An Immunization Camp in Badgaon

In April we visited another of the immunization camps that Seva Mandir runs every month in a number of remote rural hamlets. The government does have an immunization programme, but in these rural areas staffing of the camps and surgeries can be erratic, and it’s tough for mothers to walk miles with babes in arms only to find that the doctor or nurse hasn’t turned up this time.

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An alarmingly small percentage of India’s rural children are fully immunized (35% in a recent study of the children attending Seva Mandir’s day-care centres) so providing a reliable service is very important.

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Records are kept and mothers who cannot read or write make a fingerprint in the register.

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In these remote areas one problem is making sure that all those who need the service are aware of when the camp will be held.  Another is ensuring that mothers understand what to expect after their child has been immunized (that it is normal, for example, for their child to run a low temperature and be a bit under the weather after some injections) and also how important it is to complete the series of inoculations.

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As an incentive, each mother receives 1 kg of lentils each time her child is inoculated, and a set of stainless steel serving dishes and utensils when the course is completed.

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Seva Mandir has trained a team of nurses to administer the inoculations (mainly diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles and hepatitis as well as oral polio vaccine)

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and to give antenatal check-ups to pregnant women.

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We drive out to a small hamlet in Badgaon block, north-west of the city, and take with us members of the SM team and a doctor who will have a look at any children in need of medical attention.

In attendance are Bal Sakhis (local women who specialize in the care of infants) and Traditional Birth Attendants,

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all trained by Seva Mandir. In an area where much so-called medical care is provided by totally untrained quacks, with frequently disastrous, sometimes fatal, results, this is a huge contribution to the region’s health.

As on our previous visit to an immunization camp, this one is held in a building which also houses an anganwadi, a government-sponsored mother- and childcare centre.

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This room, like others we have visited, is decorated with illustrations from Aesop’s fables, which seems curious in the wilds of rural Rajasthan!

Immunization camps are not quiet places: babies go instantly from contentedly lying in their mothers’ arms to curiosity when the nurse approaches, to noisy shock and outrage when the needle jabs!

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The fact that no child I have ever seen in rural India wears a nappy also makes for the odd accident, but that’s one of the advantages of sitting on a mat on the floor – easy to clean and quick to dry!

Field Trip to Badgaon

It is always exciting to set off on a field trip with Seva Mandir: the countryside around Udaipur is beautiful, we always learn so much about rural ways and the NGO’s life-changing work, and we are always welcomed so warmly.

On this occasion, in April, our tasks are to take photos for this year’s Annual Report and collect material for the new e-newsletter, so we plan two field trips to help us with both.  The first is to Badgaon, a rural area close to Udaipur.  We set off with Victoria and Shahid from the Natural Resources Development team and head out of town on the highway that leads to Mount Abu, turning off for Haldighati and wending our way through really stunning countryside.

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The wheat harvest has started and we pass fields strewn with golden sheaves awaiting collection.

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Our first port of call is Losing. We spot a group of people working far up on the hillside and learn that this is what we have come to see.

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We find a place where we can scale the wall protecting this area of common land, scramble over it, and then begin to pick our way up the hillside, soon discovering that each step has to be carefully planned and tested as the stones move beneath our feet and it would be all too easy to slip back downhill. Another hazard at the lower level is evidence of one of the major problems of rural India, which Seva Mandir targets through the installation of Ecosan toilets – open defecation.

Shahid is very attentive and gives me his hand, guiding me towards the best route upwards. I bless the healing of the metatarsal that I broke last year. It is only when I reach the top that I learn that my guide himself had a bad accident some time ago and is in fact a bit wobbly on his own pins!  The sun beats down and its 40 degrees rapidly find the areas on my neck that I have omitted to plaster with sun cream.

We finally reach the spot towards the top of the hill where the activity we have come to see is taking place. A team of women are digging trenches to help prevent soil erosion once the monsoon comes,

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and holes in the ground where trees will be planted for the same purpose.

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These women, supervised by a couple of men, are working in the full sun, wearing floor-length skirts, long scarves-cum-veils and only flipflops on their feet.

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I ponder, not for the first time, how so many Indian men can claim that women have no place in society but are flowers to be cherished and carefully kept out of harm’s way, when in fact, in town and country alike, they form the backbone of the workforce, engaging in back-breaking labour, whether it be mending roads or digging trenches.

I think in particular of the defence lawyer interviewed in the BBC’s film, India’s Daughter, banned in India soon after its release, who makes these claims as a pretext for locking women and young girls in their homes lest they get what is coming to them from leading rapists into temptation.

This activity, like the one we will see next, is covered by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a government initiative to provide paid employment via development activities prescribed by the Panchayats or local village councils. Seva Mandir acts as agent, supervising work and checking on its quality, thereby ensuring that the development work undertaken is actually going on in the right place and will be of some benefit, and that it is not just ‘paper work’, claimed for but never carried out. In all too many of these projects up and down the country, money is either spent on totally useless works for lack of proper research and monitoring, or paid to local officials without a stroke of work being undertaken. Alas, even Seva Mandir’s supervision cannot guarantee that the wages due are actually paid in full or on time by the government departments, and they regularly have to explain to frustrated workers that they are unable to pay what the government owes them.

Discussing this later with a member of the SM team, I learn that women are more numerous in these teams undertaking MGNREGA activities because, while the wages paid (up to Rs 163 or about £1.65 a day) are quite good for women who don’t generally go far from home to work, a skilled male worker can earn up to Rs 350 so is more likely to travel further afield for such jobs.

John takes photos of the women (no one who reads the next Annual Report will realise quite how hard the photographer worked to get these images!)

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while our friends from Seva Mandir take a roll call – part of their job as agents for the MGNREGA work.

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John also uses his best Hindi to ask the men to undertake some actual work for the camera! Much amusement at the thought but the men do oblige.

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The view from our vantage point is spectacular and our trek well worthwhile.

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There is clearly some amusement and interest in what these unlikely foreigners are doing up this hill, so Victoria explains to them that we have come a very long way and are very old!!   I hope she also gave them some indication of why we had come! As I had been fearing all the way up the slope, the time comes to descend. The local supervisor of works suggests a vertical descent, which we decline. I have no doubt that we would reach the bottom, but probably rather too fast and I have no wish to renew my acquaintance with plaster casts. So we take the zigzag route we used to ascend. This time I am guided by a local man who seems a little timid about taking my hand, but does kindly guide me down, muttering gently in the tones I imagine he would use to encourage his goat along the same track. I find it rather charming. I also enjoy the clean, earthy smell of people who have been working in the sun – indeed, as smells so often do, this smell of honest toil takes me straight back to my childhood in Jamaica and makes me feel happy.

We congratulate ourselves on reaching the bottom safely and swig repeatedly from our water bottles, before setting off in the car for another MGNREGA site.

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This time teams of people are repairing a wonderful and very long dry-stone wall which encloses a village’s common pastureland. Each team consists of five people – three women who collect stones of differing sizes and weights,

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carrying them back to the wall where two men fit them onto the top and secure them. The women, as ever, wear long skirts, skimpy tops and long, long shawls that cover their heads and, when they feel it necessary or appropriate, according to the status of the men observing them, their faces. They are also decked in their jewellery – anklets, bracelets, nose rings and all, which are the traditional adornments (and indeed investments) of these country women.

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Without exception, they have such graceful posture and glide along this rough path with their loads on their head as if born to the catwalk.

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The views from this hill are breathtakingly beautiful, and we once again feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to visit these places and people that no tourists will ever see. The wall too is a thing of beauty, but also serves an important role. In this arid area common pastureland, which belongs to the whole community and provides them with fodder for their livestock, is of vital importance. It is also under constant threat from farmers who decide to ‘encroach’ or take for their own private use areas intended by the government for all the local inhabitants. Victoria points out to us several encroached fields on the opposite hill.

Once again, our NRD friends take the roll call, checking that all those who are signed up for this activity are actually taking part.

While out in the middle of nowhere, I hear two incongruous mobile ring tones: Schubert’s Trout theme and Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.   Not for the first time, I wonder what these eminent Austrians would have made of their music being used in this way and in such remote areas – perhaps they would have been rather flattered.

We then walk a different way to the village, passing an enclosure which one of the local tribes, the Gayeri, have built for their sheep. Climbing over another wall, we come into a schoolyard where the pupils at this government school pose for photos we hadn’t even intended to take. No flies on these kids!

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We are invited to sit for a while in the house of one of the village committee leaders,

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whose entire family soon gathers to welcome and peer at these strange beings from far away.

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Delicious lassi is brought out and John defends England’s honour by downing a vast number of glasses!

Our host is a farmer who has a sideline as an estate agent, enabling other farmers to mortgage or sell off parts of their land to city-dwellers – a somewhat shortsighted move which, we fear, is storing up problems for the future.

Time to return home, having discovered another remarkably beautiful area of Rajasthan that is completely off the beaten track.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!