Wednesday, January 27, 2016

CORD USA Service visit to Deuladiha - Dec 2015

After a long journey, the young men venturing on the service visit and I arrived in Bhubaneswar on the evening of Sunday December 20th 2015.

Kapil, Gokul and Akshat had started the journey with me from Portland, Oregon, while Akshay joined our group in New York. Rohit joined us in Mumbai, and we met up with Akhilesh and Nirmal at the Bhubaneswar airport.

When we landed, we were warmly welcomed at the airport by Mr. Alok, CDO (Community Development Officer) of CORD Deuladiha. He had traveled all the way from Deuladiha to meet us and make sure that we were comfortable.

After a very nice dinner at a local restaurant, we headed to the Ashram at Chinmaya Mission Bhubaneswar, where we checked in to our rooms and got to know each other a little bit. The stay was quite comfortable, and a hot shower was very welcome after an almost 36 hour trip. We crashed into our beds for some sleep soon after.

Day 1

In the morning, breakfast was made for us by a CM devotee and was quite tasty. As a bonus, we had the opportunity to have Satsang with Swami Sadananda, the regional head of Chinmaya Mission Odisha who I later came to know was the inspiration behind Deuladiha Ashram and CORD's work there. After our satsang, we loaded up the three vehicles and set off for the 5 hour drive to Deuladiha as a caravan.

After going through hilly terrain and some not so great roads we arrived at the Ashram, called Chinmaya Vanam, where Dr. Rath and her team were waiting to welcome us with beautiful flowers from the Ashram. In anticipation of our arrival, they had prepared a sumptuous lunch. The young men were very excited to finally "be there” and set out to explore the area around the ashram.
The entrance to Chinmaya Vanam

We are also fortunate to have Mr. Arvind, CDO of CORD Sidhbari, with us as well. He had traveled down specifically to help all of us as we went through the different facets of CORD’s work and self empowerment programs. It was indeed very kind of Kshama didi to provide us this additional support.

After a short rest, we got a tour of the grounds of the Ashram, a property that encompasses about 10 acres, lush with many different trees and a flourishing vegetable garden. These plants are maintained using the same principles that CORD seeks to impart to the farmers whom they serve, such as Vermicompost, Organic fertilizer and organic pesticides. More about this in the upcoming days. After a great dinner, we went to sleep in anticipation of field work starting in the morning.

Day 2 at Deuldiha.

We started our day after a sumptuous breakfast supervised by Dr. Rath, or Rathamma, as she prefers to be called. She supervised all of our meals and served us personally with great love and affection. The young men just had to ask for a particular dish and somehow she would conjure it up.

(A little about Dr. Rath. She has been serving at CORD Deuldiha for many years, having taken a two and a half year sabbatical to attend the Vedanta course at Sidhbari as a guest student.  Throughout our stay, she looked after us as her own children, truly living up to the name Rathamma.)

That morning, after splitting up into two groups,  my group visited Loknathpur, a small village about 15 kms away.  Each village in Odisha has a meeting place which is covered on the top, but open on all sides. This meeting place is where all the villagers gather to discuss various issues.  The women’s farmer group,  Chinmaya Sivajyothi gathered up chairs from their homes for the three students, Rohit, Gokul and  Nirmal, myself and Sri Alokji. Alokji was our guide and translator.

The women gradually came together after finishing their chores and having put in a a number of hours of hard work already in the fields. The village Pradhan (leader) was an energetic and bright young woman who seemed to have a fair amount of support among the other women.

Our first project that morning was to make “Pancha Gavya”. Pancha Gavya is an indigenously developed super nutritious fertilizer/pesticide sourced from native products to optimize agricultural output. Pancha Gavya is made from cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee, jaggery, and bananas in a non-metallic container. This concoction is allowed to ferment for 18 days and when ready, is diluted and applied to crops.

Much of the CORD's process involves educating and training the farmers in an effort to wean them away from their dependence on petro-chemical based fertilizers and the resulting denudation and contamination of the land. After making Pancha Gavya and reviewing the techniques with the bright women, we walked down to a family’s small hut where a batch of previously made solution was ready for use to evaluate. Alokji educated us about this and all the women were very enthusiastic asking pertinent questions.
Alokji demonstrating how to use Pancha Gavya

After an open air picnic lunch (supplied by Rathamma) at the meeting stall, we went off to our next activity, the making of an Azolla Pit.

Azolla is a plant that grows abundantly in water. Our project was to identify, clear and level an area in the benficiary's property with a slight taper for drainage. Following this, a shallow pond was created using a tarpaulin sheet and some some bricks. After the pond was completed, the water was seeded with Azolla. It is anticipated that the Azolla will grow and completely fill the pond over the next two to three weeks.

Azolla is very nutrient rich and can be used as a renewable, inexpensive organic fodder for livestock that has been shown to increase yield while improving the health of the animals

Below is picture of a thriving completed pit.

Azolla pit

After our work there, we went to inspect a number of fields where CORD has introduced inter-cropping for after the paddy harvest each year. CORD provides the know-how and the seeds to the farmers to improve the yield from their land, which then allows them to supplement their income.

Day 3

Our work today involved meeting with a Women’s farmer group (WFG). They constitute an integral part, and are very active and lively.  With CORD’s help, these women are now in many leadership roles in their communities while they improve their lives and strengthen their communities. Their work has been recognized by the Pentagon Charitable Trust, making CORD Deuladiha a recipient of a grant for their work.

We had a session of educating and interacting with them.  They were a humble, intelligent audience that asked penetrating questions to Alokji.

We then built the Matka Khad which is an organic pesticide made from cow dung and cow urine. The overuse of pesticides in India has led to significant damage to its fields while crippling the farmers with debt.
Matka Khad

The three young students Akhilesh, Gokul and Akshay dug in to the manufacturing process of Matka khad getting their hands dirty (with gloves on). We later continued on to the construction of a Vermiwash unit , an ingenious method of using vermicompost to create a nutrient-rich solution that is diluted and used as fertilizer.
Vermi Wash system in the blue pots

The process CORD has adopted starts with education about the use of the product. CORD also involves the participants by requiring both a small monetary and much larger labor payment known as Shramma dan. This helps ensure that the beneficiaries remain engaged and will benefit from the process.

After our work the young men were invited by the villagers to take a crack at hoeing the land using oxen.  While they had a great time with this, they soon found that it was quite hard work.

They then also got a chance to harvest rice paddy with a scythe and again, They were out done by the local folks there, I am afraid.

With the dawn of day 4, there was palpable excitement in the air among all the young men.We were about to embark on a long awaited project: the construction of a toilet!

After a hearty breakfast, off they went with shovels, pickaxes and of course gloves.  The beneficiary’s house was about half a kilometer away from the CORD center in a hamlet named Munda Sahai.

The husband and wife, whose family was to get the toilet built for them were there along with the field workers who had ensured that all construction materials for our work had been delivered to the site.

The first step was to map out the site for the toilet itself and the soakage pit(septic system). The stone mason who would be leading the construction along with the owner cleared and leveled out the land. After marking out the soakage pit area, the boys stared to dig.

They dug and they dug. They soon found out soon that it took a lot of effort to dig down 4 feet and cart out the soil. The team worked in rotation and I must say that the boys really put their back into it and worked with great enthusiasm. It was tough going but they inched towards the goal.  Meanwhile the recipient family was quietly working continuously through this process, preparing the sand and metal needed for the grill work.

Kapil and Rohit hard at work digging the soakage pit
As lunch approached, we walked back to the Ashram for a tasty lunch. After a break it was back for some more work. Some of the young men then started a pickup game of Frisbee with the young children of the village, forming a great bond. The game was played with  lot of enthusiasm, but then it was back to work. After putting in a fair amount of work, we called it a day. As we returned to Ashram, it was heartening to see the beneficiary couple still continuing to work to make their dream of their own personal toilet come true.
The boys playing Frisbee with the kids

Following the principles of CORD, they had put in both money and effort towards improvement of their life.  At this juncture, I reflected on a spontaneous visit we had had on our way back from the Azolla pit project a couple of days ago.

During this trip, we had stopped at a small hamlet with about 30 houses, where the local government had employed a contractor to build toilets for the residents. I got a chance to inspect one of them, and unfortunately, it was not of great quality. The remarkable thing was that although built and ready to go, most of them were not being used. This was most likely because the stakeholders were not educated, and so were not very motivated. Certainly to me, it was an affirmation that unless there is a buy-in from the people there, such facilities would not be used optimally.

Where we were building the toilet, there had already been a lot of preparatory work already done by Alokji and the CORD field workers to educate and motivate the family. Our young men also got involved by holding a class for all the Balavihar children of Munda Sahai. During this Balivihar, the students talked to the children about sanitation, open defecation, and diseases. The interaction was wonderful, and both teachers and students seemed to enjoy the process very much.

Day 5

We had the privilege of a visit from Swami Kevalananda, from CORD Lathikata, the other CORD center in Odisha. Swamiji had driven more than 4 hours with his bad back to visit us, so we were very grateful and appreciative. He gave us an update of the activities going on in Lathikata and the adjoining districts. There, CORD also works to uplift the residents who live well below the poverty line.

He has also introduced a number of novel treatments for common ailments using Ayurvedic principles. Swamiji had already begun incorporating readily available herbal remedies for the people in that area. In that area there was also great need for help.

Our team was had a great discussion with him and we were honored to be able to donate 250 solar lanterns for the "Light up a Village" project that the service visit participants had initiated. These lanterns will go to families in remote areas where there is no power, so they burn fossil fuels for light. We felt that this is indeed a win-win situation for both the recipients and us, offering an environmentally sustainable method to help the people.

After our visit, back we went to the project site for continuing the toilet construction.  All the young men put in a great effort, interspersed with breaks with the children of the village. The children caught on to the game of Frisbee rather quickly and gave all their new friends from America unique names during the play.

Toilet and soakage pit completed

At the end of the day, we trooped back to Ashram, where a snack awaited us every day upon our return, prepared lovingly by Kamal and Lambo.  The young men then seemed to get another burst of energy after this and resumed playing Frisbee and football with each other. Slowly the sun set and after dinner and relaxation time we headed to bed.

Day 6–

Our group, this time consisting of Kapil, Akshat and Akhilesh ventured off to the village of Kollisuta, where we would work with Farmer’s self-help group to construct a vermicomposting pit.

The beneficiary and his fellow farmer group members  were on hand when we arrived, having secured all the building material. As per CORD’s principles, the beneficiary had contributed some money for the stone mason, part of the bricks needed, and 2 bags of cement towards the construction of the pit.

Under CORD’s supervision and guidance an appropriate site was selected and the ground prepared. Our young men jumped headlong into the work and leveled out the area, ferried cement, and bricks as the structure started taking shape. It was wonderful to see the skilled mason creating a beautiful structure with the help of the young men, patiently guiding them so that they got a hands on experience.
Akshat and Akilesh helping to build the vermicompost's walls

The pit itself constitutes tow large holding chambers where the organic material to be composted is put in with the earthworms which digest this material and then go to the other side leaving behind rich compost for the fields.

The work took the entire day with our boys assisting without hesitation. Their work inspired many of the village teenagers to also come and give a hand. Hopefully, this will continue. Throughout the process, training and education was imparted by the field workers, Rajib, Himanshu and Arvindji.
The boys helping to add finishing touches

The young men did have a lot of fun in between chasing goats and with the help of the village boys catching one of the nimble creatures. Of course, our picnic lunch was always on time and delicious. The sunset was beautiful as the sun disappeared over the hills as we were returning to the Ashram.

 Day 7 Tamang

 I must say that Alokji had given me some hints of what lay ahead, asking me if I liked hiking and rock climbing. Little did I anticipate what lay ahead. 
Our entire group set off to Tamanga, a village atop a mountain, which is served by CORD.  This remote place, even today, does not have electricity and the only access is to walk. And what a trek it is.

Our destination lay about 2.5 to 3 km up an almost 45 degree slope over rocks of varying sizes.  The young men set off ahead of me and were soon lost to sight. Alokji and Arvindji slowed down to climb with me and I must say that many a time I did not think that I would be able to complete the climb but with their encouragement, I was finally able to reach the village.
An example of the climb up the mountain
Perched upon a small mountain, this collection of mud walled one room huts constituted the village. Amazingly although this has been recorded as a revenue village from the time of the British occupation, no governmental agency reaches this area.  However, I am proud to say that CORD has connected with these innocent people and two of their self-help groups have now been awarded best in their category by the  government.
One of the huts in the village

Here we were warmly welcomed by the villagers who sang and danced and so did we with them.  The kids on the service visit shared their knowledge about communicable diseases, sanitation to the young Bala Vihar children.  I remain grateful for their kind hospitality, humbled by the young men of the villages hauling up bottles of water, food for our lunch as well as the lanterns for distribution.

The lanterns that we distributed came from our “Light up a village” project that the service visit participants had initiated and raised funds for prior to our departure from USA.  They had exceeded their fund raising goal of $ 700 to raise more than $6000 for the solar lanterns, which was able to provide much more help than what we had envisioned. The impact of this goes beyond just providing light to these remote impoverished areas but an additional benefit which reduces the use of fossil fuels that are used for light in these areas.
Alokji showing the villagers how the solar lanterns work

We returned towards evening, the climb down, no less adventurous than going uphill.  It amazes me to see the villagers do it easily, often many times a day.

I want to share with you a story that started unfolding that evening while I was sitting on the veranda near our room.

An elderly, distraught man came walking to the Ashram to meet with Dr. Rath.  He spoke to her for a few minutes and then went off with his companion. When I asked Dr. Rath what this elderly gent wanted, she told me that his wife, who was about 68 years old, had fallen at home and broken both hips. Unfortunately, there were no medical facilities in Keondjhar district to be able to help her and the only recourse was to take her to the Medical College in Bhubaneswar, which was about 200 kms away through hilly terrain over not so great roads, journey of 4 to 5 hours at the very least.

So, the husband had come to request the use of the old ambulance which used to be operated by CORD for the benefit of the local people. Recently, the Government in an effort to promote childbirth in hospital settings had provided free ambulance service within the district and so the COORD ambulance was not used as much as in the past.  The hooker in this is that the government ambulance cannot transport anyone outside the district. So, the only option for people is to hire a taxi at cost of around Rs. 5000 for the trip, not including waiting charges. This is more than many of them would make in a month not to mention not having enough to save such an amount. So the only other hope for these abjectly poor people is to avail of the free ambulance provided by CORD, which is a decades old converted Maruti Omni vehicle, which certainly had seen better days.  In any case as I watched this event unfold, Rathamma, just handed over the keys to driver from the village so that the family could take their mother for medical care.

When I asked her if she need some sort of written agreement or assurance, she, with great compassion, told me that these villagers were very honest and that she had absolutely no worries about its safe return.

A couple of days later the ambulance showed back up at the Ashram and I asked Rathamma as to what was able to be done for the patient.  Unfortunately, the woman had been diagnosed to have metastatic cancer involving the bones and there was no treatment available. So, the family brought her back home to spend her last few days with her loved ones.

As I thought of this small episode, it came to my mind that, had it not been for the free ambulance that CORD provided, the family would have to spend a large amount of money that they did not have and the poor woman would have to endure an excruciatingly painful journey for her evaluation as the taxis are not geared to take individuals in stretchers in a recumbent position and so she would have had to travel sitting up.

I felt humbled knowing that through the kindness of individuals previously and now, there was an ambulance available for use, dilapidated as it was. (I actually drove it around the roads near the Ashram and tried to turn on the beacon and siren but alas they had not worked for quite some time). This old vehicle and the effort to keep it running had provided succor for this lady and her family at a time of their desperate need.

Day 7 - Rest day

The entire group headed off to a waterfall about 50 kms away where we passed through beautiful wooded preserves, with monkeys cackling on the sides of the road, darting across with their little ones hanging on for dear life. We were able to enjoy some boating while at the waterfall and headed to the district headquarter at Keondhjar where the young men enjoyed a great lunch in restaurant and just hanging out time.

Day 8 – Sarei

This scenic village is at the foot of the mountain where it is nourished by a perennial stream.

The government had initially commissioned a private contractor to build a dam so as to capture the water and recharge the aquifers so that the farmers would have a reliable water supply. Unfortunately, the project was not moved forward much as the contractor built a wall which really did not do much (to say the least). So, CORD had worked through NABARD, the governmental agency for rural development and had undertaken to finish the reservoir. I am happy to report that CORD was able to complete his within budget.

The young men’s work that day encompassed diverting the flow of the stream to provide maximum capture of the water.  They worked hard and moved more than a ton of rock working as a team, successfully completing their objective. 
All the young men working together to build the dam

After a outdoor lung on the banks of the reservoir, we then went back to the village where CORD runs a tailoring training program to enable women to be able to earn extra income.  This started of an initial training of 6 women who have now become trainers themselves and more that 60 tailors have been trained and continue to work thorough their self-help groups.

We then took a detour to visit an enterprising man who had left his job to reurn to his village and was restoring a farm, planting cash crops o fmany varieites. We were able to share ideas with him and he appreciated CVORD’s expertise in helping him achive success in his evndeavor.

Day 9- Purunapani

The young men watching as Rathamma prescribes medication
Dr. Rath treating villagers
Purunapani is a very poor village where most of the families live with resources well below the poverty line. They have extremely limited acces to any health care and our work today was to set up a health clinic and for the young men to educate and create awareness among the villagers’ about different health issues.

Dr. Rath evaluated close to a 100 patients, ably assisted by her team, while the young men interacted and educated the young people of the village. They also provided the families with individual toothpaste and toothbrushes which had been donated by Drs. Bhatia and Cherukuri from the USA.

Malnutrition was quite rampant among the children and some of the causes are parasitic infestation, poor nutrition and lack of knowledge, which CORD helps people to overcome through their grassroots efforts. The sustainable changes come slowly but I believe that they are making a true difference in the lives of these folks.

Day 10 – Center day

This was a day where women from various self-help groups in the surrounding villages came to the CORD center. Many of them walked 4 to 5 kilometers to get here.

District Manager of NABAD
Here they were able to meet with bankers from the local bank which helps them manage their money and ensure responsible repayment.
We were also privileged to have Mr. Sudhanshu Chaulia, District Development Manager, for National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and his deputy manager who addressed the women and the staff and answered their questions.  I was impressed that they had travelled more than 70 kilometers to meet with villagers and spend time with us trying to learn hope they could collaborate with CORD, which incidentally is a go to organization to help them carry out their work. The partnership allow s much more assistance to be delivered.

The boys handing out some pencils and erasers
That day more than 175 young Bala Vihar children form the surrounding villages came to the center fro fun and games. Together, they played many games with small prices for the winners which the service trip participants had brought with them.  Everybody had lunch at the center served by Rathamma’s team.  While we were talking group photos, I came to know that one of our field workers had bicycled 15 kilometers each way to come for the meeting. She always had a smile and for me ti served as an inspiration as to how these workers go on serving with a positive attitude despite limited resources.


The boys playing frisbee togetether.
My trip to Deladiha started with some trepidation on my part, worrying how I would be able to take these young men to remote part of the world and get them back healthy and safe.  I could not have done it without the support of the parents and the cooperation of the students and they all rose up to the occasion.  The CORDUSA team of Vijaya Cherukuri, Thriveni Sanagala and Subha Pathial were involved through and through the entire process and I can safely say that such a trip would not have happened without their work and support. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of them again.

So, would I do this again? The answer is YES, in a heartbeat.

I encourage all of those who feel that they would like to pursue such an opportunity to consider doing this, not so much for others but more for their own personal experience and growth.