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Kerala Trail-Day1

by Bhairab Giri Goswami last modified 2010-12-21 16:36

Kerala. India’s latest tourist hotspot does not disappoint. Although we’re not here as tourists, we don’t need to ‘visit’ places to experience its beauty. It’s all around us, any square inch of land left unpaved is green. There’s a jungle in every house it seems. I have to say, the place is hot. Unfortunately, this time I’m not talking about beauty. It really is hot down here! And humid. The sudden move from the numbing cold of Delhi to this hot and sticky weathers has not been too well received, and the weather is a tad bit annoying.

In God’s Own Country, even the water is medicinal, slightly warm and coloured a pale pink and you realise you will not find plain water around, unless it’s bottled. You find that the ‘South Indian’ that you so loved at Sagar Ratna in Delhi, was really a rather Northernised version of South Indian food, and cannot, in any way whatsoever, compare to the original. Nor can eating it in a thali in a restaurant compare to sitting on the floor, eating food with your hands off a banana leaf.

The only problem we faced, which is a rather severe problem, and will continue to be for the remainder of the trip, is language. Few local people know English well enough to converse and most conversations happen in Malyalam.  So every time you need to ask a question or get some information you need to look for some guy who can act as translator, which in our case mostly ends up being Sudeep. Even when you do find someone to translate, the conversation becomes too formal and mechanical.

Despite all this, we had an interesting day in Thrissur. Reached the Socio-Economic Unit Foundation late last evening and had a simple dinner. Slept well and had an early start today. We were introduced to some of the Yatris over breakfast and were told that it would be an ever-changing group with a few permanent members.

We first went to the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) where we were introduced to the basic concept of habitat and self-governance as practiced in Kerala by the Principal Secretary, Local Administration. It is a very successful model and the PRIs seem to be doing very well for themselves, and for the janta. There is not a hierarchy as we move through the different levels from Gram Panchayat to Block Panchayat to Zila Panchayat, but more of an inter-linked network. Scope of work to be done by each is well-defined and each body has complete autonomy over the funding and implementation of its projects. The government leverages substantial amount of funding to these institutions and they are making good use of it.

We visited the Wadakancherry Labour Bank, an interesting initiative (called GALASA) by the Block Panchayat, for reducing unemployment and reviving the paddy fields of Kerala. These fields were lying fallow because interest in this practice had waned due to dwindling profits and scarcity of labour. By training marginal farmers and unskilled labourers and introducing mechanization of the entire farming process, it became possible to revive cultivation in these lands, while in fact increasing the productivity of the land. Labourers who were once unemployed found employment at decent wages, and in the long run this would ensure food security for the state and also help avoid the environmental losses associated with losing fertile land. The funds for this project were initially provided by the Panchayat and were later leveraged through a variety of other local institutions.

We were then taken to the Block Office of Wadakancherry where we were (in a lot of detail) told about the tremendous success of this particular Bock Panchayat as compared to any Panchayat all over Kerala, or even the country for that matter. GALASA has been one of their most successful interventions and they hope to be able to spread the concept across other areas as well. The actual workings of the self-governance system, as at the practical level were also discussed.

After the meeting we were taken for a traditional Kerala-style lunch which was very interesting and quite tasty. Almost all the people from Delhi were trying it for the first time, and everyone was very impressed with the preparation.

Post lunch, we went back to the SEUF campus where we met women masons from JEEWOMS – Jeevapurna Women Masons’ Society. At present, they were engaged in building material production rather than actual masonry/construction work, but it was encouraging to see an all-women team run the enterprise so effectively. It has resulted in significant results in the form of alleviation of their socio-economic and technical capabilities.

Finally we left from Thrissur for the Maithri campus in Palakkad. A short-drive which took a long time, thanks to the jammed Kerala ‘highways’, brought us to the campus, in the heart of the beautiful jungles (beauty most of which I couldn’t make out because it was dark, but beauty that I’m sure was there nonetheless). Dinner again was very simple and delicious; the building is small but quite nice.

We are told that venturing out during the night without any light could result in interesting encounters with snakes and a variety of other animals and the morning call here is delivered by peacocks. Decided not take chances with the former and wait till morning for verification of the latter. How it turns out, morning will tell. Sure seems like an interesting day ahead. Updates tomorrow.

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