If you didn’t know it yet, I am a stickler for conversations. Apart from what’s been going on inside my head, I’ve had more conversations with strangers than I’ve had in my lifetime. An achievement in itself. Its times like these that I realize the quote written on that India Fellow sling bag – “tumse hi ho payega”. Jokes aside, here are 4 defining conversations from my year with the fellowship. Bear with me as I try to explain.
Context: Conversation with a village representative who works for our organisation WOTR.
“Rameshbhau*, gaonwale ko sabse zyada pareshaani kis cheej ko leke hai?
“To fir panchayat kuch karta kyun nahi?”
“Wo aapke peeche dekho. Wo tanki panchayat ki hai. Aage wo kheti dikh raha hai? Uske aage 4 vihir (dugwell) hai. Peeche aur bhi 4 hai.”
“In sab me paani hai kya?”
“Hai na sir, bharpur pani hai. 4 mote mote pipeline bhi hai tanki se gaon ke andar tak.”
“Fir problem kya hai?”
“Sir wo paani chodte nahi.”
“Gaon me do party hai. Bas party wale ko hi milte hai. Unke liye hai ye paani.”
“Aur vihir ka pani?”
“Sir, wo char char vihir bhi dono party ne baant liya hai khud ke logon me. Wo mati ke neeche se direct pipe lagake panchayat ke vihir se khud ke vihir me paani daalte hai.”
“Ye sabko pata hai?”
“To phir koi kuch bolta kyun nahi?”
“Power me yehi dono party rehte hai na sir. Party A jeeta to wo kuch steps nahi lega kyun ki Party B ko pata hai unke kaarnaame.”
“Aap logon ki itne madat kyun karte ho? Panchayat me bhi to nahi ho?
“(Smiling) Sir main to bas mechanic hun. Problem ka solution dena aadat ban gaya hai.”
Reason: This was the first time that I realized how big a role politics plays in the development sector. Of course whether politics is good or bad for development is a debate for the more refined of minds and I don’t want to get into that. However, what struck me was the sheer amount of resources available in the hands of the local governing bodies like the gram panchayat to alleviate basic problems like resource scarcity. This village in question faces water scarcity every year yet the resource remains a political pawn in the hands of the politicians. This was also one of the first lessons where I started understanding that the government is the biggest machinery of development with crazy resources and the ultimate aim should be of mobilizing those resources. The thing that also made sense was why my organization steered clear of local politics while implementing soil and water conservation measures. It’s easy to be a part of it and earn recognition through them. It takes a lot of self-control to take the difficult route of bypassing them. More importantly, its okay to do a thankless job.
Context: We were conducting a series of interviews for documentation purposes on daily wage labourers working in our project. The goal was to understand the impact of providing them a source of income in non-agricultural months. The interviewer was me.
“Iss saal aap ko kitne paise mile hai compartment bunding ka kaam kar ke?”
“Aap kya karoge ye paise ko lekar?”
“Kheti me lagaunga. Bachhe ko admission karana hai school me.”
“Aap daily labour ke kaam kyun karte ho?”
“Sir, paani nahi hai kheti ke liye. 6 mahine bekaar baithne se to achha hai.”
“Aap isse pehle kya karte the?”
“Umm…mere se ek delivery me bachhe ka death ho gaya tha. Misunderstanding ke vajah se chodna pada.”
“Sir ye-un ka?” (Sir, can I go now?)
Reason: This was a smack in the face. I had failed to understand that I needed to stop. Especially, that line of questioning. Big mistake. A big learning experience as well. STOP MAKING ASSUMPTIONS. Stop assuming you know about their life or their past. I’ve replayed this conversation more times in my head than I can count and I want to kick myself for not thinking ahead that why would a doctor end up having to work daily wage. He was apprehensive about answering but since we were the organization who provided work for him, he was forced to spill this incident. I agree I have no idea how much stigma it carries in a community. I can only imagine. And to say this in front of other villagers? I wish I hadn’t said that.
Context: A casual conversation with a colleague regarding arrangements in the village when funders and other dignitaries are taken for village visits.
“Sir, hum gaon me jab inko leke jaate hai to kiske ghar me khana hai wo kaise decide hota hai?”
“Mai to Rambhau* ko puchta hu, wo hi arrange karte hai. Lekin wo puchte hai Open ya SC?
“Matlab open caste ke ghar me khana hai ya SC ke ghar me?”
Too stunned to say anything
“Mein har bar koi SC wale ke ghar me hi arrange karne ke liye bolta hun. Khana to ek hi hota hai. Khushi inko zyada milti hai. Itna to hum kar sakte hai na.”
Reason: This was much later into the year that I realized this simple truth. You don’t need to move mountains to bring happiness in people’s lives. You don’t need to crack the caste system to alleviate discriminations. You can just play it smart. Also, learn to use your heads where it matters.
Context: A conversation that took place between me and another colleague while on a bike ride from the office to the field.
“Saumya (that is what i am called), pata hai kal kya hua?”
“Kal humlog NREGA ke mahila labour log ke saath baat kar rahe the. Wo hume ye bol rahe the unko well me se paani lene nehi dete hai gaonwale.”
“Kyunki ye log ST hai. Ye durr se handi de dete hai aur open caste wale paani bhar ke chale jaate. Wo baad me aake le lete hai.”
“Haan. Ye to bahut saare gaon me bhi hote hai.”
“Lekin hum yahaan pe pichle 10 saalo se kaam kar rahe hai. Main khud ye village ke saath pichle 5 saal kaam kiya hun. Ye first time mujhe sunne ko mila. Kal hum itne relax hoke unke saath baat nahi karte to aur 5 saal chala jaata ye na jaankar.“
“Aapne wo documentary dekhe ho, India Unto…”
“Saumya, hum itne sustainability pe baatein karte hai. Hume pata hai kitna mushkil hai kisi intervention ko sustain rakhna. Ye caste system itne sustainable kaise hai?”
Reason: This was, to me, an incredible thought and perspective. We rarely term any detrimental practices as sustainable. Yet, the caste system is, in every sense of the term, sustainable. It is self- regulated, self-maintained and always, enough is passed onto the next generation to keep it going un-interrupted. It is so sustainable that cutting off one head will ensure something else cropping up elsewhere. You think education will eradicate the problem yet you see more and more educated individuals demanding more dowry because of better qualifications. It feeds itself. I know, I know, everybody knows this. I shouldn’t be wasting your time. But think for a minute, how long did it take for this system to come into being? To become ingrained into every living aspect of the society, like an open secret? Decades? Centuries? Millennia? And here we are crying because we don’t see noticeable change within a few years? I think a lot of things made sense after this conversation. Why people dedicate their lives for the cause. Why you have to be in it for the long run. That’s the standard of commitment the sector demands.
I remember another conversation with a co-fellow who asked me near the end of the fellowship that whether I felt like a ‘woke’ person.
“What do you mean by woke?”
“Wise social justice warriors.”
It sounds like a cool social media hashtag and I personally couldn’t relate to any of it. That’s what I told the co-fellow. Being ‘woke’ is pretty high standard it seems. But one thing I can say is that I have definitely changed. A lot. And change is good, right?
*Names changed to protect identity.