An early morning in April, 2001. A convoy of several cars speeds into Kolar in Karnataka for a function at the Zilla Office. Soon, it screeches to a halt at the gates of the office. There's a blockade. Police and officials race to the group of about 100. A minister, a legislator and several bureaucrats wait in the cars.
A youngish woman with steely eyes tells the police in an even voice: " We are not moving even if you choose to shoot. We are worn thin with lies and broken promises of the local officials. Rs.200,000 had been sanctioned long ago by the government for desilting a tank at Minijeenahalli on which depend some hundreds. The money has not been released after several months of patient petitioning. Here take this paper - it has the full story, dates, file numbers, references, everything. Before we leave here, we want the letter of release for the funds. We want it now. Today. Or every hour more people will be arriving to feed us and join us. Go tell the minister."
They got the letter within two hours of letting the convoy in conditionally.
From the clay of the soil:
They were not some sophisticated people that brought authority to heel that day. The woman was Papamma, the Secretary of Grameena Mahila Okkuta [ Rural Women's Federation]. She had had little education and belonged to the long suppressed class of people called in ugly officialese, as the Scheduled Castes or SC. It was mostly a crowd of similar women with a few token men.
Today, you can't stuff these hardy folks into caste boxes. They are a few of the thousands created from the soil and let loose to bring about change by the remarkable initiative of a man called Dr.N.K.A.Iyer. In just over 10 years, Iyer and his Grama Vikas caused in 145 villages of Mulbagal taluk [Kolar district of Karnataka], a transformation triggered by these new-women. Today, the 6000 members of the Okkuta are spearheading change and progress in the taluk's economy, health-care and education. And they have created an all-inclusive community freed of caste hangovers and full of self-esteem.
The bleak scene:
Iyer is a legend in these parts. It's a pity he is not throughout India. A wood technologist, he spent most of his working life in Assam. Then for 15 years he was an administrator at the J.Krishnamurthy inspired school at Rishi Valley. There he is remembered for his passion for taking children out of their class-rooms and into the rains for sowing seeds or into the night for gazing at stars.
Iyer awaits his biographer: he was a restless soul and a seeker of missions. The school, he soon concluded was for privileged children. What was being done for the India beyond the campus? He stood at an edge.
The 1979 report of the India Population Project [IPP] tipped him over. It mentioned that malnutrition of children in Mulbagal district was rampant. Mulbagal, was but a 100 km. from the school. Iyer's mind was made up. He arrived in Honnsetthalli in Mulbagal taluk, a despondent village 8 km. off the Chennai-Bangalore highway - a brahmin in the midst of historically suppressed castes. He was sixty. He was sixty.
M.V.N.Rao, who is now the Executive Director of Grama Vikas recalls, "Folks here lazed and slept most of the time and rarely washed. There were lunges at agriculture whenever the rare rains collected in the silted-up tanks. The local leader was Motappa, renowned for his nose that smelt weddings from miles away; Motappa then galvanised his villagers and they raced off in bullock carts to crash into the feasts."
Snot nosed children ran about, sickened and died. Adults just stared. For them this was 'life'.
The foxy strategist:
Iyer set up home here, observed and plotted. He was no bleeding heart snot-wiper but a cunning planner. The situation required some formalism, not ad hoc intervention.
He began to recruit a team. The first to come on board was Rao, from the backwoods of Andhra Pradesh. "More than any other success of his, he made me," says Rao. "I was a nothing-man, low in confidence and esteem. Iyer made me."
Iyer's reputation and background had early convinced donors like Oxfam, Inter Cooperation [Switzerland] and Novib [Netherlands]. They were ready to back the man.
Armed with assured support, Iyer put out advertisements in papers for rare new jobs in social work. And audaciously, he wanted girls for those jobs! What is more astounding than that - remember, it was the late seventies- is the fact there were tens of responses from girls all over Karnataka.
Pause for a moment here to re-examine your cliches about backward India. Would it send teenaged middle class girls into deprived rural areas?
11 girls joined Iyer in the first batch and they were sent to Bangalore's SEARCH for formal training in issues that govern rural development. [Yes, it turns out there are little-known specialist centres to learn these skills formally, in 'backward' India.]
Children are the grassroots:
Iyer began work in 7 villages, deputing 2 girls to each. His road-map was simple and clear: welfare of children, women and community, in that order. Men were peripheral to his plans.
The girls stayed in the assigned villages, ran creches [Balwadis], fed the children with carefully cooked balanced meals and instructed the women in child care. They also began to meticulously survey the neighborhood to map population mix, problems, opportunities and resources.
Within a year Grama Vikas had earned the women's trust and Iyer shifted gear. He began Friday evening pujas at the cr¿ches. After pujas there was group singing. When this had gone on for a while, [with the men looking on intrigued, from a distance], the meetings slowly began to be converted into discussion groups.
"At one of the meetings in the winter of 1982, the women finally popped the question," says Rao. "Would Grama Vikas offer them any kind of 'help'?"
What help? What did they want to do? Would they repay the loan amounts?
The women were stunned. Would they really be given loans? Yes, said Iyer and disbursed Rs.150 to each of the women at the Friday clubs in 7 villages. They were to buy sheep and rear them commercially. And thus began the movement of Self Help Groups [SHGs] in Mulbagal taluk.
With the first profits Iyer insisted that each of the women buy a saree for herself. From Bangalore, a huge lot was brought for the women to select from.
"I remember the excitement," says Jaya, who was a priest's daughter and the earliest of women workers of Grama Vikas, who went on to marry her colleague, Rao. "The women were incredulous. For many of them it was the first 'new' saree of their lives. They were shrill with delight and close to tears."
Iyer's motives were deeper. "Get them hooked to the potential of what can be achieved. Then arm them. The rest will fall in place," was his game plan.
Evangelists in bright sarees:
The buzz that began then spread far and wide. Between 1984 and 1992, women from the original 7 villages fanned out dressed in bright sarees and singing specially created songs, to persuade women to start SHGs to better themselves. They told them of loans available, opportunities, rights, importance of child care, environment, education and health.
Friday evening women's clubs or Sanghas or SHGs sprung up everywhere. The membership of women swelled from the original 76 to over 5000 organised into 200 SHGs.
Small loans were sponsored, creches spread to over a 100 villages, and employees of Grama Vikas rose to over 50 to nurse the new SHGs.
Grama Vikas began to inform the SHGs of the schemes and resources the government had announced for their benefit. It urged them to rise and demand these as a right. They were taught the ways of the banks and government departments. They were taken on trips to see these for themselves. How does one apply, how to follow up and what were their duties? The world of women of Mulbagal began to widen and glow.
Iyer began to ponder the issue of sustainability. Grama Vikas had to slowly disengage and let the women run the activities themselves. He organised a conference of all SHGs at which they spontaneously declared themselves a Okkuta or a Federation. Leadership qualities were evident in several of them. They elected a President, a Secretary and a Treasurer. Each SHG agreed to pay Rs.200 per year as membership fees and the Okkuta was to be the focal body for all interactions with the outer world. Grama Vikas transferred to the Okkuta a corpus fund of Rs.20 lakhs received from donors abroad. Grama Vikas was now merely to advise the Okkuta from behind the scenes and intervene only when necessary.
The second stage:
The development work had progressed from the child to the woman and now turned to the environment. Mulbagal district was totally dependant on rain for all its needs. The taluk has over 4500 tanks, which had over the years fallen into disuse for want of maintenance. Iyer was convinced that the economy of the villages can be self sustaining only if the tanks were revived. Agriculture would create employment and prosperity.
Goaded by him, the Okkuta began to track down funds that the government had ear-marked in its various plans. Desilting of tanks became a passion. The strategy was to get hold of the funds due to the area and to get the work done themselves, cutting out contractors and earth-movers.
By 1992, Iyer was a dying man. When he knew the end was near, he insisted on being taken away from the hospital to die among the villagers.
He was cremated on the banks of one of his beloved tanks that had been desilted by villagers. The funeral was attended by a sombre crowd. The miracle of Iyer in 12 short years had transformed the outlook of people spread over 720 sq.km.
The responsibility of running the Grama Vikas passed to Rao. Okkuta was formally registered in 1994 and has been active on many fronts, with a sharp focus on Iyer's vision of brimming tanks.
Today a visit to Honnsetthalli would amaze the visitor. The air throbs with energy as women strut about with confidence. Papamma runs a tight ship. English words like green cover, biomass, catchment area, water rights, advocacy and empowerment trill down her tongue. She is held in awe and respect in government offices and banks. She knows their mazes and navigates them with ease. She and many village women travel to conferences, to meet legislators and ministers and the media. Women of the Okkuta have stood for elected offices and won. Okkuta is a banker, counsellor, facilitator and as we saw, an agitator when necessary. It commands a savings of over Rs. 50 lakhs to operate from. Check this for their scale of operations: there is a doctor from Bangarpet town that visits the Okkuta built hospital every day: the Okkuta pays him Rs.10,000 a month; that's a wage many city doctors would stand in line for!
Rao and Jaya and the staff of 56 young women of Grama Vikas are full of contentment. They still run the child welfare programme but otherwise stand aside and let the village women run the show. It is difficult not to be touched by the commitment of young girl employees of Grama Vikas. In their late teens and early twenties, they come from middle class families all over Karnataka. Having graduated out of high school, often with a year or two of college they respond to advertisements and seek these frugal jobs. They live in groups of two among the various village communities. Their commitment is obvious. Theirs is a story within the story of the Okkuta. Indians scarcely know of these 'Peace Corps Volunteers' in our midst, who ought to be held out for other young Indians as examples to ponder.
Jaya Rao, the earliest of them all, says, as we part: " On Nov.14 2001 we are organising a conference exclusively for children of 120 villages. They will be encouraged to express their problems, needs and suggestions. We expect about 4000 children to attend!"
Iyer has taught her the importance of sustainability and she knows it's best achieved by catching them young.
Grama Vikas [M V N Rao] and
Grameena Mahila Okkuta [M G Papamma]
Yelagondahalli P O
Phone: 08519 -45243 [Grama Vikas]
08519 - 35261 and 35243 [Okkuta]
Driving from Chennai to Bangalore, after the Mulbagal bypass, look for the DevaRayaSamudra Circle. Turn left and drive 6 km into the country. Most folks here would guide you.
September , 2001