Badgaon block (or administrative district) is one of the closest to Udaipur of the rural areas in which Seva Mandir works. Many of its villages can be reached by taking the main highway which runs east–west just north of Bedla village on Udaipur’s northern outskirts and heading west for 20 kilometres or so before branching off left to pass between fields bordered by dry stone walls. The countryside is hilly as this area nestles in the Aravalli hills which continue their ancient journey in a southwesterly direction towards Gujarat. Today, we are not going so far. Kotra, one of the farthest of Seva Mandir’s blocks from Udaipur, lies some 150 kilometres further out and borders on Gujarat, but our destination, the hamlet of Dholi Ghati, one of three hamlets near the village of Jogiyon-ka-Guda, is only a few kilometres from the highway.
Representatives of Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development (NRD) team are to hold a meeting with the inhabitants of Dholi Ghati to discuss the new water tank which has been built in their hamlet with Seva Mandir’s support to provide clean drinking water. The meeting, which will discuss how the local inhabitants will undertake, and contribute financially to, the maintenance of the tank, will be followed by a practical training session on chlorinating the water in the tank which holds 4,000 litres.
The new tank is part of a larger project started in December 2013 to support the three hamlets of Jogiyon-ka-Guda through the construction of three new water tanks fed by existing wells, the restoration of these three wells and the repair of a government-constructed water tank. A number of village meetings were held to assess the clean drinking water needs in three hamlets and to discuss the contribution to be made by the local people to the creation of these community assets. In line with Seva Mandir’s normal practice, 10 – 20% of the overall cost of the project should be borne by the local community contributing either in cash or kind. In this case, the local community contributed the stone to construct the tank and the labour as well as a small amount in cash paid into the village fund (the Gram Vikas Kosh).
The Seva Mandir team of Himmat, Victoria, Bhupendra and Mohan is accompanied by two volunteers. The team has kindly agreed to collect me en route to the highway via Bedla. Once underway, the first stop is for delicious chai and nibbles in Gogunda, which is no more than three-quarters of a cross-roads but bustling with life, to provide sustenance before we start the meeting and training. This is an NRD tradition and one which should most definitely be continued!
On arriving at Dholi Ghati, we are warmly welcomed by a number of local people who start to spread a large mat, partly in the shade of the beautiful neem tree, which will be the venue for the meeting. While this is happening, I visit the small balwadi, a preschool day centre for children up to the age of five, which is only a few metres away. The sanchalika (nursery teacher) and her young assistant are giving the toddlers their early lunch. The youngsters seem to be on good form — they have certainly eaten up well, judging by how little is left on their plates!
The balwadis, in this and many other communities, were started by Seva Mandir and continue to be funded in part through donations raised by it from mainly international donors but with the local community contributing as it can. The balwadis provide preschool facilities which prepare the children either for attendance at a government school or, where there is no functioning government school, possibly at one of Seva Mandir’s own bridge schools or shiksha kendras. Notwithstanding that the government has a statutory obligation to provide schooling for all children, more often than not in the rural areas there is no government school within reach of the village or, if there is one, no teacher who has been appointed to the school or, if there is both a school and an appointed teacher, the teacher is never or rarely there: on average, teacher absenteeism in government schools in theses rural areas is as high as 80%. In these cases, the Seva Mandir shiksha kendras provide essential education while villagers, again with Seva Mandir’s support, lobby for their rights to government education.
Outside in the warm sunlight, the locals begin to congregate and take their places on the mat. There is obviously a good relationship with the NRD team with whom they exchange news while waiting for others to arrive. The women are colourfully dressed and sit together partly in the sunshine (it is the beginning of winter after all!) whilst the NRD team and the volunteers find places in the shade.
These meetings are always a challenge for the photographer, with bright light and dark shadows testing the camera’s ‘dynamic range’ (the spectrum from dark to light tones in the image which the digital sensor can record) and therefore the technical exposure skills of the photographer. The women ask Victoria why I am taking so many photographs and this is the reason. Diplomatically, however, Victoria does not explain that the photographer is ‘technically challenged’ but indicates that it is good to have a good number of images from which to make a selection for various Seva Mandir publications! The women are intrigued but satisfied.
The meeting starts and the first topic on the agenda is the new water tank. It is necessary to decide which members of the local community will take responsibility for cleaning the tank and also how much each household will contribute to a small fund to pay for maintenance and eventually repairs. There are both men and women from the hamlet present but it is striking that it is the women who take the initiative, led by the woman president of the Gram Samuh or local residents’ committee. This woman is a jolly soul with a big smile and obvious sense of humour. With one other woman seated close to her, she volunteers to take responsibility for cleaning and maintenance.
The setting up of village committees which are inclusive, in particular, of women has been at the very core of Seva Mandir’s approach to development in southern Rajasthan for nearly half a century. Overcoming traditional divisions and prejudices in the local communities, whether based on gender, caste or age, and building consensus has been a vital component of securing the commitment of local people to the projects on which Seva Mandir has worked with the communities, be they setting up a balwadi and remunerating the sanchalika and, if there is one, her assistant; training traditional birth assistants who support pregnant women or bal sakhis who provide postnatal medical advice and support for mothers, their babies and young children; building a small dam (anicut) to help collect monsoon rainwater for irrigation; recovering and protecting common pastureland; building Ecosan or traditional wet toilets; or any of the other essential facilities which we take for granted in the so-called developed world. Without local residents accepting ‘ownership’ of the projects, the projects will not be successful. One of Seva Mandir’s strengths, born of years of constructive collaboration with the communities with which it works, is a bond with the local people and an understanding of the village institutions which they have established. This bond and understanding, so clearly evident in the excellent relationship which Himmat, Victoria and the two locally based or zonal members of the team, Bhupendra and Mohan, have with our hosts and the manner in which the meeting is conducted reflect mutual respect and shared experiences, but also Seva Mandir’s deep insights into the dynamics of village life which account for its ability to communicate meaningfully with the community and to advise and support in a constructive way. This long-term relationship is at the heart of the ‘democratic and participatory development’ fostered by Seva Mandir, which is typified by the meeting I am privileged to attend.
The meeting also agrees the sum that each household will contribute to the maintenance and repair fund before moving onto the next topic, the provision of Ecosan toilets.
It may seem remarkable to westerners visiting rural India, but many country folk here still have no toilet in or close to their homes and use the open fields. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that there are more mobile phones in India than toilets. Seva Mandir has worked with local communities to explain the benefits of installing a toilet: there is the security aspect for women and girls who are vulnerable to assault when visiting the fields, particularly before sunrise and after dark; there is a health aspect in the provision of proper sanitation: and, in the case of Ecosan toilets, an agricultural benefit. The Ecosan toilet works on the principle that urine and dry matter are kept separate. The dry matter is kept in a pit below the toilet, treated with sand or ash, and turns to odourless organic manure which is then used on the fields or small garden allotments in which the villagers grow a few vegetables and even fruit around their homes.
The woman president of the Gram Samuh explains that the villagers have seen examples of both the Ecosan toilets which Seva Mandir has helped build and government-built models. She is most definite that she prefers those built with Seva Mandir’s support. Victoria asks why. Well, the president replies, ‘I am not as slender as some of the women and I cannot fit into those government toilets!’ That settles it! A new project for the NRD team in Dholi Ghati!
This important issue decided, the meeting breaks up and we walk to the new water tank, pristinely painted, where Himmat first explains the importance of chlorination
before practical instruction is given on measuring the chlorine and mixing it well with the correct volume of water before the solution is poured into the 4,000-litre water tank. The president is nothing if not hands-on and steps forward to receive the training. She is shown how best to measure the chlorine before mixing it thoroughly in the water by pouring the solution from one bucket to another and repeating the process several times as the other women, a few children and the men look on admiringly.
Ethel, one of the volunteers, remarks perceptively that there are in fact, apart from the toddlers in the balwadi who are now having a post lunch nap, very few children of school-going age in attendance. This is a good sign since it means that the local children are indeed in school!
Once the chlorine solution is well mixed, a local youth takes the bucket and scales the brand new ladder propped against the tank. The ladder is painted bright green and stands out against the freshly painted yellow walls of the tank. He pours the solution into the tank through an opening in the roof which he then closes again.
Back at ground level, the locals gather in front of their clean water tank for the photographer. There are obviously immensely pleased and proud, as they should be.
While waiting for the chlorine solution to mix with the water in the tank, the women ask Victoria about the colour of the hair of the other volunteer, Therese, who is a tall and striking Swedish girl with long blonde hair tied in a pony tail down her back. Victoria explains that the blonde hair and the fair skin go together and that it is natural. Some of the women tentatively stretch out a hand and stroke it with intrigue and delight. It appears that the women have also asked why the photographer has silver grey in his hair. Victoria, usually so diplomatic, responds candidly: ‘Oh, he’s just old!’ So, not just technically challenged but ancient too!
It is not clear whether sufficient time has passed for the chlorination process to be completed, but the women have waited long enough and one walks confidently over to the taps at the side of the tank with a drinking jug which she fills and then returns to offer water to her colleagues.
There is much tasting and conferring as if sampling a beaujolais nouveau: yes, soft and delicious! The clean drinking water project is up and running!
As we wait for our vehicle to take us back to town, our hosts offer chai, not just one but several cups, which is most welcome. I reflect on the privilege of witnessing the fruits of Seva Mandir’s hard work and the dedication of its team members in leading this clean water project to a successful conclusion, and the evidence of strong local women taking responsibility for this new facility — perhaps only a small step along the road to empowerment, but an important one. All in all, an enlightening and uplifting experience!
My thanks to the wonderful Seva Mandir team!