Friday, April 01, 2005

Milk for thought

March 15th and 16th:

After breakfast, I went to meet Sandeep Pandey and Arundhuti Dhuru. They are good friends with Madhavi and I had already met their son Chaitanya at her house. Arundhuti had just returned from Raja Talab where she had participated in a protest outside the Coke factory. We talked about groups she has worked with, the conflicts within them and how hard it is to achieve democratic operation within any movement. I also told her about Sangtin's decision to close their schools. She was upset about this and promised to do what she could to expedite the review process.

Sandeep joined us at the breakfast table, busy at work with preparations for the India-Pakistan Peace March. He had just returned from Lahore and seemed a little stunned from the warm reception he received there. He has written about the trip and his discussion with the Pakistani PM, so I won't reiterate the details here. He was hopeful that the Indian group (including Sanat) would get visas to travel to Pakistan. We talked a little about the work they have been doing on communalism – they have organized meetings in Ayodhya - “We get more attendees than Pramod Mahajan does at his meetings.” Sandeep has also done a few ‘stunts’, like distribute copies of the Geeta while Mahajan was distributing trishuls (tridents). We talked about how his work is perceived in the wider ASHA circles - “I tell him not to send e-mails replying to arguments and accusations – his very presence online makes the situation worse!” Arundhuti interceded. Just like in AID, there seems to be a growing gap between ASHA volunteers who have spent time visiting grassroots groups and/or building close links with them and the rest – the challenge for everyone volunteering with these groups is how to bridge that gap. Sandeep seems to have stepped back a bit from that, as he should.

Sandeep and Arundhuti exchanged schedule information just before he got into his car to drop me off at the bus station – this seemed to be the first time they had after Sandeep's return from Lahore! In the car, we talked more about conflicts and challenges in ASHA. I also asked him for an opinion on FCRA clearance – from what I've been hearing, it's a process rife with corruption and tough for a group without money or connections in Delhi. He disagreed and said that the group could contact their elected MP. “At some point we have to work with politicians.” Further, he thought that groups should fight for their rights. “What about groups who do not have that kind of money?” I asked. After all, not all groups are in a position to wait – after meeting the Sangtin folks, I have perhaps become extra-conscious about economic realities. “There still will be a way,” he replied. I asked if AID volunteers should get involved in this as we do with other campaigns – by writing/faxing/e-mailing/calling the Registrar's office. “Why not?” was his reply!

Sandeep dropped me off at the bus stop, after suggesting I visit the ASHA ashram on the 19th before leaving from Lucknow. I returned to Sitapur and shortly afterwards, Richa and I left for Kunmarapur. We first took a bus to Mishrikh and then a theliya – a cart attached to a bicycle, sort of a cycle rickshaw without the seating. “It's a multi-purpose vehicle and can transport both people and goods.” I didn't have my camera with me – pity, me on a theliya is worth a few laughs! Richa talked about how people used to stare seeing her on one after she left Mahila Samakhya. “There, I was the District in-charge. I would be driven everywhere in the office car,” she said. She may be reconciled to all kinds of transport, and even enjoying it sometimes, but it seems harder for others to adjust to her new reality.

We reached Kunmarapur at about 5 pm. Richa showed me Reena's old house – it had burned down during a fire in the village. Reena had been helping put out a fire in her brother-in-law's house. In the meantime, it spread to her house and she arrived too late to save it. Help from friends in Sangtin and elsewhere got the family emergency supplies and Reena has now collected enough money to rebuild. In the meantime, her family lives in 2 rooms that are part of the women's dairy.

The dairy has been operational for 3 years, though it was formally inaugurated only last June. Milk is collected in Kunmarapur and some neighboring villages and sent to Parag dairy in Sitapur for processing. If the milk arrives there in good condition, payments are made to the tune of ~Rs. 12/litre. But if one set of bad milk is mixed with the rest, the entire batch is spoiled and the payment is only 50 paise. So this has been Reena's biggest challenge – convincing the villagers that it is in their collective interest to supply good milk. Beyond the cash received when operating well, the villagers are saving time – earlier, they used to make khoya (condensed milk) and other milk products to sell in Mishrikh.

As we got to the dairy, Reena, her husband and two of her four sons were there to welcome us. In a little while, folks started bringing in their evening milk. Reena did a lactometer test on the milk to determine its density. Then her husband took all the milk collected to the main road where the Parag dairy van would pick it up.

All this time, Richa was telling me about Reena's enterprising nature. It seems when Reena married into the family, her husband had no land left in his name – it had all been grabbed by others. “There are a lot of fights in this village over land,” she said. “Papers have been falsified, schemes hatched and people killed for a few bighas.” Reena borrowed money, engineered agreements and somehow acquired 14 bighas. She has also helped defuse a family feud, which had been ongoing for the past 3 generations! In one part of her land, she hasn't used any chemical inputs, only gobar. The yield was better than that in the other fields. “We have to demonstrate pesticide-free farming to convince people to change.”

As the evening lengthened to night, two of Reena's sisters-in-law came to help her with the cooking. The village does not have electricity, so everything was done with lanterns. Fireflies flickered in the fields nearby, complementing the stars in the clear sky above. Richa and I sat on a cot, surrounded by the kids of the family. They began asking me questions about America, especially Reena's second son Akshit. His questions were varied and often incisive, ranging from geography to politics and trivia – I had to think on my feet. Richa later told me that he had studied in one of the schools set up by Sangtin, where they encouraged the kids to be inquisitive from the beginning. Both kids and adults were fascinated by my bottle, which has filter-cum-purifier. They requested me to forget it there. I declined, saying I didn’t want to start another fight in Kunmarapur!

We sat down to a sumptuous meal that I, sadly, could not do justice to – my digestive processes have been erratic, complaining no doubt due to my packed itinerary. We went to sleep soon after – Reena's day starts early.

On Wednesday morning, I got up at 6 am and soon went out to watch the morning milk collection process. This is a bigger event than the evening's – about 40 litres get collected as opposed to about 10 litres in the evening. At one time Reena had been receiving twice as much milk, but late and erratic payments from Parag has brought down people's confidence in the process. If the dairy supplied more milk, Sangtin could purchase better testing equipment and ultimately operate a fully functioning dairy. The plan would then be for Sangtin to get a percentage of the profit and distribute the rest among the producers, all whom are women (atleast on paper).

After the milk was collected and dispatched, Reena and a young man who has become her unofficial assistant started the work of testing. From every batch of milk, Reena takes 150 ml, for which she pays, for fat testing. This and other processes are described here. The process involves mixing milk in a tube with sulphuric acid and then alcohol, and churning the tubes in a centrifuge. The chemistry of the process is explained here. The work is tedious – it takes an hour to complete, including cleaning. Some dairy operators do not conduct this test and pay their producers a flat rate. But Reena computes the fat content, which varies from 4-14%, for the milk she receives and makes payments accordingly. Since everything is done in the open, some men and women wait to see the results for themselves. One woman, who had suspicions about her daughter-in-law mixing water in the milk, was satisfied when her milk's fat reading came to 13.6%! Ever since this process started, nutrition and care of buffaloes in Kunmarapur has improved!

The centrifuge machine was a very basic one – it was set in the earth (which was not very hard) and had to be rotated by a crank-shaft. I kept thinking of how little it would take to make a better setup – to set the machine in concrete so that it wouldn't vibrate, get a smaller, more efficient one etc. For all her work, Reena gets less than 1% of the returns. But she enjoys it, I felt, inspite of her occasional grumbling. I asked whether such dairies could be set up in the other villages that the group has a presence – Satnapur, Qutubnagar etc. The answer was roughly that income generation schemes cannot be exported as a model everywhere. Because of the conditions of Kunmarapur and the presence of Reena, this approach will work here. In Qutubnagar, the chikan model has more chances of success, and so on. And anyway, right now there are few hands and lots of work for Sangtin!

We left the village at ~10 am and walked to the nearest town, Aant, 2-3 km away. As we walked through fields and groves of trees, Reena and Richa talked about the eucalyptus tree problem. The Forest dept. has agreed to buy eucalyptus trees – therefore there is a financial incentive in planting them. But like pine trees in the Himalayas, these are not local and not conducive to other species. Further, they render the soil acidic, increase erosion etc. But how can this be combated? The group is searching for answers. Yet another issue that concerns them is the proliferation of brick kilns in the area, all controlled by strongmen and politicians (who are often one and the same). The kilns were devastating the land, as well as incomes in the neighboring villages. “But everyone wants bricks to build houses with,” said Reena. “If I could, I would build a brick house!”

After saying goodbye to Reena who was heading to the bank, we took a tempo to Mishrikh and went to the Mahila Shikshan Kendra, an education center run by Mahila Samakhya. Richa wanted me to meet 2 girls whose cases Mahila Samakhya, or at least the staff, had taken up. The girls were both not present, but all the Sahyoginis were. Sahyoginis are the field staff of Mahila Samakhya – each has 10 villages under her purview and looks after issues coming up in them, as well as running regular programs such as savings groups, events etc. Sahyoginis are supposed to be catalysts for change and often have been.

I also met the girls studying in a bridge course – an intensive 6-month residential educational program to get them up to 5th standard level. We talked a bit about their course and their stay in the center. One component of the course is teaching girls to cycle, with the result that a lot of girls in the area have become mobile. It seems that one batch drove a cycle to pieces, but the women, led by Richa who was then the DPC (District Programme Co-ordinator), let them. “Let's give them a little fun in their lives,” seemed to be the consensus. The program costs include Rs.30/day/girl for food. Other programs are being run for much less, but Richa resists working with such programs. “Often the people planning them will spend Rs. 20 on a water bottle. And they think Rs. 15 is enough for food for a child!”

We reached Sitapur in time for a late lunch. Soon after, Richa received a call from a young girl in Mishrikh. I cannot explain the situation in detail as it would violate privacy, but events were occurring that would bring this girl's story to public scrutiny and 'shame' her all over again. Richa immediately got into damage control mode. Angrily, she said, “This is what I mean by exploitation. Certain books have been written in Delhi and Lucknow that we cannot allow to be circulated in our district. Forget shaming a person, they can put others' lives at risk. Ultimately, it is the field workers who take the brunt and none of the glory.”

I spent the rest of the evening thinking of all the women I've met so far who work in the field and praying for their continued strength and determination.

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