Friday, March 11, 2005

Learning and unlearning

Feb 25th:

My first day in Hyderabad – from the muggy heat of Chennai to the sweltering heat of the Deccan Plateau. Yes, by this point, I was ready to trade in the heat. After meeting my some of my uncles, aunts and cousins, I met up with Mr. Sreesailam from the Auromira Trust. This group has been set up recently by Mr. Srinivas Mulugu (who was, at that time in the US) to provide HIV/AIDS counselling for at-risk populations. The group decided to start work in the Jeedimetla area, phase 3. A number of small industries are based there and the employees are mainly migrants from other parts of Andhra Pradesh and neighboring states. Since these people stay away from their families and have little knowledge of HIV/AIDS, they are considered a high-risk population. In fact, according to Mr Sreesailam, Andhra Pradesh is 2nd in the country in HIV infections. Among the 192 people who have gotten tested after their intervention, 4 were confirmed HIV cases.

Mr. Sreesailam and the staff of 4 (which includes an accountant) have established a system of outreach in the area. They first send out letters to the management of industries in the area, requesting their permission to conduct an introductory session. On receiving permission, they hold a 1 hour introductory session where they talk about STDs and HIV/AIDS, how they are transmitted, their symptoms etc. They try to engage the audience, but in the first session, do not get much responses because of the nature of the discussion. I attended one such session with about 10 male workers in a wire making factory. They received the information with giggles and jokes. The staff said later that they would continue to meet these employees, maybe during their lunch break, in smaller groups or individually to form better contacts and provide more information. Sometimes people turn up at their office by themselves. They are then provided counselling and, if necessary, taken for testing etc.

A few employees at each site are provided further training so that they can become on-site resources. They also let Auromira know when they have new employees, when a situation crops up etc. The staff also visits teashops to talk to their clientele, which include bus and auto drivers, workers from units tey haven't visited etc. 2 boxes with condoms have been installed in the Jeedimetla area. So far, management reaction has been generally positive – the office space itself was donated by the Jeedimetla industries association. Some factory owners are a little suspicious, especially if their workers have to go off-site for any reason. In other places, there are unhealthy management-worker relations where women are coerced into having sex. These are problems the Auromira staff thinks it can tackle by advocacy.

In this age of the continuing spotlight on AIDS, are there people who still need this information, I asked. Yes, I was told – people might see spots on TV but not appreciate what they talk about. Also, there is a lot of fear about the issue. They talked about the case of a bank manager who had committed suicide recently after testing positive. “He didn't receive any couselling,” they said. “No wonder he lost hope.”

In the evening, I visited CSA (Center for Sustainable Agriculture), a group working in various dryland areas throughout Andhra Pradesh to reduce pesticide consumption. Mr. Dharmendra and Mr. Rajashekhar, 2 members of the group talked about their work in the past 15 years to reduce pesticide consumption for cotton, castor and groundnut in particular. In the past 15 years, they have worked on Integrated Pest Management, an approach that uses mixed cropping, intervention in the larval stage, herbal pest repellents etc. to control the pest population. They have also been campaigning against spurious seeds and advocating the use of biomass and vermicompost. Local farmers' networks have been formed to exchange information and spread the word about organic pesticides. As the staff put it, commercial insecticides cost Rs. 6000-7000/acre while organic insecticides cost less than Rs. 1200. Further, these preparations yield an income to the landless poor.

Their work with villagers and 15 other NGO's has resulted in one village, Punukula, becoming completely pesticide-free. In fact, the Panchayat passed a resolution to not use pesticides in the village. 25 other villages have become 60% pesticide-free – equivalent to about 2000 acres. Best of all, the government has been influenced to 'go organic'. It has asked CSA to work in about 500 villages through its 'Velugu' project, funded by the World Bank.

So far, CSA has not been able to make such a breakthrough with fertilizers, but they have increased the use of biomass and vermicompost. They have also started working on consumer awareness and will be launching the 'Know your Food' Campaign in Hyderabad.

One of their biggest concerns is how to increase income for farmers. “A cotton farmer with 2 acres earns about Rs. 1000 a year,” Rajashekhar said. “How can he survive?” For them personally, it has been a learning experience. “We have had to unlearn everything we were taught in college,” said Dharmendra.

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