I chose to work as a Team Leader with Raleigh, a British charity during the first few months of 2015. This charity in India works on Water, Health, and Sanitation (WASH) issues. Stopping open defecation, getting people to build and use toilets is the goal. In other countries they also work on improving livelihoods through entrepreneurship.
In this organization, the in country team leader is paired with a UK team leader. The in country team leader and the British counterpart will lead a team of 12-15 volunteers from both India and the UK. There were 12 such teams deployed in 12 different villages, and I hope they all write about their journey like I did. I was away in these three months working with 11 people, who were away from home in a village with no internet access, no proper transportation, no proper water supply, but had interesting inhabitants.
My idea was to look for work in a rural area for quite some time. I would have chosen to go to Spiti Ecosphere at Himachal Pradesh; they are a social enterprise that also sells handicrafts made by the community they worked in. Then there was Auroville in Puducherry, an international township. People came there from different parts of the world to work on various interesting projects.
Jamie, a British traveler and photographer I met while I was traveling in Kerala told me about this opportunity. During one of the conversations he said he was coming to India in January to work as a team leader, and he would be placed in a rural area. This got me interested. After I came back home, I researched about the charity, after which I called them and expressed my interest to participate.
Meeting the team
I was in awe of the British volunteers and the team leaders who participated in the program. Some ran marathons, some did triathlons, some biked across England, some sold their photos at galleries, some of them cooked curries and sold them at food stalls to raise money to get into the program, and to keep the program alive.
I liked listening to their fund raising stories. Well, I did not know how I could keep up with them. Training and working with them was great. After the training at the field base in Mysore, the team was deployed to a village called Budubalu, about 20 KM from Kollegal in Chamarajnagar district. It was about three hour bus ride from the field base in Mysore.
We spent the first month integrating with the villagers, making friends, doing some household surveys, awareness raising, teaching people their rights, visiting government institutions to ask questions. We went to every household to check the number of households with toilets, and also to narrow down on three poor households to give free toilets from the charity.
Awareness and Education
The second month got interesting. Building a toilet for each of our three beneficiaries, signing up 36 households to get government toilets, getting work orders for 55 households from the Gram Panchayat to build the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan government funded toilets.
We built a vegetable garden at the village school so that the kids get more vegetables in their mid day meals, petitioned to the three levels of local self government institutions namely Grama, Taluk, and the Zilla Panchayats to install dust bins and organize waste management, we had the Gram Panchayat clean the village tank that hadn’t been cleaned for more than four years, met politicians, spoke to some on the phone to get them to do some good for the village, spoke to the youth group in the village about self employment.
Budubalu is a big village and the whole village was going elsewhere to work. We also created more awareness programs to villagers on healthy living, good sanitation practices.
The charity also worked with three different partner organizations. The partner organization we worked with was based out of Mysore, and they provided us ration for food, and also assigned us a cook for the two months we stayed while we worked. Before we left the village we created educational materials like booklets, charts for our partner organization, for the school, for our partner organization, did some capacity building stuff.
Our partner organization was only providing loans to build toilets and had not created awareness about best practices. Staying within the community, involving ourselves, and creating awareness was the difference. We told our partner organization to continue educational work along with helping people financially.
People had started building toilets while we were leaving the village. I hope that our work will create a lasting impact in the village and stop open defecation. This will also inspire neighboring villages to practice good sanitation.
My role became important in the team. The British volunteers were outgoing, however the Indian volunteers were shy at the beginning and had trouble integrating because of the language barrier. I had to be a bridge between the Indian volunteers who wouldn’t speak English and the British volunteers. I also had to help with integration of the British volunteers with the villagers, building trust and all.
Cultural exchange happened. Indian volunteers learnt some English, and the British volunteers learnt some Kannada. Throughout the program, we saw good things, bad things, and ugly things. There was lots of personal development stories, we built friendship among ourselves, and among the villagers. While we there the team also got to witness the kickass village festival.
The reception at Budubalu
The villagers were happy to welcome us. They gave us a good reception in the beginning. And why not? They liked seeing white people walking the streets of their village. But during the first month when we were searching for the beneficiaries. The village youth questioned on our success. People found the awareness raising programs repetitive, but it was important for them to practice.
Several organizations before us had done household surveys, awareness programs, village mapping exercises. However no concrete change had happened after that. They thought we were the same. People did not sign up for the Swachh Bharat scheme. Someone misguided them that they will not get their money from the government, or there will be delay in the process.
The government did reimburse some people who built their toilet. However they had to pay middlemen. If a beneficiary had to get Rs. 12,000 for a toilet, he would only get half of it after paying middlemen for their help excluding the cost of construction materials and labor.
They suspected of something similar from us. However their attitude changed almost in the end when we had applications of people that signed up for Swachh Bharat toilets accepted and work orders issued. We also had the three toilets built for our beneficiaries. This motivated more people to come to the accommodation we stayed at to sign up for the government funded toilets.
Experience at Public Offices
Meeting government officers and politicians were a different experience. Getting them to come to the village and have them talk to the villagers was tough. Getting them to do things was easier said than done. They were enthusiastic in the beginning, some of them helped us, but we needed patience dealing with them.
We have dealt with all the three tiers of the local self government. Even though you approach the Taluk and Zilla Panchayat to get some work done, it all boils down to what the Gram Panchayat will do. They are in charge of a village. There was a Gram Panchayat member living in the village who was also the village leader. He supported us in the beginning but stopped getting involved with us later because his term at Gram Panchayat would get over at the end of March.
If at all he got involved he thought people would bother him for the government money after we left. He wanted to avoid that. Some people I spoke to disliked him because they claimed he favored people of his caste. The Gram Panchayat was slow in their decision making and getting work done.
We found the Sanitation Officer of the Taluk Panchayat approachable. He promised there is going to be change in the village. He was a hard worker. We also spoke to the head of the Taluk Panchayat and he was happy with the work we were doing. We even got the Sanitation Officer to come to the village and speak at an event that we held at the village. After he spoke we had many registrations, and some people dug their cesspit and brought materials to start building toilets. By then the builders did start working on the three toilets for our beneficiaries. So this inspired people to get their own toilets.
The work we put in
We had also petitioned for dust bins in the village but had not arrived. However the Taluk Panchayat needed 100% toilets in the village before installing waste management facilities. According to them sanitation is a step by step process. But we thought installing dust bins and building toilets can happen at the same time.
We visited the Zilla Panchayat, and submitted a petition to the Vice President of the Zilla Panchayat. The petition was to help the village by installing waste management units, motivate the Gram Panchayat to promote faster construction of toilets, clean the village water tank, and cleaning of gutters in the village. After this meeting, the decision of the Zilla Panchayat to accept toilet applications, and the village tank cleaning brought joy to the team. The village people did notice our work and were happy with it.
We worked hard to convince the head of the Taluk Panchayat, and the Gram Panchayat to come and speak to the villagers. However this did not happen because of various reasons. By then some villagers started contacting and approaching Gram Panchayat and Taluk Panchayat officials on their own. This is what we wanted to see. People were happy with drinking dirty and infected water until the cleaning of the tank. Of all the work, the villagers loved the water tank cleaning the most.
Future of Budubalu
We also engaged women self help groups in the village, educated them on sanitation and healthy practices, and also encouraged them to take loans from our partner organization to build sanitary units of their own, and also to practice healthy living after we’ve left. The team painted murals on certain points in the village educating people on health, sanitation, healthy eating.
We also surveyed the village at the end and found that the villagers did like whatever work we did, and aware of good sanitation practices. I have seen children at the village school repeat the hand washing lessons we taught them. The Gram Panchayat will also install garbage bins in the village. The school has assured us of continuing the school vegetable garden.
The villagers praised us for leaving our lives behind and staying and working in their village. A girl in the village told a woman volunteer in the team that she inspires her and wanted to be like her. Our partner organization has promised that they will help people finish building toilets, and continue educating them. I’d like to see this village win the Nirmal Gram status or Clean Village status from the government.
This is the gist of my three month Raleigh experience. At the end I was glad to see the Indian and British volunteers cry for each other. It was testimony to the fact that the project experience was a success. They had all blended well. The whole thing was fun. Too bad it lasted only three months. I say this is a must do for people who wouldn’t mind getting their hands dirty. Also if meeting politicians, living and work in a rural area would get you going.