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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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.

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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Immunization Camp

On the 4th of every month, Seva Mandir holds an immunization camp in a small village in Saru Zone, Girwa Block.  The village itself is no more than a few simple huts scattered across the hills

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and a few goats.

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The camp is very well attended by pregnant women and mothers with young children.  They know they can count on the regular attendance of Seva Mandir-trained medical staff who administer inoculations and antenatal care competently and hygienically, and are also at their disposal for advice.

Girwa is a rural area south of Udaipur.  We head out at around 10 am in a trusty Seva Mandir vehicle on the main road to Mumbai before turning off after about an hour to wend our way through fields

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(a stretch of the route which tests the trusty vehicle’s suspension) to reach the camp.  The local dwellings are basic and the cattle shelters appear somewhat temporary. The hillside is starting to show the signs of several months without rain.

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We are accompanied by Dr Kusum, a retired medical practitioner who now works in Seva Mandir’s health unit, Sana, who works in the Resource Mobilization Unit with special responsibility for website and e-newsletter communications and with whom we worked closely on the recently published brochure on Seva Mandir, and Nicola, a Scottish volunteer, with whom we also worked on the brochure.  Our mission is to make a photo essay of the proceedings for the e-newsletter while Sana and Nicola film interviews with the mothers and health attendants.

The vehicle slows to a stop and we survey a riverbed with little water in it.

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We leave the vehicle to walk across the riverbed and up a gentle hill to the small, two-roomed building in which the camp is held.

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The second room houses an Angawadi, a small pre-school centre with a dozen or so young children of different ages.  One had been herding goats as we walked up and was now sitting on the floor with her classmates.  Perhaps the smallest goatherd we have ever seen!

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Big brown eyes stared enquiringly as our party arrived.

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We are invited into the larger of the two rooms with Aesop’s fables depicted on the walls

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to find two female Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), two female Balsakhis (infant health advisors)

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and two male inoculation staff,

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all trained and equipped by Seva Mandir, already hard at work.

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Dr Kusum kindly explains proceedings to us,

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and keeps a close eye on the care being given as well as offering guidance and advice to young pregnant women and mothers.

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In ones and twos, mothers arrive on foot carrying their children.  Some have walked a considerable distance.

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Over the course of a couple of hours, the two men administered inoculations against DPT (diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough, tetanus) measles and hepatitis,

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as well as oral polio vaccine to about 20 children.

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The infants ranged from three months to just a year,

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and before long the small room was ringing with cries as startled babies objected to the injections.

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All the mothers were sitting on the floor

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or standing to rock their little ones in their arms,

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and all comforted them by breastfeeding them.

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The little ones soon recovered their composure.

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As an incentive to bring children for immunization, mothers receive 1 kg of lentils after each inoculation, and a set of stainless serving utensils when their child finishes his or her course.

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Each child has an immunization booklet with notes, a growth chart and a space for recording the regular immunizations, and the health workers keep careful records.  Mothers sign with a thumb print to acknowledge their child’s treatment and receipt of their gifts.

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The Balsakhis examine the children and give mothers advice on feeding (exclusively breast milk up to six months), introducing solids, and also help with advice on common ailments and contraception.

After the babes, it is the turn of the pregnant women, who are examined by the TBAs.  Their eyes, nails, abdomen, blood pressure and weight are checked and their urine tested, and they receive iron and folic acid tablets.  The empty packaging appears to be a delicacy for some of the infants!

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As the process of inoculation continued, we kept an eye on the Angawadi.  Inquisitive looks were changing to beaming smiles.

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But one wonders what the future holds for these beautiful children …

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Slowly, mothers and children started to drift away safe in the knowledge that they are protected against many debilitating and potentially fatal diseases,

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even finding the time to pose for the photographer.

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Antenatal checks and the immunization of infants are the responsibility of the government, and there is a clinic in the Zone, but it is even further for pregnant women and mothers with infants to walk, so they prefer to attend Seva Mandir’s regular and reliable camp.  A great job being done by dedicated and competent staff!

We too departed, enriched by the experience.

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Field Trip to Kherwara

An early morning start.  Pick up at 6:45am for the 10 minute drive to Seva Mandir’s office to join the bus which would take us on our first field trip of this visit.  We are excited: field trips always exceed expectations and introduce us to some of the remoter parts of southern Rajasthan, areas we would otherwise almost certainly not visit.  Needless to say, we are amongst the few early birds and able to stake our claim to front seats on the venerable bus which radiates experience.  The announced departure time of 7:15 is both indicative and aspirational.  We are on our way with 15 or so of the Seva Mandir Natural Resource Development team by 7:45 to cross Udaipur from north to south through the early morning traffic, stopping first for fuel and then further members of the team along the way.  It’s reminiscent of school bus trips with laughter and jollity as new members of the team climb aboard.

As we head out of the town on the main highway which leads to Mumbai, the Aravalli Hills are once again our guide.  Our front row seats afford a clear view.

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After a little less than an hour, we turn across the highway and head down a rural road and back in time

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to Kherwara, a beautiful area surrounded by the Aravalli hills, with fields green after the monsoon, wandering goats and cows, and the occasional mud-walled house

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where morning washing

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and other domestic chores are underway.

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We are also struck by the cactus hedges: very practical when you think about it.

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The field trip is beginning in earnest.

One key area of Seva Mandir’s work is Natural Resource Development.  In this rural, semi-arid region such as southern Rajasthan, the rain falls only during a short period of the year in the monsoon, and the sun beats down relentlessly for long months on impoverished soil.  Local, mainly subsistence, farmers scratch a living from a few fields

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and, if they are lucky, a handful of cows and goats that might bring them a monthly income of Rs 600 (around £6 or $10).  It is therefore vital to make the best use of what water there is.

The NRD unit has many programmes in this area: watershed projects to ensure that the heavy rains, when they come, do not further degrade what soil there is,

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but the water is collected in the most efficient way; water harvesting, including creating and maintaining dams,

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and improving wells.  We pass several lakes filled by the monsoon but soon realise that it will probably not rain here again until next July.

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Measuring the results of such projects is important for Seva Mandir and its donors.  To ensure that data collection is reliable and consistent, systems have been devised to help the field teams carry out their measurements in a uniform and simple way throughout the areas covered.

The field trip which we have been invited to join involves 20 or so members of the NRD unit, from HQ in Udaipur and from some of the blocks further afield, and is designed to show the teams how to collect data and monitor the results of the various projects.

Our base for the day was the zone office in Kojawara, which houses a medical centre with permanent nursing staff and visiting doctors who give clinics on a number of days during the week.  There are wards for inpatients,

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but these are not in use at the moment.  The major problem faced by the centre is finding and retaining resident doctors.  A relatively remote rural area like this struggles to attract doctors, and those who might be interested are unaffordable.  It nevertheless provides a dispensary and delivers much needed and valued basic care and was clearly being used by the locals when we visited.

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After a light breakfast, armed with two specially-made metal frames measuring 1m2 (instantly recognised by Felicia – all those years listening to the Archers clearly well spent!), we set off to a field on a hill where watershed work had been carried out a couple of years ago.   This involved building a low wall to keep cattle out and planting grains.

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The team leader, Shailendra Tiwari, Head of NRD, and his team of experts, explained the process of taking samples of crop growth to monitor results.

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They marched up to the top of the hill to survey the field in question, divided it virtually into five areas representative of the field as a whole (taking poorer areas and areas of better growth), and proceeded to take a sample of the growth in each of these five areas.  The metal frames were placed on the ground

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and the plants within this square metre cut and weighed.

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The results were noted down and an average for the field calculated.  This information will allow the team to see whether the work of creating check dams and watershed trenches has improved the yield of the area.

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It was hot work and we have to admit to not going all the way to the top of the hill but seeking out the shade of a bamboo grove

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where we were entertained by one of the team members who delighted in telling us that he and his wife had four children all of whom had married and flown the family nest.  He beamed as he held the backs of his hands towards us, fingers pointing down and flipped his fingers upwards to simulate the flight of the siblings from the house.  Now he and his wife enjoyed peace and cooking for two.  On hearing that we had three children and one married, our host, with flashing dark eyes, emitted a huge giggle.

The next exercise was inspecting and measuring wells on the plain.

There are five wells within this watershed unit of 500 Hectares, and, once again, keeping accurate measurements of the water in the wells has proved challenging.  Shailendra explained that there was no need to measure the depth of the wells – obviously a difficult job.  The best way was to find a fixed point which could be marked and used every time, and to measure the drop to the level of the water.   The measuring would be done twice a year, before and after the rains.

This area also contains a camp where cattle are vaccinated twice a year, in an effort to reduce Foot and Mouth Disease and Goat Disease, which the team visited.  While the team accompanied by the intrepid Felicia headed down a steep slope,

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John, who had a slightly stiff ankle, stayed with our host to explore the evidence of successful planting projects along the road as it started to climb between the hills

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and then engage in interpreted conversation with a local goatherd and his wife who tended the cattle.  A charming couple who were clearly appreciative of the work done by Seva Mandir.  The wife, who was in the meadow below the road, clutched an old umbrella in her right hand as she hurried after one stray and then another, even though it was not apparent that they could have gone far.  Looking up to the road where we were discussing with her husband, she realised that, whilst in the semi shade, we would benefit from the umbrella and hurried up the steep path to offer it.  Apart from being extremely grateful for the shade, I realised that the quality of the light under the umbrella would be far more flattering for portraits than the harsh late-morning sun.  The goatherd and his wife duly posed for photographs

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before an errant cow hastened the return of the wife to the meadow. They, by the way, had two children, both of whom had married!  More giggles from our host.

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There followed a village meeting at the house of one of the villagers.  While we waited for the meeting we were invited to relax on a charpoy (string couch)

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in the shady garden surrounded by neem trees, marigolds (which a canny goat was surreptitiously trying to graze on before he was spotted and ushered out by the woman of the house) and drying chillies.  The presence of two unexpected foreign visitors was explained and we were made welcome, and proceedings began.

This village benefits from several of Seva Mandir’s activities: an immunization camp for pregnant women and their children, a Women’s Self-Help Group, a Joint Forest Management project, a Balwadi (children’s day care centre), a team of Balsakhis (who monitor and advise on child health and care), and a lift well.  It also boasts a Farmers’ Club (which has 1.2 Lakh Rupees, approx. £1,200, in its bank account and attracts a subsidy from the government).  The meeting was intended to monitor the effect of Seva Mandir’s work on village life and to give the farmers and their wives a chance to air their views.

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The farmers said that the water levels had certainly increased since the watershed project and they were pleased with the harvest of 1.5 quintals (150 kg) of rice, which was an improvement on previous harvests.  The villagers are now self-sufficient in grass and grains, which saves them the money they would otherwise have to spend on buying these in.

They have an area of 50 Hectares in common forest land, divided into three sites, and have qualified for Joint Forest Management, a scheme which allows the villagers, alongside the government Forestry Department, to look after their forest land, protecting it from fire, grazing and illegal encroachment, and to enjoy the benefits of the forest land and its products.  But they would like to achieve Community Forest Rights, which would allow them to manage the forest land themselves as provided for in Indian law but in practice extremely hard to win.   Seva Mandir continues to help the villagers try to win these rights.

The villagers also reiterated their desire to see Ecosan toilets installed, and were promised that a visit to another village was being arranged to allow them to inspect the Ecosans there.  The government will not provide these toilets (which use no water but instead use ash to convert solid waste into odourless manure) but Seva Mandir is a major provider of these throughout southern Rajasthan.

These hospitable villagers then thanked us again for our visit and warmly bade us farewell.

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Just time for a quick visit to an area which had been wasteland until recently but which, with Seva Mandir’s help, had now been planted with fruit trees (mango, amla, guava, papaya, lime) and also tomatoes, chillies and aubergines.

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A lovely spot, bursting with fresh produce, and clearly giving a good yield to its owner, a woman farmer.

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After a delicious and well earned late lunch (after all that climbing up steep slopes), the NRD team sat down to a meeting to discuss the day’s events

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and to plan its next field trip, which would include water harvesting projects (how to monitor water levels in anicut dams, assess leakage, monsoon damage, silting and the use made of the water), sanitation and safe drinking water projects and lift irrigation (where water is pumped up to higher ground from a well, enabling previously uncultivated land to bear crops).

The block officials then said goodbye as they headed back to their block offices in other parts of southern Rajasthan, and the HQ team piled back onto our bus

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for the drive back to Udaipur.  It was by now late afternoon and the sun was sending warms rays across the countryside.

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As the driver expertly guided the old Tata vehicle through the traffic (with a steering wheel with so much play that he was in constant motion with his arms and we wondered how he could possibly manoeuvre it so skilfully), and the NRD team laughed and joked all the way, we reflected on what a dedicated and skilled team of people this is, toiling away to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world and to make sure that their work is bearing fruit.