Tuesday 7 September 2010

Adventures in Maharashtra: Rural Enterprise

While Delhi was interesting, it was pretty good to get out of the searing heat and get back to Bombay. I’d also been missing some of the Bombay specialties. Paav Bhaji and Sev Puri. Snacks to die for!!

Paav Bhaji Sev Puri

I paid a last visit to the streets where I grew up and the old house that I spent my childhood in.

Breach Candy Peddar Road

Sandringham Villa, B. Desai Rd.

I also finally managed to catch up with my father’s old team at the Breach Candy Hospital, and was immediately reminded of the issues that India faces in it’s transition from old culture to better practices...

Female infanticide is a huge issue in India, driven by girls not carrying the family name, being perceived as less useful in labour terms, and most importantly resulting in huge familial costs in dowry. Sex determination has been made illegal to prevent the abortion of female foetuses, but one wonders how many more baby girls suffer the fate of infanticide because of it.

P1040555 P1040551

Got to back to Bombay just in time to catch a train straight out to Sholapur. The team at SSP knew I wanted to get out into the field before I left and they very kindly arranged a whirlwind tour of some of the villages and women they work with in rural Maharashtra. To give you some idea of the size of India, Sholapur is in the same state as Bombay, but the train ride still took 8 hours overnight.
We left from Dadar station at about 10pm, and the platforms were crushed even at night. Most of the longer distance trains in India have air-conditioned sleeper class carriages, with drop down bunks, which are comfortable and spacious enough for a decent sleep. What’s extra cool is that they provide clean sheets, pillow cases and blankets in a sealed paper bag for every bunk. Loved it!

Dadar station at night  People still fighting on at 10pm Sleeper carriages before lights out

We travelled to villages near Usmanabad and Sholapur to talk to rural women that SSP has provided micro-loans to, and to learn how they’re using the money. While discussing knowledge sharing and local support, one of the things we realised that if things continued to progress for individuals, they would soon be competing against each other; which brings us to another element of design: Long-Termism in full-community economic improvement.

If individuals start working against each other it will undo many of the early stage benefits, so the design of funding and support must encourage and incentivise co-operative mechanisms, first on local scales and then regional scales.

Rural village near Sholapur

Village housing near Usmanabad Women entrepreneurs telling us about how they've been using micro-loans.

While we were there we witness a really interesting phenomenon. Community group weddings. Multiple marriages at the same event. These save huge cost and also bring the community together. Even more interestingly, a Hindu function (wedding) and Muslim function (coming of age ceremony) were being held simultaneously on opposite sides of the street, with no discord whatsoever.

Hindu community group wedding Muslim coming of age ceremony


Micro-enterprises may not look like much to a generation used to malls and Gucci stores, but the picture below is of a full grain-based enterprise from machinery to storage.


We also visited a local hospital catering to a number of the surrounding villages. It was reasonably neat, but a far cry from the hospital you or I might imagine.

Rural doctor's waiting room Rural hospital ward

From there we headed over to another village closer to Usmanabad. This time a strong muslim community, where many of the women face cultural restrictions, but still operate small enterprises. Interestingly in many of the cases, the men run the errands, and do the buying and taking of products to market. In essence, taking direction from their women, who own the enterprises. Micro-loans here are creating not just economic development, but also cultural change.

Village street Muslim women entrepreneurs in rural Maharashtra

I then got my first look at the items sold by SSP’s retail arm, which provides access to socially responsible products. Sadly although these products have great value to the user, sometimes the design has not been thought through or tested properly, and often the pricing is completely out of range. The result is that products get used for purposes other than intended, or never make it their intended market at all.

Sakhi Retail and Products

Sakhi Retail store Prema Gopalan and the Directors of Sakhi Retail

Pellet based Bio Fuel Stove. While essentially cheaper than the normal kerosene stove, it turns out that you cannot save pellets for reuse, making it very inefficient and on balance more expensive. D-Light Solar Light - Intended for use in fields. Design means it's more often used in homes for reading and studying. It is also outside the budget of most people, but still very successful.

SMS based remote control switches. Great for turning machinery on or off remotely. Pure water filter. At over Rs.2000 it is way too expensive.

Fridge. Interestingly people don't buy this fridge because they expect a fridge to be upstanding, and not flip-top. While cheaper than a normal fridge, it is still too expensive to make the inconvenience worthwhile. People prefer to wait and pay the extra for a proper fridge or not bother at all. Solar lantern.

I got back to Bombay just in time for a house-warming ceremony at my friend’s place, where I was staying. I tried to keep a low profile in the background because I had absolutely no clue about all that was transpiring around me. Still it was interesting and we got to eat some good sweets!

Bits and pieces in readiness for a Pooja The Pandit warming up!

I did my bit to help with the moving in, mostly by inadvertently breaking everything that wasn’t properly set up. The Air Con for example. Fortunately this was all taken in the right spirit. Thank goodness for childhood friends!! Outside my window high up in Cuffe Parade, the view spanned the usual dichotomies of Indian life, with high rises on one side and massive slums on the other. It’s amazing how people living two such completely different lives, coexist so closely, and how such a huge example of hardship can be completely ignored by those who look down on it.

Poor man's Cuffe Parade. Ambedkar Nagar slum. Rich man's Cuffe Parade

Before I left, I caught up one last time with all my school friends, and also squeezed in a few last goodbyes with all the different teams and projects I worked with. Apart from the SSP team, I managed to find some time for the guys at Teach 4 India, although the details of those workshops have blurred a bit now.
Ran a last workshop with the team at Arpan, which seemed to go down well, and it was great to see that they’re already applying the stuff we worked on.

Team Arpan

Mostly though I was sad to say bye to the Bombay Ashoka crew, who hung out with me all the way through the Indian Adventures.

Leaving lunch with the Ashoka crew, Bombay. Fun times!!

So to end the Indian Adventure, here’s a big thanks to all my old friends who looked after me, the Indian projects for accommodating me, and all the lovely new people I met and new friends I made along the way. Till the next time!!
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