Water Pipes of their Own own Lives

“We were really poor.  Amma started the tuition center.  Over 50 students attended the class.  A tailoring center was started.  Training batches were held for girls from poor families.  Then a computer center was started for children from the 8th to 11th standard.  They were trained and are doing good in their lives now. Then SHG groups were formed, 12 – 13 in each group, deposited 100 rupees per month.  Now, using their group savings, they have started a mushroom cultivation, from which they receive an income.”

–  Rammoorthy Salotra, Pandori village


May 2019

Located in Jammu, 567 km (352 mi) north-west of Delhi and close to the border of Pakistan, Pandori is a medium-sized village with a population of 1461 in 296 households. The primary income comes from construction and farming for others.  Few have their own land. Not far from the famous Vaishno Devi temple, Pandori residents have a deeply embedded sense of belonging to the country and living its traditions. Other pristine points of interest such as Baghdad Lake in the Samhain Valley make the general area a popular tourist destination.

Though ample on-line information is available for tourists about ‘what to do’ in this northern Indian area, Wikipedia and other web-sites have very little to say about Pandori  village itself. Typical of India’s development, tourist destinations and urban life have reaped the rewards of the technological era while rural India, the very backbone of Indian tradition, culture, and values, has been largely left behind in a state of abject poverty.

Five years ago, when Amma adopted the village of Pandori (2014), Amrita SeRVe staff found a people steeped in the traditions and culture of India, yet living a life of extreme poverty and hardship.  In addition to visiting the Vaishno temple, within the village is a Devi and Shiva temple where bhajans are regularly held and festivals are observed. During rainy seasons, bhajans are held daily for two months. Alongside the beautiful traditions, however, lived illness born of contaminated water, illiteracy, and a lack of worldly knowledge about accessing government aid. While the tourist areas were thriving, the people of Pandori were only marginally surviving.

What kind of nourishment would it take for the villagers of Pandori to begin moving out of poverty to become active citizens of their own lives?

Village resident Sudesh Devi recalls that when Amma adopted Pandori, “a medical camp was set up and everyone received free treatment.” The following year, in 2015, Amma built 5 houses, one of which she and her family received. “Amma has given us shelter, and we are grateful for it,” she says.

The greatest treasure the villagers have received, however, according to village resident, Rammoorthy Salotra, is the gift of water — a water pump.  “We have 24 hours drinking water now,” he says. “This was one of the biggest challenges for the village.  Previously the water was contaminated and people used to become sick because of it.  Now everyone is healthy and has good color.  The system includes 20 taps in different corners of the village, 2 – 4 taps in every corner.”           

While bringing in pipes for water is a crucial first step, the M.A. Math is helping people become the water pipes of their own lives in fundamental ways that cause profound shifts in awareness that greatly affect the ability to thrive.

Education and training, both for children and adults, is one important road to awareness and self reliance. After-school tuition teachers, who not only help children with their homework, but also promote cultural awareness, meet with the school teachers to ensure their well-being and progress, thereby bridging the gap between a poor home environment and the school system. Training in tailoring and computers has provided an income outlet to young adults.  And the promotion of adult literacy programs, which according to Rammoorthy Salotra means that “all those who were uneducated and doing thumb impression as signature now can sign their names,” can lead to shifts in awareness and abilities that have a far-reaching impact on the life of both the individual and the village as a whole.

Village coordinators, chosen and trained by Amrita SeRVe,  provide continuous on-site leadership, encouragement, and support with everything from health care to start-up farmers groups and SHG’s.  They play a key role in helping the village move forward, working tirelessly to expand awareness and point the direction toward existing government programs such as the Widow’s Pension Scheme. In 2017, nine Pandori widows discovered they could be receiving government pensions after the village coordinator called a meeting of the local self-help group (SHG) members to discuss existing government initiatives. The widows subsequently became aware of the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme and were promised assistance in applying for widow pensions.

Yet another fundamental shift has occurred through the formation of SHG’s, which enable women to economically help themselves and each other, thereby benefitting their families and the entire village. This, too, however, has required awareness building and support.  When SHG’s were first introduced in Pandori, though the women embraced the idea of depositing money each month into a joint bank account that could be used for loans and other necessities.

“If you save in your own bank account, there’s a chance you might withdraw that money,” village coordinator Shampi told the women. “Whenever you have financial difficulty at home, you can always take a loan from the group and repay in installments,” she further explained.  “Having a joint account is a way to help each other.”

A few years later, when the SHG women realized they needed some income generation, they decided to stitch sweaters to sell at the market, but it took 3-4 days to complete one shawl, and they were paid only 80-180 Rs. per shawl. Due to continuous stress on the eyes, some of the women developed eyesight problems. The work was laborious and time consuming, taking 10 days per sweater. This, together with the high price of wool, did not make for a cost-effective project.

When the Amrita SeRVe agricultural officer visited, he took the SHG women to the agriculture department, which suggested growing mushrooms as a more viable source of income.  Located in the northern most part of India, the state of Jammu experiences very hot summers and cold winters, with temperatures that can drop down to -2 degrees Celsius. Mushrooms are well known for the quality of beating the chill during the winter.  Highly nutritious, they are also especially valued for their high iron content, which reduces anemia in women, as well as for reducing breathing problems in the winter.  For these reasons, there is a strong market for mushrooms in the northern states of India, where mushroom soup packets are commonly sold in markets.

After receiving training from the Agricultural department, the SHG women initially sold 21 packets of Button mushrooms for 80 rupees per kg at the market and in the village itself. Enthused by their success, they decided to add a new variety, Dhingri mushrooms, to be sold for 130 rupees per kg. The third variety they are planning is Milky Mushroom——which nobody has tasted yet, so they are starting at a smaller scale.  Once they taste them themselves and show some samples in the village and market, they can grow them at a larger scale and even open their own shop.

Not only have the women gained confidence, but their families, who stand to gain much needed income from the enterprise, are also enthused, as Suita Devi, 45, reports. “Family is accepting our change,” she says.

Santosh Kumari, 41, feels very positive about continuing the enterprise. “We feel good,” she says. “We are earning profits.”

Radha Devi, 33, compares her life before the mushroom enterprise to her life now: “After household work – washing clothes, cooking, and cleaning, we used to sit idle at home—sleeping,” she recalls. “Or we stitched sweaters for family members. We never went out in the sun during the afternoon. Now we spend 2 hours a day mushroom farming.”

Although much has already been accomplished in the village of Pandori, some areas are still in need of support. In February 2018, Amrita SeRVe conducted a toilet survey. Out of 135 households, only 57 households had their own private toilet. Some were under construction, but most households did not have the financial support to construct one.  Shampi Sharma has been following up with the uncompleted ones. In March, one person constructed a pit, and in April, 2 toilets were constructed and ready for use. In May, one more person constructed a toilet building. Amrita SeRVe will provide help in availing benefits from the government scheme for building toilets.

The goal of Amrita SeRVe is to help villages become self-reliant.  Harnessing the collective power of the women to generate income and thereby uplift their families is one crucial step.  Providing practical training, along with the placement of home-grown village coordinators, are the catalysts for this kind of growth. Literacy and awareness training aids villagers in availing themselves of government schemes they were previously unaware of or unable to take advantage of.

Five years after Pandori was adopted by Amma, village resident Sudesh Devi  sums up the key pivotal changes:  “The children, the youth, the women, the aged—-everyone has become active and aware of their village now.  The Swachhata Mission, cleanliness drives, was also a big gift because now people have started keeping their houses and surroundings clean.  We are always ready to contribute in whatever way to uplift our village, and we always support this organization.”

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