By Nandita Banerjee, Coordinator HR, ASER Centre
Travelling to rural India is an integral part of work for most of us at ASER Centre. While some of us travel throughout the year conducting training, studies and monitoring related to specific projects, it is during ASER Survey that almost all of us travel to different locations with the same goal. The feeling that so many of my colleagues, located in another district and/or state, are doing what I am doing at this point is somehow comforting. I need not provide details or a background when exchanging messages with colleagues on Whatsapp or on Gmail chat. Conversations can start randomly and are clearly understood by the person on the other end. Similarly, acronyms such as SLT, DLT, MT, M&R are used and understood without any difficulty. It is as if the whole organisation speaks one language. However, when traveling in public transport and discussing plans using these acronyms, a few curious stares from fellow passengers can be expected!
Apart from lessons in management, training and monitoring, the survey is a lesson in Geography and Anthropology. Travel plans during survey has taken me to diverse and distinct locations such as, Bhalukpong (West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh), Chandauli Gangauli (Siwan district in Bihar) and Chikkakeriyaginahalli (Bellary district in Karnataka) to name a few. I am always referring to Google images for “district wise map” of the states to ascertain its exact location.
Anthropology is next. If you thought you knew about how “we” live and “our” culture, then these travels will make you blush about your lack of knowledge. There are cultures within cultures and social structures that will confound most of us. I realised that the borders that delineate the states does not make them homogenous. For instance, during the survey in Maharashtra I found that the primary language spoken in some villages in Latur district is Kannada and not Marathi because it shares a border with Karnataka.
If the above subjects are not enough, lessons in gastronomy and photography are not far behind. Any travel is a journey of tasting a variety of foods. After a few weeks of travel between districts you can also distinguish between the taste and flavour of the staple food items. For me Sambhar was a soupy lentil dish with lots of vegetables and curry leaves. That Sambhars differ from house to house, can go from slightly sweet to very spicy, and from thin to thick in consistency is something I have learnt during my recent travels in the districts of southern states.
Traveling on state highways, through towns and villages, many of us have discovered our hidden talent in photography.
Frankly, only a few of us are really good at it! The rest like me, I suppose, take full advantage of the naturally beautiful sights, a phone with a camera that takes “good” photographs and willing subjects such as children, villagers, chickens, cattle, birds, trees, agricultural lands, blue skies (What’s that I as a city dweller wonder when I see it first). I have photographed bridges made up of roots of trees in Meghalaya and of Baiga tribal women of Chhattisgarh with tattoos all over their body. And I have learnt that even after taking so many photographs of children, I can never be sure if I have managed to capture the essence of the child’s smile and the joy it brings. Beyond these lessons, the biggest lesson I have learnt is how the local environment shapes choices, beliefs and practices of the population living there.
Cyclones in coastal districts of Odisha to the continuing practice of “Jhum” cultivation in Nagaland, every district has its own set of challenges and opportunities. Mineral deposits in districts of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka etc. has encouraged investments from large companies and jobs but, it has also given rise to illegal mining, exploitation of the villagers and children living near the mines. The groundwater sources in are usually found to be high in fluoride leading to fluorosis in these districts.
My ASER 2016 survey sojourn has started with Karnataka. Obviously the Cauvery river water dispute is a matter of concern for the people here. The district of Chikkaballapur shares a border with Andhra Pradesh. While a volunteer was telling me how the poor rainfall this year is affecting the crops, my colleague from Andhra Pradesh sent me a message on Whatsapp that due to heavy rainfall some villages in East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh have become inaccessible!
These long travels reveal stories about migration, livelihood, importance of education, sanitation, loss of habitat, effects of urbanisation, gender roles etc. It has helped me understand first hand why policies rolled out at national scale many a times fail and how finding solutions to local challenges is essential.