Today is the 2nd day of 2013 and the 9th day of the Jagriti Yatra.
The train has acquired the familiarity of a home and co-yatris feel like family. In queues waiting for water, or for a turn to use the facilities, one comes across really interesting stories.
Elizabeth the spider scholar from Kochi, researching the medical potential of spider webs; Shadab who has set up a school for 500 under privileged children in Ranchi; Manish the engineering student in Gauhati who has set up an on line travel agency specialising in tours of the North East…this is an incredibly bright and enterprising group of young people.
Our role is to act as Resource persons and provide perspective and context. Increasingly however, it is clear that it is we, who have much to learn from these youngsters ! Our visits to the Role models over the past three days has also provided much food for thought.
Day 6 was spent in Vishakapatnam. Our first destination was Naandi, where the graceful Leena Joseph shared the story of Naandi’s journey to providing over a million mid-day meals a day. The spotless kitchens and precise supply chain logistics are impressive – but what is most touching is the care and thought that goes into the preparation of the meals. As someone who started the Naandi mid-day meal project by boiling 500 eggs each morning at her home, Leena is a very inspiring role model.
That afternoon we visited the Naval base at Vishakapatnam, and were privileged to be invited on board some of the Navy’s finest ships. As the daughter of a naval officer, being in a naval establishment was a nostalgic experience for me. For many of the Yatris this was their first experience on board a naval vessel and the delight on their faces was a treat to watch !
On December 31st, Day 7 we broke journey at Behrampur in Odisha. The artistry of the people of this state, was immediately evident from the beautiful mosaic work on the walls and facade of the station. We spent the day with Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas, in the campus at Mohuda, and at their project villages of Batapali & Sindurapur in the Ganjam district.
On my journey through the villages of India this year, I have found that the solution to every problem one encounters, is to be found somewhere else in the country. However, despite journeying through almost 120 villages across 12 states, I had been unable to find a practical and affordable solution to providing a toilet and tap water to each home.
At Gram Vikas I was delighted to find a team of people with a simple mission and the solution to this problem. In Joe’s words “In the 21st century no woman should have to walk more than 10 steps for water, and every home should be a House of Dignity“.
The House of Dignity, is the name that Joe gives to a simple two room structure, built behind each hut, comprising of a bathroom and a toilet. Each is supplied with a tap with running water (the Gram Vikas solution comprises an integrated water supply solution based on local water sources).
Behind the House of Dignity, two septic tanks connected by a Y valve are constructed. The toilet drains into a single tank with the Y valve closed. The villagers are encouraged to plant fruit-bearing trees like coconut, banana, lemon etc. around the tanks. Through the process of leaching, the surrounding soil is fertilised, as is evident from the rich crop of fruit. On average it takes about 5-6 years for one septic tank to fill to capacity. The Y valve is then turned to allow the other tank to fill. Within a year the material in the first tank gets converted into humus and can be used as manure. This provides a permanent and hygienic sanitary solution.
The cost of construction including the water supply solution currently averages Rs 20,000 per household. Gram Vikas helps villagers to utilise funds from Government schemes, provides some grant funding but also insists on individual contributions. Another mandatory condition : the entire village has to adopt the water & sanitation solution, which ensures good Hygeine and dignity for all.
The team of Gram Vikas has done yeoman work in Odisha since 1971 in a variety of areas. For Joe and his team this has now become a Mantra : literally the Movement & Action for Transformation of Rural Areas.
For me their work in Water & Sanitation was most impressive – but I was also captivated by the aesthetics of their work, as evident from their beautiful campus. In a state where most tribal homes are a work of art, Gram Vikas fits in seamlessly.
That evening we celebrated New Year’s Eve on the train. Alcohol and tobacco are strictly forbidden for obvious reasons, but this was not the reason for the subdued spirits. The tragic death of another young person hung over the train, and has been the subject of many conversations over the past days.
We spent New Year’s Day in the train, traveling without breaking journey, across the country. This provided the opportunity to reflect on all we had seen so far and to catch up on incomplete conversations !
This morning we arrived in Patna. Anticipating cold wave conditions the Yatris were bundled up in woollens, but were pleasantly surprised at the moderate temperature.
We spent the day with Arbind Singh and his team at Nidan. A student of sociology and law, Arbind returned after his studies to Bihar, and made a simple observation. Most NGO’s had offices in cities and projects in remote rural areas. They somehow forgot to notice the poverty and problems that existed right around them. He therefore started Nidan to focus on the urban poor. Their support to Street vendors, Rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, domestic workers and slum dwellers is legendary and has now expanded to several other states.
After spending the morning with the Nidan team, we split into smaller groups to visit their projects. I spent the afternoon with 3 young girls in the Yarpur Ambedkar colony. Nidan has contracted with the Bihar Government and DFID UK, for the development of this slum, that borders the main railway line from Howrah to Delhi.
The friendship between these three young girls and the way they showed me around their colony and shared their dreams touched me deeply. Ujala Praveen a young 15 year old is the daughter of a sweeper earning Rs 4000 a month. Her mother is a housewife and is constrained by a conservative and much older husband, from working outside the house. But their home is beautifully decorated and she shares and encourages her daughter’s dream of becoming a teacher.
Ujala’s best friend is Gunja Kumari, the 16 year old daughter of a rickshaw puller. One of 5 children she dropped out of school early. Ujala shares her lessons with her, encouraging her friend to study. Tagging along behind them, is 11 year old Nasreen, who lost her mother at the age of 4. The child of an alcoholic father she is protected by her grandmother, but school is not an option as she has to take care of two younger siblings.
Theirs is not an easy life. Of all their travails, the hardest is the lack of toilet facilities. There is one Sulabh Sauchalay for the entire basti, and it is in a very poor shape. The destination for daily ablutions is therefore the adjoining railway track. We listen with horror as people recount the number of victims run over on the tracks.
As the train pulls out of Patna, I reflect on the thread that connects the role models we have recently visited. Each of them has converted their concern for others, into tangible actions that give others both hope and dignity. There can be no better way to start the new year than to spend it in the company of such people.