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.]

 

Water Conservation and Irrigation in Kotra

On our last trip to Kotra, the sun shone. On this occasion (end January), the sky was uncharacteristically overcast. Little did we know that it would rain heavily during the night. Such downpours occur once or twice during the winter but bring little relief to the local farmers whose struggle with the semi-arid conditions of southern Rajasthan is constant and the object of this field trip undertaken by Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development team. The goal is to explore, with the local community, opportunities for conserving monsoon rainwater, irrigating larger areas of local farmland and the best use of land so as to enhance the availability of water.

On the journey down, we pass local dwellings,

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the occasional village and fields, some of which are dry

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and others, which have benefited from irrigation, lush and green

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with a variety of crops, including wheat and BT cotton, castor and lentils.  The local communities are poor but, from time to time, there are signs of investment in much needed agricultural machinery, including the occasional tractor.

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On arriving in Kotra, we make our way to the local community which we visited on our previous trip to be shown the recently completed lift-well which enables more local farmers to irrigate a much greater area of their land and to increase their crop. The principle is that water is pumped from a local well to higher ground from which it can be used to irrigate land which would otherwise be impossible to cultivate.

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The well is in good condition and the farmers proud of the new pump.

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The first part of the day’s activities is to sit with leading members of the local community (men and women) to discuss water conservation and further irrigation.  There is a plenary meeting to outline the objectives and hear local input.

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While they have representatives of Seva Mandir with them, the villagers are keen to learn of progress in providing them with Ecosan toilets (which use no water and turn solid waste into compost).  Seva Mandir has had great success rolling these out throughout southern Rajasthan, where 60-70% of families have no access to any kind of toilet. The farmers are also concerned that, whereas the lift-well used to provide water for six hours a day, now that the weather is drier the water is running out after only three hours, though the well does fill up again overnight. Work needs to be done on the system by which it fills up. A last point mentioned is the frustration at the lack of electricity in the village. It had taken two years for the electricity company to connect the lift-well (and even now the supply is irregular), but they did not connect the village at the same time. Whereas over the state border in Gujarat every remote rural shack has power, as can be seen by the pylons rising above the fields, the same is certainly not true in Rajasthan. This is all the more frustrating when the stark contrast is so visible.

After the plenary session, the NRD team splits into two groups. One team explores options for further expanding the area served by the lift-well and discusses with farmers plans to diversify agricultural activities so as to enhance the availability of water.

We join the other team exploring opportunities to conserve monsoon rainwater, which will involve repairing existing check dams, restoring drainage lines to channel water running off the hillsides and building a small dam in a riverbed so that water can be directed into nearby fields. Seva Mandir plans to work with farmers to strengthen the gravity flow of irrigation so as to save fuel and promote eco-friendly farming.

The initial exercise is to draw a map of the area. This is done as a group activity on bright yellow paper. Key points in the local landscape are plotted.

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Once the basic details of the map have been completed, our team heads off to walk to the points of interest, starting with a drainage line which needs to be restored. Measuring and further mapping are undertaken.

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It is clear that local families desperately need more water.

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We slowly climb up to the main road where additions are made to the map.

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The possibility is explored of planting more trees to give some protection against soil erosion when the monsoon rains pour off the hillsides.

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This part of Rajasthan borders Gujarat and there are any number of local Gujarati taxis carrying passengers wherever they can find a seat (or standing room).  One senior local prefers to walk.

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We proceed down the road past some wonderful banyan trees and local farm dwellings before making our way down to a riverbed, now largely dry but which is obviously an important source of water during and following the monsoon, thus supplementing irrigation from the lift-well.

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This is where a small dam will be built and the senior engineer explains to us that dams up to a certain size can be built without permission from the relevant government department.

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We also learn that, for the moment, no more water harvesting projects can be undertaken under the auspices of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), India’s largest public employment programme, which guarantees employment via development activities prescribed by the Panchayats, the village-level elected government bodies which are very influential throughout rural India. So many water harvesting and irrigation projects have been built through this mechanism that there are now apparently more dams than teachers or hospital beds. But there was no supervision of site selection or construction of these projects, so most have proved useless. Alas, an all too common tale of a good idea implemented inefficiently.

Along the way, we inspect a pumping system which, when the water level is high enough, is used to irrigate adjacent fields.

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Leaving the riverbed, we make our way through fields planted with castor. The plant looks extremely prickly and we ask how it is harvested.  It transpires that the prickles are quite soft and that the crop is picked by hand.  ImageImage

Castor oil is produced from the seeds, which look like this.

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Further along, castor gives way to wheat and we can see evidence of lift-well irrigation as water flows down from higher to lower areas along channels which have been dug to provide direction.

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Our circuit takes us back to the meeting area and the teams convene again to complete the maps and summarise the activities which need to be undertaken.

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After this exercise, by which time it is approaching mid-afternoon, our local hosts serve a well-earned meal in a delightfully decorated semi-enclosed terrace.  This is a good opportunity to practise our eating skills without utensils.

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We then head back to the Seva Mandir ‘block’ office where we spend the night.

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It has been a fascinating day and we look forward to a future visit to see the progress made.  Once again, this is a wonderful example of Seva Mandir working with local communities to assist them improve the conditions in which they seek to cultivate their land.

Overnight it rains and we spend an equally fascinating but very different morning the next day visiting Kotra town.  Our next blog will report on our experiences.