Written by Daya
The village of Maira, located in Punjab, is divided into two parts. A quarter of the village is very poor, consisting of the economically deprived scheduled caste (SC) community. They own neither land nor cattle. The other part is well off and consists of the general community, which owns both. Amrita SeRVe works in the SC community. Men here work as either daily wage labourers or as workers on others’ farms. Women also generally do labor whenever they get a chance. They also make ropes and baskets out of bamboo.
From her home in a nearby village, Deeksha Mehra, village coordinator (VC), drives four kilometres to reach this poorer side of Maira village each day. Though the distance is not great and the roads are good, worlds are crossed to get there. Passing by the railroad station, she crosses over a river and drives through a village and some fields. Finally, she arrives at the main village shops that mark the village: a medical shop, bike repair shop, tailoring center, and a bamboo store. Following the shops are some rows of houses, four “good” houses with proper roofs, a cement floor, and 3 or 4 rooms, and 56 “poor” houses with mud floors and only one room.
When Deeksha took up the position of VC in 2016, the educational standard was very poor. Open drains were visible in some places while there were no drains in others. Garbage was strewn around. Through persistent, every day work with the people here, however, she has encouraged holistic development in Amrita SeRVe’s five basic focus areas: Health, Water, Sanitation, Education, and Income Generation.
HEALTH, WATER & SANITATION
Numerous clean-up rallies have transformed not just the outer look of the village, but the inner mentality of the residents. On December 2017, 35 villagers participated in a rally and awareness session on environment cleaning. Seventeen clean-up drives were conducted in 2018 to clean the village with an average of 10 villagers participating in all the events. Also in February, 12 mould based toilets were constructed by AMMACHI Labs. All of this has noticeably transformed the village.
“The absence of litter is the greatest change I have seen,” Deeksha says. “Step by step, the villagers have come to realise that with cleanliness there are fewer diseases. Conscious effort to keep both the streets and their children clean is becoming habit. Whereas the children used to come to school dirty, they are now wearing clean clothing and have their nails neatly clipped.”
The water has been tested and declared potable, one bore well provides water for the community. Accessible once a day. There is an informal arrangement between the women about time slots.
In addition to the clean-up campaigns and personal hygiene awareness sessions, the health worker and village coordinators visit the households regularly for health and disease surveys and to promote awareness of health-related issues such as diarrhea, menstrual hygiene, and nutrition. In March 2017, the VC conducted two health awareness sessions for SHG members on how to make the Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS). And in 2018, the VC gave 12 health awareness sessions to government Primary School students on hand washing, a balanced diet, acute respiratory infection (ARI), eye care, basic hygiene, diarrhea, vomiting, and the benefits of ORS.
Pregnant woman and babies are also receiving specialised attention. In 2017, the VC helped the ASHA worker in a polio-drops camp. Thirty-nine children and 10 pregnant women were immunised. In January and April 2017, 68 and 64 children were immunised on these two occasions respectively. And in 2018, 48 children and four pregnant women were immunised.
With illiterate parents and a public school that minimally educated its pupils, the SC village children were receiving an inadequate education and many dropped out. In 2016, although the village children were attending the public school, the teachers were not held accountable and sometimes did not even show up. Whereas the SC children attended the public school, children from the outer community were sent to private schools.
One of Deeksha’s first tasks was to actually show up at the school and begin holding the teachers accountable for being there. Next, she organised parent-teacher meetings, where the child’s performance, school attendance, and attendance at the after school tuition center were discussed. These meetings have been tremendously successful, for they connect the parents to their children’s education. Although illiterate, parents are now spending time each day checking off the homework the children receive, in this way playing a vital role in their children’s progress.
Another monumental task is to encourage dropouts to return to school. This takes continuous persistence, but is paying off. Of particular concern are the girls. Ninety-nine students, teachers and villagers attended the Swastha Kanya Saakshar Kanya (a nationwide ‘Healthy Girl, Educated Girl’) rally organised in the village on April 23, 2017.
“Today fewer girls are dropping out,” Deeksha notes, “as parents are encouraging their daughters, as well as their sons, to complete their schooling through the 12th standard.”
An additional educational aspect the VC has initiated is the gurukulam. Initiated in May in all villages, the gurukulam is held after school. Here children imbibe moral values relating to their culture and get help with their school work. Another new program is extra after school education for outstanding students. The plan is to begin sending students to the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayam, a system of alternative boarding schools for gifted students in India. There they will receive a much higher standard of education and will have a better chance of attending the university.
“This year, the first village child, a 10 year old girl, was admitted,” Deeksha relates. “The child lives at the school, but the parents visit weekly. At first it was difficult for the child to live away from home and for the parents to have their child away. We encouraged them, reminding them that this was for the girl’s future.”
Storytelling and kitchen gardens are supplemental activities the VC holds at school. During storytelling sessions, stories are read from Amma’s satsangs or from other saints or scriptures. “These stories impart morals and life lessons relevant to their own lives,” Deeksha notes. “The children pick them up very fast. They are able to learn English words through this, too.”The ‘Kitchen Garden,’ unsuccessful at home since the villagers do not own land, has taken off at school. “The children learn how to plant seeds and grow their own vegetables,” Deeksha says, “skills useful to their lives.”
Self Help Groups
AmritaSREE Self-Help Groups (SHGs), a stronghold for economic forward movement, consist of 8 – 20 members, usually women. The SHG opens a group bank account, collects money from its members, gives out loans, and establishes a business or other way to individually or collectively create an income. Initially, two SHGs were formed in the village, comprising 10 members each. Twonew SHGs – Amma Hari Om and Amma Lakshmi were formed in 2017 with 10 and 12 members each. And in 2018, Mahadev was formed on March and Amma Vaishno on April. The bank accounts for the SHG’s were opened in May.
The idea of opening a collective bank account, however, can take warming up to. As can the concept of working collectively to earn money — especially for a people unaccustomed to trusting others. “Why should we trust our neighbor?” the women initially asked.
Despite the initial mistrust, meetings were held and many women were convinced of the benefits of starting an SHG. But forming the SHG is just the beginning.
“These women are used to doing everything on their own. Each woman in her own house taking care of her own household.” For this reason, many start-up business ideas that went well for other SHG’s did not work out in Maira. When two SHG women got trained in jewelry making, for instance, the rest of the group could not accept that only these women would be making money. It was either all or nothing. If they couldn’t be involved, they would leave the group. A new enterprise, mushroom cultivation, is a project that will take place in each house rather than collectively. Deeksha says that instead of being a collective enterprise, “each lady will be responsible.”
SHG’s also participate in other activities such as storytelling sessions, where stories from Amma’s books are read and discussed and related to their own daily lives. In Maira, the village coordinator has conducted story telling sessions for the SHG members on Jhansi Ki rani, Raja Mata Jijabayi and Mary Kom. SHG’s also provide a base for health awareness sessions. In 2018, the VC conducted 11 such health awareness sessions to SHG members on cough, cold, fever, hand washing, family planning, immunisation and Anaemia.
Those who don’t know how to read and write are learning to write their name and put a signature. The VC meets one-on-one with women in their homes twice a month. As a result, they can sign their own documents.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Over the last several years, much progress has been made in Maira’s poorer community. Last year, all the village houses got gas for cooking. And today, everyone has life insurance and accident insurance, which the VC was able to obtain by pooling the money. when a village girl broke her arm. She did not have insurance. This incident made people aware of the need for insurance. Self-sufficiency, unattainable in previous years, has been made possible by individual bank accounts, which everyone now has.
As the VC explains, “Now there is no longer any chance of money from government schemes not reaching the people. It is directly deposited into the bank account.”
Change in one part of the village necessarily affects the other. With the visible changes on the poorer side, the outer village is slowly changing its attitude. “Sometimes the head of the village will even come to the first house to meet,” Deeksha notes. “The plan is to continue trying to make connections.”