Thursday, August 28, 2008

PRADAN Memoirs- Alone in the forest in a scary night

It was a rainy night in October 2002- and I was returning from village Chaapu (some 16 kilometers from Sironj, where I lived during my stint with PRADAN). I had gone to Chappu to try for the revival of a Women Self Help Group constituted of very poor women of Gond Tribe. I had a very bad time in convincing them to come for the meeting and was only partially successful. It was late already about 10 in the night and I was in a very foul mood that day. It was drizzling, and my host in Chaapu- Umarao Singh asked me a to stay overnight as the rains would have ruined the dirt tracks of villages that connected it to highway- some 10 kilometers away.

However, highly pissed that I was, being unable to convince the women of village to run the SHG smoothly; I ignored his suggestion and decided to go back, taking the route through Ricchan village. Umrao Singh did not agree but he had no option but to agree as I had decided to go back, come what may.

He accompanied me on my bike (a 100 CC Hero Honda Splendor) till Ricchan as there was a big, half dug irrigation well next to the dirt track in Ricchan and Umrao feared that I may drop into it with the bike in the night- as it was drizzling and visibility was poor. He went back from Ricchan after explaining me the way from there to the highway- and I only 24 at that time could have cared less for the rain, night and mud on the dirt track. I took the way he told me and reached a part of forest- mostly scrubs and some trees here and there- deserted for almost 3 kilometers on both sides. It was almost 10.30 by now and there were no lights other than the headlight of my bike.

The drizzle had converted into downpour and I had to drive slowly to avoid the bike slipping into to mud. Suddenly, in the middle of no where, I realized that the front wheel of my bike has gone immobile.

Imagine- 10.30 in the night, heavy rains, alone in the forest and then this happens! I must confess that I got scared thinking it to be some super natural phenomenon. Thank God that I did not loose my presence of mind. I stalled the vehicle on the main stand while keeping its engine running and tried to have a look on the front wheel in the dim light reflecting from the ground.

Mud had filled the gap between the mudguard and tyre of the front wheel, and there was no room for the wheel to rotate. Thus, it had seized. I relaxed- so there were no ghosts after all, just some mud in the wheel! But then, there was night, there was heavy rain and the fact remained that I was in the middle of a degraded forest with wildlife at 11ish in the night.

I thought about breaking the mud guard with a stone, but then realized that it would cost me a good 700-800 bucks to replace it- and being an apprentice with Rs 8000 p.m stipend, I could not have afforded it.

"Think of something economical"- I told my self!

So glad, Hero Honda guys keep something called Utility Box just above the engine- i rushed for it and opened it. There was indeed a tool box and a first aid kit inside- and under those circumstances, I would have needed both of them dearly!

I took out the tool box- under the illumination of the headlight I got what I needed - a screwdriver and a wrench. I tried to scrape the mud out of the wheel but it was not successful. Even if it had, I had to go another 5 kilometers minimum in the muddy dirt paths and could not have afforded to get the wheel seized in mudguard again. I decided to go the rural way- take the damn thing off!

So, bending down on my knees in the heavy downpour, I started unscrewing the nuts holding the mudguard. There were some sounds coming from nearby bushes and it took a lot of my will power to convince myself that this is something like hare or wild fowl and nothing dangerous creatures. I learnt the patience and working with a cool head that night in the middle of nowhere, 11 in the night, alone in a degraded forest.

I cooly took the mudguard off, kept it on my shoulders and started driving the bike towards the highway. Without a mud guard all the mud from ground was getting splashed at my face and chest, but I was glad that I was going to get out of that scary place. After struggling for another half an hour or so, I would the road going to Sironj and drove slowly to my residence well pat midnight. I parked the bike in the front yard and went to sleep after a shower and change of clothes.


Next morning, my landlady called me down from my room on the first floor. rubbing my sleepy eyes I cam down to find her staring at my bike. No part of my bike was visible save for a thick layer of mud from the handle to rear brake lights.

"Had you fallen into a pit filled with mud last night?"- She asked, with bewildered looks.

"Something of that sort, yes"- I said and went back to my cozy and dry sleeping bag.

Me on my faithful Hero Honda Splendor - An Awesome Companion (2004)

The day we demolished a dam with our bare hands!

It was the rain season of 2003- my friend Madhukar had completed the construction of an earthen dam in Village Madagan with lots of trouble. The dam was some 80 meters long and was constructed at a very suitable site, but deemed unfit earlier because of the rocks in the place. It took almost a year, more than 5000 man hours, a bulldozer and finally an earth excavator to build the dam which would feed the parched fields of some 100 banjara (nomadic tribe) families and bring them out of the clutches of poverty. When it was completed, it was a cause of celebration- both to us, the team at PRADAN and more to the villagers for whom it was nothing short of a dream come true.

Then, in July 2003, Madhukar went away for a training program to Delhi. Our team leader was also not present that day in office when in the afternoon some villagers from Madagan came rushing and told that the because of continuous rains, the dam is full up to the brink and if it rains any further, the water would flow over the dam, breaching its bund and reducing it into a heap of rubble.

I asked Laxman, a civil engineer by profession (who had joined the same week) to come with me for an inspection of the site. We reached there in about an hour through muddy grounds and found that villagers were right indeed. The water level was only about a feet below the top of the dam. It was surprising as there was a provision of a spillway, that acts as safety valve for the dam to let the water flow out safely and effortlessly after dam gets filled up to a particular level, making sure that the water never reaches the top of the dam. Then why was it happening?
To find out, we went to the spillway to find that the local contractor working on the dam had made the level of the floor of the spill way higher than what it should have been. this and the reason that the soil of the dam had compacted during the rains were the reason for the current situation.

We were in a dilemma what to do- remaking the spillway would take a lot of time and may be by then the dam itself would be breached. The villagers were looking at us, waiting for our decision. Since I was older in the organization- the responsibility came to me to ensure the safety of the dam.

I had once asked about the cost of the dam to Madhukar and he had told me that it was some where around 200,000 rupees. He had also told me that the spillway had cost us some 14,000 rupees. Under the circumstances, the natural thought came to me- to sacrifice a 14,000 rupees structure to save the bigger, 200,000 rupees structure.

I concluded that we will have to demolish the floor of spillway. But how? It was made of stones with a plaster of cement concrete on the floor and sides. Getting laborers or explosives to break it was impossible as the day was setting.

I had a quick look at the floor of the spill way and thought - may be we can break it. But how? There was no implements (spades etc) available. We were quite far from the village. I saw a rock lying on one side of spillway and decided to try breaking floor with it. I raised it high over my head with both my hands and slammed it on the floor with all my might- lo and behold!

There was a crack in the floor- thanks to the poor work done by the local contractor! Another try -more cracks! Then I decided that this is how to do it- break the floor with the rocks and then pull out the stone under the floor to make the spillway deeper. Laxman also helped me out- and we started demolishing the spillway of the dam with our bare hands!

Sometime later, a few villagers passing by saw us working to save their dam- they lent us their hand and some of them even got the spades from the village after a while. Before sundown, the floor of the spillway was broken totally- mostly through the bare hands of me and my colleague. The stone of its floor were excavated and soon the water was flowing out of the dam smoothly as originally designed. Villagers around us were smiling ear to ear and so were we.

After all, who gets an opportunity to demolish a dam with their bare hands every other day?