Friday, 20 March 2015

The real school!

In the year 2012, I was able to contact a person called Narasimha who lives in Joida, Dandeli, through my contacts. I wanted more exposure, more understanding of the problems around. And Mr Narasimha directed me to a village called Deriya inside the Kumbarawada Wildlife Sanctuary of the Dandeli-Anshi tiger reserve. I had requested him to put me onto a tribal settlement where some time can be spent understanding something which I could have only dreamt about until then. And that was how my introduction happened to the most beautiful place just 10hours away on road from where I lived.  The forests of Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve taught me a lot about life. Once you enter into these forests and meet the people living inside, you will drop your entire ego down before you meet them the next time. And it so happened, that I visited Deriya again in the end of 2013 for a week. I just went into hiding from all the chaos and nuisance.

Lot of warm courtesies had been extended over one year after I met them first. And visiting them the second time, it was like a homecoming for me. The strange connections that life throws onto you sometimes are quite difficult to ascertain. One needs to just go through it and take a deep breath to try and consume the new vibe to eventually get back to reality. One such connection was with Namratha akka wife of Mr Jayanand, in whose place I stayed. She has a younger brother back in Dharwad and she treated me nothing less than how she would have treated him. For me everything was new. And one fine evening, with the December breeze bringing in lot of chill, I had my dinner and sat outside alone, reflecting. And Namratha akka finishing all her chores duly in the kitchen accompanied me. The whole family was watching the only T.V in the entire village, inside the living room; while Namratha akka and I sat outside under the moonlight bright enough to see each other faces clearly. She asked, “Why are you sad? Are you crying?” My heart just sulked in so deeply that moment, I am not able to express now the impact those two questions had on my life. I said, “No, Why should I? I have been treated like a king here. I am the happiest person now” But I figured she understood that I was not speaking the truth. May be to help me out of that situation, she took leadership. She started speaking.  I should say it was one of the best conversations I have ever had. I have got to be honest here, that until then, nobody had considered me so seriously. The way the fire in her just burst out ignited my mind out of a considerable lethargy. I knew I was not a visitor anymore. And that was when she said how difficult it is for the villagers especially children and women to defecate out in the forest as there was no sanitation facility in their houses. The impression this entire episode made on my mind has been one of the best. And now I am sure that it is permanent.

Coming back to Bangalore from here, I was not able to settle. I think it was in the month of February that my dear friend Gnana Skandan introduced to Kaleido this Green Grant Initiative of the company he was working for. UTC Aerospace Systems had announced a fund grant as part of their CSR, to projects that involve community participation and environment protection. With the deriya impression strong in my mind, Gnana and I discussed to convert this requirement of a Sanitation facility for the people of Deriya into a project and to give a shot at the grant. A survey of the entire village was done in co-ordination with Jayanand. Collecting some basic data a proposal was made and submitted and in a month’s time, we were awarded the grant. And so the Project took life.  We had no idea how to solve the problem at hand. All we knew was that we had the intention and purpose with us. And we had the confidence from our earlier projects to work things out even in the most constrained situations. The biggest constraint here was that both of us were working and all of these had to be done only over the weekends.

We knew we had to build a team. It was strange that we didn’t have a team in place even before we proposed the project. Kaleido was just working with orphanages then. But all that happened did so in the right way, if I look back now. We just had the confidence that someone out there would be carrying a keen eye to look at life beyond the concrete walls we’ve built around ourselves. It was not for long that Aravind Bhat who travelled with me to Deriya in 2012 and was a part of this project now, got a call from Pratiksha Sunder. Well, a fresh under graduate, right out of her architecture school, volunteered to help. Little did she know then that the whole thing on design and construction would fall onto her shoulders; our options on resources were too timid. The way the project took off after she came in and the way it progressed, is one of the main reasons for the project to be complete today. The technical insights and unseen dimensions to the problem at hand, initiated a lot of discussions and debates. It was a great exercise to the brain. I can now proudly say that the decisions she took, her co-ordination with engineers outside our team and with the community has been impeccable. This day would not have been possible without her active intervention. She got good support initially from Architect and friend Aditi Raj. It was like as Paulo Coelho writes in the Alchemist – If you go out on a purpose, the whole world conjures to help you achieve it. Things started to fall in place. We had by now partnered with Sanjivani Seva Trust, Joida as our field partner, to build six toilets (3 toilets each for women and men) as a part of the community sanitation facility and it was decided to manage the funds through them. They were legally better equipped than Kaleido.

With the confidence growing in the community as well, the whole project plan became achievable. What was totally blindfolded initially became visible three months down the line. And I decided to put my papers down at work. I resigned in the month of August 2014, and personally for me, from then on, Project Deriya was a matter of seamless execution and efficient management. And both didn’t happen as it should have. But we were able to bounce back with some courteous souls outside who saw our plight and offered ready help. There were a lot of legal issues to be sorted out. Lot of new regulations that any development work of this scale should follow, were learnt. And we needed to take in a lot of permissions from the government at various levels ranging from the local gram Panchayat at Kumbarawada to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India at the centre in New Delhi.And all of these needs a re-look at various levels even after the facility is up and ready for use. Especially those related to getting an approval certificate to accept foreign funds and various other open ends in our partnerships to execute this project are to be sorted out.

When we were searching for funds after realizing that we were not ready to accept foreign fundsthrough Sanjivani, we had to find a funding partner from within India. And that is when another friend of Aravind, Subrahmanya Narasimhamurthy (Subba) pitched in to support. He introduced to us the CSR opportunity in the company he was working for. Sonus Networks had just announced its budget for rural development and Subba invited Kaleido to present the Project case for funds. Today, we are extremely thankful for the support that Sonus Networks’ CSR division provided to complete this project. Subba being extremely instrumental in this whole partnership, has not just worked on supporting us with funds, but has visited the site regularly and ensured that the work is happening as intended. He has made this project his own. And we are extremely glad about it.

It was later in the project that we realized slowly, the reality of the sanitation facilities in the place. In terms of the facilities that these people are accountable to get from the primary agency responsible, the government. It is not difficult for any third party organization to pitch in for a development activity. We have realized that such activities carry with it an aura of the WOW factor around it. And in most of the cases the reality is forgotten. But it has to be understood as active citizens on the voters’ list, what is the actual way forward. The role and limits of a third party non-governmental organization must be understood well before the intervention into any such grass root level development initiatives. Of course our job doesn’t end with the elections. And just so it had in this case, the people of deriya had to go out in the forest to defecate while on papers the entire village had 100% sanitation. The fear of burying this fact ever down under with Kaleido attending to this problem always loomed large over us. And so it was decided to not build individual toilets, but a community sanitation facility to contain the problem and still get the individual toilets done through the various schemes that the central government has like the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan then and Swachha Bharat now. So, it was not too hard for us to understand that the problem of lack of sanitation. It was not that the people are going out to the forest to defecate, it was not the problem of countering snakes while defecating, it was not a problem of lack of water, it was not a problem of lack of security, but a problem of corruption filled administration and the problem of taking these people’s needs for granted. It is the duty of the elected people to ensure smooth logistics of the entire development activity. It feels sad to know that we complain on power cuts sitting inside our AC rooms, while the people living quite close by are caught unaware and cornered in their own den and have to still find a new place in the dark of the forest every time they go out to defecate. So, it is clear that the job simply doesn’t end with the elections. We need to participate and question. We need to participate and support.

With our production team doing a wonderful job last October to create awareness on the use of sanitation facility at the place, it is time to increase the level of awareness. Local people should participate in better governance. The anganwadi workers, link workers and community health workers are to be trained towards this. They are the leaders who will take the community forward. And they need to be aware of the issues that happen behind them. Mr Jayanand is extremely instrumental in all these things and is completely aware. But with his research work and various other development works across the forests of the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve he is mostly occupied and this is where we need to support him and more such people to ensure the facilities reach these people. As I have personally realized, all social problems are very dynamic. It requires a willing political force, an active administration and a wholehearted citizen participation to solve all of it. What just came up in a mood set discussion; it stands strong today as a structure with three toilets each for women and men, solving the problem for 160 people of the settlement and allowing them to live a life of dignity and security. The problem as such is only contained and yet to be solved.

All said and done, I am deeply grateful to Gnana for taking all the efforts right from the start till now. He has been the key link in the whole project. I have always enjoyed working with him right from when we decided to help each other with good English speaking skills in college nearly 7 years back. And we are still working on it. It means a lot to put one more project in our bag. This is heavier in terms of its outcome and the impact that our efforts has helped create. Although we took a year, just to build six toilets, this has been one of the best times we have shared between us in our lives, so far.

One thing I have clearly understood now is the reality of the situation through the words of Peter Seger. He said, “Participation, that’s what’s going to save the human race”. And today when I reflect back at a year gone by, all I could see was the amazing relationships that took life all along, where we all participated together to make an impact around and to be the change we wished to see. It feels proud to know that we all have grown in these relationships. Deriya has been the real school to me. Its experience, my new teacher. All the unlearning and learning has been very refreshing. I will cherish this for a long time to come.

This sight is etched permanently in my mind!

-Shashikanth Subramanya 

1 comment:

  1. Well done bro . Hats off to you and your team...
    I agree with you.One must stop complaining about the government and take up responsibilities and work together to make this world a better place to live in