Love and Work in January

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Nagpur railway station , January 1st 2018

The year started same as  the last 10 years.  This time around it was not on a bus or a train but on an flight. Then followed by a train journey. Its been a beautiful start to the year. It is said in our culture that , the first day of the year decides the pattern of how the rest of the year will be like.

I dont know about the rest of the year, but January was very much full of travel . Literally I had only 3 days to myself in Raipur rest on the move. I was traveling on work most of the month and one small family trip. I was traveling to the following places:

  • Telengana for Frank Water Work
  • Yavatmal district for Rally For Rivers Work
  • Family Road trip in Maharashtra

To be honest I don’t want to be complaining about all of this. I enjoy work. I am a workaholic or activity-holic. If I do not prepare myself for the time off my work days, I can actually be very lost.  But it works good for my time when at work.

Telengana trip to Frank Water:

The journey I have had with Frank Water over the last 5 years has been an experience  where I have seen things change in the programs over this time. This trip at some level was a reflection of the journey of Frank water and how far we have come from our RO days.  Now we work with tribal people in remote areas to make them water secure villages.

If I were to tell what really makes my time during these visits, its the ripple effect of water security projects on women and children. Girl children go to school, atleast fetching water for household chores is  no more is a reason for them to stop going to school!

Yavatmal visit for river revitalization work:

 

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Panoramic view of  confluence of  Painganga river ( dry bed on the left) and Godhavari river

As a early step to assess the region, the status of rivers and also understand the geogrsphy I went with the Rally for Rivers team to this region. Visited the length and bredth of Yavatmal district visting tributaries of Godavari river and Painganga river.

I have been part of the core group since the inception of rally for rivers, as a technical and policy person. I have a good hold on what it takes to get  water security projects implemented in a village. But rivers, is a different ball game altogether.

It requires coming together of so many governmental departments, diverse set of stakeholders and financial implications need polling of funds from varied sources. This entire volunteering assignment in a way has opened up so many avenues for learning and putting into use my larger environmental engineering and policy skills to use for something very real and something very NOW.

Family Road Trip in Maharashtra

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A ghat on river Godhavari near Nashik

After all the work trip I had my family from Bangalore visit my parents in Mumbai. So a customary Mumbai darshan trip that included lephanta caves and the cruis ride  followed up some local shopping on the streets of Dadar etc and  some good street food happened.  After that a quick self driven road trip to Nashik region and temples around there happened. Inadvertently this trip took me to the temple where river Godhavari  originates, Thriyambakeshwar. It was good to be on the road with the family.

Overall the month was quite hectic, but it was so worth it. When I see some very intense old people who seem to have more energy and bandwidth to do what they do, I am inspired to push myself further and stop complaining.

 

 

 

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Farmer Producer Companies and operational challenges

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Image Source: Livemint

In the last week of January, I sat through an Farmer Producer Company ( FPC) ‘s annual review meeting. This FPC* is based out of Tamil Nadu. The company was formed in 2010. The FPC as it is right now is stable and profitable. The FPC has attained a reputation wherein, the coconut prices set by the FPC is now the reference for all coconut farmers in the locality. That is no trader or a mandi is anymore able to  undercut a coconut farmer. If anything a farmer may get a maximum difference of  INR 0.50( per coconut ) than the price set by the FPC . This in itself , is a huge achievement in improving farmer incomes. The variation in price no more swings in a large bracket of  Rs 3 -Rs 4 ( per coconut) from the actual mandi price of the day of procurement.

Seeing this FPC in operation provided me an opportunity to understand the nuts and bolts of what it takes to run one and the realtime challenges faced in running one. Many of this will never be perceived by someone writing a policy note from doing a desk review, as most of the challenges will be negated by basic assumptions that lay foundation to any policy.Nonetheless the laws that are in place to facilitate formation of the FPC is quite good. Since the initial days of this statute in 2002, it has slowly picked up across the country. Now the idea of formation of producer company is common place and many progressive and aware farmers are coming together to form a company to benefit from the provision of the statute.

The broad areas of FPC’s activities are that of aggregation of produce, on-farm services to aid improvement in production/ harvesting/ post harvest etc. The FPC that I observed was engaged in on farm harvest service provision as well as aggregation of produce from the farmers of the company and other non-member farmers of the company. This FPC’s primary focus is coconuts. The service they provide is harvesting of the nuts, and they aggregate the coconuts. 

When I heard about this FPC- the image that comes to me after listening to the one line scope of the FPC is  that of: All the stakeholder ( farmers) of this FPC , avail the harvesting service of FPC and sell all their coconuts to the FPCs. I was too naive to assume and expect farmers to not exercise choice like any other stakeholder of a company  a publicly listed company or a customer in a retail shop. To explain how naive my expectation was , sample this: You hold shares of Videocon company and therefore I expect you to  buy Videocon TV, Videocon satellite tele and all other products that Videocon produces that meets your need.  No shareholder of any company behaves like that, instead people buy what they consider is good quality/ value for money or with which they have any sentimental attachment. Isn’t it?  This freedom for a farmer gives way to challenges in running a FPC profitably.

In the case of the coconut FPC that I observed let us look at their pool of farmers they cater to. I try to ilustrate the group of farmers with notations below.

Let, farmers who access harvesting services  from FPC can be denoted as FH and farmers who sell their coconuts to the FPC as FC, and farmers who access both harvesting service and sell their coconuts to FPC as FHC. Lets say the total shareholders of the FPC be X. Nonmember farmers that access the FPC’s  harvestingservice is denoted as  FNH, and nonmembers who sell coconuts is denoted as FNC.

Ideally one would have assumed that in this FPC ,

FHC = FH=FC = X, That is all stakeholder farmers use both harvesting service and sell their coconuts to the same FPC.

FH: But in this FPCs case, the farmers who access the harvesting service,  need not necessarily sell to the FPC, and they are not necessarily stakeholders either. They are farmers who grow coconut and have their farms in the neighbourhood. The farmers who access the service are less than 20% of X(the total FPC members) .

FH<= 20% of X, this includes few FNH too.

FC: The farmers who give the coconuts to the FPC is less or half of the total FPC members and some of the farmers selling to the FPCs are non stakeholder members too.

FC= <=60% of X.  This includes a good number of FNCs too.

FHC : The farmers who access both harvesting service and sell the coconuts to FPC make an even more platy number.

FHC <= 10% of X.

There are two major takeaways from the above observations:

  • All members/ stakeholders need not participate in the FPC by accessing either harvesting service or selling their coconuts.
  • And the corollary is also true- Non member farmers are not restricted from accessing either the harvesting or selling to the FPC.

So if the FPCs profits are to be improved then the all member farmers should access the service and sell their produce to the FPC, and the number of nonmember farmers accessing both service and selling has to improve. To be able to do this, the FPC took up an exercise to understand the reasons behind the farmer behaviours.

The following are the broad reasons for the observed pattern :

  1. Pre-existing ecosystem of services and procurement of coconuts
  2. Bottlenecks in harvesting service
  3. Payments

1. Preexisting ecosystem: The coconut famers who are now the stakeholders of the FPC have been engaged in coconut farming for decades. Although they chose to become stakeholders of the FPC, they still have their social ties to the traders whom they sold to earlier or a moneylender or a relative  and therefore do not want to severe ties. One must not read these relationship in a negative light.  That is a trader or a money lender need not be the evil guys all the time. That is if not for the traders a farmer might not have had access to markets at all.  A trader also provides access to harvesting or transportation service along with buying the coconuts. Of course many times they have taken advantage of the information asymmetry  lie between them and  the farmer. But this in the past has worked for the farmer. And one cannot discount it. Also a farmer will take his time in understanding and trusting  a new entity like an FPC. This bit only accounts for a small portion of farmers who do not sell to the FPC. And when there is no easy way  for a farmer to access credit in the times of urgency a money lender comes to his help. There again the farmer may be showing his loyalty by selling his produce to the lender.

But the FPC by its sheer presence has made sure the coconut farmers in the locality of the FPC do not get exploited by establishing the price of the nuts.

2. Bottleneck in harvesting service: The harvesting service provided by the FPC is made available by allocating labourers skilled at harvesting. The FPC has been struggling to service the existing demand. That is when a request for harvest is placed it takes them few days before they service it and this leads to cancellation of  these request. This slack in harvesting leads to non selling of coconuts by a group of farmers too. That is many times harvesting service and uptake of coconuts is provided by all other traders or other service providers in a package. There are not many harvesters who just harvest and go.

3.Payment : Firstly, Many member and nonmember farmers who would wish to sell to the FPC end up not selling due to the fact that FPC do not pay the farmers in advance. This advance request (counterintuitively) is usually from the large farmers.  It remits money to the farmers into their bank accounts within 24 hours after the procurement. Secondly, many medium and large farms are managed by managers and not the farmers themselves. There exist a manager -trader nexus where the manager and trader  seem to have a certain cut in the profits by underquoting the number of nuts sold.

When the FPC addresses the above listed concerns it may be able to improve the number of farmers who access their service and also sell their coconuts to them. While some concerns listed above especially the preexisting ecosystem or payment expectations cannot be met by the FPC, the FPC can work on expanding the services that they provide and begin to engage in value added services like production of virgin coconut oil or other products from the nuts. . Along with it the FPC may also try to tweak and amend their bylaws to ensure the new and existing stakeholders are mandated to sell the produce to the FPC with specific terms and conditions elaborated in them.

 

* The name and details of the FPC  is not revealed to respect the confidentiality of the company.

Love and Work in December 2017

As much as 2018 started with a bang, it was no way preceded by any lull or silence. There was furore of activity in December as well. As I sit down to write I have forgotten half of things that happened in this month. Thankfully my flickr  photostream comes to my rescue.

Work travel in December was a continuation of the one that begun in November. The things I did in December are:

  1. International Permaculture Conference (IPC)  in Hyderabad
  2. Meetings ( with a new team) in Maharashtra
  3.  Maharashtra – Western and Vidharba region
  4. Andaman Islands on a holiday
  5. Weekend motorcycle ride to Tiratgad, Chhattisgarh

1.IPC 2017 in Hyderabad

I went to this conference based on my mentor’s instruction to attend this workshop to know more about organic farming and natural farming. It was quite nice to see people from so many countries who practice permanent-agriculture ( permaculture) there. But somehow it felt like these people although they are doing their bit of good by practicing permanent agriculture had not really given enough thought on how to take it to the world. It is not that every organisation working on a issue take the onus to thinking for the entire world. But the sense I got from sitting through some of their sessions was that the folks who are practicing or endorsing permaculture seem to be living in a bubble.

The key speakers in the conference were Vandana Shiva and Rajendra Singh. They spoke in their oratory fashion boxing the criminals ( corporations ) and victims ( the farmers ) in clear containers. As usual  such simple narratives beget thunderous  applauses form the audience. But they gave a signal if they were serious about their  in the press-meet. There was this young journalist from Economic times who drilled these people on their speeches and asked what they thought was the way forward to address the problems they mentioned in their speeches.  The responses they provided were highly disappointing and made me feel sincerely sad about the state of activism in this country. None of them had a plan to solve the problem they have been shouting about for decades. All of them in their sixties and seventies were still regurgitating the same things they spoke a decade or more ago. The discourse is anti-state, anti-corporation and pro-poor/farmer. But they could not articulate WHAT should be the pro-poor steps to address the problems of the people they stand for. I wonder if they were really serious about solving the problems at all??

2. Meetings with ( new team) in Maharashtra: One of my volunteering work  on an environmental project took me to few meetings in Maharashtra, in the role of a policy professional.  Unlike my usual work routine where I am either alone or  with just another colleague ( most an old friend), I was not with a team composite of people with experiences 20 years more than mine and one other guy who is just a year older than me, but a veterans whose experiences can be easily pegged to be 10 years more than me, especially with respect to people management and running a big department. I must say I have never smiled or laughed so much in my work life before. These guys were just fantastic. With lifelong experiences and having being in very key positions in big Multinationals or having made change to lakhs of farmers or forest dwellers, they were just normal people. No baggage, no gloating images of themselves. Earlier my commitment to the project was because of my mentor and the environmental cause of it. But not its gotten only better. I have walking talking libraries of experiences embodied in these humble people. These people have seen how things happen in the ground , the hurdles and issues in solving any problem. But they are interested in solving the issues , quietly and consistently without making much noise.

I know this coded post with very little work details may not be a great interest to a reader, but this part is a reminder about the fun time I had with this team and exciting times that lay ahead.

3. Maharashtra – Western and Vidharba region: The work in Maharashtra gave me an opportunity to meet the people in two parts of Maharashtra – Western and Vidharba region. Maharashtra can be loosely divided into Western, Maratwada, Vidharba and the Konkan region. The project I mentioned above took me to the meetings in these two regions. The saying about India is that every few kilometers the culture, customs, language and flavour of food change. If one were to take this statement seriously, the observations I am about make will look obvious. But think about it, even within a state how people work, the resources  distribution,  limelight a region gets  and access to skilled manpower differ and there is a clear advantaged and disadvantaged region. If anyone wishes to work in a region, understanding these aspects become imperative. The time spent on understanding the background of a region will go a long way in designing and setting expectation from any work done in a region.

Larger characteristics of a two regions within a state that are quite stark.Western Maharashtra due to historical context and importance and proximity to Mumbai has strong hold of government establishments, political clout good number of educational institutions and therefore skilled manpower, established and professional Voluntary organisations, good access to both government and non governmental funds, good set up of technical agencies that work on development issues.

In the case of Vidharba region (infamous for its farmer suicides) is literally one of the backward regions of the country. This region is far from the capital, little urbanisation and industrialisation in comparison to Western Maharashtra, has access to plush government funds to mitigate farmers’ plight but little access to big non-governmental funds. The skilled manpower in the region is also not many , except some very conscious individuals who have by choice moved and set up small organisations in the region to work on the issues of the region. But the lack of access to big funding to voluntary organisations has lead to NGOs working with each other like friends and the informal networks are quite strong here. The lack of funds is a necessary condition but not sufficient condition for such kind of behaviour in the region. So to see such friendly, networked way of functioning that is facilitated by whatever means is worth noticing and lauding.

4. Andaman Islands on a holiday

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 A holiday that was totally organised by the  brotherinlaw to Andamans was an awesome break. We just had to pack our bags and make ourselves present in the island. The natural beauty of these islands made me dream about working from these islands for a year or so. The island looks like coastal towns of India from a decade ago.  The ride across the Baratang island to experience the closed Jarava territory was revealing and made one raise a lot of questions about this tribe.

The apparent  functioning of government system (from the interaction one had with the locals) seem far superior to the functioning of the state in the mainland. I would like to dig deeper and read more about it. But it seems, one need not look outside the country  for a functioning welfare state, it is right here in these islands. I am making this statement, mainly due to one stark fact. Everyone  use the ration shops. Everyone gets their rice and sugar from the ration shops for their personal consumption. Everyone who is well to do or not uses the ration shops. May be I am wrong in making this observation centric to my conclusion about functioning of the government in this state. I will validate this in a post when I get time.

While visiting the Marine Bio-reserve and recollecting about tsunami effect on these islands , the thing that kept coming back to me was, the issues of environment are so difficult to perceive. The islands look beautiful, green and lovely. Where is the biodiversity loss, who and what are being harmed due to changing climate. As a lay tourist, I cant see it so why will I believe it? If we really want our people to be conscious of the vagaries and loss of biodiversity and be responsible in our act in fragile regions, the issues of environment need to be made felt.

5. Weekend motorcycle ride to Tirathgarh, Chhattisgarh

This is the magnificent #chitrakootfalls. It is magnificent. Returned to this place after a decade or so, was beautiful. Can you make out the #rainbow formed by sun rays falling on the dispersed water particles (#prismaticeffect ) been so long since I use

 This should have been the first note on the month. The month started with a long motorcycle ride with my partner to Tirathgarh and Chitrakoot falls from Raipur. These falls is quite beautiful and the ride was definitely worth it. Some observations on the state from the ride is , most of the roads from Raipur to these falls are good, towns and villages that we crossed are kept clean and compared to most other tourist places these falls are kept really clean and well. At Chitrakoot falls there are shops with art works from the state. The Bastar art work from this state is simply classic, subtle and of course beautiful. These art works are mainly from the Kondgaon region that one crossed on the way to these falls from Raipur. One can also drop by and meet the artisans and artists who produce these art works.

So thats was December and thus ended 2017.

Love and Work, Series

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This year’s start for me was again in transit. Most of the year beginnings since 2007 ( except last two years)  have been either in a train or a bus. There is a saying in our culture -“what you do in  first day of a year is what you mostly do through the year”. This saying has stood true in my experience too. This year the beginning was on a flight followed by a frantic chase to get an auto in the middle of the night to get to a station from there a train to home ( which is Raipur these days).  It has been quite a bit of travel since then ( Not that December was any better, but January only got even more busier).

I thought if this is how my year is going to be, there are going to be a lot of things I experience and witness and that may go past me in a whoosh! So this Love and Work series is something I am trying out to get my thoughts and reflect on my days in the month at least once. A post on an idea seems like a far fetched thing, given my travel schedules and general work load.

(  Actually the name for the series could be Love my Work rather than Love and Work. But Love and Work is a track from the movie – The Intern – that quite gently captures my life as it is right now. I love my work and for me love and work are not different, for me everything is just about living. This track comes close in capturing the juggling I am required to do between different roles – an intern to my mentor ( in agriculture), WASH Country Coordinator, life partner and all other roles that come along with being married. But don’t worry, I am going to bore you with my personal life! 🙂  Also Love and Work sounds much nicer, isn’t it? )

As I write this, I have had two days off at home, quietly unwinding by sleeping, cleaning and getting few things going on the home front. I have begun to note down things to discuss and mull over in a Moleskin notebook gifted to me by a friend. Before these thoughts and things that I consider are worth learning about become irrelevant, I would like to share here for the sake of cataloging my experiences this year and get my partner to respond on his blog  and also share with friends who now live far away nowadays.

So I guess, I will be doing at least one post a month in that frequency along with other thoughts that are  really competing enough to get me writing a blog successfully.

Wrap Up 2017

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Like this green hillock with little sense of identity,  I feel my personality and identity seems to be less prominent, more vague like these hillocks this year.

Its been a while since I blogged here. 2 years ago (before June 2015) , my problem will upkeep of the blog was my lack of confidence in articulation. In the last two years ( until July 2017) the randomness in the blog was due to very very hectic schedule that involved studying and working ( with Frank Water) and also picking up freelance consulting work. And hence that time I have been back to working with Frank and was busy working with the team of experts and Isha Foundation on the policy document for their nation wide campaign to revitalize rivers – Rally for Rivers (RfR).

 

There have been some major events in my personal life since the end of the RfR campaign. I moved to a new small town Raipur. I am settling in here and I am yet to establish a routine with respect to work, house keeping ( literally), working out, and find time of hobbies- painting, biking, singing and swimming- that attend to that aspect of my life that work usually cant attend to.

I am done ranting about why I have not written a word here since April. I wont be promising about if I will write regularly again. The only thing I know is that life on some fronts look streamlined. Subconsciously I have always wanted these streamlining in my life to be able to take on bigger things and responsibilities in my life. Now that I have them, life is staring into me asking me “what next”? This forces me want to reflect on  my work, and projects until now. Thus this first ever “Wrap up” post.

If I were to look at the year that went by, I would like to broadly reflect on three major streams – MPP (Masters in Public Policy) thesis on sustainable agriculture,  changes in WASH job, volunteering for the creation of  policy document on Rally For Rivers , resuming work on Weaver technologies and motorcycle journey to Himalayas. As much I would like to write a long essay that seamlessly flows like any long essay article. I am quite tuned into thinking in list-ized and bulleted manner. Hope that doesn’t annoy anyone reading this post.

MPP Thesis on Sustainable Agriculture: This was a simple immersion endeavor I consciously took to step out of my “WASH expert” zone to put to use my larger environmental engineering degree and knowledge gathered in MPP to understand the larger ecosystem of agriculture and the so called sustainable agriculture space in India. I started working on this space since 2015 November and I quite enjoyed this  longterm immersion. Studying and going to school is fun, but what does the schooling do one only comes out when one puts the knowledge gained to use. This project gave me that opportunity. Also, working on this thesis involved – pouring over many books, interviewing farmers,  interacting with experts, bureaucrats, technocrats, digging into policy and traveling – to my native ;Tanjavur region; in Tamil Nadu, & to 15 odd districts in Rajasthan. And this due course I found a lifetime mentor. Something I have been searching for a longtime.

In a way this project  has given me way beyond what set out to learn. It made me dig deeper into the sector and also provided a 360 degree perspective, softening my sharp opinions with a buttload of realism.

WASH job: At Frank Water, we have two staff based out of India. The other India based advisor is quite articulate and sharper. Working with him and the other India Project Manager sitting in Bristol has gotten better over the years. The Bristol based manager slowly is transitioning to become a friend and working with India advisor has only made me become more thorough with work. The change in the framework to manage partners using Adaptive Project Management has improved the engagement levels of partners and their staff across the entire hierarchy.  The WASH programs are also becoming more diverse making the work more interesting.

Policy work with Rally for Rivers (RfR): Volunteering with the policy team at Rally for Rivers along with my mentor and experts was rewarding. This engagement gave a taste of what realtime policy making entails. Not just about realistic understanding and writing of policy, but what could happen to something which is high profile and has the attention of the larger public and media houses. I have never had an experience this intense in the last few years. Early in the career I have had similar but short-lived experiences of intense work, working with a friend on many projects. But the experience this time around in RfR was of solo kind ( although with a team). I got pushed, pressured, and worked with unreal deadlines and timelines. I could survive, with the help of grace and the team’s support.

The experience of working on this project although under high pressure environment was so rewarding, I literally had a withdrawal syndrome post the rally. This experience at different levels has left me so much richer than what I was when i started work on this. One of the many important things I have learnt working on this live policy project is that, any solution to a problem never gets successfully accepted not in a vacuum.  For a solution to be heard and taken up, it matters how the problem is defined at different levels ( to the politicians, technocrats, bureaucrats, important stakeholders and  the larger public) and how the solution is present to the same group. When I say “how it is presented” – I mean the language, the attitude, leveraging strategic points that speaks specifically to each group’s interest.

On a specific thing that i have learnt and expanded my appetite level volunteering on this project is the eye for details and clean up the mess I have created again and again and again! Patience, an elusive trait for me was a compulsory requirement while working on project like this.

Weaver Technologies:  With 2 year sojourn in education finishing the startup that I have been part of for over a decade is taking a different shape now. Consulting and other work endeavor is moving to a different level.

Motorcycle journey to Himalayas: Writing about this needs a post all dedicated to itself. Whie I keep going on short weekend rides to nearby places, this one was a long wished trip that I have never really though I would end up getting on to. But this also got executed like this was a project that needs to be finished before a given deadline. The experience of being on the trip is something I have not yet reflected until today. This was a trip of two – Suhas and I. I have been on similar such motorcycle trip to Himalayas in 2012, but that was solo. This was a whole 5 years hence. This trip was exhilarating, exciting, scary, eery, lonely and rewarding. The trip was from Bangalore to Leh via Manali and return to Chandigarh via Srinagar. I felt as if I went through two different countries ( other than India) in this trip.

We started out on the trip with very little preparation, and we came back home in one piece. It is only grace that made it happen. If I were to do this trip again, it will be less rushed, more prepared with knowing my  bike and a lot longer and would avoid riding on the world class national highways in the plains of the country.

Wrap up 2017:  The year seemed a lot about work, expanding the sectors of work and little bit of fun and some major changes in personal life. The time spent working seemed so fulfilling that even when on breaks I was looking forward to going back to work. I got burnt and pressured at work, but seems like the workaholic has been woken up again after many many years.

It seems all the desire to have my year that has – on the road, seeing the world and being with nature for larger part of the time is now taking a back seat. Working and being part of meaningful projects seem to take centre stage. I would none the less like to pick up singing again though. In 2018, I would like to have discipline, better time management during less pressure periods and get back a good workout routine and not forget to be on the road now and then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field work and its shades of emotions

Field Work, interviewing a natural farmer in his shop, while he sells his non-chemical vegetable produce from his small outlet in Tanjavur

Interview with Murugan, a natural farmer in his vegetable shop

I usually try to keep my emotions aside when writing posts here at the TMN wordpress. But I have been flooded by many emotions during the field visit and also day after it. But I think emotions have been fundamental in most of the decisions I have made , especially regarding my career, work or study. I have never been practical , i.e. I never calculate “return on investment” on any activity of my life. Field visits have always made me more sensitive. But this time around the experience was very intense. I don’t know why! I am  unable to point to, what is ,what is it that I am experiencing. But , back in the city listening to myself complaining about the weather and other petty things , I  feel irritated. I want to hold on to those feelings evoked in the field even in my very urban and comfortable surroundings. I also feel lost in the city and there is a deep yearning  to  go back to places of feeling sensitive and being receptive and taking things as they come with little judgements.  This is a repetitive experience. I am trying to write down here to reflect, become aware and be conscious of the internal process.

I am back from the field visit from south of Tamil Nadu, in Thanjavur, I am lost. Its been more than 10 days away from this city and I feel lost. I am frozen. Going into field and begining work in different geography and in the rural setting happens quite seamlessly. But the switch from rural to urban settings takes effort. A conscious effort. At least one day goes in trying to understand the trouble in switching to the routine of the city.

As I try to gather myself to do work and study, I am trying to catch hold of some of the myriads of feelings that have engulfed me.

The lady : This time around in my field visit for my dissertation I had a lady volunteer come along with me from the day one until I finished it to help me get to all the farmers I had to interview. She was doing such efficient coordination, my work got done seamlessly. I was weighed down by the sense of gratitude towards her, the way she took interest and facilitated in meeting the farmers. I was so weighed down by this help of hers, I cried. I cried thanking her by the end. Just the way she was, made me wonder , if I will ever be like her ever. Offering to a cause with such dedication and intensity although it may not mean much to me. It looks like she was having a beautiful experience just being involved, although the task she was up to may or may not be of much consequence to her endeavors.

It was hot and satisfying:, 40 degree Celsius in the region, we were on a motorcycle, going from farmer to farmer meeting, interviewing and taking notes. It was tiring, physically fatiguing. On top of this I was also menstruating in this period. This was making the effort even more physically taxing. But I was satisfied, by the end of everyday, I was dead from work . What better way to end a day other than getting worn out by work!

The farmers:  were so generous with time and their offering us food, whatever they had to eat themselves, coconut water, buttermilk, bananas, and what not. This was as a part of interactions for my research where I am trying to understand the math of what farmers earn from toiling on their small land in a year.  I have not known anyone of them from before, this was the first time I am meeting them all.But without fail every one of them was offering something for us to eat or drink. One farmer meets me in between selling his fresh vegetable produce and answers my questions in the gaps between his customers, handing us some bananas to in between all the questioning. Another mechanic-farmer meets us in between his shop hours and answers patiently and shares his passion for the farming and pulls out and shows excitedly book by Fukuako’s natural farming, saying he wants to move to that form of farming next.  These people have small pieces of land,  3 acers or 4 acers. Not much really. But they have a passion to do something right. They are patient enough to share their experience between their business hours too.

Some of us may want to rationalize their willingness to meet me as a “small town phenomenon” or a “village phenomenon” where people from these regions are happy to meet us because we are from the “CITIES”. But this rationalization of the behavior can’t explain all aspects of their behavior, but the element of curiosity alone.

The hosts: I was living in a household of a doctor-teacher couple, who hosted me and took care of me so well. This is the first time I am meeting them. When in field, all of us know, a place to rest and write by the end sometimes is a luxury. They gave me a room for the entire period of stay. They were happy to host me, just because I was studying farming and its viability etc. Again I was feeling overwhelmed by the ease with which they let me into their house and handed me their house keys without batting an eye lid.

This is a repeated experience with my work, especially in rural areas. People are generous and welcoming and caring. Whereas they need not be this way. There is certain amount of guilt for getting the hospitality from the people who are vulnerable than myself. I don’t know if I can really work towards addressing even part of ONE of the issues they face.

Can I be at peace if I get all this support for my field work by paying up the services I received from the lady, farmer to the hosts? I don’t think so, even then  I can be at peace. Even I were to pay for all these services, their way of being kind and generous in non material aspects cant be paid for at all, this was the majority portion of what these people offered.These people are doing whatever they are doing without any expectation.

When I turn back look at all my visits in the past, I see there are so many people, so many of them who have made my work happen seamlessly over the years. I am weighed down heavily by all their support over these years. I don’t know, how to go abut this feeling. The feeling of indebtedness, the feeling of guilt of not having done enough, the feeling of wanting to do all the wrong right.

All of these feelings eventually are forgotten when the awkwardness of the cities is eroded by daily living in it. I wish I don’t forget the generosity of all the people and just do my work even more sincerely and meticulously and be of some consequence to all the effort and help offered by so many people. I want to wake up everyday with a sense of gratitude and love and devotion to all of the people who have come to nurture me in so many ways. I would rather want this sense of gratitude to drive me to do my best, to do what is possible.  I sincerely want to give my best. Lets see how long this bout of gratitude from the field remains.

To be at ‘IT’ incessantly

I am being brutally honest in this post about my struggles to get back to a piece of work after a break from it due to other engagements. I end up spending hours or sometimes days gathering myself to get back myself on track with the work. Many times there are some clogs, unrelated to the job, but they really clog the mind from working on the task at hand. These clogs could be as mundane as gathering all bills or invoices together or a bike maintenance appointment I wanted to finish before getting back to the task or cleaning up the  worktable or simply make a painting or clean the cupboard or unpack and wash clothes from a trip or finishing up a long pending salon appointment. It  could be any one of these or combination of these. If I am unconscious of that clog, I take days at times to unclog my mind.

The unclogging process usually doesn’t happen by itself all the time. If I take the time on my return trip back  ( literally or metaphorically ) to my old job, to reflect on what is coming next, then things happen smooth like a flowing river. If I end up being sick or zapped after the assignment, I forget or run little bandwidth to reflect and I come all constipated mentally to the previous job. Then I seek seek inspiration. This is a conscious or a deliberate process. Where I question why I am doing what I am doing, what is the “purpose” of it, and try put a face to it. A face like this one below. I tell myself if I do my job right there is a possibility that this face can be affected positively. And the choice of not working on cutting edge technology firm or a engineering firm was to see that face smile.

Kids across are adorable. She was just going about her business of playing and being curious around us yesterday while we were going about our work. This village was recovering from #earthquake and many houses had moved into tin recovery shelters. The #sc

A child from a earthquake affected village. She knows none of the troubles of all that. You want those eyes to remain happy! Dont you?

Nepal, my Observations

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A school under reconstruction post the 2015 earthquake, photo from a visit in  Feb 2017

I have been thinking to write my thoughts about this country Nepal. I have visited this country number of times for different purposes- treks, pilgrimage, family trip and just as a youngster with cash enough to explore a new country which suited my pocket.  Because of all these visits I have always been dove-eyed about this country. I have always appreciated warm, strong , welcoming Nepalese people and have been awed by the strength of the hill people.hey fly through the hills while we plain people huff and puff.  The tile and brick  building architecture, the streets of Thamel with all the gears- name any company from across the globe, the old ways of greeting people, the culture of following the old hindu calendar, the apparent harmonious presence of hinduism and buddhism and what not.

While a colleague here writes about the policy landscape of the country, I would like to reflect on seeing this country while traveling around on work.

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Durbar Square, Feb 2017

Most development work driven by grants: I am living in India, a developing nation or a middle income country based on which ever terminology one wants to use. I am looking at Nepal from a lens that is not developed but not really “under developed” as well. It was quite fascinating to see that the sizes of the budgets; to lay roads or water pipelines; for this country mostly comes from multilateral grants rather than their own tax payer money. Also the quantum of operating budget the government departments responsible for delivering basic services is too low. The 4 way junctions have boards saying ” From the people of Japan”, the main highways that act as arteries to the country is from Japan International Cooperation Agency, some water project in the hills is from a Norwegian fund, the main outer ring road of Kathmandu is from a world bank money and built by a Chinese company. Restoration of earthquake affected architecture is also supported by some Japanese funding.

Election driven by international aid: May be its my ignorance about LDCs, but this one came as a surprise to me. Yes, I have read about external funding of elections in Sudan, but I never expected this to be the case for Nepal. What will be the percentage of democracy that will pan out with a country’s election being funded by external agencies. These agencies are not answerable to any people of any other country too. This is influencing  the country’s fate at a very different level with no accountability or answerability by these agencies.

Tourist driven: For me it is interesting to find snickers, variety of international brand of beers, and many other international products find their way from Kathmandu, Pokhara and all the up to Annapurna Base Camp and all the villages that dot the trekking routes. The trails to treks are well paved, exactly they are all paved with well laid stones all the way to the camps. If given a chance they will pave it with the stones even up to the hostile peaks of Himalayas. Although tourism contributes to less than 5% of the economy, there is a heavy focus on this sector.

Upper himalayan region bias vs Terai region ( more like the plain regions): In India the development and attention of the governments usually is more to the plain regions than the hill regions. I always thought the reasons for this could be : logic of number of people reached with a given budget and easy of implementation. In the case of Nepal the focus is upper Himalayan  communities and the communities in the Terai region are neglected.  This challenges my understanding, and makes me wonder why? Few of the reasoning why this could be from what I observed are:

  • First one, Nepal and its image to the granting/aid agencies is that of the Himalayan country, so agencies want to fund the so called Himalayan areas , which are difficult to work in too. “A village nestled in some high hilly region, where some meaningful work got done” makes a pretty picture.
  • Second one, because the hills are what tourist get to, the government also wants to pay attention to the upper regions first.
  • The terai region people have little  representation in Kathmandu, in the government, in the aid sector. The number of aid agencies working in Terai region is far less than the ones working in upper Himalayan region.  Thus funds do not get channelized to this region.

Natural disaster distracting long term development work: Himalayas is one of the most volatile of geographies. Natural disaster of some form or the other keep happening all the time. The country has almost no contingency plan to address disasters if and when they happen. This haphazardness actually stalls and affects the other development work that should have been continues in spite of the disasters. The bandwidth allocation of work gets skewed with most of the money and human resource getting diverted to address effects of natural disaster and the other unaffected  regions hence suffer.

Aid sector is mature, but is driven by funders at every level: In a LDC its not a surprise that aid sector and INGOs are present in good numbers and almost work like governments and are mature in their operations. But the INGOs drive every aspect of all the programs they implement through local NGOs. There is very little capability with the local NGOs.They only do the job of taking orders and doing whatever is told to them by their funders.

Heavily primary sector driven : The country has almost very little secondary or tertiary sector. Most of their vehicles ( cars, trucks, bikes, vans ) come mostly from India and China and people end up paying almost 100% import duty on it.

Air pollution in Kathmandu

Air pollution in Kathmandu is just out of control: Kathmandu’s air is now rated one of the most highly polluted in the world. While on one side the city establishment is rushing to finish the 15 year old Melamchi water supply  project , on the other side the Chinese company is rushing to finish paving the outer ring roads. I keep wondering and worrying about  what is going to come of generation of toddlers who are born and raised in such dusty conditions early in their life.

In short, after visiting this country on work, I don’t know if I can still be dove-eyed about it all and enjoy the snow peaks like my friends who visit this country for its natural beauty and adventure sport. But, having visited the country enough number of times in my twenties, I would like to see it stabilize and achieve better living conditions for its people.

What has Social sciences exposure done to an engineer!

I have not followed the  elections this time around as usual. The news articles on who won, who lost and who is appointed as a Chief Minister in all these states. A friend ( Suhas)follows all election results with devotion. When I say devotion  what it means is,staying in front of the TV flipping news channel after news channel. If it takes a leave from work for this, he shall do that or more. in my case,  I stay a little far from all of this. I know I can get charged up and gets really fiery if I participate in these things.

But, see now that I am in a law school where all the students are studying law, they write emails freely airing their opinion on politics, policies and everything related to governance. Somehow these would-be lawyers from this elite school have this sense of know it all from reading news papers, sometimes its so apparent to someone like me how off they are on their understanding of realities.

I sought an exposure to social sciences as I felt my understanding of grassroot work from work is no more enough. If the work has to be lasting and be done at scale, I needed a different knowledge base. Its been a rewarding experience with social sciences.

But sometimes I wonder why did I set out to study public policy. There are not many instances of this, but there definitely are some instances when I feel strongly and ask myself ” Why did I call upon myself this course?”. I am writing this post while I go through an email chain with comments from the students airing their opinion on the newly designated Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The comments on him are so negative. I am not saying that person is a favorable one for the post. His past records have no reason for anyone to believe that he will be a “good” man.

I was talking to a friend here about giving a chance to this new CM of Uttar Pradesh and ended up having a heated argument. When we stretch it further and breath governance and politics day in and out, it leaves one really polarized. It leaves one really cynical, bitter, enraged. Why do we study all forms of social sciences, is it not to understand the society better, is it not to address the issues in the society better, is it not to make some progress ?

When we read, form opinions and discuss things as a social science person, I feel fatigued in the process, let alone contribute to anything positive. I started out as an engineer in awe of people from social sciences, now I feel I was better of having my head in the ground working on solutions without really spending all my mind in understanding the “social fabric”, “political context” and yada yada yada….

I know we human beings are not objective beings, we are mostly formed by the things we are exposed to, by the things we see, we learn, we read. But why does the thoughts and all things of my mind become so big and so important compared that we begin to harbor such ill feeling of rage, anger, of superiority that we forget the larger scheme of things and much important fact that this time on earth is not for ever. Why can the discourses come from a place of respect of acceptance of the other view. I know its so easy to speak stuff like it, because when someone disagrees with me with condesension, I only stoop lower by trying to trivialize that point of view.

I want to go back to being a engineer, may be a  positive policy engineer or a happy society engineer. May sound naive, but its such a beautiful place when everyone sports a smile on face and try to work on hard issues but still smile and be hopeful. Smile , be the smile engineer. Lets all try and be the smile engineer.

In the Himalayas!

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Starting from today we ( a colleague and I ) get on a trip to Nepal to see the ways of working in the Himalayan country and see how we could contribute to better the situation of water and sanitation in the mountains. Coincidentally, I happen to visit few villages in Uttarakhand few days ago as a part of my policy internship with Tata Trust. The purpose of the visit was to understand the challenges in the Himalayan state in provisioning water and sanitation to its people, especially in the rural areas. The villages I visited are the areas where Himmotthan works. Himmottthan, a nonprofit organization working for the development of Himalayan states.The visit was facilitated by the WASH team (Vinod, Dr. Sunesh, Malvika and other field members) at Himmotthan. I learnt a lot, thanks to the team and their work. I thought it will be useful to reflect on the time in Uttarakhand as it shares some similarities to Nepal, especially due to their shared geography and hydro-geology and ecology.

Larger context (to my profession at present) : To be honest, I have experienced saturation in learning from work in the water and sanitation sector in India. The pace at which my lessons were happening has flattened out. Especially from the field side the lessons have begun to become repetitive. But the gap in service delivery still remains. The efforts from the field front are a stop-gap solution. The ways charities can have higher impact is to showcase best efforts in addressing the WASH service delivery gap to governments. By this means they could assist the governments in quality scale up of the context specific solutions from their partners in the field.

Visit to Uttarakhand: I visited Himmotthan’s WASH vertical and interacted with the team there and also visited few villages in the region to understand their work in provisioning WASH in remote villages of the state. The following are the set of challenges along with the uniformly present challenges for WASH across India:

  • 4 times more expensive than plains: The cost of providing WASH per person in the hills is at least 4 times that of what it takes to provision W ASH to people in the plains. This is because of the lack of road connectivity and difficulty geographical terrain which can never be addressed. Along with difficulty terrain it is also the frequent landslides and earth quakes, makes providing a permeant road infrastructure in the region near impossible. This means the transport of the raw materials for provisioning Water facilities and toilets has to be done using men and mules. This costs a lot.
  • Source of water: The source of water to provide drinking water access in the region is springs. These are form of ground water too. But the source is so fragile that, it dries up when the catchment is tampered with either due to anthropogenic effect or due to natural phenomenal like landslides or earthquakes. (As I write this post, there was a news only 12 hours ago about earthquake in Uttarakhand).
  • Lack of springs in the National Water Policy: Springs as a source of water, do not even have a mention in the National Water Policy of India. While springs are a form of ground water resource, there is very little acceptance at the policy and bureaucracy level about them being a ground water resource that needs regulation too.
  • Ground Water Regulation Unlike the case of rivers, lakes and other surface water bodies, ground water in India is yet to be regulated. And even if ground water gets regulated, springs is not accepted as a ground water source until now. At present in India grond water regulations are in the making. But the present form of regulation reads as follows (oversimplified!): Anyone who owns a piece of land, owns the water under it.
  • Springs -Forest-Land entwined complexity: In Uttarakhand around 85% of state is reserve forest. And of the total reserve forest, 75% of the forest is owned by the government. And many times the spring source of water that can be used to provide water in a village falls in the reserve forest. To get access to the reserve forest and augment, secure the source is a uphill task in itself. The forest departments in India have not been very famous for their cooperation with any of the other departments This is the case across the country.
  • Sustenance budgeting- This aspect of any development project has been for ever neglected in the discourses on performances of Charities and also government. Once a facility is installed, the village that has been provided access goes out of the list of needy ones, and it is assumed that it will remain to the case for ever. A very important issue in non-governmental programs implementing provisions of access to services is getting communities interested and committed to the maintenance of systems installed. IRC’s study on this specific aspect on ” what does it take (both budgetary requirements and community agency) to sustain WASH facilities in the  long term?”,   throws light on this specific issue. At present in the budget heads under WASH for state there is very little budgets to sustain infrastructure that are erected to provide access to WASH. And from the IRC study it is observed that, to ensure that the infrastructure put in place is functional, there is a minimum requirement of finances. Himmotthan with its long term engagement with few villages in their work area have been able to provide concreate numbers on budgetary allocation required to sustain WASH facilities in Uttarakhand and similar Himalayan conditions. This sustenance budget in fragile geographies like Himalayas become even more relevant and important to success of any project.

Springs are  complex geological entities. They are dynamic entities in themselves, that are intricately related to forest and land policies. And the springs happen to be the main source of water in the hills. To understand and maneuver through this complexity a systematic policy level intervention makes a lot of sense. To begin with this can happen by introducing a section on springs and source of water for the populations in the Himalayan region within the National Water Policy. Secondly facilitate means for non-profit organizations, governments and other stakeholders to engage, deliberate and dialogue on the above listed challenges and come to a common consensus. Thirdly, the most repeatedly raised issue of siloization and non-cooperation between government departments. This needs change.

Given this reflection, when I relook at the WASH sector, I think there still remains a lot of aspects about it which still needs attention, especially in the Himalayan region. And I am good to relook at WASH in this region and otherwise at the whole sector. But this time around with a keen eye to push for state adaptation of the solutions that are successfully implemented by Frank Water’s partners. Secondly to push a system’s or ecology approach to addressing the issues for WASH access too.

Thats that!