Friday, 10 June 2011

Changing Lives In Western Orissa

The recent debate about whether the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID) should continue to fund projects in India led to ministers stressing the importance of “value for money” and highlighting the fact that DFID will focus its spending here in three states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. In an attempt to get a glimpse of the reality behind the headlines, I decided to do some digging and take a look at one example of where DFID is actually spending our money.

The Western Orissa Rural Livelihoods Project established in August 2000 and is a partnership between DFID and the state government of Orissa. Western Orissa is a largely rural area with a large tribal population. The environment makes life tough for farmers: rainfall is irregular but sometimes brutally heavy, which leads to intermittent crop failures. Safe drinking water is hard to come by, a problem exacerbated in times of drought. Social infrastructure is noticeable by its absence. In short, the project had its work cut out.

The plan was wide-ranging but at its heart lay watersheds. The term might be more familiar to us as the time after which TV is allowed to get steamy, but in this case we’re talking about ways to manage the limited water supply to help irrigate farming land and provide drinking water to communities. The project worked on 290 watersheds in four of the most disadvantaged districts of Western Orissa: Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Nuapada.

What made the project different from other watershed programmes was the central importance it placed on the choices of farmers in the affected regions. In keeping with this participatory approach, it also asked communities to set their own targets. Defining at what moment people are no longer living in poverty is a notoriously fraught business, so the project used as its measure the perceptions of the very people it was trying to help. At the outset, villagers were asked to classify the population into three distinct categories: ‘Well Off’, ‘Manageable’ and ‘Poor’ based on criteria they chose themselves.

A household study completed early in 2011 has found that in ten years of work approximately 29% of households in project villages consider that they have moved out of poverty due to increased availability of work, increased returns from agriculture, and other income generating activities. That’s 33,989 households or 169,945 people better off.

So what had happened? Well the watershed projects – things like dams, contour ditches, farm ponds and open wells were cited by farmers as ‘highly significant’ in improving their lot. Additionally, they talked about the importance of the improved communication systems that the project set up, which gave them more information about seeds and fertiliser as well as training and support to obtain agricultural credit. It also allowed them to make more money by helping with actually selling their products at market, in particular by encouraging collective marketing.

The project had other influences that extended beyond the financial. About half of all communities said that through getting involved in managing the project their community had become more inclusive to hearing the views of women and other vulnerable groups although it remains the case that access to resources is still primarily controlled by men so there is some room for improvement.

As well as increasing the amount of food produced, better management has also meant that a lot less people have to deal with shortages in the lean season – 5% of people now say they’ve had days where they had to go without food, compared to 25% before the project started. Similarly people are now better equipped to deal with disasters like floods and droughts. 86% of marginal farmers in the project watersheds reported improvement in disaster coping capacity, compared to 55% in areas where the project was not involved.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the project is its legacy. The initiatives it introduced are now being adopted across Orissa as well as in other states such as Maharashtra and has influenced the National Policy/ Guidelines on watersheds. A further 2332 watersheds in Orissa have now added the participatory management approach that the project based itself around.

This widespread uptake of ideals is the true measure of the importance of DFID’s involvement. Through a relatively small, localized intervention they’ve not only helped make a significant number of people better off, they’ve set a touchstone of best practice for many more projects to follow - which sounds a lot like getting value for money to me.

Monday, 9 May 2011

(Rice Dream)

India is not a good place to live if you don’t like eating rice. It is utterly ubiquitous, the staple of every meal from rice and daal for lunch and dinner, to rice puddings and rice sweets for dessert. I regularly get bemused looks from colleagues when I confess that I’ve cooked myself pasta or potato as an alternative. The idea of going even a day without rice is anathema to most rural Indians, and my fondness for sandwiches is regarded as a bizarre British eccentricity.

With this in mind, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that when I asked the Fairtrade Foundation about what their partners here produce, the answer was invariably: ‘rice’. To find out more about the impact that Fairtrade accreditation can have in rural India, I took a look at a federation of small farmers in the Khaddar area of Haridwar district in the northern state of Uttaranchal.

Khaddar is a large flood plain at the base of the Shivalik hills, where the Ganges comes down from the Western Himalayas and meets the plains. This well-irrigated land is useful for growing rice, but it also makes it vulnerable flooding. For three days in September 2010 Rajkallapur village was waist deep in water, with farmers losing up to 80% of their crops. As fields are always waterlogged, rice is the only crop available to them. This means that the fortunes of the villagers are inextricably tied to that of the rice crop. For most it is the only source of income.

However, over the last decade the federation has begun working with both the Fairtrade Foundation and Sunstar Overseas, an established organic agribusiness and one of the country’s largest rice exporters. Sunstar now buys almost 50% of rice produced in the Khaddar region. Together they have worked to certify the rice as organic, and an agricultural manager has been working to improve farming practices and increase crop yields.

Increased productivity and the Fairtrade premium on the rice they sell has allowed villagers to invest in a number of infrastructure projects. An immediate concern for farmers was the construction of access roads. In the past farmers in Sahadevpur village walked 1.2km to the nearest marking carrying their crops on their heads for the entire journey. One farmer, Sarmukh Singh, explained the need for the new road: “This entire area is low laying and marshy soil, there used to be small mud path here. We had to face a really big problem to reach our farms from the village. That is why with the Fairtrade premium we have constructed this road. Since joining the project in 2001 there has been a lot of improvement. Now we have no problem reaching our fields. We can bring back the paddy to our village by tractors or carts.”

Additionally, Fairtrade farmers have used some of their premium money to establish the Rohalaki Club. This is a women’s sewing and craft centre, where up to 30 women at a time can come to take a six month course in sewing and embroidery. Fairtrade money was used to buy Singer sewing machines and employ their teacher, but in the long term villagers believe it will save them money by repairing clothes as well as opening up a new source of income. Similarly, Gordhanpur Club is planning to invest in a computer centre for their village, making eight computers available to people who have had no previous computer or internet access.

Ajay Katyal is one farmer who has benefitted from the partnership: “The higher price received for our rice has helped farmers emerge from an exploitative eternal debt cycle... The vicious cycle has been broken by the Fair Trade mechanism, because Sunstar provides interest-free loans. The added income has infused confidence among farmers and their condition is not only improving economically, but also socially.”

That little logo really can make a world of difference.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Earning More Than A Living

It is a blazingly hot day in Kolkata and I am making my way down a back road in search of Ankur Kala Women’s Centre. Determined children grab at my clothes insistently until I offer up a stack of rupees, which are immediately snatched out of my hand by a girl with hard fingers who seems determined not to share them with the others. At the first sign that I might be prepared to relinquish my water bottle, that too is snatched away. It’s a relief to get out of the heat and away from the constant attention when I finally track down Ankur Kala’s small showroom.

I had heard that this was a place offering the women of Kolkata’s slums something different – a chance not to beg, but to work and earn a living. In particular they take in those who are abandoned, destitute, orphaned, widowed or victimized by their husbands or families.

Looking around the showroom, I see some of the fruits of their work. Shelves are piled high with brightly coloured bags and clothes, while on the counter there is an array of homemade jams and pickles. All of these products have been made by women who have been identified as being particularly needy. The organisation interviews everyone who seeks help here and visits their home to assess their situation. If taken on, they will receive a monthly stipend of 800 Rupees (£11) while they join a training program which, alongside basic literacy training, also teaches tailoring, catering, how to make jams, squash and pickles, silk screen printing and batik design. Batik – a form of manual wax-resist dyeing – seems particularly popular as I scan the showroom. The training is no part-time endeavor – it typically lasts for two years although the teachers will continue to work with the women until they are able to become self-sufficient.

I hear a story about Parveen, who came to Ankur Kala after the death of the middle-aged man she had been forced to marry at fourteen. When he died she was left to support their child alone. Today, she is a woman transformed - earning enough to support them both and still teaching here at the centre. I am told her story is typical. Almost all of the women who come to Ankur Kala have been victims of oppression or exploitation and typically live in slum conditions with no assets of their own. There are currently 150 students in training here, and in total around 1500 women have come through the program since Ankur Kala was founded in 1982.

I make a few purchases - my favourite is a small notebook covered in blue and green splotches, etched with pictures of suns, moons and stars – and step back outside into the heat. The children are nowhere to be seen but they’re still on my mind. I think of Parveen, who was married off when she wasn’t much older than the girl who was grasping for rupees. Then I think of her own child, who now doesn’t have to beg or to think about marriage just yet and whose mother has won back her self-confidence and her dignity. Ankur Kala might not be able to provide work for every mother in Kolkata’s slums, but the many women who do come through these doors aren’t just earning a living, but something else that money just can’t buy.

You don’t have to come all the way to Kolkata to support the work that happens at Ankur Kala. The women sell their own products through their online shop and their work is even stocked in the UK, at The Fair Shop in Brighton.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Cricket Diplomacy

Late in the evening of Saturday 2nd April at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni thumped the final ball of the World Cup for six to clinch a victory that brought India’s billion people together in fist-pumping celebration.

That sudden rush of collective joy may have brought them together, but the moment soon passed. As Manu Joseph, the editor of India’s ‘Open’ magazine, wrote in the New York Times: “Cricket is the only manmade phenomenon that connects the nation’s upper classes with its vast masses. There is absolutely nothing else.”

Dhoni himself provides a neat encapsulation of India’s two worlds. In return for leading India to success in a World Cup for the first time in 28 years he received a bonus of 20m rupees (£286,000) from the chief minister of Delhi on top of the 10m rupees (£143,000) that each player received from the Indian cricketing authorities. Both figures are dwarfed by the amount he will now command for commercial endorsements – estimated at around £2 million each – and believe me, he does a lot of adverts, mainly for cars, motor oil and expensive whiskey.

Meanwhile in the other India, politicians in Uttarakhand jumped on the Dhoni bandwagon to announce that to honour the great man, they would finally get around to building a road to Lwali, the tiny village where the Indian captain’s father grew up.

The plan was greeted with skepticism. “We have heard that there will be [a] road for Lwali,” said Dhoni’s uncle Dhanpat Singh Dhoni. “But I am not impressed as many such announcements come to nothing.” It wouldn’t be the first time an Indian politician has tried to hijack a celebration for publicity and then quietly reneged on their promises.

It wasn’t just local politicians seizing the opportunity presented by the goodwill around the World Cup. In what was dubbed “cricket diplomacy”, the semi-final between India and Pakistan saw Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh invite his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to come to India and watch the game alongside him. Gilani agreed, and it became the first time he had visited the country since the 2008 Mumbai attacks – the investigation of which is still very much an issue of contention between the two countries. Despite their fierce rivalry the match highlighted how much they have in common. The US Ambassador to India, Timothy J. Roemer, described the talks as: “A very successful dialogue,” and added that from: “Cricket diplomacy we have real substance, engagement on issues which are critical and people-to-people ties.”

There are many different Indias, but cricket holds a special place in each of them: whether you’re in the grounds of an expensive private school or a rural field with twigs for makeshift stumps, or whether you’re a VIP at Eden Gardens in Kolkata or huddled round a flickering television set, sport has a way of levelling things, if only temporarily. There’s a sense of confidence and ambition to India that their cricket team seems to embody, and while there’s still a long way to go until we see social justice on India’s streets, the knowledge that the universally-adored record-breaking batsman Sachin Tendulkar finally has his hands on the World Cup is just enough justice to bring a smile to the face of India’s cricket fans.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Holi Days In The Slums Of Kolkata

I’m walking towards a taxi rank in Kolkata when a driver accosts me and starts haggling. He’s probably asking too much for the journey I want to take, but it’s difficult to negotiate with a man who’s painted bright pink from head to toe. Then again, aside from a few patches of blue around the cheeks, so am I.

Today has been Holi, India’s festival of colours, and as he tells me a few minutes later when I’m safely ensconced in the back of his cab, it’s a festival that levels everyone – no matter your caste, class or everyday skin colour, nobody is safe from the powders, paints and water bombs and everyone looks the same when you’re covered in colours.

Kolkata is a city that really embraces Holi and with it the opportunity to come together for a shared party. It was here in Bengal that the tradition of playing with colours started, when worshippers would visit Krishna temples and cover themselves with red powder to signify the passion with which they would work to honour Krishna and struggle to improve society.

In Kolkata, that struggle is still great. In a city of 15 million people, the third largest in India, some 3 million people live in slums. According to UN-Habitat’s Global Report on Human Settlements’ there are 5,500 slums here, of which around 2,011 are registered slums known as ‘bustees’. The other 3,500 unregistered slums have grown up by the side of canals, large drains, garbage dumps, railway tracks and roads. Space in the slums is hard to come by, and on average each small room is shared by 13 people.

Many of the authorised slums date back to the days of British colonialism, when middlemen let out huts on landowners’ land to migrant workers. These migrants needed a place to live and had no alternative but to accept accommodation without basic amenities. Today, the situation is much the same as workers come from states such as Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar to seek work in Kolkata.

Dr. Nitai Kundu interviewed Kolkata slum dwellers for the UN-Habitat report. One man he spoke to, Safi Ahmed, lives in a Kolkata slum called Narkeldanga and works laminating paper. As a child he lived in a slum in Park Circus with his parents but after his marriage moved to Narkeldanga to live with his family. He earns Rs 300 (just over £4) per week with which he supports seven family members, and he pays Rs 300 a month in rent for their shared home.

Another man, Rajan, is 70 and has works in a slum in ward 38. He is employed rolling bidis: small, leaf-rolled cigarettes tied with string. He makes 500-600 bidis every day and is paid Rs 70, less than £1. All the members of his family share a single room so it’s normal for the male members to sleep outside on the pavement, a common sight on Kolkata’s streets.

Stories like these highlight the industriousness of the slums and how long and hard their inhabitants work for such a paltry reward. But on days like Holi, when Kolkata forgets its divisions and comes together in celebration, its true colours shine through.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Why Aid India?

When Andrew Mitchell, the secretary of state for international development, announced recently that the UK plans to give more than £1billion in aid to India over the next four years, it prompted a wave of derision from some sections of the press. “Why on earth is cash-strapped Britain giving £1billion of aid to a country that can afford its own space programme?” asked Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail while over in the Express, Jimmy Young argued ‘India doesn't need our aid anymore... Britain does.’

I can see why people are making this argument – India has the world’s second fastest growing economy and is now firmly established as a ‘middle-income country’, but the fact remains that there are 450 million people living on less than US$1.25 a day. This apparent disconnect extends well beyond India. It used to be the case that development aid was about helping poor countries, but now 72% of the world’s poor people live in middle-income countries.

I think part of the problem is a failure to grasp India’s vast size. There are more poor people in eight Indian states than there are in the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined, and looking at these states individually makes the need for aid obvious. For example, Bihar has a population the size of Germany and an annual income per person of £200.

DFID will focus its spending in just three states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa – the state where I live and work. I decided to get in touch with DFID here in India to get their opinion on the debate. They told me: “The pace of India's transformation to date is remarkable. But India's poorest states - each of them larger than most African countries - still face huge development challenges. For example close to half of the young children in Orissa are undernourished. To put the scale of the challenge into context, in Orissa - just one of India's 28 states - the number of people who live on the equivalent of less than 80 pence a day ($1.25) is 40% of the entire UK population.”

They added: “As part of the revitalised British relationship with India, following Prime Minister David Cameron's successful visit last year, our development partnership has an important role to play. We are discussing with the Government of India a new approach. Over the next few years, in India's poorest states, we want to help the private sector to deliver jobs and basic services like health and education in areas which desperately need them. We also want to target our support to the poorest women and girls, and help them get quality schooling, healthcare and nutrition.”

Meanwhile in the UK, Christian Aid director Loretta Minghella welcomed the fact that DFID money will be going where it is needed most: “The emphasis of the UK government programme is on three of the poorest states in the country where there remain huge challenges, particularly in providing education and health care, nutrition and jobs.”

The Indian government is running a host of its own schemes designed to alleviate poverty in these states, but the UK’s attention is able to leverage support and attention for the poorest people who often lack a political voice within the country. There’s also an argument that by helping the poorest Indians, the UK is making friends and influencing people who will soon be a global power themselves. As Ms Minghella pointed out: “The UK aid will fit in well with the Indian government’s own strategy of targeting the poorest and most excluded communities. To withdraw aid at this crucial juncture in India’s development would be extremely short-sighted.”

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

On a recent trip to Kolkata I spent a couple of hours sat on a train outside Howrah Junction, one of the city’s main stations, waiting for a platform to become free. These kinds of delays are a regular occurrence in India, and each time a train stops groups of children who live alongside the railway tracks jump onboard to try to earn a few rupees from the passengers by sweeping the carriages, singing and busking or simply begging.

The children I saw were no older than eight or nine, but I should probably count myself lucky that they weren’t any younger. In one case reported by Times of India last month, a seven-month old baby boy was found abandoned onboard a train headed for Howrah – and the man who found him was told to keep him.

That’s right – its finders-keepers on children in India, with railway officials refusing to even make loudspeaker announcements and the police attempting to locate parents who may well not want to be located. It makes you wonder whether the many children in India who have to fend for themselves have anyone looking out for them at all.

Cities like Kolkata have particularly high numbers of street children due to increasing urban populations and rural-urban migration. In Kolkata’s slums, large numbers of people live without access to basic services such as sanitation, safe drinking water, shelter and education. With or without parental care many children end up in bus-stands, railways stations, markets and roadside pavements. They often fall into hazardous forms of work including begging and rag-picking and are at risk of becoming victims of trafficking.

Although the Indian government has expressed concern for the welfare of these children, there remain serious doubts over whether they have the capability to deal with the number of children who don’t live with their parents, or who do but still need an income to survive. The estimates of how many children there are working in India varies from the official statistic of 12.6 million to a figure of at least 50 million used by many human-rights groups. Nevertheless, in recent years the government has taken several steps towards outlawing child labour. In 2006 they extended bans on children working in dangerous professions to cover households and the hospitality industry, and in 2009 they introduced their biggest legislative effort yet: the Integrated Child Protection Scheme.

The scheme has grand plans, and in places like Kolkata it should theoretically facilitate the opening of shelters where children could spend their time in a safe environment. Their basic health and shelter requirements would be met and vocational training could also be provided. The scheme also aims to encourage sponsorship, foster care and adoption with the aim of keeping as many children as possible within families. As Sujata Mohanty, Project Director of the Taskforce on Alternative Child Care, said at a recent district level consultation on the Scheme in Orissa: “All children have a right to a family.” She added: “Institutionalisation should be the last resort.”

The Taskforce on Alternative Child Care is just one of the civil society agencies to whom the government has delegated much of the vast task of actually implementing their scheme. This multiplicity of actors could prove to be the scheme’s biggest weakness. As with the railway officials who said that the missing boy was “not their concern”, the fact that there are so many agencies and government bodies involved makes it easy for people to pass the buck on difficult cases – because in the end nobody wants to be left holding the baby.