads. This is obviously a good place to meet and chat!

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On to some fields

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where the wheat is being harvested

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– as usual, by hand by the women.

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The wheat is separated from the straw by a threshing machine which works 24 hours a day to serve many local farmers, and is then winnowed by hand (this seems to be a man’s job, with the women carrying loads of grain to keep him supplied).

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Some very unseasonal rain and even hail has recently destroyed some of the crop, and there is a rush to complete the harvest before some more possible bad weather – quite unheard of at this time of year and devastating to these smallholders who merely scrape a living as it is.

We then have a demonstration in how to make panchagavya, a mixture of five ingredients (panch being Hindi for five): cow dung (that invaluable local resource), cow urine, jaggery (produced from sugar cane and found in all Indian homes and markets), curd and powdered pulses.   The ingredients are mixed by hand and then stored in a plastic tank – apparently becoming a bit smelly after a while!

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But it is not only organic and virtually free (the only cost being the very cheap jaggery), it has also been shown to improve the fertility and moisture of the soil. The farmers’ plots are divided into squares and the mixture is placed at all four corners, promoting fungal growth which spreads across the whole plot.

Our final visit before lunch is to a balwadi, another of Seva Mandir’s wonderful little day-care centres for children aged 1-5 which allow mothers and elder siblings to work and go to school.

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With a tiny budget, very few and very basic materials (a few sheets of paper, some stickers, some hand-sewn fabric bags for storing games, some plastic toys) and locally trained teachers, these institutions do a fantastic job – not just keeping the children safe, but also stimulating early development, monitoring them for malnutrition and providing meals and nutritional supplements.

On leaving the balwadi we find our driver talking to and photographing a group of men emerging from the bushes armed with bows and arrows and what looks like a blunderbuss. We had been told on our first visit to the area that the tribal people here have their own system of law and order, and frequently use bows and arrows to stop vehicles and rob their passengers. But this is the first time we have seen a group of armed men. At least they seem happy and unthreatening!

After a good, simple vegetarian lunch back at base we are on the road again, to visit some of the work being funded by a large grant from RBS (and so, I suppose, the British tax payer), God bless them. This project aims to increase the incomes of 1,000 local farmers threefold over three years. It involves physical work to increase the water supply, by building lift wells, check dams to divert water that otherwise flows off to neighbouring Gujarat, 3.5 km of channels to take this water alongside farmers’ fields and allow it to be used for irrigation,

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restoring old dams (anicuts) and 1,000 hectares of watershed development. In addition, it is enabling planting of useful species both in the common pastureland areas and on individual smallholdings, and providing those who are not able to benefit from any of the other water-related activities with livestock (hens and goats). This is a huge project with clear benefits to a very poor area, and Seva Mandir is working hard to get all the work done on time, writing and sending multiple reports to the donors.

Our next visit is to the dal mill, set up by Seva Mandir with the local farmers as a cooperative which buys in lentils from near-by villages and processes them,

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selling the resulting dal to an increasing number of buyers in Udaipur and further afield.

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This too has vastly improved the livelihoods of farmers who before had to take their lentils to Gujarat, depending on middlemen to buy their produce at frequently knock-down prices. As a venture it is close to break-even, but the aim is to scale up operations, if some working capital can be sourced, so that the cooperative becomes more successful.

On the way back to our base, we discuss the question of the armed locals. The tribe practises mohtana, the custom of seeking private compensation for any form of injury or accident. If someone is killed or injured (or simply thought to have been killed or injured), retribution is sought from the families of those held responsible, and indeed from whole villages. This takes the form of exorbitant financial claims (up to hundreds of thousands of rupees for a life – well beyond most of these locals) as well as physical beatings. There is apparently one village which has been deserted for years following its sacking by the inhabitants of another village. This system applies to any workplace injuries, bringing the almost unheard of (in India) concept of health and safety rather sharply into focus for Seva Mandir as it supervises the RBS work! It also explains why our Seva Mandir driver is the only one we have ever known to pull off the road when his mobile rings. You wouldn’t want to hit a goat or a cow, let alone a person, on these roads.

Before the light fades, John films a short interview for the e-newsletter with Himanshu, who is about to set off on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea, one of 9 young people from around the world chosen to attend a symposium on water. If his presentation on his Kotra model for clean drinking water and sanitation is chosen as one of top 3, he stands to win a large sum which will help Seva Mandir implement his solution to local needs. He is a sincere and impressive young man who deserves every success.

After a light supper and a surprisingly good night’s sleep on somewhat basic camp beds, we rise early the following morning and head off to visit another balwadi where John aims to take photos of children arriving for the day. Once again, actually managing to convince people that we do need to leave on time is a challenge, but we finally get to a little village day-care centre before the last of its pupils have arrived. It is set behind a house, facing a beautiful area of farmland dotted with tall palm trees as it stretches away to the Aravalli hills.   We see some raggedy tots arriving, often with siblings

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or with parents,

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but the mere sight of John with a camera terrifies them and they immediately start bawling – not quite the image we were hoping to capture!   A few are persuaded that we are not ogres and stop wailing long enough to have their photos taken.

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We then go inside the little room with its mud walls and see morning prayers. One child has the most rapt and fervent expression I have ever seen during prayer and I am captivated by her. She is radiant and when the children take turns to pick out the card with their name and drawing on it and announce their name to the class, she is bursting with joy and enthusiasm.

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On leaving the balwadi we stand for a while and watch a two women working in the fields

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and carrying huge baskets they have filled with wheat sheaves to the man at the top of the hill who is building up a pile ready for the thresher.

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On our way to our final destination we pass three vehicles loaded to overflowing with more armed men – brandishing bows and arrows, sticks, rifles and swords. Very sensibly, John does not attempt to take photos as we move swiftly on.

We park under a spreading banyan tree and set off on foot across some fields to inspect a large anicut Seva Mandir has built to store water that is then channelled into the fields.

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A cormorant dries his wings on a rock and a kingfisher makes a splash and retreats to a branch with his breakfast. As always, we have attracted a following of villagers curious to see us take an interest in their surroundings. On our way back to the car we watch a woman spreading moistened mud by hand on a patch of soil to make what appears to be an area for drying produce.

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This has been yet another very instructive field trip, and it has been wonderful to escape the town and our laptops to enjoy the fresh air for a while. We bid farewell to Himanshu and hope that his visa for South Korea comes through in time! [Post script: it did and Himanshu did indeed win a place in the top three. Warmest congratulations to him on this well-deserved success.]

 

Jawai: An Indian Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This one is a temple to the god Kali.

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

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We had only recently learnt that a tented camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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followed by a trek across the rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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