I went to Amravati, a district in Maharashtra, to visit an education related project which aims to strengthen government schooling. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative involving the state and district government, funders and implementing agencies. A common, pre-decided, government approved set of process and performance indicators forms the basis of action. One of the key implementation avenues is the positioning of a ‘fellow’ – a young boy or girl, average age early twenties, selected through a rigorous process, to be part of the school’s management and operations. These fellows represent different states of India and walks of life too, many of them from affording families. Their job is to work hand-in-hand with the school to ensure good attendance levels, improved teaching methods, availability of materials and resources, engagement of parents through the functioning of school management committees, and so on. But the essence of their work comes from their community immersion, wherein they live with a family in the village where the school is situated, for long and multiple stretches of time, eating their food, drinking their water, sleeping on their mat and integrating themselves with the local environment. They do so because differences exist, between those who are seeking to support and those who need support; and in the face of differences, there lies a need to understand each other. The fellows and the villagers. The urban and the rural. The rich and the poor. The upper caste and the lower caste. The English speaking and the non or broken English speaking. They strive to come as close to the problems and then think themselves capable of finding solutions. Some of the anecdotes below, captured during my conversation with these young and brave people, will speak to the living conditions in rural Maharashtra that exist, right now.
- “The ground water levels are low and they are waiting for permission to dig deeper. Yes there are many days when there is no water. What do I do on those days? I don’t drink water, they don’t drink water”
- “It felt so good didi to wash my face with a facewash because the soap there dries my skin. I don’t carry any of my products because I don’t want the girl living in the house I am staying in, to feel different from me”
- “No, actually I haven’t tried much of their local food because they don’t have much to eat. So quite often, I tell them that I ate in school and came”
- “I have a phone, but I have to go to that point right there to catch signal”
- “The teachers are enthusiastic but there’s no one to appreciate them or their contributions”
- “Yes the classrooms are quite big and the windows too; there’s no fan so it helps a lot”
- “It takes us a long time to go from one school to another, the roads are quite windy. Now we all have bikes so we can get more work done”
- “We have a first aid-box; if there’s an emergency it will take quite long for help to get here”
- “Yes my parents do worry, but I am learning so much”
- “Alcohol…it’s a really big problem, so many of them make it at home”
- …and so on…
The above highlights everyday living challenges. Those related to the project will run into many more words.
Rural India is not as enigmatic a visual anymore, or perhaps fantasized through the mustard fields I used to think of. In the observations and thoughts that followed this visit, I wanted to stop and be in awe of the fellows. Light years ahead in their understanding of life. The skills they will develop to implement products and services in complex environments riddled with lack of resources and entangled in a web of human behaviours will build sharp minds and evolved hearts. If 60-70% of your population lives in ‘rural’ India, then you’ve just been served a fabulous opportunity to understand a very large customer base. And yet, this is not their objective. In our conversations, they spoke of the schools they want to go back and build and of the dreams they want to fulfil for others. And there are many hundreds of them.