My Time as a Social Worker in Rural South India

I was asked to write this so it could be translated into hindi and shared, so I have tried to keep my language as basic as possible. Hope you enjoy it, and there are 13 pictures sprinkled around!

As a business student at New York University, I spent a lot of time contemplating my future and the impact I wanted to make on the world. I read a lot of different books and watched many different movies to understand more about great people who had come before me. The 1982 film Gandhi, and Gandhi’s autobiography entitled “The Story of my Experiments with Truth” had a profound affect on my consciousness, and led me to seek a greater understanding of my spiritual heritage. In May 2011 when I graduated, rather than take a finance job in New York City, I decided to work amongst the villagers of India to understand their living conditions. I wanted to go deep into the heart of a culture that had remained unbroken for multiple millennia, compared to the more recent culture of America. One year earlier I had spoken to a successfully retired entrepreneur, Dr. Maini, regarding the work he was doing with his foundation. His foundation, based in Bangalore and known as Gramothan Foundation, was a rural development platform created to help the villagers improve their own conditions. When I decided that I wanted to work in India, this foundation was the first organization I turned to. I knew that we would have a lot of ideas to share given that he had spent his career building industries and I was coming in with a business background.

The foundation was working in a village cluster called Machur, located within the Nagarhole nature preserve on the Karnataka Kerala border. There were many challenges to overcome in my work, primarily the cultural divide between the villagers and I. This cultural gap existed not only because I had come from America, but also because I had grown up in a city. Village life operated without most of the post-industrial technology and cultural norms we take for granted, making the experience similar to travelling back in time many hundreds of years. Villagers live with a very different sense of time and commitment, and unexpected mishaps keep upsetting their schedules such as road, resource and energy constraints. This required me to learn a different approach to planning so that I could work in step with the “village pace of life.”

In many ways I felt like a man from China in Italy—it was hard for myself to adjust to the village, and it was hard for the villagers to adjust to me. This was made all the more challenging due to the fact that I had never spoken Kannada before, and had to learn the language from scratch. However I tried my best to fit in with the villagers with regards to my dress, speech, behavior, and food.

In the past there had been some misunderstandings between the foundation and the villagers due to this very reason of cultural differences. Given this animosity it was important for me to have actions speak louder than words. The staff and I were very conscientious to be sincere and consistent through the long term. This meant ensuring that we were able to come through on our commitments regardless of what unexpected circumstances arose. A basic rule was to not mention any upcoming activity or idea unless we had a solid plan and resource allocation in place to follow through.

One strategy that worked well for us was to develop a core group of committed villagers to act as our activists amongst the population. They were intimately involved in setting up activities, informing other villagers of our ideas and programs, and upholding our reputation in the community. In return they were first in line for the benefits of any new projects or jobs. We tried our best to treat this core group as partners in the process, because they had a better understanding of the village and problems than anybody else.

There were three kinds of infrastructure I focused on building in Machur. The first was material infrastructure to ensure that all of our local staff needs, facilities and compensation was adequate to execute the plans we had in mind. The second was to establish human infrastructure by visiting each village personally to introduce myself, understand the problems, and select core activists. The third was logistical infrastructure such as constructing wooden sheds in different villages to house the materials and processes of our activities.

We leveraged this infrastructure to conduct seven primary activities:

1. Go Mutre Program We built wooden sheds to collect cow urine from the correct breed of Indian cow. This cow urine was to be used as a base to make other products such as phenyl and insecticide. We paid the villagers 2rs/liter and sent one local villager around to all the houses on a bicycle to collect the go mutre. As we expanded the program we experimented with different supply models. For example in one village, rather than having our own man do collections, we negotiated for the villagers to bring their own cans to the supply shed, and we paid them an extra 0.50rs/liter for the trouble. One other innovation we used was to give a special machine stamped token for every 10L can of cow urine deposited. Once the villager had collected 5 tokens he could exchange them for a 100rs note. This was important because there is no easy way to acquire large quantities of 20rs notes in the village.

2. Keeta Niyantraka Program Using the cow urine and other herbals including fresh neem, tobacco, and rakasaballi, we manufactured keeta niyantraka. This product is a natural and safe alternative to the chemical insecticide the villagers must otherwise purchase from corporations. Once we had filled up a 200L drum with cow urine, we would put in a specific recipe of herbals and let them ferment for one month. Then we would strain out the final solution and package it in special bottles for sale.

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3. Smokeless Chullah Program We constructed smokeless stoves, known locally as challahs, which had greater heat efficiency to save 50% firewood, and included a chimney so the wife and children would not face respiratory problems. These stoves could be constructed from locally available materials such as cement, bricks, crushed stones, mud, and a few special parts we would truck in from the local town. We made an arrangement with the villagers that they would provide the locally available materials and one person for labor on site, and the foundation would provide the special materials and a trained mason. This was a fairly complicated project with many parts that needed to come together, and very frequently the householder would not be prepared on the assigned date. It was very important to us that the villagers felt empowered in the process of self-improvement, so we made the did not provide the challahs for free, but instead provide them at the cost of materials with easy financing and installment based repayment.

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4. Vermi Compost Program In this project we helped villagers construct compost pits using bricks and cement. We then trained the villagers how to produce high nutrient compost that they could sell or use on their own crops. The foundation offered to purchase the compost for 3rs/kg as a form of income generation and demand stimulation. It was difficult to motivate the villagers to produce the compost at times because they had many other tasks and unexpected situations they had to attend to. For example, if the villagers had to leave their house for a couple of days for a wedding or family illness, the compost mix would dry up and be invaded by ants who would eat up all the worms who were hard at work turning the mulch into compost. One kilogram of worms cost 300rs so it was no small amount for the villager to simply buy a new batch.

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5. Microloan Program Partnering with the non-profit Rang De, we offered small sized loans varying in size from 3000rs to 5000rs to enable the villagers to invest in businesses that could help them grow their income. Some items bought by the loans included goats for rearing, and supplies to stock their shop. For each program we had local villagers choose amongst themselves those beneficiaries who had the greatest need. We charged an interest fee of 6.5% per year in order to cover the costs of the program, and repayment occurred on a monthly basis over the course of one year.

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6. Arogya Seviki Program We trained several women from all of the villages in effective Ayurvedic remedies for common ailments that afflicted the villagers. This would mean that they did not have to spend money on a doctor or be prevented from going to work. This program was started in partnership with the government sponsored Ayush program, and every month government doctors would come to Machur to host a training session for our arogya sevikis, and also restock any medicines that had been depleted. Some of the common ailments we addressed included flu, fever, stomachache and cuts.

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7. Village Samiti Program This program was the base of all our other programs, where we set up a working village council comprised of respected members of the community within each area that we were operating. We held weekly meetings with the samiti members, used them to publicize our new projects, and conduct some grassroots activities for us. This was a very important part of our strategy, because we wanted to ensure that the villagers had a voice in the process.

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While in Machur, I spent quite some time coaching our staff members in new approaches to their work, and to think in a creative fashion to find solutions to their problems. Many times there was disconnect between what I thought was possible, and what the staff thought was possible. Sometimes I was correct because I had bigger mental horizons and more training, but often they were correct due to their knowledge and experience.

Once my time with the foundation had been completed, the villagers and myself were quite sad for me to end my work. I had grown personally close to quite a number of them—not as beneficiaries but as genuine friends. It was tremendously rewarding to connect with such people across the cultural barrier to understand what the world looked like through the eyes of a villager. In the process I learned a lot about many things I never recognized even in my own personality.

Working in Machur was truly one of the biggest challenges of my life, but it led to such great personal growth. I am a changed person, and I have all the villagers in a tiny community on the Kabini river in Karnataka to thank for that.

I am more determined than ever to bring lasting social change to many of the global problems that face all people on this planet. Having understood one village, I am now trying to understand how technology and the Internet can be harnessed for large-scale social impact.