The fellowship journey has given me a tremendous opportunity to visit the hinterlands of certain parts of the country and understand the evident and subtle nuances and practices of communities. This understanding is possible only by immersing ourselves in the community and trying to understand them better. I would like to talk about certain bits that have stayed with me from my visits to villages in Uttarakhand where i spent three months.
Being self-reliant at a young age
I was on a regular visit to a village where I met a brother and sister duo. The brother was studying in class 7 and sister in class 6. Would you believe it if I told you that they were living in another village alone? Well, it’s true. I had to travel from one village to another project village through a jungle and these two kids accompanied us since they were traveling to the same village. One kid in fact showed me the route and I struck up a conversation with him. He started telling me that he used to take this jungle route for many years where he would come there to collect wood.
In the village where their family stays has school only till class 5. Hence all the kids who study beyond this will have to go to nearby villages to stay, where the classes of higher level are available. Traveling back and forth to this village on a daily basis is not possible. As I have spoken in my previous blogs about this field area, where the villages are located afar and would take the daily walk of many kilometers plus a few hours of climbing to reach. In the case of these siblings, that village with a higher grade school was Pagna where they lived by themselves. Tell this to a mom in an urban area and she would be so concerned about the children …
Well thanks to the village commune and the close bonds that are present among the people, this is possible. As soon as we reached the village I saw a woman enquiring “pahunch gaya beta?”. As we proceeded further, I saw the villagers asking the kids who I (it was my first visit to that particular village) were. Then some of his friends from the village came and started talking to us. The villagers knew these kids and the neighbors fed them daily. This is possible because the various families in the village are often related to each other, belonging to extended families and kinship and fraternity existed.
I was also invited to be part of Harela festival in the village school. Harela means ‘day of green’ and is celebrated in the month of Shravan (the fifth month of the Hindu lunar calendar) to worship Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. It is a festival of greenery, peace, prosperity, and environmental conservation.
People across Uttarakhand associate greenery with prosperity. Harela marks the onset of the rainy season (monsoon) and is considered favorable by farmers as it is the beginning of the sowing cycle in their fields. On this day people are encouraged to plant saplings to maintain vegetation on the earth.
This information and more about Harela is from this piece by DownToEarth please read for further details.
Winds of change
The village commune becomes closer in times of need and distress. Since these villages are remote, it takes a long time to get down the mountains and when any person becomes extremely sick the villagers carry the sick person down and reach the nearest district hospital to get them treated. Could this remoteness also be the reason for people living in the Himalayan villages and elsewhere to adopt traditional medicinal practices along with the abundant availability of medicinal plants?
There are three villages at the end of this particular block and then the mountain ranges start. Although there is no proper network just a few kilometers before these villages, these villages are able to get a mobile network through a tower installed by Jio just last year. Until then there used to be BSNL network that would be available only in certain pockets (Jio and BSNL are telecom networks in India). The towers re typically diesel or electricity run. In this case, it is powered by electric energy and a cut means cutting off all telecommunication for the villages.
During the same visit, we were doing a survey in the villages, and in one of these villages, like in some places across India, there was a caste-based habitation, wherein the general category settled together in a particular place and the scheduled caste (SC) community were staying in a place a little further. I felt it is necessary to do the survey in both habitations in order to make it more inclusive and get the real picture.
Once we reached the SC habitation, I deliberately asked for some drinking water and some of the women present there were evidently surprised, suggesting how there were taboos along those lines pre-existing. I went ahead and conducted the meeting in the SC habitation where I felt that the intervention was more relevant, basis the survey. Although it is the desired goal to see people from all the communities coming together in the meeting, it would take many more years to materialize. Until then, it is important these so-called backward communities are not left out and be included in the development efforts.
During the survey, there was a particular question that wanted to understand the household’s economic standing as to whether they were below the poverty line or above it. Along with this we also wanted to understand their monthly and annual incomes so that we can better design programs and understand the real impact we are creating, as to whether our intervention would lead to just a minor income raise or would it be a drastic forward leap. The issue was since some people are issued below poverty line certificates, even if they earned more income, they would end up quoting an amount below the amount designated for determining the poverty line. We not being from the government had little bearing to this tendency of hiding true incomes by the survey families.
There is a lot written and discussed already in the development space about the ethics and humaneness, as well as the sheer accuracy of survey techniques and approaches. As a practitioner on ground, i can only suggest pragmatic tips in here. There are so many realities we can understand by just keeping our eyes and ears open in the communities; without the pen and paper or the smart phone for record keeping. I have also realized we need to keep side certain time where there is no pre-defined agenda in these village visits because those cracks are where the context, communication signalling and what they mean by what they say is really understood by the surveyor.
For those whose minds are active now, recommend reading more about the paradigm of things versus the paradigm of people, exemplar work by Prof. Robert Chambers – which has given a better direction to this entire surveyor – surveyee dynamic. Until then,