Thursday, September 1, 2011

Our return to India (Part 1)

Dear followers,

We’ve returned from India (actually, we returned on August 21st, but we’re still recovering from jetlag), and with us, we bring more (mostly good) news about Project Jatropha.

There were two major Project Jatropha-related...events that happened during this year’s India visit. One was the visiting of the farmers who have been taking part in Phase II of Project Jatropha, and the other was the expansion of the project to Pondicherry.

For those of you who don’t know (ie, most everyone who hasn’t lived in India), Pondicherry is in the state of Tamil Nadu. Up to this point, all of Project Jatropha’s work in India has been centered in the Mysore-Hunsur area, which is in the state of Karnataka. Tamil Nadu is also in south India, and is actually right next to Karnataka. However, the primary language spoken in Tamil Nadu is, unsurprisingly, Tamil, whereas Kannada is the main language spoken in Karnataka. The languages are not similar at all, and travel would become an issue since directions were always in Tamil (whether verbal or written). But eventually, we got to Pondicherry.

There, we met with Bala, a man who works with an NPO (non profit organization) called VET (Vallalar Educational Trust) there. Taken from their website, their goal is as follows: VET aims at Rural Welfare Reforms for the Indian Woman and Girl Child, Social welfare and Health Welfare. We assist women by forming self-help groups, leadership training, income generation programme, immunisation and family planning advice, and mother and child nutrition programmes.

Bala was an engineer who decided to come back to his home town in order to better it-he saw the state that the area was in, and realized that his talents, energy, and enthusiasm could better serve the people in his community. Bala was also quick to realize that one of the main areas to focus on was the children-because with them lay the hope of changing the future. Cliche? Arguably. True? Very much so. Many of these children are among the first in their families to receive a formal education of any sort-most of their parents are illiterate and only know how to sign their names. By helping give them an education, Bala was enabling them to have a future beyond being stuck in their current socioeconomic position.

First, we went to a local nursery, which had been established a few decades ago, to purchase plants. Bala, who had already bought plants there before, was able to obtain a discount, as we were helping the school rather than making a purchase directly for ourselves. All in all, the amount of money spent totaled less than 2000 rupees (which is around $50 US), and with it we bought around 20 plants of varying types (details will be uploaded onto our official website shortly). Then, we hired an autorickshaw to transport the plants to the school, which cost a few hundred rupees.

Once in the school site, we met up with the international volunteers. Upon seeing them, we exchanged names and our places of origin. Many of them were from Europe, with one person from China. The majority of people were from Holland or Spain, but there were people from France and Belgium as well. Turns out they were all part of an exchange program of sorts, whereby volunteers like them would come to India, spend time among the locals, and participate in various projects dedicated towards helping the impoverished.

Around 100 kids were in the school, which was a small institution. There was very little lighting, and it was really the perfect picture of an impoverished school that you might see in an ad asking for donations. The entire school consisted of three buildings. Books were there, but clearly more were needed; there were few (if any) blackboards and there were no desks or chairs for the students, who had to sit on the floor. Despite the hard work of the teachers, it was still a challenge to educate the children with what little resources that were available. Yet, we found out that despite the dire need of resources for schools such as this one, politicians have instead been giving out free televisions to households in order to buy their votes (and the recipients would be reminded to vote for the candidate with the numerous ads that would be shown, ironically enough). This frankly shameful lack of priorities among the local politicians was a perfect example of the lack of care for the rural folk that Bala has been addressing.

After introductions, the actual planting began. Bala handed out the plants to us (Apoorva, me, and the international volunteers), along with some of the students. We were instructed to take off our socks before entering the field as it had rained the day before, and it soon became apparent why-although the ground looked fine, I quickly sank a good 6 inches into it when I stepped anywhere. Fortunately, Bala had already had the holes dug prior to yesterday’s rainfall, so our lives were that much easier. Once we all were in position, the plants were gently placed into the holes, which were filled in with a combination of manure and soil. Done with planting, we all washed our hands and sat down to eat.

We ended the successful planting with lunch, which was a vegetable biriyani cooked in a giant pot. After eating, we found out that Bala had hired a cook who usually does the kind of cooking in weddings just to cater for us-we were flattered at this display, because doing so certainly would have cost a large sum of money (especially considering that Bala certainly needed the money far more than we did). Regardless, we thanked Bala for his generosity and ate heartily.

Afterward lunch, we decided upon distributing the fruits to the school, which we did with help from the international volunteers. We learned from the international volunteers that the favorite fruit of many schoolchildren was apples. And lucky for us, we had brought apples-enough for the whole school, students and teachers alike. The entire school was incredibly grateful for the plants and the fruit. Bala thanked us (even though he had done much of the work by choosing and readying the school, as well as making sure the pits were dug out beforehand), and we intend to continue our work in Pondicherry. In the future, we hope to introduce small amounts of Jatropha to the schools (perhaps as fences) as well as assorted fruit and ornamental plants.

The next blog post will talk about the revisiting of the Phase I and II sites of Project Jatropha, and what decisions transpired as a result.


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