Prerna Seth: Alternative Energy and Livelihoods

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Prerna Seth, August 2008 Fellow
Jansamarth, New Delhi

dsc07399Background and Project Vision

Jansamarth is an organisation that has been working on developing micro-hydro power plants in 6 remote villages of the Tehri Garhwal region of Uttrakhand for the past 2 years. This is a UNDP funded project that aims at improving livelihoods of these mountain communities using renewable energy and local resources.

A first 40kW micro-hydro power plant was installed in the village of Agunda in the Budhakedarnath region by Jansamarth in Dec 2008 and is now being used to produce electricity in the village. There are various agro-processing and wool-processing machines that have been provided by the organisation in the hope of trying to provide local employment opportunities and improve livelihoods. The agro-processing machines are

1.    Rice mill
2.    Wheat mill
3.    Oil mill

The wool-processing machines are –

1.    Carding machine
2.    Electrical spinning wheels (3)
In 2006, Jansamarth organised a grassroots engineers training in which two young men from Agunda were trained in basic electrical work and running of the hydro power plant. Apart from this, in January 2008, Jansamarth organised a namda (felt rugs) making training in Panipat. Two men from the village are trained in using the carding machine and making felt rugs.

I joined Jansamarth as an Indicorps Fellow in September 2008 with the aim of enhancing their income generation activities using wool and find new ways to use other local resources as a means of income generation. I was supposed to nurture local entrepreneurship and develop sustainable business models for the various income generation activities.

Project Goals and Future Plans

To build community spirit in Agunda; encourage the women to form a collective and take ownership of their village and problems; increase self confidence in the school children and push them to bring out their inner creativity.

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans

  • September – November – The first two months were spent building relationships, understanding the needs of the community, understanding the work Jansamarth has done and is planning to do, finding ways to best assist them and take ownership of the income generation activities that I felt passionately about. Jansamarth is a very small organisation based in Delhi with all the expertise on the technical side. There are no field workers working in the village on community or income generation work, which means I was all alone in the first two months to build relationships and understand the community.  As a result, all the community work, from organising meetings to developing a vision for community led development was left up to me. I faced a number of challenges on this front since it took me a long time to understand the needs of the community, without being biased towards the work the organisation was trying to do. I formed a number of plans around wool, and met a number of people working with rural initiatives in the textiles sector. However, the resistance from the community towards wool work and the lack of Jansamarth presence in the field posed a sustainability concern to each of them. All the problems that came up in my interactions with these people coincided with my own observations during a one-month namda training programme that we held in Agunda in November.
  • December – February – I found the village (Agunda) being resistant to income generation activities and I struggled with figuring out what is in the best interest of the community and how to make the work in Agunda sustainable. I decided to take some time off from Agunda and visited two of the other villages where Jansamarth is working. Post these visits, an intern form Indicorps, Yamini, joined me for a month. We spent sometime getting her introduced to the village. During her time here, we visited an organisation called ANKURI in Dehradun. They hold knitting programmes in 1-2 villages in the outskirts of Dehradun as an income generation activity. Our aim was to look for local organisations to learn their experience and explore possibilities of collaboration to tackle the sustainability problem. After Yamini left, I visited another organisation called Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram (SBMA). They have been in the Garhwal region for the last 33 years and their work has been a great source of inspiration for me. I attended a training programme with elected women representative at the gram panchayat and block panchayat level at their campus a few weeks back. This programme has been working very well in a few districts of Garhwal, with the ultimate goal of spreading awareness amongst the members of the panchayat and using them to spread awareness at the village level. Last week I received the good new that they are going to extend this programme to the Bhilangana block, which is the block in which I am working.

In the first week of February, I also made lemon pickles with the women of Agunda to find better ways to use the abundant local fruit, and explore new possibilities of income generation for women. Unfortunately, right after making the pickles I had to leave for my visit to SBMA and the family responsible for taking care of the pickles failed to do the things I had asked them to do in order to make sure that the pickles don’t go bad.

  • Future Plans – After a lot of introspection and thinking about what would be in the best interest of the community, I have reached the conclusion that it is the basics in Agunda that need a lot more focus and work. These are also the needs of the community, and I expect a lot more cooperation from the village. I don’t think this is the right stage for income generation. Someone will always be there to push income generation, but I don’t think there is going to be anyone after me to devote the same amount of time, energy and dedication to some of the more pressing issues in the community, like health.

In the next few months, I want to try and organise the women into a collective or at least seed the idea of forming a mahila mangal dal in their head through creative ways. I want to find ways of getting people in the village together in ways that are more fun and interesting than an ‘official meeting’, which is the only time they get together right now. I also want to use these fun interesting gatherings as a way of adding an element of entertainment and relaxation in the women’s lives. The women are busy from morning to night in the fields, or they go to the jungle to collect fuel and fodder, and then come home and attend to household chores. They carry very heavy loads on their backs for kilometres from the jungle. Even though they don’t say it all the time, most of the women are resigned to the fact this is all their life is about. I would like to add meaning to their life and spread some happiness, I want them to realise that the work they do is of great value and importance, I want to encourage them to come out with their problems and give them ways of finding solutions within themselves or their village. Basically, I want to provide them with a platform where they can be themselves and express themselves.

Detailed Goal-setting & Implementation Planning

Some of the things I’d like to do in the next few months are –

1.    Start organising weekly Sundarkand path in the village on Sundays with the help of the school teachers in Agunda. Some of the things I need to collect for this are –
a.    Sundarkand books
b.    Musical instruments
c.    Oil, ghee, dhoop and prasad

This would be an effective way to get people together in an informal space and make them comfortable. Over the last 10-15 years, traditional songs and dances have vanished from this region because people did not have the time. I want to revive these old traditions and use these gatherings as a platform for discussion for the women. People donate money during such religious gatherings. Proper saving and utilisation of this money for the village can be a source of motivation for women to form a collective. The money can be collected, saved and used to buy musical instruments, rugs, utensils etc. which the women can rent out and continue to increase the income in their collective account.

2.    Organise various awareness workshops in Agunda in partnership with other organisations.
a.    In the process of planning a theatre-in-education workshop for students from 6th-8th standard in collaboration with Manzil, a Delhi based NGO that works in youth and children in the field of education. The workshop will address social issues like health, education, alcoholism and various other aspects that affect people’s lives in rural areas. (Still in the planning stages – content yet to be finalised).

As of now, I have planned to end this workshop with a cultural show by the students where the parents will be invited. Children from three villages study in this school; hence I expect attendance from all three villages, which means that the message gets spread amongst a larger number of people.

b.    Exploring possibilities of conducting a women’s health awareness workshop in collaboration with a Missionary Hospital in a nearby small-town, or with SBMA. I am also trying to look for organisations with which I can conduct a leadership programme for the students of the high school. The teachers in the school have expressed a desire for a programme that encourages the students to voice themselves and helps increase their self confidence.

3.    I will be assisting SBMA with their preliminary work in Bhilangana block for the elected women representatives programme. I have been trying to get SBMA to extend their work to this region as I believe it is one of the things I can do within my time here not only for the benefit of my community, but for this entire region.

4.    Make funding arrangements for all the above mentioned activities. Jansamarth is a fairly small organisation that is constricted by the project, which provides funds for income generating activities. Since my plans don’t directly serve this purpose, I will be arranging for my own funds with Indicorps help.

Understandings & Personal Growth

My understanding, be it of rural India, communities and societies, the development sector or of life in general in interwoven with the personal growth I have undergone with this experience. I have learnt many small things; most of them tucked away in my mind as small yet valuable lessons, which I can’t necessarily put into words. One of my most recent insights has been – our first reaction to a problem or an issue is to take an activist approach, but that almost always doesn’t provide a solution. I have found myself adopting an activist approach a number of times, being aggressive or pushy with my community. But most of these times I have felt a resistance form the community. I have realised that it is not my place to create change in an environment I don’t necessarily completely understand or belong to. I am not the change maker. I am an animator, my role is to make change makers of the very people for whom I am trying to make change, for only then will the change be sustainable. There has been tremendous amount of personal growth in trying to keep these important lessons in mind when I am working in my community, for it is very easy to realise them, but infinitely more difficult to apply them. I still find myself being aggressive at times, fuelled with the desire to change the world, but just the fact that I am cognisant of this fact and am trying to move in the direction of a more balanced calm approach is a sign of growth for me.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about why the community hasn’t been cooperating or been receptive with the wool work and the talk of income generation in general. I have realised that – 1) if you want people to cooperate and take time out of their busy schedule for you, you need to show them the benefits; you need to provide them with concrete alternatives that speak to them; 2) you can only move at the community’s speed – change will take place at the rate at which they are willing to move, not the rate at which you want to move; and, 3) the process is VERY important – you can’t jump steps.

1 Response to Prerna Seth: Alternative Energy and Livelihoods

Amitav Ranjan

March 20th, 2013 at 11:16 am


Now I Know why you made it to NY…. Good Job.

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