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!

Women’s Day Celebrations

An invitation to a Women’s Day celebration in one of Seva Mandir’s rural areas is always one to jump at, as they are very colourful and joyous occasions. So when we were invited to join the festivities in Mohandungri village in March we didn’t hesitate.

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One of the key focuses of Seva Mandir’s work in southern Rajasthan is women’s empowerment. You may not like the slightly jargonistic term, but it is appropriate. In the 700 villages with which Seva Mandir works, the majority of the women are from tribal communities and, while they may have some freedoms not shared by women in other regions (notably the right to move around from place to place, and the right to choose their partners), they face significant disadvantages in other respects. They are traditionally excluded from the social institutions that regulate social behaviour in their villages, and frequently face domestic violence and abuse. Their access to education and health services and their ability to share in their family’s decisions on finances are very limited. None of this stops them doing their share of hard physical work – digging and repairing roads and walls, agricultural work, fetching water on their heads from miles away – as well as cooking, cleaning and child rearing, of course.

Seva Mandir has been working for over 20 years to make gender relations more equitable. In a nutshell, the work includes insisting that village committees, which are the starting point for the NGO’s involvement in the development of a village, contain women in meaningful roles; helping the women set up discussion and mediation groups to allow them to talk about domestic violence and to find practical solutions to cases brought to them (and, very importantly, bringing the men to accept these solutions); helping them set up cooperatives to which they contribute and from which they can secure loans at reasonable rates; providing reliable and regular health care for women and children; and encouraging parents to educate girls, and women to become teachers.

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So the tentful of brightly dressed women and children we encountered on arrival at Mohandungri had a lot to celebrate.

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As ever, the sexes sat mostly apart – women and children at the front, men at the rear (fewer than the women, but obviously interested – or perhaps drawn by the excuse for a day off, music and fun, and a free lunch!).

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There must have been over 500 people gathered in this open-sided tent set up in school grounds surrounded by the lovely brown Aravalli hills. The heat was intense.

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Being guests of Seva Mandir, we qualified as VIPs and were welcomed with a crimson dot carefully applied to our foreheads, a friendship bracelet tied round our wrists and a garland hung round our necks. Other VIPs included people from other organisations such as NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), the Village Watershed Programme, and a Seva Mandir-trained teacher from one of its schools who has been elected sarpanch (head of the village-level government body), as well as SM’s General Secretary and several staff from head office and the local block (or rural division).

As always, the speeches began with a recap of development activities in the village over the last 25 years – a new road, a federation of women’s self-help groups, loans from NABARD to facilitate much of the physical work going on in the area (added to by village contributions), health and nutrition initiatives sponsored by overseas institutions, and a celebration of the villagers’ ability to resist the temptation to opt for personal benefits over communal.

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A succession of local women were invited to summarise the previous day’s discussions on women’s health (in particular, concern with regard to female consumption of tobacco, which is chewed as well as smoked in the region, and even marijuana) the education of children and adolescents (the usual story in rural India – not enough good schools or teachers), and migration of young people aged 14-20 (who go away to seek work and live in difficult conditions). One new development that was welcomed was the building of a hostel for 100 girls near a decent school, thus allowing girls to continue their education in safety.

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Migration is a knotty problem in this whole area. The women felt that it wasn’t all bad. Young people who migrated for work (often to the neighbouring state of Gujarat to pick cotton) brought in more money, but they often didn’t use it very well, buying tobacco and mobile phones, going to the cinema, in other words spending it on themselves rather than circulating it within their community.   The influence of Bollywood films and the mobile culture is clearly not felt to be a healthy one. Girls who live away from their villages also strike up relationships with boys (something that is certainly frowned upon throughout much of Indian society), leading to an increase in teenage pregnancies. (Of course, after an arranged marriage, sometimes at what seems to us like a very young age, early pregnancy is not a problem, but it clearly is if the girls are not married and not with a boy chosen and approved by their families.) There is a link with the state of rural education here, as the mothers felt that, while in school, their daughters’ behaviour was under control but that, once they migrated, their teenage energies and hormones led them into trouble. The moral: spend more time focusing on school-age children and guiding them towards healthier behaviour.

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There followed a puppet show – along the lines of Punch and Judy. One man speaks in English, which the woman he is addressing doesn’t understand. ‘What is your name? How are you? Who are you?’ Hilarity all round!

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There followed a dramatic exploration of the topics just discussed – promoting schools, parent-teacher relationships, even giving birth in hospital – and finally some patriotic chants!

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After this interlude there were further recaps of the women’s discussions held earlier on the subject of maternal health – the distance and time taken to reach government health services which can be very inaccessible to these rural women. Some women feel they have no choice but to move somewhere nearer to a road in the last stages of pregnancy to avoid the need to walk miles to get help when they go into labour. They said the general feeling was that pregnant women were not fragile and needed no special consideration, but they agreed this needed serious consideration.

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Then we came to the musical part of the day: four girls came forward to dance, dressed in caps and sporting dark glasses and hair studs, scarves tied over their shoulders.

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Another group sang about the village coming together and taking control to solve its own problems.   ‘Let’s organise meetings, get more women to join.’

A newly arrived VIP from a government department talks about women’s role in society and the need to end discrimination against women and give them more opportunities to work.

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She points out an uncomfortable truth which is that it’s not just men discriminating against women, but often mothers giving preferential treatment to sons. Women do indeed have an important role in Indian society.

Another government representative arrives (promptness clearly not being a requirement for any official in India!) and talks about education and sanitation.

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The Seva Mandir General Secretary talks about the importance of physical projects such as watershed work aimed at helping the community to save water and prevent soil erosion during the monsoons, vital in this area which is dry for 9-10 months of the year. But he points out that managing demand for water is as important as its conservation. He says, ‘Seva Mandir is not just about providing schools, childcare centres and watershed projects. We are a family. You are Seva Mandir. We need to work together to make the government more accountable.’

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Before our arrival there had been various sporting activities and it was now time for the prize-giving. We were asked to give out some of the prizes – a huge and rather humbling honour for us.

A final speech from the local block coordinator thanks the local villages for contributing Rs 1,000 and 200 kg flour for this event. Cue drumming, dancing and very loud recorded music blaring from speakers,

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and lunch follows for all.

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♯SevaMandir

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♯education

♯womeninsociety

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.

Three Children at Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp

We have written before of Seva Mandir’s wonderful Residential Learning Camps, which give out-of-school rural children two months of intensive education three times a year. During a recent visit on one of the last days of term, I met three children, chatting with them through two of their teachers. All the children’s names have been changed for this blog.

Anant is a tall young man of around 13-14 years old – like several of these rural children, he’s not quite sure of his exact age. He comes from a village in Girwa block and this is his second Camp. Anant’s father is no longer alive so he lives with his mother, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his younger brother. His older brother, who works in a marble factory, looks after the family, and the younger three children go to school while their mother stays at home.

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Anant did go to school at one time, but dropped out after his father died. He was sent to pick BT cotton across the state border in Gujarat for a while, then ended up washing dishes at a hotel in Udaipur for two months,

He really enjoys the Learning Camps and is particularly keen on maths. The chance to learn in groups of ten

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with a kind and inspiring teacher is one all the children really value, and it is striking that if you ask them what they would like to be in later life, they all reply, ‘a teacher’. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but it is interesting to see how much these delightful children appreciate the gentleness of these men and women who treat them kindly and open up for them the wonders of reading, writing and doing sums.

Anant is in A grade, the highest grade of the Camp, and we see for ourselves the impressive sums the children do in class.

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He loves cricket and is a keen fast bowler. He is also a very good dancer and when I first met him he was looking forward to performing at the Camp’s closing ceremony. There are about ten other children from his village at this Camp so he feels at home here.

Anant would very much like to attend a third Camp later this year if his mother agrees – and if the family can afford to let him go. The Camp is free, and provides board and lodging, books and school equipment as well as uniforms for all those attending, but the children are not earning money for their families while they are studying at the Camp so this can prove an obstacle.

This summer Anant will have a month off then he will work again until the next Camp. He would love to study more, but he wants to help his family and accepts that his income may be necessary to keep them going. There is very little chance of reading or studying while he is at work, unless he has a bit of time off in between washing dishes, when he might try to read a newspaper.

He will be sad to leave Camp at the end of his two months.

Jagdish is a small 12-year-old who comes from a rural village set amongst hills and rivers, quite a long way from Udaipur and the Camp. Jagdish’s parents are both dead so he lives with his uncle. He has a big sister and two younger ones. When he’s at home he looks after the goats, taking them off in search of pasture early in the morning, and bringing them back, with as much firewood as he can collect and carry, by dusk. He had never been to school but his uncle was persuaded by a Seva Mandir zonal worker to send him to the Learning Camp, which he loves.

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Another A-grade student who has been promoted from C to A over his three Camps, Jagdish’s favourite activities are studying (particularly maths) and playing. He loves a game that involves throwing a ring over some upright posts. In the forthcoming closing ceremony Jagdish will take part in a little sketch where he will play the god Rama. He smiles modestly at the thought of impersonating one of the chief Hindu gods!

Jagdish will be sad to leave the Camp and he’s not particularly looking forward to returning to his life as a goatherd. As this is his third Camp, there is little prospect of his returning for a fourth. He would love to study more – he too would like to become a teacher – but is realistic that his family’s financial position makes this unlikely. He says, ‘When I’m at home I have no one to play with. That’s one of the things I like most about the Camp.’ For so many of these children whose family circumstances force them to work and shoulder family responsibilities at such an early age, the chance to be children for a while is one of the most precious things these Camps can offer.

Manju is a shy girl of 13-14. This is her third, so probably last, Camp and she’s in B grade.  She too is an orphan and doesn’t go to school when at home. She has five brothers and four sisters, some of whom are married. As the youngest, Manju lives with her older sister and the sister’s husband in a rural area 150 km from Udaipur. She likes studying and when asked what she likes most about the Camp she says dancing, food and studies (perhaps in that order!).

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It was a Seva Mandir zone worker who managed to persuade Manju’s sister to let her attend the Camps, but she knows that once she returns home she will have to go back to working in the fields, carrying heavy loads of earth and stones for Rs 100 (about £1) a day.

Manju is tearful at the prospect of leaving the Camp and returning home, where, she says, they are not kind to her. Her sister is alright, but the sister’s husband is not. She makes it clear that there is a certain amount of domestic violence and I fear for this attractive, rapidly maturing young woman back in a home where her sister may not be able to protect her from the harshness of life in a poor rural area.

The children are understandably shy and a little nervous about speaking to a stranger – all the more so as we have to communicate through their teachers to get over the language barrier. They return to their classes and we then visit them in situ, seeing how diligently they are working.

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It has always been one of the most striking things about this Camp, the way the children, very polite when a visitor enters their classroom, demonstrate so clearly that they are well aware that this is a very precious chance to learn, perhaps the only chance they will get for the rest of their lives, and they are determined not to waste a minute of this opportunity. You can feel them sucking up all the learning they can get – something I have never experienced to this degree in any other school anywhere in the world.

A few days later we return for the Camp’s closing ceremony.

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The three children’s eyes light up as I spot them, the two boys dressed up for roles in the various performances: Anant dressed in considerable finery for his dance act, and Jagdish as the god Rama.

Anant sits patiently through the other routines,

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but when it comes to his turn to dance with a few of his companions he is a revelation! His teacher had said he was a delightful young man and a very good dancer, but nothing prepared me for his rhythmic moves and the way he commits totally to the dance in front of a few hundred children and adults.

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He is clearly delighted with the applause and keen to have his photo taken at the end.

It takes me a while to spot Manju, sitting with other girls towards the back of the hall. She does not have a starring role in the celebrations.

After the ceremony it’s clear that, the show for outsiders over, it’s time for these children to party with their teachers.

No one is thinking (for now) of what it will be like to go home on the bus tomorrow.

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All are determined to have one last afternoon and evening of fun. The music system starts up, the first children and teachers start dancing, and before long the courtyard is full of gyrating bodies.

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As we leave, Manju comes out to say goodbye, wistful and shy as ever,

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but keen for a last photo with her friends and me.

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I am almost in tears as we leave. How I wish I could scoop up dozens of these children – so bright, so enthusiastic, so talented, such lovely individuals with so much potential – and give them a chance to get an education, to be children a little longer, and to fulfil their huge potential.

The Learning Camp gives these children something beyond riches – a chance to gain a basic grounding in Hindi and maths, and an introduction to some English, to the elementary notions of science, in a gentle, supportive and inspiring environment (a million miles away from the government schools, where, even if teachers turn up, there may be a hundred children to a teacher, very few learning materials, a great deal of learning by rote and frequent beatings). The hope of Seva Mandir and the inspirational teachers in the Camps is that the pupils will get enough of a basic education to give them a taste for it so that they can then be self-motivated if they manage to go to school once they return to their rural homes. This in turn means that they have a better chance of staying in school rather than dropping out.

While at Camp they also have regular health checks and lessons in hygiene, they receive a change of clothes and regular meals – the latter not something that can be taken for granted and which they all comment on. As much as anything, the Camps also give them a chance, for a few precious weeks, just to be children for a while.

Clean Drinking Water at Dholi Ghati

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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

The Village of Shisvi in Girwa

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.

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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.

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The elderly gentleman who has invited us in

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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.

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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.

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We are offered some juicy limes which make the best fresh lime soda you will ever have!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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These gentlemen then sit together in the courtyard of one house, smoking and discussing while they wait for the village council meeting to start.

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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

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into a storage tank underground.

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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.

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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!

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The temple itself is, like many, very simple but decorated inside with peacock feathers.

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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.

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Older inhabitants stand in doorways

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and sit on doorsteps

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and exchange ‘namaste’ (good morning). We are greeted by one woman we have met before.

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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

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and the woman picks up a baby who has just woken up.

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In the small room, there is a swinging cradle which looks most comfortable!

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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.

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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).

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It had obviously once been beautiful and still retains a certain grandness.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It is delicious and very welcome!

Kotra: The night before and the morning after …

After a day with the Seva Mandir team and members of the local community looking at water conservation and irrigation challenges, we have some free time before the team meets around a campfire to sing songs and tell stories.  This takes place in Hindi but we get the drift and are then asked to sing or tell a story.  After some deliberation, we sing ‘Kumbaya’ and then a few verses of ‘If you ever go to heaven’ – much to the amusement of the rest of the team.  After an excellent dinner, we head to bed.

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During the night we hear the rain.  It has eased by the time we arise in the morning but everywhere is definitely damp!

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As the Seva Mandir team congregates in the conference room to review progress on various initiatives and projects over the last month,

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we take the opportunity to walk the mile or so into the centre of Kotra town, passing small shops and stalls, and the local prison.

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The centre of town is a crossroads and the hub of activity but, after the rain, it is a grey day.

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The sight of one man cleaning his shoe was slightly comical: two steps later and the shoe would be back to its original condition.

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Nevertheless, the local shopkeepers and stallholders were plying their trade

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and children going to school.

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There is a small hospital in Kotra which attracts patients from the surrounding areas.  Its juxtaposition to the Post Mortem Room did not immediately instill confidence – on the other hand, where more logical for it to be?

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The road back to the block office reveals insights into pre-Independence with archetypal bungalows and gates recalling a different period.

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But it starts to rain once more and we are invited to take shelter in what turns out to be the office of the electricity sub-station.

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Our young hosts speak reasonable English

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and one disappears to bring us tea in a plastic bag which is then poured into small plastic cups which our hosts throw into the forecourt after use.

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While we are there, there is a loud bang and a flash from the sub-station next door.  A major fuse has blown and the technician turns his hand to some repairs before beaming a smile at us.

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We take our leave and head back, encountering more colourful locals and catching glimpses into the past

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but most grateful for the invitation and chat in the dry.

After lunch at the block office (the team meeting concluded), we set off back to Udaipur.   The sky was still full of foreboding and the light unattractive but we were still able to catch glimpses of the local scenery which we are growing to love.

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