Wednesday, February 23, 2005

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.

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