Saturday 19 December 2009

Week 2 - part 2 - visiting the field projects

Thursday 17th December

We head off today to attend one of the field offices. The second day of a 3 day training course for Panchayat
representatives is underway. I sit in and listen to the training. Although I can't follow it all I hear lots of English names for things, for legislation and Indian Government Acts. Clearly a lot of information is being imparted. There is much heated discussion at one point as some of the details of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was outlined.

Basically it entitles each household to 100 days of work per year - this is usually manual llabour such as required for road building. The key is that the household has to ask for the work and of course if you don't know you are entitled to it you can't demand it.  The breakout session is mutual cooperation only neeeds a little translation: 3 groups each of about 8 people, everyone picks a letter/word from a hat and the group tries to make a word/sentance. Of course they can't complete the sentance without all 3 groups coming together. The sentance is a quote from a well known Oriyan poet about people's strength being for their country. Smiles and murmours all round when the final sentance is constructed.

The Shakti staff have a meeting and I sit with the attendees and watch a Oriyan movie - classic good v evil, retribution across the generations cum love story. Evening meal is served before the group resettle for a documentary movie about the PRIs .  It was great to see the project in action, how eenthusiatic the representatives were, how welcoming they were to me. Everyone is so interested in whereI am from and why I am here.We head home and get back about 9 PM - another long day

Friday 18th December

We are off early this morning for a 3 hr jeep ride to another Livelihood project.This is way up in the Niyamgiri Hills behnd Rayagada.

 The project running their has been in set up various women's self help groups to generate income, encourage savings,and escape the local moneylenders who charge an exhorbitant 5 per month interest on small loans. We are talking here of tens of rupees to a few hundred at the most to see a family through an emergency or over the lean season whilst waiting on crop harvests. A women's lot, as in most rural economies, if not everywhere is a difficult one. In addition to home making and rearing children, they fetch water, make meals, fetch firewood, tend the domestic animals. It is a long day, each day, from sunrise to sunset. All the households in these villages are below the goverment's own recognition of proverty. For such Below Poverty Line households income generation is very hard.  PL is set at 10 rupees per day!

Shakti has helped organise the women from 10 vilages into several groups each of 5-6 women and seeded the group with 2 sewing machines. The women make leaf plates by stitiching broad leaves together. It takes about 5 minutes to make a basic one, which they can sell for 0,30 Rupee each. Each group now has set up bank acoount and is saving. I was proudly shown their machines and their sewing skills by 3 of these groups. Shakti has trained them to sew and in basic maintenance for the  machines and how to mannage their finances to buy spare parts. The next step in the project is to federate these groups to increase their bargaining power with suppliers and traders. A local road side dhaba, food stall, where we ate lunch, is buying their plates for its customers. very ecological friendly, plates are used once and are biodegradable! Their plan is to start a pressing machine to make more styles of plate with a more substantial paper base onto which the leaf is stitched. Such plates command a higher price at market. The women are very proud of their acheivements, rightly so. They showed of their bank books and balances: in some cases the enormous sum of 2500 rupees!

I was introduced to one woman from a neighbouring village who was visiting where we were. She is from the Dongria Kondha tribe and is the star performer of the groups - producing more plates than anyone else. I wish I could have taken photos, but was wary of asking to on first meeting. Her tribe is very very remote and has a very characteristic way of doing the women's hair. They are also covered in jewelry - 3 nose rings, 10-15 earings per ear, metallic spirals in their hair, and a hair grip about the side of a hand, shaped like a small boomerang, made of engraved metal and very very sharp - a weapon really!

The route is about 1 hr on what goes for a normal road here, then about 2 over cross coutry forest track. Some is tarmaced, other parts just bare ground - Ken if you are reading this, it is a bit like the off roading we did in Fiji, but more potholes! In other parts there are fords across streams/rivers which in some places have been bridge but which are no more.

The project staff live out there full time when the projects are underway. It seems it is always difficult to find housing for them and to finance transportation to the villages around the one in which they live. Their living conditions are pretty basic and it is part of the reason why it is proving so hard for Shakti to find the right employees, who have to be graduates in social work, development work or similar or some specific skills set like animal husbandry for a particular project. This particular field office house has 3 rooms, each leading of the previous - the most internal one is a store for the press machines machined below, the middle acts as an office cum bedroom and the entrance room has is a cooking area cum day room. Cooking is over a fire, light is by electricity when available, otherwise by oil lamp. A pretty basic existence.

This project team has one motor cycle and 1 cycle between 4 of them. A motor cycle costs the equivalent of £500 and a cycle costs 3000 Rupees. I am told that a typical project team has a travel allowance of anywhere between 1500- 3000 rupees per month from the donor organisations. Great but they can't spend it on a bike or cycle as it is given as a travel allowance meant for public transport - which of course there is none in these locations, so although it helps in getting to and from the field office and the main office, it helps not one iota towards actually doing the field work in the 10 villages this project covers.  Currently a total of 30 motor cycles are required across all our projects but only 5 are available. At an currently affordable rate of purchase of 1 bike per year, well you can do the maths! If anyone reading has any experience or thoughts on how to get our donor organisations to fund these I'd really like to hear your suggestions. Any of you biking fans like to sponsor a bike for us?

We finally made it home that evening at 9PM. I went to bed extremely tired and very shook about after 6hrs of bouncing around in the jeep meant my arm felt tired and sore, so I slept like a log through to my usual wake up call by the train horns. It has been really good to be able to see some of the projects in the field so soon. I gather many of my fellow volunteers are still hanging around with not much to do yet, waiting on their boss's presence in the office or the office not being prepared for their arrival. in this respect I seem to have come up trumps! I'm being drip fed project reports and information and having a chance to digest this and meet the project team and see the project in action. A good week 2, long may it continue.

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