Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bettasivanna and Kaveri

16th - 17th June 2008

We were to head to a village called Prakashpalya for lunch in the afternoon. This is where Holy Cross operates a school for former child labourers. It was nearly 1 pm when we reached the school and as we were approaching, we could see all the children lined up outside in the afternoon heat. Some of them started playing band instruments as we approach, with the drummers being extra enthusiastic. The children escorted us inside the school and assembled in a room to give us a little welcome program. They performed very well and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Later we had a round of introductions of the visitors, the teachers and the children. We had asked the kids to tell us where they came from and what they wanted to do when they grew up. For the boys, the most common answer was 'police' and 'military', though some did say 'master' and one or two wanted to be lawyers. For the girls, it was either 'sister', 'teacher' or 'housewife' – a few said 'doctor' and one surprised everybody by saying she wanted to be a bus conductor! There were some older girls in the age group 14-18 years. They were being provided vocational training in tailoring, baking etc. Even this training is covered through NCLP.

The headmaster, Mr. Ravi, talked about the school mission, activities and the children. It seems they hold a parent-teacher meeting every few months and in general they do not encourage the parents to visit often. The most frequent a parent visits is twice a month – most are less frequent. We asked about that and he cited financial difficulties on the parents' side also being a factor. He said that most parents were happy with the facilities their children were getting and grateful for the opportunity of an education. The children stay in this school for upto 2 years – this is geared to be a bridge school – and afterwards are mainstreamed in residential schools. The teachers do follow up with children who have left, meeting with them and helping out in personal and educational difficulties.

Soon it was time for lunch and we left for a delicious meal. Though the children had fewer items than us, they still got more variety than I have seen in many a rural setting. One of the kids' activities is square metre gardening – they grow a good share of the vegetables they consume. The school also has a papaya grove and the children get to eat the fruit a few times a week. Overall the facilities were well-maintained and cheerful and the children did seem to be happy there. However, there are runaways – just the previous day, a child had vanished. The school does try to check whenever possible if the child has returned to his or her parents, but then do not force the child to come back.

Our long day was far from over – we left to go to visit one of the Health Promoting Schools that the Hannur Program is working with. The school building seemed quite new and there was also a hostel nearby. There seemed to be just one teacher for 3-4 classes and he assembled all the children from Std. 1 to 3 in one room. The body language of these children could not have been more different from the children in Prakashpalya. Where those kids seemed curious, confident and noisy, these were eerily quiet and looked terrified of all the strangers in the room. Karibasappa, one of the CHC fellows, tried to engage them in various activities for a while (he used to be a teacher) and they followed and even seemed to enjoy them. But once done, they returned to their silence and didn't answer any questions about the health and nutrition related activities they had participated in last year. Their master did seem quite intimidating, walking around outside with his stick tap-tap-tapping on the ground. We all left the room feeling a little depressed.

Our next meeting was in another room in the school with the local farmers' group. This group was set up to facilitate various activities that farmers need help with, whether it be bank accounts or applications with the district officials etc. We had earlier seen teacher Karibasappa in action and now we got to see leader Kari in full force. He exhorted the farmers to think about why they had come together and what they could achieve as a sangha. One of the members of the group, a CHW, had told us about the problems they faced with health issues and he talked about what they were entitled to receive from the government. The road connecting their village to the nearest town was in bad shape – they should take up that issue together and demand improvements. Further, most of them were Adivasis – a lot of government schemes had been devised for them, at least on paper, and it was up to the people to use them for their benefit. His speech breathed energy into a muted lacklustre meeting – I for one had been dozing off earlier, but what's new about that?!

Our last visit in a very long day was to Rajappajinagar to meet a lantana furniture maker and his sister who helps him and also works as a CHW. Lantana furniture making was conceptualized in this region by ATREE with the goal of protecting bamboo, which is endangered, and keeping lantana, an invasive species, under control. Lantana furniture seems less sturdy than bamboo – the stems are more slender – but they are still quite elegant and definitely affordable in an urban market. But that in itsef is a problem – accessibility to markets. Bangalore is far away and such a sophisticated market requires more consistency and perfection than this furniture maker can manage currently. Currently, this furniture maker is selling his goods in smaller markets which are more forgiving, but that is not enough to earn him a good livelihood. But he manages...

Then the sister, Jedemadhamma, began talking about her health work and this was easily the highlight of the day. She recounted learning about herbal medicines and treating the village folk inspite of their initial scepticism. She was married in childhood and doesn't remember her husband – she only knows that he died young, after which she returned to her native village. Become a CHW has given her unparalleled respect, given her socioeconomic status. For her work treating illnesses and assisting in childbirths, she might receive a blouse piece or some few handfuls of ragi. But the satisfaction she receives doing this work is clearly visible.

This is a remote place, less than a kilometre from the forest that forms the border of Karnataka and Tamilnadu through which the Kaveri flows. The Soliga tribespeople lead a hard life – she told us how pregnant women go into the forest to collect timber and produce and sometimes return with their baby in tow! So Bettasivanna might be so named because he was born on a hill and Kaveri might have been born on the river's banks. We left Jedemadhamma's house long after darkness had set in, stumbling a little and marvelling at the lives of these hardy people.

Our tour of the Hannur area didn't end there – early the next morning, we went to visit a village where the watershed program was being implemented. This area is slightly hilly and has experienced massive deforestation in the last few decades. In more recent times, these forests were the hideout of the infamous Veerappan and ironically were better protected because fear of the bandit kept people and logging companies away.

The major work of the program has been to construct bunds, gully checks etc. that would make the water 'walk, not run'. This has been quite successful – farmers contributed their labour and materials and though they preferred straight rather than contour bunding, the bunds have been successful in increasing soil accumulation on the fields. Some farmers have even been able to plant crops where earlier there was not an inch of soil to support them. The next part of the program has been less successful. With trees donated by the Forest Department, MYRADA launches a massive tree planting programme each year. And each year for the past 3 year, the trees have dried up in the dry season and died. Why has this program not worked, I asked, and had work hard on getting an answer. It seems that the root of the problem is that most adults in the village migrate for work in the dry months leaving only their elders and cattle (and sometimes children) back home. So there is no one to take care of the saplings. Animals eat or trample them and that's that. Seems like a problem that can be addressed if the NGO puts some effort into it and the community is vested enough...

We went to visit the village later – it was a stark example of a water-deprived community. They get piped water for half an hour each day and in that time all 80 or so families have to fill up enough water for their daily needs. In this season, before the rains, there aren't any other sources of water. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the rains to come.

We had similar discussions here as in previous meetings, about health, work, government services and migration. These past few days have made me think more about seasonal migration and how it impacts communities' native villages. How hard it is to implement any kind of developmental initiative with this kind of instability!

Our last visit during the Hannur trip was to a day bridge school set up for former child labourers. A lot of these children were from the Muslim community and Urdu speaking, so I could finally chat freely. During our introductions, I ended up saying, as has become usual, that I do not have any one place to call home. This led to an impromptu geography discussion with the kids. The nice thing about this school, like the one in Prakashpalya, was the amount of information displayed on charts and the words written on flash cards and hanging from the ceiling across the room – plenty of visual stimulation. Among the charts was a map of India that was useful in our discussion. There were about 20 kids of all ages in the school and it was interesting to see how they were all learning different things in the same room.

We returned to the Hannur program centre to thank the sisters for their hospitality – the food and fruits they provided were a feast – and pick up our bags to leave. It had been a whirlwind tour but, like with everything else at CHC, had provided plenty of food for thought...

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