First published in TERI (TERRAGREEN, MARCH 2017) by Ms Paromita Pain

It is hard to find the Suaba village of Odisha on maps. Suaba had little access to electricity for a long time and the only school in the village had been dysfunctional for years. Paromita Pain highlights the pioneering efforts of Varun Sharma who helped the residents of this remote village to gain access to basic needs, such as education and electricity.

 

Suaba, for the longest, had little access to electricity. The one school in the village had been dysfunctional for years and the single health centre is about 8 km away. There were no roads connecting it to nearby towns. In short, for the Langia-Saura tribals residing here—health, education, and electricity, the three basic necessities—simply did not exist. It was such a situation that inspired 25-year-old Varun Sharma to bring the community together to ensure that Suaba at least got basic electricity and a functional school. Today, the village school functions with a permanent teacher after being non-functional for almost 5 years. A solar project to bring electricity to the village’s homes has been implemented and funds were raised to support it. “We aimed to provide lights in the kitchen and rooms where the children study,” says Varun. “Each house should have at least three lights.”

Questions about Development

A postgraduate student from the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, Varun was a 2015 SBI Fellow when he decided to take a gap year to work with this remote tribal village. “After my engineering degree I chose not to work in a corporate,” he says. “I knew that this was something I did not really want to do.” He took a while to figure out that education was his calling and that sustainability in education and working with people was what he really wanted to be involved with.

He started working with a scheduled caste community in Rajasthan, where he tried to figure out more efficient ways to address various sanitation and dropout-related issues by interacting with class X and XII students. It was a lonely process. Varun had no mentor to ask questions off or discuss issues with. Joining the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru provided the space to debate and discuss the many issues related to India’s development. “But I felt that the topics we discussed were very idealistic,” says Varun. “Our solutions were not implementable. We debated ideas of development but honestly we did not quite understand what development was really about.” To fill these gaps in his understanding, he applied for the year-long ‘SBI Youth for India Fellowship’ programme. When Varun decided to take a gap year in the middle of his masters, the naysayers were many. “Everybody apart from me was afraid,” he laughs.

Overcoming Different Obstacles

He was sent to work in Suaba. “It was hard,” he says. “I did not know the language. The tribals did not know Hindi.” The first step was to mobilize the communities to articulate these needs. “I learnt Oriya to speak at community meetings,” he says. “At the village meetings I spoke up. Finally, we selected a team of men and women who would present Suaba’s needs before the District Collector.” Convincing the community, ignored for so long, took time. “When I first started talking to the people about the different issues, the first question they asked was what I would be getting out of this,” says Varun. “I realized that certain development practitioners and even certain NGOs on the ground would work to get facilities to villages but also demand a share.” The community members did not believe that anything would change. After all, they had been struggling for years to get the school to run. “ Overcoming their distrust was a major obstacle,” he says. Working in conjunction with the NGO Gram Vikas and community leaders, Varun soon realized that to make a real difference they would have to focus on this on a full-time basis. He proposed that he would start teaching at the school to get classes started. “The longer children are kept out of school the harder they will find it to go back,” he says. The young people who went out to work would often get cheated because they were illiterate. They also started trying to talk to the block development officers and put forth petitions for basic issues, such as electricity, a hospital and school. “Suaba is not alone in such circumstances,” says Varun. “Odisha’s mountains hide many villages like Suaba.” Besides, corruption and government apathy also had to be battled. “Bureaucracy offices here are treated like temples and the district officers are like gods,” he says. “People actually took off their slippers before entering them.” The block officer for example had never visited Suaba. Officials they went to claimed not to have information at hand.

There was little documentation of the previous requests the community had put in. “The community members did not know that they had to take a challan (receipt) when they put in a request or complain at any government office,” he says. Varun’s presence and his obvious knowledge of the way things officially worked prodded the officers to work. “For example, on official documents the school would be shown as a fully functional one,” he says. “But in reality it was dilapidated building with no teachers. It was my access to such data that helped project Suaba’s needs and then the community worked to ensure the rest.” The school took four months to set up, and in the process, the community felt empowered enough to at least start asking for their rights. “It made them hold their elected representatives accountable,” he says. “The elected village Sarpanch finally visited the village three years after being elected. Now, the people confidently ask about programmes implemented in other wards and demand to know when they will start in their villages as well.” Earlier they were too afraid to present their needs. “It changed their dynamics with their elected officials,” he says. “Sometimes I think this is the most important difference that could have been made.”

Important Lessons

It was at Suaba that Varun learnt certain fundamental lessons. “I realized that communities who live close to nature lead very ecofriendly and sustainable lives,” he says. “But being so remote, they are cut off from government facilities.” Also, developmental policies often do not serve the very people they are designed to help. “Teachers appointed to teach here were not from the village,” explains Varun. “Nobody was willing to walk 16 km to come to the school and teach and thus no classes were being held.”

Varun believes that development as a concept is very nuanced and it is important to engage with the real issues on the ground. “There were many issues yet unlike towns and cities, there was no water problem because the community members were not polluting their water sources,” he says. Yet in areas of schools, health and electricity, little was being done because there was no one from Suaba to demand these rights. “Speaking to the teachers who were supposed to teach in the school, I understood that the problem was not just one of laziness or corruption,” he explains. The teacher at Suaba was paid a measly sum of `5,000 a month to teach. It was not a permanent job either. He struggled to maintain his own family and thus had to find work elsewhere. “When I saw him breaking stones to send his children to college, I realized that we were all victims of impractical polices,” he says. “How can we expect people to survive on just `5,000 a month?”

Collaborative Efforts

Varun has spent a year in Suaba and says a lot still remains to be done. For the solar electricity project, around `750,000 were raised through crowdfunding. The community contributed in terms of labour and in terms of creating a maintenance corpus. “The school will need better financial help as well,” says Varun. He is hopeful that SBI’s CSR initiative may be helpful here. Today, as part of the ‘Teach for India’ programme, Varun works full time in a government school. His long-term vision is to work with gram panchayats and create a stronger system of education in India’s villages. “Development is complex,” he says. “While I do hope that electricity and better roads come to villages like Suaba, I am also afraid that such development may also destroy the pristine organic way of life that people here lead.” For others who want to learn more about the development sector, Varun recommends programmes like the SBI Fellowship. “Without it I would not have found a platform to start,” he says. “It is not easy but as we learn from others in the field, we must ensure that we do not become cynical or mechanical in our approach. It is easy to become discouraged but we must remember at all time that it is about people. And they alone matter.”

Mr Varun Sharma can be reached at varun.sharma13@apu.edu.in

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