Sunday, July 10, 2016

When women take wings

A women's cooperative, started off with an aim to reduce the usage of plastic in Balrampur, is slowly taking wings for a flight that we hope will lead to freedom - both economic and social. 

LogoIt was in October, 2014 that the District Balrampur, located further north - east from Surajpur on the border with  Jharkhand, became my second district of posting. The district, apart from being much more disconnected and backward than Surajpur, is also one of the first 4 resource districts for National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in Chhattisgarh. Thus, we have a young hard working team of District and Block Programme Managers who have taken it upon themselves the task of women empowerment and poverty alleviation by organizing women in Self Help Groups (SHGs) since 2012.
It was with this background, that I was assigned the task of overseeing implementation of the scheme when I joined. The scheme had been intensively running in three of the six blocks with almost 1800 SHGs already formed. And the results were drastic. My initial experience of Community Resource Persons (CRPs) talking very confidently to highest officers of the district opened my eyes to what women empowerment actually meant. Whichever village we went to in the resource or intensive blocks, it was much easier to call women from SHGs together and get work done. Having failed in bringing women together for mushroom cultivation in Surajpur, I realized how systematic intervention and persistent mobilization was the key to community empowerment.
The festival of Makar Sankranti, celebrated on 14th January every year, is one of the major festivals celebrated by the people of Balrampur. A place called Tatapani, about 12 kms away from the district headquarters is the site for a huge three day mela every year that is thronged by thousands of people from all around the district and Jharkhand. It was sometime in November - December 2014 that our Collector - Alex Paul Menon Sir came up with the idea of having the mela on a grand scale in 2015. Thus, a large number of cultural events, competitions and departmental stalls were planned for the festival. A special initiative taken up to ensure the mela created lesser pollution was to make it plastic free by banning plastic bags completely.
The decision to ban plastic was the easier part, providing for an alternative much tougher. We decided on bringing together women from SHGs to manufacture paper bags, plates, cups, etc to replace plastic as far as possible. We had just a month or so to bring everything together which seemed quite impossible initially. Collector Sir had been in talks with a Vigyan Ashram to start a training for manufacturing paper products, and they were hurriedly contacted to finalize everything. They were extremely cooperative and the training was started at such a short notice. The other part of mobilizing beneficiaries had to be done through NRLM. Our block level team suggested starting the training with SHG members of Sarnadih panchayat, just 2 kms away from the district headquarter, as they were motivated and it would have been easier to monitor the training.
Thus, started the training in paper bag making and about 30 odd women and youth turned up on the first day which seemed to be quite an achievement. What followed was hectic training with continuous production of bags. It was obviously not possible to completely replace plastic through this mechanism and we did purchase a lot of ready made cloth bags, donnas and plates for the mela. The initiative was well taken by everyone including the visitors, though its impact on reducing plastic could be debated. However, what it did give us was a group of people, mostly women, who were really interested in starting a livelihood activity on their own. The running around that they all did during the mela was proof enough that their interest was genuine.
Done with the mela, something had to be decided for our primary beneficiaries. Alex Sir always wanted to give it a sustainable shape so that the income generating activity would continue and that was what our interest was as well. Our discussions with Vigyan Ashram revealed that they could give training in stitching school bags, purses,  pouches etc using rexine and such material. That seemed to be a natural extension of the initiative then and we had sufficient funds available to start the training immediately.
With a lot of jugaad and management, we got hold of 20 stitching machines that were lying unused. The Principal of Sarnadih primary school, with some pestering, agreed to give us a big hall that was lying vacant to start the training. Equipment - scissors, thread, raw material, etc was procured with getting things at lowest rates being our primary concern. We even bought raw material from Pune and Raipur just to save costs. Inspite of the hectic running around we had to do, every thing seemed to fall in place then, and that was what kept us all - the beneficiaries included, motivated.
The training continued with Kohle Sir (the trainer) visiting Balrampur for 10 days every month to teach the women new techniques and design. By this time, the men who were initially a part of the initiative, naturally distanced themselves as stitching was seen more of a women's activity. It was already March, and seeing the positive response of the women, we also initiated the process of registering a multipurpose cooperative and it was then decided to restrict the membership to women only. By May 2015, Unnati Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited  had formally come into existence with 23 women members!

Letter  to Corporates for Support!


Sunday, April 27, 2014

An Experiment with Azolla

Azolla? What's that? the question reverberated in my mind for quite some time before I actively started searching for answers.

AzollaThe government, as per the latest provisions under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), had included construction of 'Azolla' tanks along with cow sheds in villages. The search for answers led me to Google and then, some videos and blogs posted across the web. The Wikipedia suggested that Azolla (sc. name Azolla caroliniana), is a type of fern with very small leaves that is mostly found floating over still water bodies - lakes & ponds. Its nitrogen fixation properties make it useful as a bio fertilizer and fodder for animals. So that's where everything connected. Azolla tanks were to be constructed along with cow sheds to provide for additional fodder for the milch animals.
That cleared some air about what we were trying to do. Further exploration on the internet brought me across some videos (mostly from South India) about how to cultivate Azolla and a not so motivating paper on why such initiatives were not sustainable. According to the author, farmers mostly took up Azolla cultivation because they were provided with subsidies but did not find it beneficial and hence discontinued cultivation after some time. The situation seemed pretty similar to what we were faced with, but we anyways wanted to try it out once. Maybe we could just prove the paper wrong!
Now, with the concepts a bit clearer, it was time for some practicals. Cow sheds had already been constructed in many villages in the district and we were told that the Azolla tanks were lying unused as nobody had any idea about what was to be done with them. We selected a village Pachira, around 7 kms away from the district headquarters for our first experiment. 10 farmers in the village had been provided with cow sheds under NREGA, cows through loans under SGSY and were now to be provided with Azolla. Ideal convergence!
The veterinary department was contacted for Azolla seeds and a hands - on training for the farmers. The cynics there told us that a lot of farmers were provided with Azolla seeds in the past but it was never a success. We however managed to convince one of the veterinary doctors to carry out a training for the farmers in the village itself. What followed was a half an hour theoretical training on what is Azolla, its benefits and how to cultivate it. The farmers were probably as exasperated as we were!
However we were convinced to continue our efforts and by then, I myself knew exactly how Azolla was to be cultivated. The only thing lacking now was the seeds. Some exploration led us to another veterinary doctor who had some Azolla in his house and we managed to get the seeds from there. Armed with all the knowledge and the inputs, we reached the house of our first beneficiary. The tank was first filled with mud (around 20 kgs) and then about 5 kgs of cow dung slurry. It was then filled with water upto a height of 20 cms. and then the azolla seeds were spread out. I had found out that Azolla propogates really quickly and in about 15 days the entire tank would be filled. We had to keep the water level right and wait patiently!!
Even that proved to be a real challenge because the tank wasn't well constructed and had developed some leaks. The water dried out really quickly and the farmers' family wasn't as excited as us to carry 4 buckets of water from a nearby hand pump to fill the tank everyday. When we visited the house a week later, the tank had all but dried up and the Azolla had withered away. First hit! The tank was later cleaned by the farmer and everything had come back to null.
The experiment was dropped for sometime as other tasks gained preference. The farmers too never came back for guidance and it seemed even they weren't interested. So, the idea went into oblivion for quite some time when suddenly, one day out of the blue, we decided to make a trip to the veterinary hospital in a nearby district Koriya (around 40 kms away) to get some seed again. This time, we got half a sack full of Azolla and were determined to try out the experiment in at least a couple of households to increase the probability of success. The entire process was repeated again. We ourselves carried the mud, water and cow dung and prepared the tank. Cynics again told us that if the people were not interested, the experiment could never succeed. I still wanted to try out. To show the farmers that we had complete faith in the success of the initiative and were willing to work for it ourselves. It seems they did understand. One of the households had a well and a pump. Water wasn't a problem for them, the Azolla grew up really fast there and they have now begun feeding it to their buffaloes. The other household had to bring water from a nearby hand pump but thankfully, their tank did not have any leaks. The Azolla in their tank spread out in the first few weeks but dried up due to lack of water after some days due to the heat. We'll try it out with them again once the heat resides.
We now have constructed a dug out tank in our own office campus where the left over Azolla seeds were put. Even that has begun spreading and we should have our own tank full of Azolla soon. So then the first step completed, we need to make sure that the farmers realize its benefit and then scale the experiment up to other households and then to other villages. That should show us how subsidies can succeed!

Monday, March 17, 2014

From Where We Stand...

Its been almost two years since I became a fellow and was posted in one of these so called backward districts - Surajpur. Time and again I have been asked questions like what am I here for what is the agenda that I'll pursue here. Some have probably gone far ahead and labelled me as the crazy guy to leave home to spend time a 1000 miles away. But there is something about the job that we do as fellows that makes waking up every morning and slogging it out very addictive.

May be its the power that we derive out of our knowledge. This isn't a generalization, but most of the mid level and lower level staff in the government have low educational qualifications and haven't had anyone to guide them or teach them efficient ways of doing everyday work. Teaching new tricks for analyzing data on excel or using cloud computing for syncing files or even basic techniques in any software makes the staff look at you in awe and the more interested youngsters are always eager to learn these tricks. Technicians surely are a much in demand entity here. And that is how we get the high and mighty to listen to us.

We get a chance to interact with people first hand, understand their problems and most importantly, do something about it. A Government employee is a much revered person in the villages of India. Introducing yourself as a government staff breaks most barriers with the villagers and they'll surely start listing down their problems in ways they wouldn't ever do with CBOs or other activists.
Belonging to the higher ranks in the government set up has its added benefits and we can take up issues highlighted by the people with the concerned authorities to ensure that at least some action is taken. So many villagers just want someone to lend a ear to their problems and we are in an ideal position to play that role.

Bringing in innovations to schemes that have been running in set patterns is one task that definitely gives the kicks. We can suggest steps that would help implement the scheme in a better way. Though my experience suggests that large scale innovations have rarely succeeded and are a difficult task to implement, it is the subtle innovations in the delivery mechanism that can create an everlasting impact on the implementation of scheme. Ideas in publicity and awareness generation, data collection, beneficiary selection, monitoring of these schemes are mostly heard by the concerned authorities and a little bullying can ensure that these are implemented.
The large scale innovations aren't completely ignored either. Creating models showing convergence or better ways of doing things under a scheme is one area where most districts lack trained staff. Understanding the provisions of different schemes and bringing together resources from different departments is an activity that we are most suitably positioned to take up. Packaging the project and highlighting it in the media will surely ensure that enough eyeballs are placed to ensure that the project breaks ground.

So then could there be a better job that allows you to roam freely, understand fully and show your creativity in the development sector. While the job gives us a great opportunity, it is completely up to us what we make of it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Soaking in the Sunshine @ Surajpur

18th August 2012: All bags were packed and I was suddenly traveling to a district whose name i had only heard a couple of days back - the Surajpur district in North Chattisgarh!

After our two day state orientation in Raipur, we were asked to report to our districts by 21st August (Monday being a holiday for Eid). But, having no place to stay in Raipur, we decided to leave for our districts on Saturday itself.With the other five in our group having departed to their districts in South Chattisgarh by busses, i took my train to Surajpur with great uncertainty of what i was about to discover.
The train route to Surajpur is mesmerising - and no less so than the Rayagada - Koraput Route or even the Konkan route sans the tunnels. Bright green paddy fields with dark green trees dotting the landscape meet the eyes for as far as they can wander. And you immediately fall in love with the place that invites you to its fold with such a view early in the morning.
I landed in Surajpur on  Sunday morning with nothing much in hand to show except for a letter from  the State and a few phone numbers. The travel from the railway station to the guest house was made completely hassle free by my CEO who had arranged for a vehicle to pick me up and also my accommodation in the guest house.
Having settled down and with two days to spend before I could meet my DC and CEO, I decided to wander around the town and see what I could find.The district of Surajpur was formed in 2011 after breaking away 6 blocks of the greater Sarguja district. Thus the place is still in transition and though you do get all items of daily needs, it has little to show in terms of a proper market. The best part of living in a small town is the lack of congestion and pollution and Surajpur is no different. The people are extremely friendly and anyone would find it very easy to build a bond with the place. However, there isn't much to go around in town (except for a currently running Jadugar show in a tent house) and the loneliness of the place started striking me in just the first two days!!
By Tuesday, I was desperate to meet some people and get some work. I first met my CEO who is a very friendly and approachable guy. He then later introduced my to my DC who seemed to be very active but much less approachable. Anyway, in the short time that the DC addressed me, he asked my CEO to work out the logistics for my training and also gave me a hint of the kind of work I would  be required to do in the next two years.
The next few days went by with quite a few ups and downs. Visiting a government department is like opening a secret chamber - you never know what you may find. Some officials were very friendly and provided me with all the information while others were quite obstinate and wouldn't bulge a bit to provide any information. Particularly insightful were the interactions with my CEO. Just observing the kind of issues that were raised in the DRDA (corruption, improper monitoring of NREGA work, false records) and how they were handled indicated the difficult terrain i was going to get into. Also useful was the block officials' meeting with the collector where problems in implementation of various schemes (convergence and coordination issues, HR issues, financial issues) were discussed and possible solutions were worked out.
So, its all been a mixed bag till now. I have gained valuable information about how some of the schemes are implemented at the district and block level but there is also this feeling that there is a lot more to understand.With this little bag of knowledge i ll move into the next part of my training - the village immersion from tomorrow!! :)