The village experience

India may be a world power in some respects today, but the majority of its citizens still live in the villages that make up some 75% of the country. Despite the growth of industry, agriculture is still India’s mainstay when it comes to occupation.

Few city-bred kids opt to go and work in villages unless they are forced to. I opted to do so back in 1980, giving up a short stint as a journalist and taking up a job as a rural development extension officer with a Bangalore-based company known as Myrada. (It was originally known as Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency, a name that it had due to being originally set up to resettle Tibetans who had fled the Chinese invasion in 1959.)

By the time I joined Myrada in April 1980, the company had a number of projects in operation. The modus operandi was to do a project report for a certain area which had development potential, approach a foreign funding agency and get the necessary money to implement the project.

I was initially sent to a couple of projects to see what the job involved, the first being a project in the Nilumbur district of Kerala. This is a predominantly Muslim area in the state which is one of those with the highest literacy in the country.

My brief was to observe and submit a report to the Myrada head office when I finished my month-long stint in Nilumbur. The project officer was a man named Jacob (I forget his first name) and his deputy was a man named Mohan Thazhathu, a person to whom I took an instant dislike due to his smarmy manner and use of high-faluting language that meant nothing.

The pair had a nice set-up and were having a ball spending project money on their personal needs. For instance, whenever they went to another part of the state, they would travel by the office jeep. On the return trip, they would visit all their relatives and collect what produce they could for their own consumption. The cost of the journey went on the project’s books.

There were several suspect initiatives which had been provided funding by Jacob and Thazhathu, many of which failed. It looked very much like any decision on funding an initiative was dependent on which of their staff was proposing it, not the viability of the initiative.

My report made mention of all this and the head of Myrada, an Anglo-Indian named Bill Davinson, was not happy about what was going on. He went down there and made some noise and, in turn, both Jacob and Thazhathu were annoyed at what I had done. (Thazhathu managed to later manoeuvre his way into the Bangalore office and tried to queer the pitch for me.)

After Nilumbur, I was sent to Huttur in the state of Karnataka. The project officer there, one Shetty, was rather an obnoxious character who resented the fact that the head office had sent someone whom he thought was meant to spy on what he was doing. It did not help that the head office had not informed him that I would be spending a month at his project. Each of these project officers was busy with empire-building and did not like people from the head office visiting.

The Huttur project was very close to a Tibetan settlement in a place called Odeyarpalaya. It was interesting to see the extent to which the Tibetans had developed their settlement; unlike the local villagers, they were open to the idea of having hybrid cattle and genetically modified seeds and thus their animals and crops yielded much more, leading to greater prosperity.

I had not been long at Huttur when Davinson turned up there. He was on his way to another project in a place known as Talavadi, a terribly under-developed place on the border between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Given its location, Talavadi had been neglected by the governments of both states.

Myrada had a project there, spread over a vast area, with it being divided into sectors: Western, Eastern and Central. I was asked to replace the person in charge of the Western Sector, one Raj Aiyer, who was leaving the organisation and returning to Bangalore. There were 55 villages which I had to look after, along with two local staff, neither of whom was very happy that they had not been given the job.

For the time I was there — which ultimately turned out to be about eight months in all — I lived in a village known as Panakahalli, in a small house. One couldn’t spend much money as there was no entertainment. My food came from the Catholic Church which was right in front of the building in which I lived; there were nuns living there who had taken a vow of silence and they did the cooking for the two priests and also for the one outsider – me.

I would go there in the morning and evening for my meals; lunch was in one village or another, where I was visiting and trying to set up little local projects that could be carried out to build relationships with the people. We had more meetings than I care to think about and carried out all kinds of meaningless surveys. The project had plenty of funds — 5.5 million rupees to be spent over three years — but the head, one S. Rajkumar, was frugal in the extreme, though a man of very great integrity.

It took time to get anything going due to the bureaucracy and also the hassles involved with getting from A to B. The three sector extension officers — I was in charge of the western sector — had motorcycles for getting around and there was one jeep at the project head office in the central sector. If your bike broke down, then you were stuck. There was a patchy bus service but one could not depend on it to visit villages, which was the primary job that we had.

Given the remoteness of this area, a provision for six motorcycles had been included in the project report. But three of these vehicles were being used by staff in Bangalore. Exactly why I could not figure out, because a lot of productive time was lost when bikes broke down in the project area itself. When I raised it during one of the weekly staff meetings at which the agriculture officer from Bangalore, one Alva, was present, he was not very pleased. Soon the word got around that there was an upstart in Talavadi who would not hesitate to speak out.

On one trip to Bangalore, I dropped in at the head office and found Thazhathu there. He was all oiliness as usual and offered me the use of his motorcycle — it was one of the three spares that had been asked for by our project — while I was in town. We had a short chat one evening, and he told me that Davinson was thinking of putting me in charge of a project in Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu, where Myrada had started a project to help refugees from Sri Lanka who were taking shelter from the ethnic problems in that country.

A few months later, Rajkumar decided to revive the co-operatives that had lain dormant in the Talavadi area for a long time. The idea was to give loans to the locals through the co-operatives. For this, all the locals had to come together and vote. This was a success, though the villagers who turned up on the day were under the impression that the moment they affixed their thumb prints on the resolution to restart the co-ops — most could not read or write — they would be given loans.

Soon after this — in October — Rajkumar went off to Bangalore for meetings at the Myrada head office and left me in charge. Everyone had gathered in the eastern sector for the co-op vote and the understanding was that we would be there until Rajkumar returned. There was prohibition in Tamil Nadu at the time so any time someone felt the need to drink, they would head over the border — which wasn’t very far away — and slake their thirst.

The offices for the eastern sector were being built at this time and there were three people from a private company who were handling this, all from a Bangalore-based company named Trinity Constructions. Rudy Gonsalves, Raymond Tellis and Joe van Ross were very nice folk, but all loved a drink. As did the eastern sector extension officer, Baldwin Bose Sigamani.

While we were all there, one night Baldwin, Joe and Raymond went out for a drink. The first I knew of it was when some locals brought me news that a fight was taking place in a shop just across the border and that they were involved. I took the project jeep and went looking for them. When the trio returned, they got into a fight with the workers who were employed by Gonsalves. It turned into a major brawl.

When Rajkumar returned, he was not happy about what had happened. But things got worse: someone at head office got wind of things, and Davinson landed in our midst a few days later. During a staff meeting, he told me that as I had been in charge, I was responsible for all that had happened and would be sacked. He did not anticipate the reaction from the others –; all handed in their resignations.

Faced with this situation, Davinson had second thoughts, and changed his mind about firing me. But from that point on, I was a marked man as he was unhappy about having to reverse his decision.

In November, Thazhathu came down to Talavadi and picked a fight with me; he had not forgotten my reports which had got him into a spot of bother earlier in the year. By this time I had had enough, and was longing to return to Bangalore and journalism. So I told Rajkumar that I would leave in December.

When I got home a few days after Christmas, I found that my previous employer had sent a letter home asking if I could come and meet him. I did so and he asked me to come back and work for him as a journalist. I have stayed in that profession to this day.

That was how my village work ended. In the few months I was there, I managed to put together a project to provide drinking water for a village down the road from where I lived. Some of the people in that village, Singanapuram, wept when I told them that I was leaving.

For me, the enduring image is that of a man named Kariappa, who came to me after I had been given a farewell by the people and slipped 20 rupees into my hand. It was a sum he could ill-afford to give away, but he wanted to do something to show his gratitude. He had tears in his eyes as he turned away.

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