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.

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