From 0 to 10: A Development Dramedy

One of Gramothan Foundation’s nascent initiatives is our Chullah Construction Program. A chullah is the generic term applied to the multitude of primitive earthen cooking apparatuses that populate the different regions of India. Cutting through the noise is a new design from India’s National Institute of Engineering.

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Using twenty bricks, two buckets of sand, two buckets of crushed stones, ten kilograms of cement, one cement pipe, one kilogram of six millimeter gauge metal wire, one metal grate, and one custom aluminum vessel, two masons paid one hundred rupees per chullah construct the design on site into the kitchen. One set of firewood cooks three vessels at the same time saving fifty percent of the fuel used; the cement pipe acts as a chimney carrying the smoke out of the kitchen. The kitchen smoke is unbearable to me, and a devastating source of not only illness, but suspected permanent intellectual deficiency in rural children as well.

This design was brought in August to Gramothan Foundation in Machur, Karnataka, by the Vivekananda Trust, which sent their man Mallu to spend the day conducting a tutorial construction in our office. He also went to the neighboring villages of Machur I, and Hulumutlu with two of our trainees, Swamigowda and Babu, to repair failed versions of their previous design, which used plastic chimneys—that ended up melting—to mitigate transportation costs.

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A month later, Thursday, 22nd of September, Mallu returned to advise us on our Gramothan Foundation Chullah Construction Program. We were determined to construct ten new chullahs in the village just west of here, Anemala—translated as “Elephant Grounds” for literal reasons.

Two weeks earlier, using the printer I hauled in on a seven-hour public bus ride from Bangalore, Vishwanatha and I created an advertising campaign to try and sign up ten villagers for this “Hosa Chullah” (New Chullah). A quick cost analysis: I estimated six hundred and fifty rupees to be sufficient to cover purchasing materials in bulk; trucking them in from the small town, Katikolum, across the river and border in Kerala; and transporting them from our office to homes for the actual construction using the handful of auto rickshaws, business investments by the wealthier village, that have started to patrol the area over the past five years.

Vishwanatha is one of the rare tweny-one year old college graduates from the area. None of them can find any suitable work—they refuse to do manual labor. Although Vishwanatha has agreed to join Gramothan Foundation in exchange for the ten thousand rupee scholarship it gave him, he is secretly trying to get another scholarship out of the Foundation to do a correspondence MBA, which he believes will better his job prospects. Realizing that a scholarship isn’t in the cards, he has started talking about getting a job in HR within the Maini Group industries—founded by the same person as Gramothan Foundation.

For the advertisement I drafted some copy, he wrote out the words in Kannada, I scanned them into Photoshop, he squiggled out the letters using the paintbrush tool, and I arranged it on to a page with two pictures.

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Subramanya, designated as Gramothan Foundation’s secretary but actually the all-round-community-outreach guy, recently brought his bike to Machur from his home in Mysore. Mysore is a famous city in India—it was home to the TedIndia conference two years ago—but is dwarfed by its lower lying cousin to the east, Bangalore. Subramanya’s bike has made traveling the kilometers in Machur so much more efficient.

The three of us, that is Subramanya riding his bike, me sitting at the back, and Vishwanatha squeezed in between, motored off to Anemala to address the samithi—a village working group Gramothan Foundation has organized—carrying our flier, two A4 photo printouts, and the shiny custom aluminum vessel that comes with the oven. We presented the benefits, pointed at the photos, answered their questions, negotiated the repayment system (my proposed hundred rupees per week was too costly, they offered fifty rupees per week, I agreed with the caveat that they pay two hundred rupees upfront), and left with seven houses signed up. Over the following days we closed another three.

The actual construction was going to take place on Friday, so the evening before I sat down all of our key staff members—Gurumalapa (the Pradhan, kind of like a Company Sergeant Major if you have ever been in the army), Subramanya and our guest Mallu—to chart out a schedule for the next two days. I split houses into regions, laborers into teams; I was determined to execute our plan swiftly and efficiently, an overwhelming display of organizational capacity if you will—the birth of a new Gramothan Foundation since I showed up two months ago. The staff was impressed and energized; I went to bed optimistic that flawless execution was possible after all in BOP conditions.

Day 1 of Mission Chullah began. By 0930 the staff, against all odds, had actually managed to assemble on time as we waited for Swamigowda and Shivraju, two masons from Hosur (the village our office is in), to arrive. Swamigowda showed up ten minute later to inform us that Shivraju would not be joining us today as he had decided to go to Pulpally, a medium sized town forty-five minutes away by boat and bus in Kerala. I feigned surprise and revealed irritation. This is why we can’t have nice things: you rope villagers in to a project, they agree to be part of the fun, but the siren call of Pulpally with its income opportunities selling fish or constructing houses or trading bananas proves understandably irresistible. I wrestled the twinge of anxiety I felt to the ground, reasoning that I only needed four workers, had lined up eight total from the villages in the area, and just one guy missing wasn’t a big deal.

By 0945 the auto rickshaw arrived to transport the materials we had arranged in front of the office: ten kilograms of metal wire, a hundred kilograms of cement, ten aluminum vessels and ten metal grates. Babu (a local villager who is part of our staff and the biggest HR nightmare I have ever come across in my management experience—he will throw tantrums at the slightest anxiety and not show up for weeks at a time, pulling up a laundry list of things he “just needs to do”—I have been working with him extensively throwing a variety of management methods I’ve picked up from the army and Stern. My inability to force push ups out of him is a major crutch) and Swamigowda led the advance party in the auto to Nanjamma’s house, which was located along with a second house in what my master plan ostentatiously termed REGION 1.

Gurumalapa, Mallu and I consisted of the rear guard, walking the three kilometers over. By the time I arrived I was happy to see that Babu had already picked up the Anemala masons—who I had coordinated to wait for us at Bomamma’s angadi (shop) which sat in the middle of a village lane bisecting Anemala. Six were expected, two showed up. Kuttan, an experienced mason from Anemala who I had been counting had gone to a far away village to take part in the funeral of a deceased relative. In the extended family East this happens more frequently than expected. We were missing a mason, and I had no choice but to rope Babu in despite assuring him that he would be managing the manual labor instead of doing it.

By 1030, our four masons, Babu, Swamigowda, Kadhar and Krishna Kutti had started work on one chullah. By 1130, their minds refreshed on the process, I pushed Babu and Swamigowda to start work on the second chullah next door in Sudha’s house. I walked over to REGION 2, three minutes away, to ensure that the next two houses had prepared their part of the bargain.

While GF was responsible for procuring the cement, vessel, grate, wire and pipe, the customer was responsible for the sand, crushed stones and bricks. This sort of process distribution significantly reduces GF’s costs (try asking Babu to carry two hundred bricks from site to site) and allows us to punch above our weight. For example, although I was expecting that GF would transport the ten cement pipes to REGION 1 by auto (still not sure if that’s even possible) and lug them around from house to house, Subramanya had the idea to get the customers to take responsibility for carrying the pipes from our office to their house, reasoning that it wouldn’t be a far stretch for women who routinely carry twenty kilograms of firewood on their head. It was quite a site to see a gang of women from Anemala show up to haul the pipes away on their heads. I’m mulling over how the concept of process distribution can be applied to other initiatives, but it is a double-edged sword required a lot of soft cajoling of the villagers to ensure they uphold their end promptly.

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Showing up at Laxmamma’s house, I found that the women had indulged in a game of musical pipes, passing the cement pipes from house to house as something or the other came up. Laxmamma’s pipe had ended up at Pushpa’s house, and Pushpa had not yet prepared her sand, stones and cement. I implored her to get started, warning that the masons would be at her house soon. As she got started scraping sand out of the ground, I went to Kamlamma’s house, the second house in REGION 2 to be informed by her mother that she had gone to the hospital for the day. A few minutes of misunderstanding later (see, the thing is I don’t speak the language…), it turned out that we could still proceed with constructing the chullah and that all the material had been prepared.

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By 1400 both teams had migrated to REGION 2 and were hard at work. My objective for the day was to complete four chullahs, and as the objective neared completion I headed over to the next three houses in REGION 3 which we would tackle the next day to enquire why they had not yet picked up their pipes. They had decided to cancel their orders. Trusty Subramanya was at Bomamma’s house nearby conducting an Arogya Sevika meeting (health workers trained to dispense ayurvedic remedies for common ailments). He roped one of the ladies in the meeting to sign up, and after the meeting was over we hopped on his bike to quickly canvass two more customers.

Team 2, consisting of Babu and Swamigowda finished their second chullah fast enough to be pushed on to the third. As dusk began to fall, we ended the day having constructed four chullahs.

The next day, Saturday September 23rd, the teams were ready on time and began work by 1030. Constructing one chullah is a two-day process, requiring an overnight curing process before applying a final layer of cement on the second day to minimize cracking. Both teams had begun working fairly autonomously, although the finishing process took longer than expected and it was already 1500 by the time the teams were ready to move on to their next fresh chullahs. Babu and Swamigowda, joined by newcomer mason Sanappa and began construction on Sarvanna’s (yes, same name as the famous South Indian restaurant in New York) house which over looks a beautiful valley of paddy fields. Kadhar and Krishna Kutti meanwhile began construction in Kadhar’s own house, who had opted to get a chullah.

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By 1700 hours all work had to stop, needing time to walk back to Hosur before it became too dark and elephants—man killers every last one of them—began trundling out of the jungles onto the roads. Despite the fact that only two new chullahs had been erected I was elated by the performance of our teams. Their autonomy and responsibility had taken me by surprise. I felt that I could finally start trusting them instead of checking on them at every corner.

Operation Chullah dragged on to day three. Sarvanna’s and Kadhar’s chullahs were polished off. Babu and Swamigowda had been replaced by Sanappa and newcomer Shivraju, and they began working at Sridhar’s house.

Sanappa and Shivraju were eager to knock out at least five that day, given that the chullah is a two day process, and each chullah earns them two hundred rupees to be shared. By constructing five in one day, they could earn one thousand rupees, amounting to two hundred and fifty rupees per day each—not bad but still a loss when considered against the opportunity cost of being a coolie (a casual laborer and the primary form of employment in the region) across the river in Kerala where they would earn three hundred rupees for the day.

I was sorry to inform them that there was only one more left for them. I went over the the next house, Palpanny’s, to ensure their materials were ready. Upon arriving, Palpanny’s husband broke the news to me that his daughter was being visited by a prospective groom from the neighboring village that day. Just as he told me the news the groom’s party arrived. As the families embraced I discretely left the house, Palpanny’s husband motioning to me that they would be ready in three days. I broke the bad news to Sanappa and Shivraju, feeling terrible about it given their hand to mouth livelihood. They would only be earning two hundred rupees from Sridhar’s house for two days of work, amounting to just fifty rupees ($1) each per day—a paltry sum given the six member average household.

The other team had bad news for me as well: we had one cancellation, and Kadhar refused to construct in Mahmouda’s house—the final location—because their two families were embroiled in drama.

Here I sit, on day four of Operation Chullah. Mallu left two days ago, Gurumalapa left today because of some religious festival tomorrow (endless religious festivals in these parts), and I am here alone in the office. The birds are twittering outside, I hear the hum of a bee, cicadas with their cascading symphony are creating a racket deeper in the jungle, which sits, brooding, right in front of the office, a gentle breeze is wafting into my room. I wanted ten chullahs in two days, and instead got seven in four.

It still feels like a victory somehow. Maybe because there are now seven families, seven real families down this road three kilometers away in Anemala who will be cooking some anna sambar tonight without smoke corroding their respiratory system. I’m trying to get the final three knocked out on Wednesday which I’m fairly confident will actually happen. In addition, my mind is brimming with ways to streamline the process to make our next 0 to 10 faster for Gramothan, simpler for the customers, and more profitable for the masons.

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