The visits of friends and relations provide excellent opportunities to go out into the field and see the work of Seva Mandir at first hand. With Maxine, Felicia’s cousin from Jamaica, making her first visit to India, we arranged with Narendra Jain, Seva Mandir’s Secretary of Girwa district east of Udaipur (as well as Programme Co-ordinator: Afforestation & Pastureland Development) to visit the village of Shisvi in which Seva Mandir has been working for some 14 years. Felicia and I had been to Shisvi on our very first visit to Seva Mandir in November 2012 and again for the Women’s Day celebrations the following year and had met a number of the villagers before.
To reach Shisvi, you take the main road towards the airport from Udaipur, heading north-east before turning right onto a smaller road which wends its way through the fields. A turn-off to the left leads up a narrow unmade road which becomes the main street of the village. It is not easy to drive up the street and the vehicle carrying us parks at the bottom of the hill and we start the walk up.
Shisvi is a wonderful example of Seva Mandir’s work with the local community, starting with the formation of a village council which is inclusive of women and young people and, as we are to witness, a true forum for discussion, debate and democratic decision-making. There are a number of examples of the benefits to the local community of cooperation with Seva Mandir and we are fortunate enough to see a number of them.
A short distance up from the vehicle, we meet Seva Mandir’s Co-ordinator in Shisvi who is our host and guide. We are first shown a women’s bathroom which has been built to provide women who have no private washing facilities at home with a safe place to wash out of the public gaze. Half of the cost was provided by the village and Seva Mandir provided the materials.
Women from the village built the cubicles themselves next to a water pump. It is a very simple building which illustrates that the needs of rural people are often very basic and that small projects to provide basic amenities can make a huge difference to people’s lives. We are told that the washing facility also provides a place for women, who are not supposed, according to local customs, to visit one another’s houses purely socially, with a place to meet and chat. As we enter the village itself, we are shown some decorated mounds of cow dung (govardhan) at the entrance to a few houses. Cows are sacred and also an asset, including their dung (which is dried and used as fuel for fires). So, local home-owners decorate the dung with corn etc. at the entrance to their houses as signs of worship which are kept for 15 days.
As we progress up the street, we are invited into a house which has a small square courtyard in which a small amount of corn is drying.
The elderly gentleman who has invited us in
explains that he owns a field of about one tenth of a hectare in which the corn is grown and that he gives 50% of the crop to the farm labourers and keeps the rest. His own share is used to feed cows and pigeons, and ground to make flour for chapattis. He also gives some to his son in Ahmedabad.
Historically, houses in the village have not had toilets and even today there is a desperate need for sanitation. One cliché is that there are more mobile phones in India than toilets. We see two examples of new installations. First, an Indian-style toilet which is flushed with buckets of water from a tank on the roof. This toilet is used by one family. Secondly, we are shown an Ecosan toilet used by a family of four which works on the principle that wet and dry waste are kept separate.
The wet waste is used on the fields and the dry, after six months in a chamber with ashes and sand, becomes odourless manure which is also used on the land. The family which owns this Ecosan have a flourishing vegetable garden.
We are offered some juicy limes which make the best fresh lime soda you will ever have!
Seva Mandir is installing these Ecosans, with government support, throughout southern Rajasthan. As they use no water, they are ideal for this arid state.
Seva Mandir has built 21 of the flushing variety and 118 Ecosan toilets in Shisvi so that approximately 50% of families now have their own toilet. When we ask why not all families have opted for their own toilet, our host explains that old habits die hard and that many people, including surprisingly women, still prefer to visit the open fields. Education and changing attitudes remain a huge challenge.
In the first house, we are also shown a traditional wood-fire cooking stove on which chapattis have been made that morning.
A little further up the street, we are met by a welcoming party of villagers who hang garlands of marigolds and paint bindis on our (as well as some of the local elders’) foreheads as a sign of welcome and to help ward off evil spirits.
This is all very jolly and lively and we are introduced to some very striking gentlemen who are local Mewaris – Mewar being the historic kingdom in which Udaipur is situated.
These gentlemen then sit together in the courtyard of one house, smoking and discussing while they wait for the village council meeting to start.
Another project on which Seva Mandir works with local communities is water harvesting. In this part of India, the monsoon rains are the main source of water for the year and fall in a short period from end-June (this year the rains were late and started in mid-July) to September. Whether for agricultural or for domestic use, it is essential to conserve as much of the monsoon gift as possible. We are shown one house which has a harvesting system to collect water falling on the flat roof via a downpipe
into a storage tank underground.
Again, this is a simple system but one which makes a huge difference for the family concerned: the tank holds 10,000 litres of water which will last three to four months, depending on use: washing, irrigation of local nursery gardens, cattle. So far, only 13 families have water harvesting and our host from Seva Mandir tells us that there is much more to do.
But Seva Mandir has also worked with the local community to replace a village well built by the local panchayat (the formal local council elected under the auspices of the state government). This well, connected to a large tank, had functioned for a year before the source dried up as it had been dug in the wrong spot. Seva Mandir brought in experts to advise on the best place to sink a new well and then worked with the village to provide a pipe and pump to bring the water to the large tank which now supplies 100 or so families in the village.
These families contribute each month into a fund which is administered by a local committee of 17 people to pay for pump and pipe and to build a reserve to effect repairs when needed. The contribution is voluntary and roughly two-thirds of the families in the village elect not to contribute. Accordingly, they are not entitled to water from this tank and obtain their water from one of the few standpipes in the village. This is a good example of the importance of villagers making basic economic choices and deciding for themselves the value they attach to certain facilities which they then pay to maintain.
Close to the tank is a temple, the Dharmaraja temple, with an outside area used by villagers to cook communal meals to celebrate some auspicious event or simply to worship or request something from the gods. Even a huge cooking pan is provided!
The temple itself is, like many, very simple but decorated inside with peacock feathers.
The temple is renowned for its powers to cure snakebites.
As we start our descent from the temple, we pass a house with goats in the front yard and several houses drying sesame seeds, before passing the village school with youngsters who are amused to see us.
Older inhabitants stand in doorways
and sit on doorsteps
and exchange ‘namaste’ (good morning). We are greeted by one woman we have met before.
She reminds us that she had helped to prepare the lunch which we had eaten on our very first visit in 2012. We had also seen her at the Women’s Day celebrations – a very striking face. She takes us into her house with a large courtyard shared by a number of family members of different generations
and the woman picks up a baby who has just woken up.
In the small room, there is a swinging cradle which looks most comfortable!
We are cordially invited to masala chai, which we would eagerly have stayed to enjoy had it not been that the village meeting was shortly to start and our presence awaited. So we thank our generous hosts and take our leave.
Not that the route to the meeting is without its discursions. On our first visit to Shisvi, we had met a woman called Nirmala who had started her own shop with a micro-loan from the local Women’s Self-help Group. Her husband had been very sceptical but had been won over when he saw the success of the shop. We had then seen Nirmala at the Women’s Day Celebrations when she had spoken and presented one of the prizes, still a little unsure about her newfound confidence. But now she explains through our interpreter that the shop continues to do well, she is now also helping her husband with a small electrical repairs business (domestic appliances likes fan) and that they have saved up to open a shop on the main road.
To add icing to the cake, her daughter is studying fashion design in Udaipur. Nirmala, too, invites us to stay for tea, but duty calls and we have to move on.
Before arriving at the meeting, we are invited to visit the house of an old family (from the Rajput warrior caste who were allowed to eat meat).
It had obviously once been beautiful and still retains a certain grandness.
In centuries gone by, the women of the house were not allowed out and remained in the inner courtyard so as not to be seen by men outside the family. The design of the entrance to the first courtyard and the entrance to the inner courtyard ensures that peeping Toms on the street cannot look in to see the women. The custom persists to some extent. John does not count for these purposes obviously, but it is noticeable that a woman in the inner courtyard hides her head behind a veil and does not approach us, unlike the woman who had greeted us and shown us her house and baby. So this is a caste-based custom rather than a local one. We have much to learn! On the way out, we pause to take in the family shrine
at which warriors in centuries past would worship before heading off to battle.
Finally, we are shown the Youth Resource Centre, started four years ago by Seva Mandir, and are introduced to some of the young people who go there.
The young, post-graduate woman leader of the YRC explains some of the activities, including a mock-up of a village newspaper prepared by the young people attending the centre which is proudly displayed on the wall behind her.
Training in employment skills is a key activity for the 14- to 25-year-olds who attend, as well as discussion of health, hygiene and youth-related issues and gender-awareness training – an essential activity if old customs and attitudes towards girls and women are to be changed. There is huge encouragement in seeing this young, bright and confident youth leader who has clearly succeeded despite such attitudes but, as always, there remains much to do.
Leaving by the side door of the small room which houses the YRC, we are taken into the courtyard where the meeting is to be held but are first ushered into another small room off it to the back in which young women are undertaking training in machine sewing.
The training is organized by a representative of Sadhna, now an independent women’s co-operative, but originally a project started by Seva Mandir to help local women earn some money making garments. Sadhna has now grown and its members, based in different locations, undertake promotional trips to other cities in India and sometimes even abroad. An older woman at the subsequent meeting recounts that she has been on such trips and met people like us – we hope this is a positive remark!
The sewing training is a relatively recent initiative in Shisvi and, at the village meeting, there is a long discussion of how the scheme might be expanded. It transpires that the organizers had invited local communities to send young male candidates to be part of the training scheme. Laudable as this clearly is, we suspect that part of the discussion focuses on the need to expand the training for girls and women. In any event, a positive development.
As were emerge once more into the shady courtyard, local women, girls and men (including our Mewari friends from earlier) come in and take their seats mainly on the ground. We are invited to sit up front facing the meeting which starts with Narendra introducing us and then asking if we have questions. We certainly do and there follows an increasingly lively discussion with detailed answers to our questions ranging from local agriculture to education (there is a government school in the village – the one we had seen) and health (there is one Ayurvedic clinic and one Seva Mandir-trained health-worker (who would typically assist pregnant women and accompany them to a state hospital some 10 km away but who would also perform deliveries at home if required) and a monthly immunization camp for pregnant women and babies; mobile phone usage (99% of the village has a mobile phone); television (75% of households in the village have a TV); types of local employment apart from agriculture (mainly construction and general labouring in the city) and unemployment. For the women and girls, there is no local skills training apart from the sewing: 55 women are engaged in hand sewing and 25, now, in machine sewing. Apart from Nirmala’s small shop, there are three others run by men and two others run by women. The shops run by women appear to be popular with the women of the village since, again, they also provide a forum to meet and discuss. The local village fund and self-help groups have provided small loans to individuals and groups to start businesses, including a flour mill, chai shop and, recently, a washing powder making initiative (of which more below). Future projects included developing horticulture and fruit-growing for sale (apples, mangoes, bananas, naseberries) and livestock.
In turn we answer, to the best of our ability, questions on agriculture in the UK, the weather there, attendance by children at school, women’s participation in the workplace, marriage customs … We suggest exporting British rain to Rajasthan and Rajasthani sun to the UK – laughs all round! One lady also asks how it is that if Felicia and her cousin are from Jamaica they are not black! Obviously not enough Rajasthani-type sun!
Our host eventually calls the meeting to order and the first part is devoted to the issue of cleaning the village. Notwithstanding best intentions at the time of India’s independence in 1947, the caste system is still integral to much of Indian life, particularly in the rural areas. In Shisvi, there are five or six castes, including Rajput families, but no families from the caste of street sweepers. Accordingly, there is an ongoing discussion in the village about how to engage sweepers from outside the village to come in on a commercial basis to keep the streets clean.
A village elder, a gentleman with conviction and persuasiveness in his voice and gestures,
summarizes the negotiations with the external sweeping contractors who wants Rs 4,000 (roughly £40) a month for 1-2 days’ work sweeping the streets. He reminds the meeting that the counter-proposal is that every household would pay in kind 1 kg of grain each month to the street sweepers but that all households have to participate in the scheme. There is a long debate and it is apparent that there is some dissension, but the village elder holds his ground and the motion is agreed.
The meeting then turns to the sewing initiative and, apart from expansion of the scheme, touches on quality control, voucher payment, insurance, travel costs and comparisons with established Sadhna centres like the one in Delwara about 40 kilometres to the north of Udaipur which now features on a heritage walk of this ancient town conducted by Seva Mandir-trained local youth and well worth the visit if you are in the area.
One elderly lady explains that she spends much of her time cleaning at home and cannot work much to generate income: she earns only Rs 400 (£4) a month from Seva Mandir and needs to earn more. Another reports that her husband is sick and that she too needs the opportunity to earn more.
After matters have been exhaustively discussed and debated and decisions taken in the best traditions of democracy, the meeting breaks up and we leave too to be shown the small upstairs room across the road where the washing powder is stored. A small number of local woman have started this initiative to boost monthly income while continuing to perform their usual roles. Chemicals, which have been tested to ensure relative eco-friendliness, are purchased in Udaipur and then mixed and bagged up by the small co-operative.
The bright blue powder is sold in the village and surrounds for Rs 50/kg which is competitive with other sources and nets a profit per bag of Rs 4 (4 pence). The women cannot charge more: if they did, their purchasers would go elsewhere. The total monthly profit is about Rs 100 (about £1) at the moment but it is hoped that the project will grow and profits as well.
It has been a long morning and we are now well into the afternoon. We say our goodbyes and thank our welcoming hosts. Narendra suggests we stop in another village on the main road before rejoining the highway back to Udaipur to have some street food for lunch.
It is delicious and very welcome!