(If you’re mystified by the title of this post I explain it below.)

This blog is part of a series on the Newton Bhabha Fund workshop, taking place in IISER, Pune September 4-8th (we’re tweeting about the workshop using #CERRI)  On day one of the workshop we visited a number of rural villages to meet villagers, community leaders and officers from Maharashtra Arogya Mandal (MAM), an NGO. I’d like to take a moment here to thank Sagar Mitkari from MAM for his time on Monday explaining the role and history of his organisation and for helping to arrange the visit to the villages and the Muktangan Tribal Girls Hostel.

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You can read more about MAM here:

http://www.mam.org.in/

The connection with MAM and the visit was organised by Dr Priyadarshini Karve, one of the workshop organisers and the Director of Samuchit Enviro Tech. Priya’s additional role today was to help us to debrief the group, combine experiences (we split up to visited different villages and there is wider experience in the group of other parts of India) and help us begin the process of idea generation. The debrief was an essential part of the early stages of the workshop, as the village visits stimulated a lot of thinking but also some areas of confusion. We spent the afternoon with Priya identifying our new questions and taking advantage of her huge experience.

We split the group into three subgroups taking care to mix people from the four constituent groups on the course (UK/India/Social Science/Physical Science) and from the three visits. We worked for an hour on the following questions, then Priya answered the emerging questions.

  1. Broaden and Share your Perspectives (this was discussed in the groups)
    • within your group, what else do we know about rural India?
    • what do you think we need to know?
    • what was different about the villages visited yesterday?
    • …and what is different about other rural Indian places?
  2. Seek Clarification (this was the basis of discussion with Priya)
    • what is missing from your understanding?
    • what needs clarification or expansion?
  3.  Identify Key Influences (this was captured at the end to gauge the value of the visits)
    • what sights and conversations have had particular impact?
    • what key moments have changed or developed your thinking?

Rather than give a detailed overview of the problems and ambiguities identified I will select a few and share Priya’s advice. I’ll group some of the questions as they were covered with a single answer.

What do you see as the barriers?

The human element – they may say XYZ when they mean ABC. Problems which are categorised in one way may be something very different = social and economic barriers are easily confused (people can say they can’t afford something rather than admitting they are intimidated or uncomfortable with it). People need to have better understanding of the implications of their decisions (i.e. health impact of cooking with wood fires indoors). Superstitions are still influential, but mobile and television is building awareness of modern lifestyles.

How do we ensure things keep on working when India is changing so quickly? And what if our work impacts in others ways – perhaps by creating conditions which mean people are more likely to leave their villages?

There is rapid urbanisation which is affecting village communities but we also see reverse migration with people preferring to return to village life. Don’t think too much about the how specific individuals might act. Think about how whoever will be living in the village in the future – focus on creating liveable conditions. Also recalibrate your description of yourself – I moved from thinking of myself as someone in rural development to thinking about how I support people to deal with climate change using technology. This reframing can help you focus on what’s important. 

There’s so much diversity, even in the three relatively close villages we saw. How do we come up with ideas which can be widely applied?

Don’t try to – there will never be a single solution, but there is more scope to think in terms of a menu of options for people and to put effort into developing methodologies which will help people identify the right solutions or develop their own.

Why aren’t there more skills development programmes to help people use technology more effectively? Why don’t they use the skills they have to engage with technology? (This was prompted by a trip to a village which had broken technology but there were engineers in the village.)

Must take their aspirations into account. Sometimes programmes are offered but not taken because seen as low status – seen as poor relation to university degree or type of training available in cities. Once people are trained to be engineers and start being paid well for this, they are unwilling to work for nothing in the villages. Think about whether you would do your job for nothing when you get home from work…

There is a need for awareness raising, but in some cases there seems to be awareness but no change in behaviour. What can we do about this?

Villagers are people, just like us. We all know what we should do and what is good for us, but do we do it all the time? No! The same psychology applies. We stick with our habits and so do they. Don’t judge them.

Why do so few government schemes work?

They are conceived in Delhi, sent to state capitals, then to districts then to the block level. At this level they make decisions about what to do and then the village leaders decide how to implement. This is a long chain and the initial decision is far removed from the people affected. There can be social pressure from the villagers to keep the decisions on track, but incompetence and issues like caste will derail things.

Having said this there are examples of things being turned around in villages by people pressure. If word of this could spread, people might be inclined to apply similar pressure. Finding local champions who are respected and influential will also help. Teachers can be very powerful.

What is the energy consumption behaviour in the villages?

There is some data about this in limited projects – I’m involved in one to assess this and the way energy is imported and exported to and from the villages. Some of these studies have uncovered important information which show that villages create more wealth for India than they receive in support and benefits.

Shouldn’t we be tacking the bigger societal problems, particualrly around gender and caste inequalities? 

Although these have a negative impact on our work it would be a HUGE job to change them. You need to focus on what you can change and can do. I can’t see this or many other barriers going away. Work around them.

How far to people plan ahead? Can we get them to see the benefits in the long-term of some of these developments?

Depends on nature of their lifestyle. If agricultural will think in terms of farming cycles – until the next harvest. If “hunter-gatherer” will think about where next meal is coming from. It’s difficult to change unless their lifestyles start to be affected.

It feels like there is a need for more data and better access to data that exists. (Questions about soil and water testing, information on energy usage, geomapping and other data sources.)

There is a need for this particularly if it would be produced with a visual summary to help people engage with it. Pilot projects on soil and water testing have happened but it’s patchy – led in one case by a teacher who gathered and analysed samples from students when they returned to their home villages. Over 5-6 years this has built into a map of a region. Engaging people with the data is a key issue as this will help drive better data in future. 

To paraphrase Priya, she encourages our researchers to focus on what they can do and not be disheartened by what they can’t change. She has learnt that a lot of developments and initiatives come and go, but if you stick to what you see working, you will make progress. She uses the local influencers effectively and she’s defined herself in terms of what is needed and what she can do, rather than what she she was initially interested in.

In the next post I’ll summarise the value of the village visits.

*Finally, thanks to Andrea Buck at Swansea University for the title of this blog. Andrea and I had a conversation about how to drive change in universities and she described it as being a little like a bowl of cold spaghetti. You see the one strand that you want to pull out, but as you tug you realise it’s all stuck together and if you pull really hard it jumps out the bowl and hits you in the face… I love this metaphor and the expression “cold spaghetti” enters my head on a fairly regular basis. Of course it doesn’t imply anything about either Swansea or Edinburgh Universities which are both paragons of effective and efficient decision making…

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