Wednesday, February 23, 2005

An afternoon at AID Chennai

Feb 18th:

For the past two days, I have been coming to the AID India office in Chennai, talking to the folks there and reading the material in their office. There are booklets on concepts in science (eg. evolution) and mathematics, the booklet created about the tsunami and so on. Today was different. Some lecturers from DTERT (Directorate of Teacher Education Resource and Training) were visiting the office to get information about teaching aids and training material. These lecturers are 2 levels of hierarchy above teachers, i.e. they train the people who train teachers. One DTERT lecturer had visited the office the previous day – that was all the warning the group had. Now, at 3 pm, about 15 lecturers were sitting in a room listening to Balaji, Ravishankar and Chandra speak about the material they and others have been working on.

Balaji demonstrated a simple way of introducing children to fractions with just a piece of paper and pen/pencil. The exercise involved a lot of tearing up of paper, something I'm sure children will enjoy! The beauty of the exercise is that children needn't even have heard of fractions - but at the end of it, they will have an intuitive understanding of them. Even better, they won't have time to develop a fear of fractions! Most of the AID India material seems designed primarily to demystify concepts that have a reputation for being complex.

After Balaji's demo, Chandra and Ravishankar were questioned about their skills and contributions. The visitors then asked for more specific information on material for Mathematics, Science and Social Science. They split into 3 groups, with discussions in different rooms. Chandra talked to the Maths group, Ravishankar (and later Gomati) to the Science group and Balaji took care of Social Science. I opted to travel from room to room and catch as much action as possible :)

The social science session consisted mainly of videos – the AID folks have been producing DVDs that explain concepts in geography, including one that explains tectonic plate tension that led to the recent earthquake and tsunami.

In the Maths session, Chandra was talking about volume and conversion concepts that could be demonstrated with small 'unit volume' cubes. Then followed a discussion about pi and how best to explain it to children. Next, to demonstrate algebra, she picked up a calendar, asked the group to choose a square of 4 numbers and give her the total. She used basic algebra to determine which square had been chosen. Explanation: x+(x+1)+(x+7)+(x+8) = total

In the Science session, Ravishankar blew up a balloon and asked why it had grown in size. Everyone answered – 'because of the air molecules inside the balloon'. Gomati then put the balloon inside a big syringe (or a transparent piston pump), blocked the outlet and pushed in the piston. The balloon shrank. She pushed it out and the balloon expanded to a size bigger than its original one. One could almost see the minds in the room working furiously as the audience connected this with air pressure!

And thus continued the sessions. It was past 6 pm when the visitors finally left after complimenting the group's work, taking with them various pamphlets and leaving behind a list for more. The AID India team was tired but happy – this was their first contact with DTERT folks and it was overwhelmingly positive. As Ravishankar put it, “This ability to generate excellent teaching material, to arrange a meeting at such short notice and impress people of this calibre – this is all possible because of the quality of the program we have created!”

River's edge - a village on the brink

Feb 13th:

On Sunday, I was to go to Konaseema dt. to visit some areas where JKWS (JanaKalyan Welfare Society) is working. At 8 am, Mr. Nageswara Rao of JKWS turned up with a Toyota Qualis jeep he had arranged for the day. One of his staff members, Mr. Mohammed Rafi, accompanied us – he was a student of Mr. Rao's during his teaching days. Mr. Rao had begun social work in the aftermath of a cyclone sometime in the 70s. He continued to volunteer in relief operations and encourage his students to do so. A few years ago, he took voluntary retirement and set up JKWS with the goal of doing developmental work full-time.

Mr. Rao said his group has been working on land rights in tribal areas. In such areas, only tribals are allowed to own land. There have been cases where non-tribal men have married tribal women just to get access to their land. Sometimes these men are already married; further, they often abandon their tribal wife. JKWShas taken some such cases up to the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

JKWS is also part of a network set up to combat child trafficking. They have worked with Prerna, based in Mumbai, for this. In the red-light areas in Amalapuram, they have started interventions such as a drop-in center. In one village near Amalapuram, almost all the women have been engaged in the sex trade. JKWS has been trying to provide options for the next generation – some girls have been sent to Hyderabad to learn book-binding (with Prajwala, a group based there) and other trades. Mr. Rao said that easily 2% of pregnant women in the E. Godavari dt. are HIV positive and therefore tackling the problem is imperative. I asked to see the village he mentioned, but it seems there was a marriage there and the women wouldn't be able to get away to talk to me.

Mr. Rao has also worked on some agricultural issues – he has received training from DDS (Deccan Development Society) for the use of non-chemical pesticides. In particular, he talked about one made of neem and detergent. Detergent, I asked! That is not organic. Just a little bit of detergent, he replied, to decrease surface tension and ensure a good spread of the neem. He is also working on a biodiversity register for local seeds as part of a nationwide effort to prevent patents like those filed for basmati rice or turmeric preparations.

Finally, to come to the project at hand – after the tsunami, JKWS found out that certain fishing villages had been badly affected and were not being served by the government. One such village is Parripalem. It has about 700 families, most of whom are traditional fisherfolk. After the tsunami flooded their homes, they had stayed at their local temple for 2 days. At that time, politicians and leaders provided temporary help with food and shelter. Later JKWS, with the help of 'Save the Children', also distributed some rice – 25 kg bags to 100 families. CRY has provided funding for some child protection centers for 25 children in the 3-6 years age group. His plan is to create income generation through value addition to fish. Thus, instead of selling raw fish, the village could learn how to make pickles, purchase equipment for smoke-drying fish (to ensure smooth drying without infestation by insects) etc.

At this point, we had reached the village and the house where the child protection center was set up. In the porch of the house were crammed children, each holding a slate and a steel glass. It seems the funding provides for a glass of milk and an egg per child every day. There were definitely more than 25 children there – more like 40. A teacher had been appointed to manage them – she mentioned that the center had been set up just 2 days ago and the toys hadn't arrived yet. Mr. Rao mentioned that the extra children were there because it was a Sunday and the government school was closed. The class register showed 30 children – it seems the center adjusts the food as necessary.

As we were waiting for the adults to turn up, the teacher, Mrs. Kumari, asked the kids to recite poems or sing songs. Some intrepid souls volunteered – one girl in particular did a great job, singing at the top of her voice and inducing the rest of the class to follow her lead enthusiastically. Soon the session got facetious, with Mr. Rao promising prizes for anyone who would sing or dance – well, he was a high school teacher!

Finally, the adults began to show up. About a hundred of them soon filled the other half of the porch. We sat down on a mat and they began to tell me their woes. Parripalem lies on the banks of the Vasistha Godavari, a distributary of the Godavari, a few hundred meters upstream of its confluence with the sea. Traditionally, fishing is done with 'Volakatlu', wooden stakes placed in the river around which nets, vollu, are tied. Fish are trapped in these nets and collected, about 4 times a day. A fixed area is owned by each family – as such, they have water rights.

The tsunami on Dec 26th pushed the waters of the Vasistha Godavari into the village. It uprooted all the volakatlu and the nets in the water and washed away fish drying on the banks. The wave was just 2 minutes in duration, but it not only created short-term damage. Sand had been deposited in the river basin. The waters had turned turbid and the fish catch had dropped drastically. Some boats were still going out – after all, the villagers had rebuilt the volakatlu days after the disaster. But their catches were meager at best. The villagers were now going to nearby fields for daily labor. They were getting Rs. 40/day, but Rs.10 was being used up for transport.

We passed a net maker repairing a sea net – very few fishermen head out into the deep sea here. The net maker had come in from the Srikakulam area, further up north. It seems the locals hadn't learnt to repair nets.

By this point, the crowd had swelled to 200. The women surrounding me had already been telling me things like, “No one is there to help us. Only you can protect us,” “There is nothing between us and death” and so on. Now the intensity magnified. One woman started yelling, asking why I wasn't being shown her hut. Other villagers started shouting back. The situation was uncomfortable, to say the least.

Finally, I managed to extricate myself and we headed for the car. We were offered lunch, but I declined. It was already 1.30 pm and I had planned to be back in Rajahmundry by 3. Mr. Rao wanted to show me another village, Palasuthippa, which was in a similar situation to this one. But there was no time. Instead, we stopped by briefly at the JKWS office in Amalapuram and met a few more staff members. Then we headed back to Rajahmundry, arriving at 4 pm.

Eating humble halwa

Feb 11th:

I arrived in Rajahmundry Friday morning from Chennai. Ammamma (my grandmother) met me at the door, looking cheerful and healthy. Of course, some of that could be attributed to her seeing her favorite grandchild but it seems the rupee bandages from Yentaganahalli (read my blog on healers..) really did work! She was waiting for a good day(!) to start taking the medicines the Ayurveda doctor gave her, plus she has the instincts of a good experimenter, so she was able to observe the effects of the bandage. “Some madman we thought him,” she said, referring to Gangayya. “But maybe his touch is effective.” Readers, choose your interpretations! All explanations are correct (or wrong). Maybe it is only the non-discriminating mind, not the over-educated, that can 'understand' and appreciate this.

Lest you worry that I am wandering off into Vedanta or Zen, here's yet another diatribe on my astrologer uncle (well, maybe the first online!). This uncle of mine purportedly has the ability to predict the future, and no one will tell you more about that than he himself! All the time, it is how he saved someone from a dire future or how a client of is does not take a step without consulting him. One could easily be fooled into thinking he's bluffing! But it's true – I know of atleast one such astrologically crippled person who has total faith in him. In the time honored tradition of good astrologers, his personal life is not in the best of conditions – 'Astrologer, heal thyself' doesn't quite work.

Another area of specialty of my uncle is Vaastu Shastra – the ancient art/science of appropriate house construction. He has been known to suggest moving staircases, entrances, kitchens etc. Vaastu is keeping construction and remodelling companies happy! My uncle told my father-in-law that the staircase in their house in Bangalore is in the wrong place, but that it's OK if the homeowner's name starts with Ya, Ra, La or Va. Thank goodness my father-in-law's name is Ravindranath!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Waiting for the Collector

Feb 8th:
We talked late into the night about the proposal to be submitted to ASB. Revathi started working on some recommendations for the post-tsunami Agricultural Policy of Nagapattinam dt. I dozed off, but Revathi and Srini worked on. We reached the Collectorate at 9 am with the intention of using the computers there (the NGO co-ordination center had set some up for NGO use). But the computers had not been turned on and there were already people waiting. We did a little bit of work and then headed to the Collector's office. He had told us he would visit the village at around 10:30 am, but at that time, he was still busy listening to all the people who had come to petition him and responding to them. Then he had to attend a conference call. And so on. And so forth.

The Collector, Mr. Radhakrishnan was previously administering Thanjavur dt. During the Kumbakonam school tragedy, he acquired a reputation for efficiency and effectiveness. After the tsunami, he was dispatched to Nagai where he worked in a support capacity. Finally, in early January, he was formally transferred to Nagai and the Collector of Nagai transferred to Thanjavur. He seems soft-spoken, yet frank and generally remarkably unflustered.

At one point, we were told to wait in the conference room adjoining the Collector's office. After an hour, we started worrying if he had forgotten us! In this time, we fleshed out some more of the proposal and discussed team members and the people Revathi has worked with in the past etc. The discussion became quite heated – Srini wanted to tell me how certain people had been inefficient or unwilling to give Revathi due credit etc. and Revathi kept telling him to stop talking about all these unnecessary things. As the discussion went on, I began to get a picture in my mind. Revathi had been doing organic-farming related activities part-time in the past, only on weekends. 7 months ago, when she quit her job, she began to get a better understanding of how some of the organic farming support groups were set up and realized she couldn't work with them. Her visions are grander and she has a certain confidence that could be perceived as arrogance. Maybe that made it hard to appeal to a more conservative set of people. It is hard to miss her dedication and commitment, though, and her emotional attachment to her work.

The upshot of all this is that Revathi, Srini and a few other folks have decided to set up the SOLAR (Sustainable Organic Low-cost Agricultural Research) Foundation for the administration of the TP Nallur project and the publication of a magazine with articles and interviews relating to organic farming as well as reports from organic farmers all over Tamilnadu. She thinks she will be able to make this a money-generating operation in a year's time. There is a great reluctance in her to apply for external funding, which she has overcome in the past few months. I hope that reluctance continues – it would be great if she could generate a truly self-sustaining network eventually.

Back to the Collector – he headed home for lunch at 2:30 pm and told Revathi that, if he returned to the office, there wasn't much of a chance to get out again. So he suggested we call him between 3:15 and 3:30 pm and he'd tell us where to meet him. At the appointed time, Revathi called but kept getting error messages. Finally, at 3:40 pm, she got through. Mr. Radhakrishnan asked us to come to his house from where we'd proceed directly.

Finally, at 4 pm, we reached the village. We walked a different path than before. Machines from the PWD (Public Works Dept.) were at work, clearing up sand and mud from the fields and depositing it back on the sand dune. The Collector loved the idea of a sand dune - "Everyone is asking where all the sand collected from the fields should go – a sand dune is the solution!" He liked many things about the village and asked the media folks accompanying the group to write a positive story rather than all the tragic stories emerging these days.

He also announced a Food-for-Work program for clearing the drainage canals, digging new ponds etc. The program would provide Rs. 30 and 5 kg rice per day – since not everyone could be employed all the time, the food would help tide them over. The Agricultural Officer for the area accompanied the entourage – he had recorded damaged land in the village, counter to what the Agricultural Dept had said last night! At any rate, now that the Collector had seen the village and announced the Food-for-Work Program, the smile was back on Revathi's face. The Collector spent a little time talking to the villagers and left.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner and rest. I headed out in search of an Internet browsing center. I entered a covered bazaar looking for one that everyone promised was 'just ahead'. Finally, I gave up and returned to the hotel at 10 pm.
Feb 9th:

In the afternoon was scheduled a meeting for NGO's working in agriculture. Revathi had to prepare a policy document for that meeting. But first, in the morning, she had to accompany a filmmaker and his crew to TP Nallur. I declined to go with them and instead went to the browsing center opposite the Collectorate. It was closed! Opening time was 10:30 am. I resigned myself to goofing off and talking to people in the NGO co-ordination cell. Finally, I headed to the browsing center and checked my e-mail – what a luxury it feels like these days! Revathi and Srini returned at noon and we began composing the policy document for the meeting at 4 pm. Revathi literally dictated the document verbatim – all I had to do was polish it a bit. I used some fancy words like 'commensurate' and impressed her!
The agricultural meeting commenced at 4:30 pm, with representatives from LEISA network, an agriculture professor and other interested parties – in all, there were about 40 people. Revathi is on the agricultural committee, but she barely spoke during the meeting, surprising me who had grown used to her loquaciousness. One time she spoke, she advised against buying EM (Effective Micro-organisms) solution and provided the recipe for making it personally. Finally, someone mentioned Revathi's comments in the last meeting about recovering land in a year's time. Others asked how salinity could be removed from the land without the application of fresh water. Revathi said that it could be done by burying coarse materials – the explanation of the process would take longer than was possible at the meeting. So the meeting adjourned without anyone sure of what would happen next except one or two.
I parted ways with Srini and Revathi at this point – I was scheduled to return to Chennai at 10 pm. Outside the Collectorate, not a single auto was available, so I got into a crowded van operating as a 'shared taxi'. These kind of vehicles are very common in parts of India without good public transport, but this was the first time I got into one without being able to speak the local language! Somehow we communicated and after some bunglings, figured out I had to get down at the 'malai' (old) bus stand. I then found out that this was the next-to-last stop, lost patience and got down at a point where autos were available. After a look around, though, I found I was close to the covered bazaar and walked back to the hotel, feeling proud for having navigated Nagai! By 10 pm, I was in the train, a noisy meter gauge one, and heading back to Chennai. The trip was good, but incomplete. I hope to visit an organic farm and other associates of Revathi before I leave Chennai.

The 1-2-3 of organic soil rejuvenation

Before going any further, I should explain the process of recovering agricultural land rendered saline, as communicated by Revathi. One reason she is so confident of the organic methods is that they have been used in farms that had become saline through overuse of pesticides and fertilizers. The steps are as follows:

  1. Trenches about a foot long are dug in the affected fields about 5 ft apart (more or less depending on salinity). Coarse materials such as wood and straw are buried in the trenches. These act to absorb salt. A number of solutions such as EM (Effective Micro-organisms) solution have to be applied to the soil at this point and throughout the process to replenish the soil.
  2. Suspana canabina (Danja) and similar seeds which thrive in saline conditions are planted. These take about 45 days to grow and are ploughed back into the soil before they begin to generate seeds.
  3. Fodder trees are planted on the periphery of fields to provide shade, thus minimizing the evaporation rate, fodder and mulching material.
  4. After Danja, oilseeds, millets etc. can be sown. Different seeds are mixed together and planted. These plants provide for soil nitrogenation and another degree of improvement. They take about 3 months to grow.
  5. Finally, saline-resistant strains of paddy such as Uvarmundan, Kalarsamba and Kuzhiyattichan, which are available in Tamilnadu, can be planted and harvested in 6 months.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From fishing to farming - the organic way

Feb 7th:

Revathi is a woman in a hurry. She walks with a limp, due to a childhood attack of polio, but it's still hard to keep up with her. After all, she is on a mission – to help farmers in Tamilnadu get out of the debt-prone, input-high conventional methods of agriculture. "Whenever we visit farmers who have attended our training sessions, to found out how they are doing," she says, "they ask us, 'Why did it it take you so long to show us these techniques?' 20,000 farmers throughout Tamilnadu are now using organic methods, but there are countless more that we still have to reach." So she finds it hard to sleep – when she does, she dreams about the work she needs to get done! Those around her worry about her health and well-being. But in the 3 days I spent with her, it seemed to me that she was most energized while discussing issues with villagers, agricultural techniques with NGO representatives etc. It is the daily logistic hassles, critical analysis and things she feels are peripheral to the task at hand that irritate and fatigue her.
I met up with Revathi and her companions on the night of the 6th after they dropped off Vandana Shiva at Chennai airport. I was initially supposed to join them when Ms. Shiva was visiting, but would have had to take a bus to Nagapattinam alone and so hesitated. Instead, I met up with Revathi, her husband R.T. Swamy and friend and supporter A. Srinivasan closer to home at about 10 pm. We then picked up Dr. Manikandan, a Philosophy professor at IIT-Chennai and a representative from a German NGO, ASB, named Clas.

Revathi was a high school teacher until 7 months ago. An environmentalist all her life, she began to develop an interest in agriculture, specifically organic farming. She started to attend training sessions in the company of Nammalvar-ji, considered by many to be the Father of the Tamilnadu Organic Farmers' movement. Nammalvar-ji has spent a lifetime traveling across TN, meeting with farmers and exchanging information about techniques. He has barely any assets and pretty much lives from honorarium to honorarium. Revathi soon picked up skills and started conducting training sessions herself. She quit her job last year and since then has plunged wholeheartedly into the task of building a network throughout Tamilnadu, connect with groups in other states working on similar issues etc.
RT Swamy, Revathi's husband, used to work in the Navy as an Air Traffic Controller. After 15 years of service, he retired last year at Revathi's request to support her in her activities (publishing, technical support) and to manage the home front, which consists of their 6 year old son. Right now, their income consists of RT's pension, Revathi's income through honorariums and support from AID through the Saathi program.

A. Srinivasan, a friend and supporter, used to be an adventure tour organizer before he learnt about and began to appreciate organic farming. He bought a plot in Thirunelveli dt. and used the techniques he learnt to grow paddy. In a few years, he was producing as much, if not more, than conventional farmers while spending less. He discovered, however, that while a market might exist for such products, there wasn't a good process in place for getting goods to the market in Chennai and other big cities. Morever, consumers are not aware of where the food they eat comes from. So he decided to open a store in Chennai. (Organogros in Adyar) He has received media coverage, and thinks that, while as a shop, it might have limited stock, it has acquired greater value as a resource center. With all this, he has not been able to farm for a few years but hopes to return to it eventually.

We reached Nagapattinam at about 4 am and went to a hotel where rooms had been booked earlier. 4 hours of sleep, not counting the naps in the moving jeep, and we were back on the road. As we passed through Nagai, signs of the recent tsunami were visible here and there. Right opposite the restaurant where we had breakfast were a line of wooden boats stacked up haphazardly. These had been thrown from the sea and still hadn't been moved from their temporary resting place. At other places were boats that had been flung a few hundred metres across the road. These were upturned and hadn't been moved. Destroyed houses here, a bridge torn apart there – the parade of destruction, still visible more than a month after the disaster, swept before our eyes.
We reached the village, Therukku Poingai Nallur or South Nallur, in about half an hour. It is off the main road and we lost our way once. Finally we found our way to land that is now familiar to Revathi. TP Nallur's president and a few other villagers were there waiting for us.
As we walked through the lands towards the sea, we could see fields with paddy still in them, but with the paddy withered and brown. As the villagers described it, it looked as if the fields had been burnt. We picked up stalks here and there and could see that the grain had not matured and was still a milky paste inside the husk. The tsunami had hit just 15-20 days before the harvest, a time when the paddy seed matures and hardens. In some places, there was nothing inside the husk – all the material must have been washed away. Small ponds constructed in each field to store rainwater now had seawater and sludge in them. The villagers said that the water had stayed in their fields for two days. In some cases, they had to push out the water into drainage canals, 2 of which take water from the fields into the sea and which are now clogged with sand. The canals flow through a small opening in a human-made sand dune that forms a border between the village and the sea. The dune had been built decades, if not centuries, ago and parts of it are tree filled.
When the tsunami hit, it could not breach the dune in most places. But where the canals had formed openings, seawater gushed through and widened the breach. The sand it carried swamped the fields – in some places, you have to dig a foot deep to find a paddy stalk! Two women from the village working in a vegetable patch near the sea lost their lives. The rest were working inland and ran away before the brunt of the wave hit. Their houses were not affected, but 600 acres were outright destroyed. More might start experiencing salinity as time passes due to evaporation in the summer heat, according to Revathi. The trees in the area exhibit a seawater line and some still have paddy stalks around them.
We walked towards the sea where the villagers explained why this village did not have fishermen. It seems that there is a whirlpool and currents right off the coast of TP Nallur. These currents are dangerous to boats. Therefore, while fishermen took off up and down the coast, this was a purely agricultural village. The villagers kept saying that the sea has changed – it comes further inland during high tide and the currents pattern also seems to have shifted. On our way back, we passed a casuarina grove. For all that these trees are touted as a 'natural barrier', they seemed to have just bowed before the incoming wave. Also they were planted in vertical rows and did not seem to have any 'entropy'. What the group said confirmed this point – they dismissed the value of a purely casuarina barrier. Revathi plans to revive te ancient mangrove belt in these stretches – some remnants of it still exists in 1 or 2 places, including Muthupet.
After having some coconut water, we walked back to the car past mango and tamarind trees, a cucumber patch and a snake gourd grove. (snake gourd is so called because the vegetable coils up like a snake unless it is weighted down with a stone) In a mound of earth, palm seeds were buried until an edible offshoot grew out of it. This offshoot is called 'Thega' in Telugu – it is shaped and looks a bit like a radish and is rich in carbs. It is roasted and eaten. We also were plied with gooseberries which have an amazingly cooling effect. In sort, we were replete! Revathi said that this village's rich biodiversity have made it a prime supplier of vegetables to the local market 'Paravai', one of the biggest in Tamilnadu. Because of the industry and ancestral awareness of the villagers, she is confident that they will recover from their present losses.
We spent the afternoon discussing a budget, after which we parted from Clas and Manikandan, who were taking a train back to Chennai. We were to head to Trichy where RT and Revathi live. On the way, we stopped at the agricultural dept., where Revathi wanted to casually enquire about their records on the village. She came out with RT visibly upset. It seems the officials inside said that there was no damage to agricultural land in TP Nallur as it was a rain-fed area. They told her that some politicians in the area were misguiding her. We went immediately to the Collectorate – Revathi had met him earlier and she hoped to have a few minutes' conversation with him. We first went to the NGO co-ordination cell, a service set up on the request of the Collectorate to collect and disseminate information, organize meetings etc. Through their intervention, we were allowed into the Collector's office. It was 9.30 pm and he was still hard at work but outwardly showing no signs of hurriedness or stress. He invited us to take a seat and Revathi started off. Without referring to what she had found out, she talked about the village and how important it was to launch a Food for Work program for it. She also talked about the sand dune, the small ponds in each plot etc. The Collector was interested and said he would visit the village the next day. He asked if she was available and she immediately said yes. A training session was in progress in Sivagangai dt, south of Trichy, more than 7 hours away, which she needed to attend. But she decided that the Collector's visit was more important.

On the way back to the hotel, RT and Revathi discussed the change in plans. RT was to go back to Trichy to their son and Revathi, Srini and I were to stay on in Trichy. For now, Nammalvar-ji was to manage the training session on his own.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fishermen, environmentalists and those who love/hate them

Feb 5th

My first stop in Chennai was the AID Chennai office in Gopalapuram. My friend’s house, where I was staying, is in MGR Nagar. Some advised me to take an auto or call taxi from there, but I chose instead to take a bus. Since it was the second or third stop, I got a seat - the bus was soon jam packed. I got off safely at Alwarpet and took an auto to the AID office. Balaji was at the office, talking with Prasanna and Guru about setting up an office for AID Bangalore with full-timers, projects etc. High time!

I also talked with Chandra, Ravishankar and our own Thothadri (of Twin Cities’ Infosys volunteering team and AID chapter-making fame). They talked about their plans for the future - which Balaji has discussed in a detailed manner in his report and I shall not replicate. I expect to spend more time in the week of Feb 15th in the AID Chennai office.
In the meantime, I went to meet Mr. DV Sridharan of Good News India and ECCO fame. Krishna and others in AID-US had read his appeal on his website and we were interested to know if we could support his work. Mr. Sridharan, or DV as he is commonly known, lives on his own in a flat in Adyar. He has no domestic help and so takes care of all household chores on his own. As he told me, when his first wife died, about 20 years ago, he could not even make a cup of coffee. On her death, he bought a farm in Kari Katte Kuppam and spent about 14 years there in a semi-recluse state. It was in this period that he got to know the villagers and developed empathy for their plight.
The hamlet of K K Kuppam consists of about 300 families and is primarily a fishing community. They have had a traditional Panchayat (representative body) in their hamlet for atleast 200 years. After 1991, a constitutionally mandated Panchayat with elected representatives was set up in the village of Muttukkadu, of which K K Kuppam is a part. An MGM resort has been built in the village and has proceeded to dominate the beach. They harass the villagers and have the support of the local police. In a recent protest outside the resort, a number of villagers and Mr. Sridharan were arrested. And then came the tsunami.
The hamlet had 15 boats and 150 kuttamarans, which were all destroyed or damaged. DV’s plan is to replace them all with fiberglass boats. He has received pledges for 60 boats so far and thinks that is sufficient for the 200 or so able-bodied men engaged in fishing activities. He is concerned for the rest of the community that were in supporting industry or do labor in neighboring communities and has some long-term plans for them.
In the meantime, the villagers are living in relief camps. Where they will go afterwards is still unclear. The government wants to settle them on high ground, which is owned by the Central govt. tourist board. Also, there is the concern about what MGM resorts will do now. These are issues that DV is monitoring closely. Another issue that irritated him is the presence of an evangelical church in the area. They organized a big meet in the relief camp and tried to get fisherfolk to join the Simon Peter society (apparently Simon Peter donated his boat to Jesus for his good works and is thus the alpha fisherman). All this in the middle of relief work seems in bad taste to DV, who considers himself quite secular. He thinks that the hamlet will not stand for this and so is not to worried. He is dismayed at the way they are turning into beggars, though - in the week after the disaster, he tells me they ate 6 meals a day! They have also been inflating the number of boats they had to outsiders - only because of his long association with them does he know their boat capacity. This is also why he is not confident of working in other villages.
He tells me a story to further illustrate this: the Rotary Club visited a nearby hamlet with the idea of repairing their boats. They had set up a contract with a nearby boat repair shop for this, with a fixed price per boat. Now some boats required an overhaul, while others required just a paint job. The villagers made a deal with the repair shop for a cut of the money they were receiving, with more for lightly damaged boats!
Now to future plans, Mr. Sridharan has plans to work on a bio-diesel plantation. The tree known as Pongamia Pinnata in technical terms, Karanji in Hindi and Ponge in Tamil, is native to India and capable of generating bio-diesel. Other plants like Jathropa have not been very successful because they are not native to India. It takes 5 years for Pongamia trees to grow to full productivity. From that point on, they increase in productivity till their eighth year. It is possible to get 25 litres of oil/tree/year. Thus a 6000 tree grove can provide 50,000 litres of bio-diesel replacement. A group in Bangalore, headed by Dr. Udipi Srinivasa from IISc, has already demonstrated the feasibility of this project somewhere near Hosur.
Mr. Sridharan is interested in getting financing for a trip to Bangalore with the villagers, for the purchase of saplings and to pay a stipend to village women for the maintenance of these trees. He thinks it is crucial that the first project does not fail. He sees in it an alternative livelihood for the villagers and an environmental regeneration. Since he has the hearts of the villagers, if not their confidence, he is pretty confident he can make it happen.
At a logistical level, he does not want to set up a Trust, create an NGO or apply for FCRA clearance (he did it reluctantly for the Tsunami in the short term). He has serious philosophical reservations about getting the government’s permission and filing reports with them etc. Not to mention he would need some admin staff for all the extra work. He expects that the project will cost Rs. 10-15 lakhs for the next 5 years and thinks he can raise it within India from interested individuals. Any help he can get from AID will be welcome within this framework.
I left Mr. Sridharan’s house after our 2 hour discussion entertained, intrigued and hopeful that we can collaborate in the future :)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Healers and quacks - the alternative medicine puzzle

Feb 2nd - 3rd, 2005:

My grandmother is 74 years old and suffers from one of the problems of old age – osteoarthritis in her knees. She has been suffering from pain in her left leg for a while; now her right leg has started hurting as well. She does not want toundergo knee replacement surgery and avoids painkillers as much as possible – so alternative medicine is the only option. A distant relative whose advice she respects and a few others recommended a ‘vaid’ (local healer) named Gangayya in Yentaganahalli, a village near Bangalore. Since I was there, she decided to take a chance and visit him.

In preparation for her trip, Appaji (Dwiji’s dad) and I went to Yentaganahalli. It was an hour-and-a-half drive, no less because of the traffic. We first encountered the Asha Kiran branch clinic. This is being run by ‘Gangayya maga’ – the son of Gangayya. Then, we entered the village of Yentaganahalli and found a clinic there. On further enquiry, we found out that it was operated by Gangayya’s brother! Finally, we came to the real deal – Asha Kiran Ayurvedic hospital, the biggest building for miles around and featuring ‘Vaidya Gangayya’. The hospital even had its own bus stop. At least 50 people were waiting in line, some lying on stretchers. We had been advised to get a number for priority treatment the next day and did so.

I tried to tell Appaji that we’d get a taxi the next day, but he refused, suggesting we pay him instead! So off we set, with ammamma (my grandma) and my uncle in tow. At the hospital, ammamma wanted to go to the bathroom, but the toilets there were beyond atrocious. A hundred years after Gandhiji started writing about the abysmal sanitary conditions of even the well-off, the situation is not fully addressed, even at a so-called hospital!

We were shown in within 10 minutes as promised, and ammamma and I were told to wait on a mat in an inside room. In came an assistant who asked ammamma to bare her knees, put 2 small oil bottles upside down on her knees and told her to hold it there. Then in came an old man in ragged clothes. He took the bottles away, gently rubbed some oil in and asked for 2 old one rupee coins (no newfangled ones – we were warned to bring these earlier). On receiving the rupee coins, he placed them on her knees and wrapped some paper bandages around each knee. Off he went without acknowledging anything ammamma was saying about her condition. Finally, in walked an assistant who told her to keep the bandages on till they came off, to not wet them till then and to apply the oil (for which he made us buy a bottle) on the knees afterwards.

And that was the end of the show. We left, after paying Rs. 300, hearing which ammamma lost what little faith she had in the process!!

Later that day, I insisted on taking her to a regular ayurvedic doctor, who prescribed 6 medicines to clean her GI tract (ammamma suffers from an acute gas problem) on the premise that the gas problem is exacerbating the knee problems. She also made dietary recommendations and suggested she not use anti-inflammatory medication, as that worsens gas. Let’s see if any of this works – if nothing else, ammamma has contributed to the alternative medicine industry!