This week found me wading into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, living in a rural island village of Sitai Rampur, walking through rice paddy fields and drinking lots of salty chai all for the sake of development. How did I end up doing all of these things? Well it is an interesting story and I would be glad to share it with you.
It has been a little over a month since I arrived in West Bengal, India to begin my internship with The Center for Knowledge and Skills. Although my first weeks were filled with small misunderstandings and many learning experiences, I think my experience thus far is best narrated by a recent trip that I took to the Sundarbans region of West Bengal. My journey to G Plot Island of the Sundarbans was a long one. It began with a 5am train from Bolpur to Kolkata; with the train arriving late and taking a full 4 hours. In Kolkata I meet up my internship directors from The Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS) and we continued our travels south via bus. It is no surprise that the buses are extremely overcrowded and hot here in India. On one particular three hour stint of the trip I was smashed in a three person seat with five people and my knees folded into my chest and metal bar at my back. After seven hours of bus travel I was extremely relieved to board a passenger boat in Ramangag. Ramangag is the last town on the mainland before you must travel by boat to all of the islands of the Sundarbans.
It was a three hour boat ride that began in the late afternoon on the dock at Ramangag. We traveled on the roof of the small passenger boat and I was mesmerized as the sun began to set over these beautiful little islands. The boat made several stops and passengers would disembark off the makeshift bamboo ladder and into the clay mud banks. This region of the country is covered by dense mangrove forests that line the coast. The banks are entirely comprised of mud so slick and soft that your feet, and if you are not careful our whole body, melt into the ground. I watched as the boat pulled up to small brick stairways or even just straight into the mud and passengers took off their shoes, climbed off the boat and disappeared into the jungle. The sunset soon turned into a vibrant night sky of stars and a crescent moon as the boat continued to chug south and leaving passengers on mud banks along the way. By evening we pulled up to the last brick stairway that was the island of G Plot.
I climbed down the bamboo ladder and got out my flashlight to avoid slipping on the muddy bricks. From the dock we took a “van” (this is a common mode of motorized transportation on the islands. They are jerry-rigged three wheel motor bikes with a board attached to the back) to the village of Sitai Rampur where we would be staying for the next few days.
It was night when we reached Sitai Rampur and we were greeted by the director of the local community center. The following morning I saw what the darkness of the previous evening had concealed. The island G Plot is a beautiful site and it is easy to paint a romanticized picture of life in this rural village setting. The roads are simple brick pathways that separate the vibrant green rice paddy fields on either side. Women in technicolor saris speckle the landscape. The homes are simple mud and bamboo structures with thatch roofs. Children play in the mangrove trees and mud banks that line the coast and old men drink chai and talk about the day’s fishing catch.
But do not be deceived. The Sundarbans can be almost as dangerous as is it beautiful of a place to live. The residents use the colloquial term man-eater frequently in these parts to describe the tigers and crocodiles that live on the nearby islands. The people that live in these small villages are all too familiar with natural disasters. Earthquakes, cyclones, landslides and rising sea levels due to climate change are among the challenges that face the islands of the Sundarbans. Rising sea levels are sinking the coast lines of these small islands and villagers will tell you that the fish no longer come like they used to. The isolated rural setting of G Plot means that there is limited health care access and an injury or illness almost certainly means death. Sanitation and hygiene are common issues in the daily lives of villagers. There is no running water system. All of the water in these villages has a high saline content. Hand pumps release salty ground water that is used for everything from drinking to bathing. I noticed this most when we stopped for an afternoon chai that was very salty. Electricity is only available for a few hours every evening. It is collected via government sponsored solar panels and stored in a generator.
Even with the lack of modern amenities and basic infrastructure, thousands of people call the Sundarbans home and live happy lives. And many NGOs in India invest in great development programs throughout these islands to improve quality of life here. I had the opportunity to work with CKS as they began a new program on G Plot.
In a nutshell, the Early Awareness program is designed give G Plot daily information on the tidal conditions specific to their locations. The tidal information comes from the INCOIS (Indian National Centre for Ocean Services). INCOIS uses the exact geographic coordinates of the five locations around G Plot and relays the information to CKS headquarters. CKS sms text messages the information to local partners at the G Plot sights where the information is posted on message boards. Although G Plot does not have internet access, consistent electricity or running water, they have a cell tower and have reliable cell phone access as a result of an Indian governmental push for communication linkage around the country. The message board sites are located in central location like the market, near the fisherman’s boats and at the community center. The volunteers that will receive the texts and update the board daily are a mix of local fishermen, NGO staff and store vendors that are well known in the villages. For our part in this program CKS and INSS had to set up the partnerships with local NGOs and community members. We spent the day traveling to each site and talking with the local volunteers and governmental officials over a cup of salty chai. At each location we got the exact corresponding GPS coordinates to ensure the most accurate tidal information. The program was well received by local officials and CKS expects to have the message boards up and running in a few months with intentions to expand the program to other villages in the coming years.
In brief, that is the story of what I was doing on G Plot and largely the story of what my experience with IDIP has been thus far. This week I enjoyed being so closely involved in this great program and getting to see the island was a real treat. This is a great example of community based development programming that is improving the livelihoods of rural Indian villagers. Every day here has proven to be a learning experience and I can’t wait to see what will come next.
Although my time in India is drawing to an end, it has been far from slow paced. My last week here has flashed before my eyes and I am left lying on the cement floor drinking a lemon soda and trying to stay cool in the 95 degree heat.
I have finished my work with CKS and turned in my final project for approval. The final stage of my internship required that I write a project proposal for a Bio-Village pilot program that The Center for Knowledge and Skills hopes to implement in the future. The project is set in the nearby village of Amnipur. The village is home to about one hundred Santhal caste tribal families that work primarily in agriculture. The Bio-Village program is designed to address environmental sustainability and health awareness in a rural context for Indian villages. The program focuses on working with families to achieve bio-family indicators to improve health and environmental conditions in the village. The indicators range from proper sanitation facilities and usage, to home composting. Fifty families will be selected to take part in the initial pilot-program. The program will use a mixture of trainings, family visits and ordination with elders and local officials to develop the skills necessary for each family to achieve an indicator. Some of the indicators are basic; for example, working with families to begin practice of segregation of bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste. And some of the indicators will require more work. Including the installation of a sanitation facility accompanied by regular trainings and discussions on how to use the facility. All of these indicators are achievable, but will require time and continued support to ensure that future generations develop a sustainable outlook on health and environment as well as some immediate improvements to livelihoods.
This project was somewhat challenging for me at times because it looked at environmental sustainability from a completely different perspective. In rural areas that do not have toilets, running water or electricity, environmental sustainability means something very different than what it would mean in the United States. In Amnipur village it is very common to see open defecation, poor personal hygiene, kitchen ovens with no ventilation and improper foods and waste management. These practices are affecting villager’s health and their immediate physical environment. It has been a challenging and interesting project for me to work on as an American student, and I hope to see it funded in the near future.
With the completion of the project proposal I took a moment to reflect on the entirety of time in India. I found that some my most influential experiences and best memories were of spending time with small communities. My trips to the rural villages of the far islands in the south of West Bengal and the tea garden estates of the far north were filled with wonderful people that surrounded me with generosity, kindness and acceptance. I liked getting out of the office for a time to live amongst the communities that are working with The Center for Skills and Knowledge. I was able to get a better understanding of what development work looks like on the ground and in the lives of individual families. Although slow and frustrating at times, I have come to see development work is an important component to improving the livelihoods of people around the world.
I think the most important lessons of the IDIP experience will be discovered in the coming weeks, months and years of my life once I return home. I look forward to sharing my experiences with the IDIP cohorts and learning about their internships. I am expecting a great quarter will many new revelations and great insight from our experiences abroad.