More than a fellowship, it is a personal journey to discover myself. During the selection interview, I was asked how I am going to change the problems in the district; I answered “I will try to understand what people have to say before proposing anything.”
Understanding communities, their way of living, value system, inter-personal relationship as well as relationship with the outside environment becomes very important. I believe understanding and acknowledging people’s rights and subsequent ownership of developmental process by the community is most crucial before making any difference to these development deficit areas.
During my post graduation days at TISS, I got a few opportunities to intern with movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in M.P, community based organizations like Urmul Setu Santhan in Rajasthan and a field action project of TISS on facilitating public health access for tribal people in Maharashtra. It gave me a cross sectional understanding regarding why it is so important to take communities into confidence. The collective empowerment in understanding rights and spirited participation in decision making process bears the testimony of a community driven governance system.
PMRDF as a journey started when I left my job in Gujarat and joined the programme. Initially, it used to be a gruesome task to convince officials why things need to be done differently deviating from the conventional approach and involving community more into their own need assessment and decision making. More than just monitoring certain programmes, it is also important to understand what people realise about those programmes. Are they very much satisfied in terms of the impact of different programmes? Do they think it is a mercy by the government to make them a part of such programmes? Or do they deserve a better stake in their own development process.
Living in a remote tribal village during field immersion gave a solid platform to associate with communities more closely. Initial passage has gone through different folds of exploration. Gram Sabha Sasakti Karan Aviyan in the month of November 2012 and Grievance Reddresal Days in every week gave me an opportunity to understand the nature of grievances that people generally have. These grievances generally revolves around day to day issues of accessing public delivery services, delay in payment of wages, absence of teachers in schools and doctors in community health centers, incapability to access credit leverage from banks, not receiving seed supply at the start of agricultural seasons, not able to establish market linkage for different production and many more. Many issues are resolved on the spot and some need time to be acted upon. Facilitating the early redressal of grievances is my first in hand experience after joining the district.
But one thing that has always burned in my mind is not to let go why I am here? I cannot identify myself with acute bureaucracy of present nature, where everything has to take a course of time of its own. This is also a time of transition for me in listening to people on a regular basis on issues of transparency and challenges in empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions. It is also the time convergence as an approach being practiced in implementation of schemes and services in a holistic manner. In most of these cases, the major learning came from people and their knowledge to optimize the use of resources and surviving the crisis.
The cultural groups in the district needed a strong revival in terms of strengthening their federation at GP and Block level and sustaining their livelihood through generating awareness on different schemes by pulling funds from different government departments. There is additional advantage of awareness being done in local language, which is easily accepted by people. The gradual success of this initiative is very satisfying.
I work in a place where more than 51% of population is tribal and more than 71% of geographical region is covered under forest. Collection of non-timber forest produce is institutionalized with value addition and training support for them. I have been trying to promote new cluster on honey, arrowroot, ginger, mushroom, tamarind and vegetables and strengthening, mechanizing and value addition of the existing clusters like incense stick making, Silai leaf plate making (for buffet use), turmeric production etc. I have also been involved in documentation of many such best practices and project formulations.
As Kandhamal is a rainfed district, I got myself involved in promotion of rainfed farming systems by adopting some best practice and guidance from NGOs. It aims at improving the overall productivity of the soil, crop diversification, maximum use of bio manure and pesticides, SRI method of cultivation, durable livelihood from animal husbandry etc. Identifying some best practices of community driven initiatives whether forecasting, soil health testing and overall improvement of agriculture and sustaining them though different community groups is also part of this initiative.
The challenge remains with finding contextual solutions to the problems and the base of knowledge should start from people themselves. Sharing ideas about district specific programmes with fellow colleagues and keenness for innovation in every possible sphere makes the fellowship more meaningful.
Soumya Ranjan Nath is based at Kandhamal in Odisha. He has an MA in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Soumya worked for one year as a consultant with the Development Support Agency of Gujarat (D-SAG), Tribal Development Department, Govt. of Gujarat before joining the PMRDF.