DESERT DIARY

Visit to Grameen Vikas Vigyan Samiti (Gravis) in January 2002:  

Reported by Niranjan and Shantha Benegal, and PPI founding members Murli and Chitra Saletore of Bangalore, India.

Pusha - a girl from a desert hamlet Shanti - another girl from a desert hamlet

We set out in two cars from Jodhpur after meeting L.C. and Shashi Tyagi, Prakash and Vasundhara Tyagi and other staff of Gravis’ Jodhpur headquarters. The men, Shri L.C.Tyagi, Murli Saletore and Niranjan Benegal were in the leading car. The women, Shrimati Shashi Tyagi, Chitra Saletore and Shantha Benegal , followed in the second vehicle. Both drivers were named Bhoom Singh. The drive into the desert was punctuated by delightful commentary given by Shashi-ji. In the other car, Tyagi-ji was also educating the men.

As we got out of Jodhpur we passed huge ponds of water that looked like tanks. Shashi-ji explained that these are water catchments of the nearby quarries of the famous Jodhpur stone. All this water is however pumped out and thrown away. One couldn’t help but hope that some method of using this water would be found. We saw quarry workers with colorful turbans carrying huge slabs of stone on slings – four men to a slab. PPI’s first project with Gravis involved aid to quarry workers to buy their own tools so that they could be free of bondage to quarry owners.

The arid soil was dotted with shrubby trees that were festooned with long yellow pods. These, we learned, are Khejri trees. Needing very little water to grow, the khejri is to the desert what coconut palm is to coastal India. Every part of the tree is used. Other shrubs that grow here are Neem and Ankra, used for their medicinal quality and for thatching roofs, and Kair, whose berries are used in pickles. Ruhida, a desert variety of teak used for making furniture, also grows here. Further into the desert, shrubs become more stunted and ultimately give way to sand dunes.

Where there was water, we sometimes saw large mounds of chilies. Chili plantings are always accompanied by caster plantings because the latter prevents frost damage and the kernels can be used as a pesticide. Chilies are traditionally picked by women who are exposed to ill effects such as back pain and burning skin. Gravis does not encourage this cash crop for this reason and also because of its greater water demands.

En route, we stopped to meet a "Chidai" (leather worker) who has received Gravis’ assistance. PPI had funded just such leather-workers in the past.

Our next stop was the Gravis Hospital at Tinwari built with Japanese assistance. This lovely little health center serves 80 villages in a 100 kilometer radius. Vinod Kumar, the hospital’s manager, and Dr. Bhoopinder Choudhary, Chief Resident, showed us around. Though small, the hospital is equipped with ECG, Injection room, Sonography room, X-Ray, Laboratory, a surgical theater and six residential rooms for the medical personnel. Small surgeries are performed here and complex cases are sent to Jodhpur. Patients are charged a minimal amount, but the poor are treated free. One of the important functions of the hospital is to impart midwifery training to village dai midwives. Dai training will be given to 300 women. This project has been approved by PPI with a revised budget to be submitted by Gravis.

Presently we were on our way to Baap and Kalron Sharif, where Gravis has important centers. As we approached Kalron, we passed long convoys of army trucks bearing armored tanks to the border less than 100 miles away. “You’ll hear them all night long in Kalron Sharif” said Shashi-ji. Later, a village woman confided to Shashi-ji her apprehension about the murmurs of war. At Baap, the cook, Madan-ji, had prepared a delicious meal using Khejri beans, and other desert staples.

After lunch we visited Ghator, a Muslim hamlet where villagers have planted a fruit garden with Gravis’ assistance. It was fenced with Ankra to keep out animals and high velocity winds. In another remote village we met Bhanvri, her mother-in-law, and two young girls Pushpa and Shanti. In this part of Rajasthan, women cover their faces not only from men, but also from their mothers-in-law. Gravis is trying to work around this custom so that women can build solidarity and come out of subservience. On the brighter side, village communities wear colorful costumes and the women also display jewelry from top to toe. Muslims and Hindus live peacefully together in this region.

In Bhanvri’s village we had an opportunity to see the results of PPI’s recent water resource development project with Gravis. We saw a Tanka built by the villagers with materials and guidance given by Gravis. The tanka is a covered storage tank lined with local stones. Rainwater is collected and diverted to the tanka through filtered channels. Water thus collected can supply a family for a whole year and save the women long trips to far-away water wells.

We stopped at several Khadins in which rainwater run-off is collected by the indigenous method of building a bund. The watershed is used for planting one bajra (millet) or mustard crop, as well as prerennial fruit and khejri trees. We also visited an old Nadi or pond that was newly de-silted and cleaned up by Gravis and the villagers. Wells called beri are bored into its basin for use when the surface water dries up. A flock of peacocks, roosting in the tree overhead noisily flew over the nadi, perhaps frightened by our presence. The Thar desert around Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Barmer is now an extensive national park where peacocks, deer, neel-gai and birds may be sighted. Gravis is careful to preserve this fragile environment by planting only native vegetation and using only organic manures and pesticides.

That night we dined at Kalron Sharif and were entertained by local Langas (folk musicians.) We lingered in the guesthouse’s central courtyard that is paved with cow-dung and mud. The sky above was bright with stars. Mohan Ram-ji identified planets and constellations for us. Early next morning, Tyagi-ji held a staff meeting for our benefit and we heard from each staff member about his own work:

Mohan Ram:

Works on the integrated nutrition and health project funded through CARE. Motivates people in health awareness, refers patients to government’s vaccination and nutrition programs, helps them avail of government grants and generally mobilizes people.

Manoj Kumar:

Drives tractors used for tilling land and distributing foodstuffs and water. Distributes foodstuffs to 30 non-formal schools each month. Also distributes water to faraway places. Villagers who can afford it pay for water use, others are given water free. The tractor covers a 30 kilometers radius.

Durga:

Durga, an 18-year-old field worker, has been here for only a few months and is working with the women’s self-help groups formed for microcredit purposes. She helps form village development committees to increase awareness of programs and funds.

Mohan Lal:

A new volunteer, he is being trained in the Gandhian work ethic.

Vishnu Ram:

Works on a project funded by the Catholic Relief Services. He coordinates rainwater harvesting, building of watersheds, and agricultural work. Gravis uses only bio-pesticides such as cow’s urine and neem. Gravis has developed unique compost: cow horns are stuffed with various bio materials and are interred for six months. The rich compost thus created activates bacteria and regenerates soil. It has received a commendation from the All India Bio-Agricultural Association.

Chena Ram:

He is the manager and coordinator of the center. He has been researching seeds, comparing native ones to hybrids. Native seeds were better tasting and hardier. The project is assisted by ICRISET-- a UN research institute-- and by ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research). He has succeeded in persuading farmers to switch from the water-dependent chili crops to peanuts and cotton. A son of the local soil, Chena Ram has high credibility with the farmers.

Amar Singh:

He is in charge of non-formal education in ten villages. Education is available up to second class. Children are prepared for entrance exams to formal schools. The area has 100 autonomous schools that do not depend on government grants. Villagers pay nominal fees. The schools are registered.

Narendra Singh:

Coordinates United Nations’ “Peoples’ Science of Rural Development” project at Gravis. He helps the Village Development Centers with their work on women’s empowerment. 60% of the VDC’s are women. Many women leaders have emerged. Narendra Singh also works in water conservation and development and said that 90% of the Khadeens constructed are community owned. Wells are bored in the naadi basins for use when water dries up. These naadis with their built-in wells yield water for nine months.

Other Gravis Activities:

After the meeting with the staff, Tyagi-ji showed us around the Kalron Sharif center. We saw the center’s large seed bank, from which seeds are loaned to villagers. The adjoining nursery has 50,000 plants – fruit trees, arid/agro forests – fodder, timber, and grasses. Gravis also works in pasture development; holds awareness and training camps for farmers and staff. Cottage industries such as making of vadi, papads, and sewing garments, are also promoted. Gravis’ Girl-Child Education program is going well. There are 784 girls students in 15 schools and more girls are joining school. Other activities include health care awareness camps, vaccinations, midwifery-training classes, and refresher courses in seasonal diseases, medicines, and treatment of minor illnesses conducted by visiting doctors from the Tinwri Hospital. Gravis works with government programs whenever possible.

Deep Impressions

We came away from this visit to Gravis with a heightened appreciation of the high quality of development work being done by Gravis. At Gravis leadership is discernible at all levels. Work is shared by a team of enthusiastic coordinators who are knowledgeable, articulate, and seem to find creative solutions to problems. This, we feel, is the strength of Gravis. Everyone at Gravis deserves kudos for their exemplary work.

Photographs by Niranjan Benegal and Jerry Folland.