Posts Tagged ‘Jodhpur’

ShobaHampered by the complexities of working in a foreign country, an unknown language and an often alien culture, I found weaving together my picture of the work of the Veerni Project was similar to the process of creating the intricate quilted wall hangings made by the women of Rajasthan – a process in which the final design appears only slowly. My first priority was to develop a thorough understanding of the NGO I am working with, its strengths, weaknesses, needs and capacity.

Veerni works with six rural villages in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan, India. The team helps to provide health and nutritional care, economic empowerment and education to the women and adolescent girls, and raising awareness of key issues such as malnutrition or domestic violence in the whole community. They run sewing courses to provide women with a means to generate their own income, provide literacy centres for girls who will other wise not attend school, and also fund a hostel in Jodhpur, where 85 village girls are able to benefit from improved health, nutrition and most importantly, a full time education.

Fifteen weeks seemed like ample time from my home in London, time that has now become compressed as I have realised the complexities of development work, even within my own small role. What has gradually emerged from the patches of quilt is a possible synergy between Veerni’s groundbreaking work on nutritional supplements, designed and patented by the nutritional team, and their less developed programme on skills training for income generation. An in-depth survey of the villages, their current nutritional habits and awareness and receptiveness to the idea of new income strategies, could assess the potential to initiate a women’s cooperative to produce the Veerni nutritional supplements. Ideally, this would provide employment and income to the women involved as well as easily available low-cost supplements to local families. This synergy of increasing women’s ability to nourish themselves and their families while developing their self-respect and status through income generation appeals to me. However, it is only by asking the women themselves that I can discover if such a project is viable in the hard grind for survival that characterises their day-to-day lives.

Rajwa_womenThese women are the human capital that is so often wasted in an area that has some of India’s lowest female literacy rates, female to male sex ratios and health indicators. And yet behind the gloomy statistics there lies a wealth of potential. Conducting interviews of some of the girls attending the Veerni hostel I met Shoba Choudhary, a seventeen-year-old from Rajwa village, who has been at the hostel for one year. Rajwa suffers from all the blights on women that plague one of India’s most underdeveloped states: the female literacy rate is 3.69% and the village population is 580 women to 611 men, clearly showing the number of ‘missing women’. Yet despite being married at eight, and now under pressure from her fellow villagers to give up her education and return to her family, Shoba displayed a quiet but impressive confidence and self-knowledge. ‘Education is a girl’s true friend’ she said, and talked of her ambition to attend college, pass the tough civil service exams and work for the government of Rajasthan. Only time will tell if Shoba can overcome the pressure from her village and achieve her ambitions, but her intelligence and maturity are a sign of the immense human capital Veerni is working to cultivate.

Back in Rajwa, as I observed the field staff and the women and children they worked with, the most powerful images were sensory: the vivid pink of the women’s head veils, the Indian sun baking the almost barren earth and dullness of malnutrition in some of the children’s coal-lined eyes. I understood nothing of the Mawari spoken, but what I could appreciate was the respect felt for the Veerni field staff. The men listened when they spoke and the women slowly pulled back their veils in their presence. This respect, and its fruits in terms of the true community engagement and trust it indicated, was a better introduction to the work of Veerni than any annual report or flashy website. It was also a crash course in the patience required for community development; a patience that does not come naturally to most Westerners, perhaps especially those who want to ‘make a difference.’ I may have emerged from the first phase of the internship process, but the real challenge, to develop a little of that patience, dedication and humility, is only just beginning.


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schuhrkej-1My FSD internship here in Jodhpur is with an NGO called UNNATI (the word unnati means “progress”) and is centered on their disaster risk reduction program. The major disaster here in the desert of Western Rajasthan is drought. My previous experience has dealt with hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, which tend to be very visible events with a clear beginning and end. It is easy to see their impact because you can clearly see the difference from before and after the disaster; it’s dramatic and typically gets a lot of attention when it happens. Drought is different because it has no clear beginning and end, and so its impact is more difficult to see. It becomes a regular part of people’s daily lives, and therefore doesn’t seem as dramatic and gets less attention. It’s insidious and gets to the true nature of disasters as more than just one-time events.

The ongoing drought here in Rajasthan weakens food and water security, and it severely hurts rural livelihoods. People lose valuable time and money just trying to get water, so they can’t maintain their crops and livestock, and are often forced to migrate to cities for work. UNNATI is trying to counter this in a few ways. One project they’ve undertaken is providing some funds for families to build water-harvesting structures like underground tanks able to catch and store as much rainwater (which is extremely minimal) as possible. These tanks can also store water pumped in from tractor-hauled tankers that bring it from various sources like ponds and canals, though the owners/drivers of these tankers often charge unfair prices. For this, UNNATI is buying some water tankers and tractors and will give them to village committees, which will manage and oversee their use, and will charge fairer prices.

The organization has also undertaken a horticulture development project with about 30 households. The women of the households oversee their own plots of berry and plum-producing plants that require little water. The plants can provide extra food and fodder during times of scarcity, and are also reliable sources of income when the families sell the fruits.

schuhrkej-2UNNATI did not originally do this kind of work. Instead, the organization has traditionally worked to empower the Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”. In India’s ancient caste system, the Dalits were given what were considered the dirty jobs like dealing with waste and corpses, and were thus seen as permanently polluted and literally untouchable, and were treated as sub-human.

Since the time of India’s independence, the government has sought to eradicate “untouchability” and engender equal rights. While the overt mistreatment and oppression of Dalits has mostly ended, there are still subtle ways they are discriminated against. They are often systematically denied decent jobs and livelihoods, as well as access to quality education and other basic opportunities. It’s easy to draw comparisons to racism in America, which has also become subtler in recent decades.

This discrimination is very similar to the drought. Both are forms are of deprivation—one is a sort of environmental deprivation while the other is a sort of social deprivation; and also both are insidious and subtle, rather than dramatic, overt situations that get a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, the Dalits tend to have the least access to water, often living farthest from water sources, and also not having the money to afford storage tanks or tanker-delivered water. So, while UNNATI originally worked with Dalit activists to help them assert their rights, it now also works with them to reduce their vulnerabilities to drought.

schuhrkej-3Many of my Indian colleagues are ashamed of the continued discrimination against Dalits. Speaking with Indians about Obama’s election back in my home country, a lot of them seem to think such problems in America are all over and only India is dealing with negative discrimination now. I try to tell them it’s not that simple. As proud as I was to see Obama win on November 4th, I was disappointed and ashamed at the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar measures in other states.

But the election of Obama is definitely a mark of progress for the U.S. Looking at all the struggles for social equality that have taken place throughout my country’s history and how far we’ve come, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So I don’t despair the passage of Proposition 8 or the continued discrimination against Dalits, but instead have the “audacity to hope” that it’s only a matter of patience, faith, and dedicated effort before the long drought of injustice finally ends.

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gregoryj-11Following the introduction to my new family, I was to start my internship with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) the next day. Abi, my co-intern, and I arrived in good spirits, ready for organizational integration. We immediately set out with Sateesh, who is responsible for the Agoli Block Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs), to visit the Vishnu Nagar and Jashti villages. Our mode of transportation was an open-door jeep, which lacked seatbelts, but came fully equipped with a driver who had relinquished any sense of danger probably at birth. For anyone who has not traveled by open-air vehicle through a desert before, the best way to simulate the experience would be to turn on your hair drier and blast your face for two hours.

The Marwar region, located in the western portion of Rajasthan, occupies areas of the Northwestern Thorn Scrub Forest and the Thar Desert. It is known as an arid and inhospitable region, yet paradoxically is the most densely populated desert in the world. Climatologists typically define a desert as having an annual rainfall of 250 mm or less; the Marwar region receives somewhere between 100 to 500 mm. To make matters worse, its water table is falling at around 1 to 2 m each year, and up to 5 m in some areas.

Enter JBF, its genesis is based on the principle of developing “a persuasive alliance with the people of Marwar to make the region water secure.” Their modus operandi is to educate and mobilize rural communities around water issues, such that by providing them with financial support and engineering expertise, disadvantaged communities can empower themselves to achieve local water sustainability. JBF’s straightaway success encouraged generous grants from foreign development agencies, which has been used to employ over 100 people and facilitate the installation of over 250 projects in only five years.

gregoryj-2Ironically, our project has little to do with JBF’s core operations; rather, we have been instructed to develop a system for encouraging micro-enterprise businesses within their SHGs. These groups are bodies designed to build social and financial capital in disadvantaged communities; they have been integral to the microfinance movement within India since the 1980’s. Originally, they were established to allow the poor access to basic monetary systems, including savings and credit, by dispersing the risk amongst many women. Over time, they have grown into social empowerment tools for their members, and they are currently regarded as mechanisms which could facilitate diversification vis-à-vis alternative livelihoods and income generating activities (ALIGA). JBF has been establishing SHGs for about two years and presently operate a total of 54 groups. Predictably however, they are unsophisticated and wanting in comparison to their counterparts to the South, who have been operating in earnest for over 15. Both Vishnu Nagar and Jashti are among the A grade JBF SHGs, yet nonetheless appear woefully behind the progress in the rest of India.

gregoryj-3However, even possessing this knowledge cannot dampen the sense of advancement, ambition and optimism radiating from the women within these groups. Not all possess this glow, but presumably the ones that do will pass it on to those yet to fully comprehend their own potential. The Vishnu Nagar women have recently bought a mechanised flour mill for the bajra (a grain similar to, but coarser than wheat) grown in their fields. It allays the necessity of traveling four km by foot to purchase flour from Agoli; minuscule, but demonstrative progress.

The Jashti women have adapted the SHG model to their pre-existing wholesale embroidery business. Some women in the group have been practicing their craft for 25 years or more. The results are impressive and symbolically Indian. Upon asking one of the men if he has noticed any changes in his wife Meenakshi since the establishment of the group, he tersely replies “she has become more talkative,” which spawns an eruption of laughter from the group and one abashed lady. Although a couple questions later, her self-confidence replenished, she brazenly elucidates her desire “to be the owner of a shop at the Mehrangarh fort [in Jodhpur]” … and moreover, to have husband work for her! In the end, she gets the last laugh.

Our task at hand appears overwhelming at this stage of the internship. However, hopefully by the time we have crossed the last “t’s” and dotted the last “i’s”, some of these women will be on their way to achieving their dreams and escaping the poverty trap.

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It is perplexing to think that in all my time spent in development-focused courses, taken in Sweden, Chile and California in an attempt to derive some comparison, I found repeated emphasis on theories and inflated economic prowess without ever understanding how exactly things get done. Implementation. And yet one week into my internship in India I came to understand the decisive weight of bottom-up community solutions in generating sustainable development. Unlike a mere paragraph in a greater text, the approach is an indispensable element of grassroots projects such as those implemented by my host organization, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation.

The idea is simple: support the formation of community-based water forums to manage water resources and contribute some, although not all, of the funds required to bring their visions to fruition. We forget that people want to help themselves but lack the proper incentives and that, unless they do help themselves, solutions will likely be inconsistent with needs. For these communities, the answer lies in the construction and repair of traditional rainwater harvesting structures to increase their capacity to collect and store water. It is captivating to consider that in many cases solutions already exist, and that they simply need to be re-embraced and relieved of the social, political and economic mentalities that initially betrayed them.

I am now about halfway through my 3 month (minimum) internship in India. When it comes down to it I have come to India to find out where all the effort goes. I want to know why development is so elusive. Two weeks ago I was surprised to find that my host organization was willing to charge me with the responsibility of writing the funding proposals on which their entire resource base for future projects depends. But I am passionate about research, and for the required assignment I was handed essentially all of the internal documents of the organization. What is less apparent is the fact that just as fascinating to me as the content of these documents is the system by which they have been generated and maintained. I am eager to understand how and how quickly information passes through the organization, what is included and what is left out. I have gained a tacit understanding of elements in the great theme of Implementation that are both general and unique to the present environment, and I feel that I have begun identifying the issues that will shape my future involvement in development policy.

I am truly grateful to be here. I know it is right because I still cannot see it happening any other way. I cannot imagine continuing my education without understanding it all more deeply. Yet I do not feel that this is an easy ride in either a personal or professional sense. The India Times just informed me that Goa’s HIV positive patients are purposefully deteriorating their health to go on a treatment that will then entitle them to 1000 rupees per month from the government… which amounts to less than one dollar per day. My 27-year-old Indian host sister recently asked me if France was in the US. And my supervisor at work re-defined the English definition of “objectives” and asked for a re-submission of my proposal. It has struck me that India only recently achieved independence and yet is grappling with all of the most wayward epidemics of modernity on an unprecedented scale. And sometimes I can’t resist getting lost in the thought of just how big this country, this world and this problem is.

All I know is that at the end of the day I am not here because of the impossibilities and the illusions. I cannot maintain that we are all drowning when people who have known despair are re-defining faith and leading meaningful change in regions like Marwar that the world never has to think of. And I cannot make the choice not to follow them.

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Casey Lord is interning with Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur, India, an NGO whose mission is to empower Harijan (“untouchable”) women by providing them with an environment free from discrimination and home duties where they can learn new skills in sewing, embroidery and basic English. Casey is particularly involved with the sewing initiative of the trust and is hoping to use her time In Jodhpur to strengthen the trust’s sustainability by improving the market prospects for Sambhali’s handicrafts.

Some participants of the Sambhali TrustFighting the mounting summer temperatures of the Thar desert, I carefully wrapped, pleated and pinned my new cotton sari into position this morning in preparation for another meeting with Jodhpur bureaucracy. Saraswati has checked my tucks and folds and given me a red bindi – I look the part and I’m ready to go. Today I am going to the police station on behalf of a local Harijan woman whose life has been turned upside-down by her betraying, polygamist husband and in-laws. Pinkie’s husband has married and had a child with a fourteen-year old girl, bringing his ‘new family’ into the home where Pinkie and her children already live. The in-laws, also sharing the house, are favoring the ‘new family’ and are abusing Pinkie in an attempt to expel her. Pinkie has nowhere to go and has no control over the situation. I will stand with six other (also Harijan) women and protest for her basic right to a life without threat or violence.

Sewing classThis is not exactly an average day of my internship, but it’s certainly not unusual. There are forty-five participants who meet daily at Sambhali Trust but the outreach of the project is somewhat larger. Govind, the trust’s founder, is an incredibly dedicated and passionate man who is entirely committed to the welfare of these girls. His efforts overflow the trust’s permeable boundaries and touch the lives of the girls’ families and other needy members living in the community. The girls at the trust are encouraged to stand up for themselves, act on their own initiative and ultimately build a sense of worth and solidarity so deeply rooted that it will stay with them when they leave the project and bear fruit to a life more successful than that of their parents. Thus, when Pinkie approached Govind in dire straights she met not only a man who would refuse to turn her away but an army of forty-five young girls all ready to fight for her cause.

The girls practicing yogaI am almost halfway through my nine-week internship and have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about working with a grassroots organization and have become fully immersed in the local culture. I’m reaching a transitional stage of applying what I have learnt about the needs of the trust and its participants into a personal project, a project that coheres with the trust’s mission and serves to increase its sustainability. Quality control and rigorous management are recurrent problems that NGOs with a sewing program face everyday, and I hope that my Western background can bring an alternative light into the organization. By researching successfully established organizations in the region Sambhali can develop a model on which to base its growth, and as the organization evolves into a self-sustainable project it can endeavor to support its participants even once they have left.

Govind has great dreams about the future of Sambhali and its sister organizations and I feel very excited to be a part of the realization of these dreams. I am grateful to FSD for providing me with the opportunity to work with such a special organization, to form a mutual relationship of new knowledge and experience, and for allowing me to join forces with a very unique army of empowered women.

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