Thursday, October 20, 2005

My Days in PRADAN-Part 1

How it all got started

It was a dusty day of April 2002 when I started off from Bhopal for Sironj in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh, where I had been recruited by PRADAN (A Delhi based National NGO working for upliftment of Poor in 7 states of India) to work as an Executive. I had just passed out from IIFM, Bhopal after completing my PGDFM from there in March. It was on day minus one of the placements in IIFM that I got through for PRADAN. (PRADAN came for recruitment a day earlier than scheduled). I was keen on joining a grassroots NGO because firstly I wanted some good first hand experience of working with the community directly and then I used to feel indebted due to the money that the government spent over me while in IIFM. I had imagined that it would be a well to do place. After all, it was only 120 kms. from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Vidisha is also connected by train but I had seen in the map that Sironj is somewhat away from the railway line.
“So what?'- I had thought- “ 40kms is nothing. I can cover that much within 45 minutes and get aboard a train for home”.
But that was not to be, as I later found out.

As we started off from Berasia bus stand in Bhopal, on a bus labeled Non-stop, I was full of excitement. After all, it was my first job that I was going to join! I had so many visualizations about the place. I always used to imagine a one storied building, on the side of a highway (like PRADAN Office in Kesla is) and I used to think that it would be like a flat (like the Office of Amhi Amachya Arogyasathi-an NGO in Garhchirolli, Maharshtra where I had visited before). I kept thinking about the work that I would do, and kept thinking about how I would use the studies that I had carried out in IIFM.
Harsh Realities
While I was thinking the bus covered the good patch of about 40 kms of the road to Sironj. We crossed Bearasia and voila! The bus became a roller coaster ride, jumping and jerking over a road so full of potholes that I was reminding me of the surface of moon full of craters that I had seen in the National Geographic! I could not believe that roads just 40 km out of the state capital and that too in the constituency of the brother of the Chief Minister Dig Vijay Singh can be that bad.
The tire goes boom!
But, I was soon to realize that it was just a beginning. Soon, the passengers and the luggage were falling on each other alike. The bus was already overloaded but 'the beginner's luck' described in 'the Alchemist' had ensured that I get a window seat and get enough oxygen along with the dust to remain conscious to register the unprecedented travel in my life. There came a bridge on a river (Sagad-later I came to know) and right in the middle of that bridge, the rear tire of the bus went flat. I thanked my stars, not for the flat tire, but for the opportunity to get down from the bus that seemed like a cattle truck to me and become human being for a few minutes again.
I looked around and found what government records and IIFM books called Forest- a thoroughly exploited scrubland in which only the stumps of once densely found teak trees were found. It looked apologetic to me, for not looking as a forest at all to me. I was looking at the vegetables sown in the riverbed under the bridge, that the conductor of the bus started calling everybody on board. I was surprised at the speed with which they had replaced the flat tire with the spare one. Later a co passenger told me that it is so common in a day that the conductor and the cleaner have become experts in that particular activity.
Bachao-Bachao! I am kidnapped!
We moved a little ahead, and I realized that suddenly the bus has left the road and is traversing through someone's field, which, it being post harvest season was devoid of any vegetation. The bus was going away from the road, deeper and deeper in the fields and I was trying to understand what the poor devil is up to. A point came when the road could not be seen anymore and this guy is driving the bus right to the fringes of the forest, in the fields. I thought that some one has hijacked the bus, and all the passengers including yours truly have been taken hostage. I knew that I was going to join a grass-root organization and that it will definitely not pay a single penny in ransom for me, because at that point of time, they did not even know how I looked like. I looked around to see the reaction of the co passengers. Most of them had a exasperated look on their face- the face smeared with sweat, dust and the smoke- but none of them had the bewildered look that I carried on my face. They were looking sympathetically at me and I was not able to understand how these guys can keep their cool. By that time, the bus had left the fields and was deep inside the scrubland called forest. We were going through the forest tracks used by the head loaders and illegal wood cutters and the forest staff who was earning no better. Now, this was a bit too much for me.
I poked my elbow in the ribs to the co-passenger sleeping (miraculously!) besides me.
"Haan?"-he enquired, angrily on being taken out of his bumpy siesta, "What is it?"
"Bhai Saheb"- I said, trying to pacify his discomfort of being woken up in middle of a beautiful dream, may be-" Aap ko kuch gad bad nahin lag raha hai?" ( Don't you find something amiss?)
He looks up and down, right and left, and then says-"What?"
"Look around", I said- “we are in the middle of nowhere, and I think there is something terribly wrong".
"Yes it is", he says- "even the forest tracks and wheat fields of Madhya Pradesh are better than the roads that the state has!"
Bach Gaye!
True to his words, I saw the bus again changing its course, this time away from the forest and the fields and after another 15 minutes we were back again on the road, but in order to avoid the small stretch of 15 kms of absolutely horrible road (other patches are plainly horrible- there are degrees of horrible roads in M.P.!) we had spent close to one hour, going through the forests and the fields. It was my first experience of the vehicles leaving the highway and treading on the forest and the fields, courtesy Shri Dig Vijay Singh, then Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh (his eccentric competitor, Uma Bharti gave a controversial statement later that year before the elections for MP Assembly in which she said that the public of MP would thrash Dig Vijay Singh government by dumping it in the potholes of the roads- and so it did!)
Aa hi pahuche apni manjil pe!
Finally, spending each second in the fond remembrance of the roads of Char Imli, the abode of the bureaucrats in Bhopal, where even the side lanes (meant for the mighty pets of the burra sahebs to relieve themselves) are comparable with the Western Express Highway between Mumbai and Poona, I approached the Sironj town. Surprisingly, the bus was still in one piece (congratulations TELCO!).
I saw a good building, which heightened up my spirits of finding more such buildings in my abode for next few years. It was a hospital, perched on the plateau that overlooks Sironj town. The next moment our bus was going down the plateau to reach the bus stand of Sironj.
I got down and many autowallahs surrounded me at the very instant.
"Kahan jaana hai, Sir?'- asked one.
"PRADAN Office", I said.
"Where?"- pat came the reply.
"Above Khargosh Bidi factory"-I tried to explain.
"Accha accha. Pradhan walon ke yahan jaana hai? Chaliye!" – he said, to my relief.
"PRADHAN? As in Mukhiya of the Village? Interesting!"- I could not hide my grin.
The autowallah shrugged. I got into the auto, put my luggage- An air bag and a sleeping bag- in the back and we drove off. We were crossing through roads covered with the flag stone- something that I had not seen for a long time since I went in some very interior, old streets of my home town, Rewa. Between the flagstone, there were the drains, open ones, about 3 inches wide and 5 inches deep from individual houses to the main drain that ran parallel to the road. These smaller drains had flagstone sidings and so one can actually drive a vehicle over it, without damaging either the vehicle or the drain. Also, it is very convenient for the sweepers to clean the open drains.
I looked around-Old, decrepit buildings-crumbling havelis, small fortresses- it was clear that I have arrived into a part of history studded with remains of the past.
My first Impression of PRADAN
I was looking around, when the autorickshaw stopped.
"Aa gaya, Sir"-announced the autowallah.
"Kitna"- I said, getting out of the auto with my luggage.
"Beis"-said he.
"Accha! Kuch jyada nahin hai yeh?"-I said mockingly, while taking out my wallet.
"Yahan itna hi lagta hai"-said he, bitterly.
"Ok"- I said, giving him the bill-"here you go!"
Pocketing it, he drove off without saying a word. I sighed in relief of having reached there, finally. I looked around. I was in the middle of a street, between a one storied building and a small shack, in front of which a white male goat was tied, chomping his grass. It was a four mill, an atta chakki.
I looked at the one storied building for any signs of PRADAN or Pradhan as they called it. On the balcony I noticed a small white board with the logo of PRADAN.
''There you are"-I told myself. Holding my bags, one on my shoulders, other in my hands, I looked for a staircase. Having found one on the left, I decided to climb. It was a fight of about 15 stairs and I found myself in front of the office, which was going to be my Karambhoomi (the theatre of action) for next few year.
I treaded cautiously. I peeped in the office- there was a big hall, and a wall after two thirds of the length of the hall. Built only for 6 feet, it was more of a partition then a permanent structure. The hall was empty, but I could hear voices of some people talking. I looked around and found a shelf in the wall, just after the entrance. There was a packing box for computer.
"Wonderful!"- I thought- "Atleast one can watch movies by getting some CDs here".
(Later on, my expectations proved to be misplaced, because this was an old 486 kind of computer, sightly more modern- on which even ms Word would not run properly, forget about a video CD. Anyways, there was no CD drive in this box of a computer!)
"Hmmmm" - I said, looking at the charts put on the wall. These were all in Hindi, about the various activities like SHGs, agriculture etc. I the mean time I could hear a female voice, as I closed in to the partitioned part of the office. I decided to surprise the people at the other end. I entered the room with my bags on my shoulders and came face to face with a good looking, spectacled female of about my age.
"Hi!"- I said- "I am Prashant, and I have come here to join you guys!"
Oye-Hoye !
She looked at me with a bewildered look and then said -"Hi! Have you come here on a two month summer training program? "-looking at the little luggage I was carrying over my shoulders.
"No", I said, "I am here to join PRADAN as an employee".
"Really? But looking at your luggage, I thought you are here for a short period of time" She said.
"I don't need much luggage to sustain myself"- I told her- "and in any case I would be going back to Bhopal to get my books and all!"
"Ok"- she said, "Let me introduce you to the others.” She took me to the other corner of the office.
"Here"-she told a middle aged person on a s-chair- "He is Ashokji, he is our Team Leader, and Ashokji, he is Prashant, he has come to join PRADAN."
"Welcome!"-said the Team Leader.
(to be continued.................................)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

My Days in PRADAN- Sironj and PRADAN Staff

Sironj- A small town

Hmmm…starting from where I had left in my previous post (My days in PRADAN-1), I must discuss the town Sironj. Well, it is a small town, which was earlier a part of the Tonk State during the pre independence era. District Sironj was a part of Rajasthan State after independence. It was one of the strangest districts of independent India, as it was a part of Rajasthan, yet it was surrounded from all sides by Madhya Pradesh. This situation continued till 1956, when, under the state re organization act, it was merged in the state of Madhya Pradesh and was demoted from a district to a tehsil (block headquarter).

As during the Tonk days, Sironj was governed by a Nawab, the character of the town has a characteristic Muslim tinge in it. May be about 40% population of Sironj town would be Muslim, and it one of the big Muslim education centers in India, with pupil from various parts of the country as well as from abroad coming to Sironj to get Islamic education. There are a number of Muslim buildings-mosques, madrasas and dargaahs, as well as some old graveyards here. Contrary to other similar cities, Sironj is known for its record of communal harmony. This town is dominated by traders and businessmen –Muslims, Hindus and Jains, and it is in their interest that there should be peace in the area, as the business is the first casualty in any strife.

The Market- Agarbah!

The main nerve center of the town is a market road, which, after encroachments and all, is hardly 14-15 feet wide and it runs through right at the center of the town. It contains shops of all kinds-clothes, grocery, general stores, ornaments, money lenders, traders, bicycle shops, iron smith shop, spice shops, shoe stores, paan shops, small eating joints, medical shops, electronics shops- and so on.

The most characterstic thing about this market is its three tier shops. There are some that are almost on the footpath, their main portion under the ground and only some part above the ground, others that are about 4 feet above the ground, just above these underground shops and still others, that are about 10-12 feet above the ground level. It is said that this market catered to three kinds of customers in past- common people on foot, warriors and officers on the horseback and royalities and big traders who were on elephant back and the heights of the shops were set accordingly.

There is a local haat on every Friday (or Juma, the Muslim weekly Holiday on which grand prayers were said). On Fridays, the villagers from all across Sironj, roughly 200 villages come to this market for their shopping of the edible oil, salt, spices and some vegetables- things of daily consumption that are not freely available in their villages. During Fridays, the market is so crowded that you find it difficult to walk in , forget about driving. This market anyways did not support the four wheelers much for the driving. The day I saw it first was most probably a Friday, and looking at this market bustling with villagers-on feet, on bicycles, bikes and tractors, the ladies clad in long veils (ghoonghat), with the old men wearing big turbans of fluroscent green, orange or maroon, the whole of market full of the smell of chillies, spices, sweat and smoke from the bidis of the villagers, I immediately exclaimed –“Agarbah!” – being reminded about the famous market city of the Arabian Nights as shown on the Alladin of Disney. From that time onwards, I called it Agarabah, atleast with my colleaugues, who would understand the context.

Haunted Ruins

Immediately after joining PRADAN, I shifted in with Anant, a PRADAN colleague from Orissa. When I reached his place first day of my joining, after crossing many a streets covered with the flagstone, with open drains and goats as the traffic signals, we stopped near a decrepit old building, a haveli, which was next to another one-which was in ruins. I looked at him in disbelief when he told that I am supposed to live with him in this.

Although I am not a frequent flyer in Ghost airways- I mean I have not witnessed them very often but still, I went inside with a slightly high heartbeat. As we climbed up through a narrow staircase, my heartbeat increased. There was no railing on the stairs. As we reached the second floor, he showed me the kitchen and his living room. I tried to be comfortable in the surroundings, and approached one of the closed windows on the wall. I opened it to find that it led to the balcony outside. I then proceeded to the next window on the same wall, which was similar to this was in all senses. When I opened it, I was jolted to see that there was a small tunnel like thing that led to some place downwards.


I was afraid of this place-which seemed to me more like a set of Sahib-bibi aur Ghulam or Gumnaam- the horror-thriller movies of the bygone days! Anyhow, I spent the night there. Next morning, I asked Anant for the wash room, and he asked me to go to the balcony. “Washroom in the balcony? Have you gone nuts, man?” But that was it.

On the far end of the balcony there was an enclosed chamber called the toilet. When I went in, I found, to my horror, that my face was above the upper portion of the door, and so it was visible to someone in the balcony while I was busy in my daily chores! So, I could either dump my face down between my legs or let any onlooker to analyze the expressions on my face which I was in the loo!

There was an even more, when I reached the bath room to take a shower. I found myself in the ‘bathroom’ of the decrepit haveli. It was nothing more than two tin doors fixed in the balcony with a gap of about 4 feet. For taking bath, you need to leash both of them to the wall of the balcony. However, while you taking the bath, if the breeze blew a bit too much, the doors would open and you would be there, taking bath in a balcony, with a full Monty spectacle to not just the ghosts of the haveli, but also the common public in and around the haveli!

It was not long that we ran away from there, to find another, more suitable abode for ourselves!

The Office and the PRADAN Staff

PRADAN Office in Sironj is I think the next important office after that of the SDM. Most of the villagers know about it and it has become some kind of a meeting place for the villagers who come for the weekly haat at Sironj on Fridays. It is so interesting, you can find unknown people sleeping in the hall of the office on the dari (the rug) in the second half of the office. We used to feel irritated initially but later on when we came to know that most of the poor guys came walking from villages that were more than 15 kms away at times, we never used to disturb them. For them, it was like their home- they would sit there, discuss things, settle disputes and to seek help from us. Their affection became evident on such occasions.

When Sun starts to set, these guys would slowly get going out of the office and would take the dusty paths through the fields, forests and hillocks back to there small huts in the distant villages.

We sometimes used to compare our office with the government offices, where the babudom does not let the People, whom servant they are, to sit next to them on a chair. A poor man coming from a village deep inside the hinterland has to either keep standing while running pillar to post in a government office or after a while has to squat on the dirty floor of the office in the most derogatory fashion. In PRADAN, it is very clear that the villager would be seated on the same height that the PRADAN Executive Director would get while on a visit to any office. If there were 2-3 villagers, the PRADAN professional would offer them a chair next to him. If there were more people, the professional would request them to sit on the rug on the floor of the hall and take some space on the same rug to sit with them. This was tought to me once by a Tribal in a village deep inside the forest in Garhchirolli, Maharashtra. He told me that till the time we sit on the same level, we are partners, the moment you sit on the chair and I on the ground, you become the boss, and I, the subordinate. This was the single most important feature in PRADAN that made it different from other offices.

PRADAN is full of qualified people from diverse back grounds. It has got an elaborate system of recruitment of the Professionals from about 70 odd educational institutions across the country through a rigorous process of Campus recruitment. The people joining PRADAN are Post Graduates barring the Engineers and B.Sc (Agriculture).

When I joined PRADAN Sironj, it had one B.Tech (Agriculture), One MSW, One M.Sc (Agriculture). Within three months of my joining, there were two more fellows- Madhukar- B.Tech Agriculture guy from PAU and Shabana- a MA (Extension Education) girl from Jamia Millia Islamia. Such a mix of people in the team in a remote area where the outsiders were almost always less qualified vis-à-vis the educational qualification, always promoted a lot of intellectual discussion, thinking and what we called reflections of individuals. I don’t think there was a better intellectual stimulus to me as compared to the initial one year in PRADAN where as an apprentice you are supposed to learn from the work that you do.

The girl that I met on my first day in PRADAN Sironj was actually not from there. She was a summer trainee from Goa Institute of Management, Goa and was there for a period of about 2 months. In PRADAN summer trainees keep coming for some or the other project and whoever spends sometime here even for 2 months with an open mind and a spirit of learning, carries some everlasting impact on their lifestyle and thought process for rest of his/her life. The best part is the sensitivity towards the poor rural community.

My initial impression on the team members, particularly one of my senior colleagues Arpana, was not at all very good. Because of my urbane' appearances and happy go lucky attitude, she considered me to be a ‘hero’ who will pack his bags soon. Nevertheless, not withstanding the initial impressions, I received a very fair treatment from all, very supportive and almost kid gloved one. She is now the second in command in PRADAN Sironj, with very strong presence in the team and became one of the sources of strength for me later on. She got married to Ankur, of my senior batch in IIFM (who is also working in PRADAN Sironj) and they have been recently blessed with a baby boy!

The most remarkable role was that of Bhabhi (wife of Ashok, our Team Leader). She was like the mother to whole of the team. Despite living in such a remote place where there were no proper facilities for the education or health of her kids- Ankur and Aman (both of them were very naughty, yet very sweet), She supported Ashok and rest of the team with her dignified and reassuring presence in the team. Although she was a housewife, but at a number of instances, she played a important role in the team, as important as her husband, the Team Leader. She was the one who balanced the pragmatism of Ashok in the team with care and affection.

Then there was Sulakshana- the champion of gender issues. I have not seen a stronger lady in my life with such a devotion to the cause of uplifting the women –particularly those from the nomadic and tribal community. She worked with Banjara, Gond and Bagdi tribal groups in some very remote places where even the male colleagues in PRADAN would not feel very comfortable initially. A steadfast feminist that she was, she would not let any male colleague drive her bike when accompanying her, and would be provoked for a heated debate on slightest comment on the women. She was the champion of SHGs in PRADAN Sironj and some of the SHGs made by her proved to be longest surviving in PRADAN Sironj.

Ashok, the Team Leader was my Field Guide during the apprenticeship days. He was a B.Tech (Agriculture) from PUSA and was working with PRADAN for about 8 years when I joined it in 2002. I don’t think that I have learnt more from anybody else about the development sector than Ashok. The kind of interactive sessions that we had just after I joined was really phenomenal. The handholding of the novices like myself by Ashok as a Field Guide was really the USP of the apprenticeship program in PRADAN. He was a kind of Godfather to most of us.

(To be continued)