Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Home at last

So I just finished my first class back at MIT after our trip to Sirsi. I will apologize right now that I am really jet lagged and on minimal sleep from staying up most of the night to try and catch up on psets, so my grammar has a tendency to go out the window in this state of mind. You may notice if you have been following the blog that their is a discrepancy of several days from when we left Sirsi to arriving back in Boston. We got an unexpected addition to our trip of about 4 days being somewhat stranded in Mumbai. Our flight out of Hubli was delayed long enough that we missed the connection in Mumbai. This also consequently meant that we no longer had valid boarding passes, which meant that we were not actually allowed inside the Departures terminal. We got to spend most of Saturday hanging out on the curb of the airport playing cards or trying to do homework, until it became clear that we would be spending a few days in Mumbai. We stayed at the VITS hotel until Tuesday morning and then finally made it back, with a very close call in London. Staying at the hotel was such a sharp contrast to the life we had experienced while in Hallusarige. I have never noticed how much food was wasted at an all you can eat breakfast buffet until seeing how one did not waste anything in the village ecosystem. The hotel was such a luxurious place with all of the conveniences one could ever want--but I am not sure it was a happier or more hospitable place. It also showed just how easy it is to disregard problems even when they are right in front of you. The view through many of the rooms we were in was that of the shanty town that essentially surrounded a good portion of the hotel. It may be easier to simply shut the curtains and pretend that problems like food insecurity don't exist and continue living as if they don't, but this can't go on indefinitely. At some point, we will all have to open up the curtains and accept that problems like this are a very real issue and that something must be done about them. We are all obliged to contribute something, no matter how seemingly insignificant we think it is, because it will truly make a difference. We all learned an enormous amount in Sirsi, and picked up a few extra lessons for free on the way back. We are all starting to settle back into our MIT lives--worrying about about bio tests, psets, differential equations, python and physics, but as we descend back into our world of numbers, I don't think any of us will forget the real face we saw of food security issues.

Logging off for the (truly) last time


Friday, March 25, 2011

The end is near

Our week in Sirsi is finally over. It's currently 5:18 in the morning and we are getting ready to leave for Hubli airport in the next half hour. This week has truly been an amazing experience. I feel that food security really has a face to us now, and there is a glimmer of hope that something can be done. We saw some of the solutions that we suggested in the fall being implemented, and saw just how much they empowered farmers. Our trip really ended on a high note with our visit to the Yana Rock formations and the musicians and dancers that performed for us last night to give us a taste of real Indian culture. I really will miss the villagers of Hallusarige, the fieldwork, the late night logging parties for radio, and the various wildlife that I encountered in the computer room at night. There are just a few people that I would like to thank before I run off to the bus to start our long journey back to boston: the entire Earthwatch crew for so graciously hosting us and planning such an amazing week, our alumni mentors and UTFs for their advice and guidance, Sam Bowring and Seth Burgess for running the class, and last, but not least, my parents for allowing their little baby to leave the country for the first time and dilligently following the blog everyday (even though my mom has started calling me her little betel nut in every email she sends!)

logging off for the last time in Sirsi


Thursday, March 24, 2011

From one Coop to another

Today was our last day of official fieldwork in Sirsi! It’s a bittersweet ending though. I am really excited to go see the Yana Rock formation and the bat cave tomorrow, but I will really miss the villagers of Hallusarige that we have got to know over the past couple days. They are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met and ever will meet in my opinion. They truly welcomed us into their homes and were willing to halt their daily lives to show us their way of life and to give us a tour of their village. Our day today was a little different than the last three days of rotating between agroforestry, land use and household surveys. Back in Boston, our student store at MIT is known as the coop because it is a cooperative society and pays back dividends to the student members. Here in Sirsi, we visited a farmer’s cooperative. It was really moving to see how the farmers have banded together in this cooperative and how much power they actually now have. The cooperative now corners over half of the local areca nut market and can establish an effective minimum price for the areca nuts and stop the local vendors from exploiting the farmers. They have also built a hospital specifically for the farmers and their families that is essentially free for them. The cooperative society has established value added products for the farmers in the form of five brands of areca nuts and supari. We got to sample the areca nuts and supari when we were given a tour of the factory. I got to interview one of the girls who sorts areca nuts for quality in the cooperative. She told me how the cooperative sends a vehicle 13 Kilometers to pick her up and drop her off every day. The cooperative really seems to have drastically changed the community in a positive way and is really helping hold the community together through tougher times. It strikes such a contrast to the cooperatives in the US. These seem like they are truly a step towards establishing food security for India.

The Future of India

After three days of fieldwork, our groups’ schedule changed slightly today. In the morning, we visited a farm cooperative and in the afternoon we toured a milk storage facility. In between these two visits, though, was a stop at a local school.

Easily one of my favorite parts of this trip, we were able to ask the teachers about the government supported school meal program, the students’ curriculum, and the attendance rates over the years. Even more exciting for me, however, was being able to talk to the children themselves.

After a group of ten or twelve students introduced themselves to us in English, we began asking them questions, with Prashant, an Earthwatch team member, acting as a translator. When we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, the first to answer, a tall ten-year-old girl with long braids, answered, “An engineer,” to which we MIT students responded with a round of applause. The next to answer said he wanted to become a doctor and another said he wanted to be an agriculturist.

Now, when I heard these responses, I was so inspired by the ambition that these children were demonstrating at such a young age. While they may not pursue those ambitions in the future, simply showing the desire to achieve so much is impressive, in my opinion.

All of this brings me to reflect on India as a whole. Obviously, I have only experienced one tiny piece of this vast country; I have only spent a few days in India and spoken to a few dozen citizens. And yet, my view of India has changed so much.

I have put faces and names to the statistics and case studies of last semester. I have held the cash crops that I had only previously read about. From all of this, our vision of India’s future is a bright one. As fellow freshman Zach Balgobin said earlier today: “India is a land of potential.”

An unexpected second to this came from Warren Buffett, as he visited India for the first time this week. As reported in The Hindu Times, Buffett expressed extreme regret at not investing in India sooner. He sees an India that all of us in the Terrascope program also see: a wonderful country on the path to further progress and success.

Based on my experiences at the school and throughout Sirsi and Hallusarige, I can honestly say that I have gained so much respect for the Indian people and their way of life. I am so grateful for my time spent here and I can’t wait to watch as the Indian people grow and develop even more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The one thing I would like to emphasize is the genuine hospitality and friendliness of the villagers of Hallusarige. I honestly have never met such a welcoming community in my life, who are so willing and eager to allow complete strangers, foreigners who don't even speak their language, into their homes. And not only that, the first thing they do is offer you a seat, banana chips, and some of their delicious tea, which honestly is the best tea I have ever tasted.

The only comparison I have to this type of hospitality is my Italian grandmother, who loves to cook, but loves feeding people even more, and who will talk to a complete stranger as if she has known you her entire life (which can sometimes be quite embarassing if you're the topic of conversation). However, for an entire community to take the time out of their daily lives to accomodate and welcome a group of foreign, college students into their community is unparalled to anything I have ever witnessed.

When we first arrived to begin fieldwork this morning, we discovered the villagers had a surprise for us: they had arranged for one of the workers to harvest an areca nut. Okay, so right now, you might be like "you saw someone harvest a nut. What's the big deal?" Well, by "harvest," I mean this man climbed a 15 m high tree (it might have been higher, I wasn't very adept at estimating the height during agroforestry) with simply some rope around his ankles. He then swung from tree to tree until reaching the actual areca nut tree, and then proceeded to pluck a bushel of nuts and slide them down a long rope to the people waiting on the ground. Besides this being absolutely awesome, it will quite humbling how the villagers provided us with this demonstration simply because a few of the Terrascopers voiced their interest in seeing how they harvest the areca nut.

The hospitality did not stop there. As part of Team Vanilla A, also known as the "dream team" or "team awesome," I helped conduct household surveys. I was astonished at how eagerly the owner of the house welcomed us into his home. He immediately offered us tea and banana chips, and quickly replenished the chips once they diminished. During the survey, we learned his financial situtation has forced him to take out a loan of 50,000 rupees (which is rougly $1250) in order to ensure his son can recieve an education. Despite the little he may have, he was so willing to share with us, to give us a tour of his home, and to help us learn about his farming situation.

Following the fieldwork, we reconvened with the entire group before we headed over to another household to observe some of their cooking practices. After seeing the simple tools and stoves they use to prepare the food, we were served a feast consisting of all locally grown products. When I say feast, I literally mean a feast, an Indian thanksgiving if you would like a comparison. I seriously thought I was going to die from eating so much, while many Terrascopers fell victim to a severe food coma. The main course of the meal alone consisted of three different types of curries served with rice. The villagers walked around almost continuously, enthusiastically serving you more and more until you thought you were going to explode. It was astonished and awe-struck as to how a village who has so little was so willingly to give us, complete strangers, so much of their food and resources. It makes you stop to think about all the times you've said "no" to someone in need, when you have simply walked by a beggar without a second thought. We have so much, yet we (I am generalizing "we" as American citizens), are often so unwilling to share.

Before we began our meal, we answered some of the questions the villagers had for us. One of these questions was: "What discomforts did we face while in the village?" I was completely taken aback by this question, as I, along with the rest of the group, hadn't even thought of any "discomfort" we faced. There wasn't one thing I could name, yet here the villagers were, after giving us so much, wanting to know how they could have done better. One of our classmates responded perfect, telling them not to worry about what discomforted us, but thanking them for their warm hospitality and genuine friendliness, uncomparable to anything any of us had ever experienced before. The villagers also asked "What does America think of India?" I know that after today the first thing that will come to my mind is the villagers, their warm smiles, absolute humility, and complete selflessness. I will think of how much I enjoyed India and how much I love and appreciate its people. I think this sentiment is shared by my fellow Terrascopers and I know we all have just one thing to say, Dhanyavada Hallusarige.


Using GPS in Sirsi

Some of us were curious: where exactly are the places we are visiting this week? But it's difficult to chart our travels on a map, since the village of Hallusarige (population 194) is certainly not on your average map, and foreigners like us can't necessarily find the places we visited within the town of Sirsi. So, in order to help us locate some of these places, we are creating our own map of our trip. We're putting it together with the help of two GPS units that we carry along with us.

At each interesting site we visit, we place a marker on the GPS unit, and the device is able to tell us our exact coordinates. Then we post each place, and a picture of it, on the constantly-growing map of our trip, which is posted online. For example, when a village farmer showed us how he pollinates vanilla plants by hand, we marked that place and put it on the map. When we saw a biogas generator in the village, we put that on the map. And when we visited the bustling marketplace and the Hindu temple in Sirsi, we added those to our map as well.

Our map and photo collection will keep growing as we visit more places in and around the town of Sirsi. Check it out on the web! You can find it here.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Good Men doing Nothing.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil
Is that good men do nothing”
- Edmund Burke
-Pre-title page for Muhammad Yunus’ autobiography, Banker to the Poor

The quotes and ideas important to great men hold immense value to people trying hard to make a change to development and poverty. Muhammad Yunus is arguably the most pioneering facilitator of poverty mitigation that we’ve seen today: he founded the Grameen bank, a microfinance giant, and changed the lives of poor farmers across Bangladesh. However, what puzzles me is why Yunus chose this quote in particular. Sure, it vilifies inaction, and calls for a change, but this sounds like something that the Head of State would say to justify a war. In fact, the quote's author, Edmund Burke was a proponent of the American Revolution and a government figure in Ireland, strongly suggesting that the quote is about governments and war.

Are we really at war, and if so, who or what are we at war with?

What got me thinking about this is a conversation I had while conducting the Land Use survey on a farm in Hallusarige. One of the farm owners, Sripath Hegde, kindly agreed to help us with the ownership and area aspects of the land being surveyed by going through village records. We found that a lot of the data the Indian Institute of Sciences had about land ownership and use was quickly outdated, and it was difficult to understand the dynamic of land ownership, because we assumed that ownership transferred by inheritance, and the occasional sale. Sripath had a different story to tell.

All that is necessary…

According to him, land sale happened more frequently because of urban-rural migration. Farmer’s children, seeking to move to the cities, lose interest in their parent’s property and let it fall into disrepair, either selling it themselves or forcing it to be sold. Farmers also fell heavily into debt due to low profits, and the only way out is to take more loans from lending institutions like banks and moneylenders. Hallusariges’s situation is a lot better than that of the farmers across India, who are heavily in debt to local landowners.

...for the triumph of evil…

In my previous blog post I made a reference to Vidarbha, a region in India where there was an abnormally high suicide rate amongst farmers in heavy debt to money lenders. Repeated drought, low demand and no profits led to them being driven to despair.

…is that good men do nothing.

The people who advocate development ARE at war. We just haven’t realized it.
This makes it easier to understand why Yunus chose the quote that he did. His microfinance solution was simple, and the situation could be solved simply – it was the inaction that permitted the cycle of poverty and despair to continue.

The situation in Sirsi may not be as dire as that in Vidarbha, but it promises to exacerbate in the coming years. With the newer generations having a more intense desire to migrate to the cities, the yield from the farms is low, building up on the interest-heavy loans that these farmers have to repay to banking institutions. There is no one to guide the sale of farmland, or ensure that farmers have the best knowledge of the market situation, or the financial advice needed to sell the plot that has been their flesh and blood for generations. Before the situation comes to a head, we need to educate the farmers about handling their finances, and introducing microfinance to the community in a bigger way.
I asked one of the speakers who addressed us on the second day, Bhushana Karandikar, about Vidarbha and its suicidal farmers, and what we can do to help. Bhushana worked for the government for over 20 years, which enabled her to be a good person to answer this question. I expected a response on microfinance, which she did give, but what interested me was her idea of providing psychological and moral support to the farmers. How she emphasized educating farmers about loans and finances.

I suppose it’s time for us to think beyond just microfinance, and give a holistic solution to the people who we are at war to help. Because, if we address only ONE manifestation of the “evil” we are trying to combat,
we are doing nothing.

Signing off,

1) Banker to the Poor- Muhammad Yunus
2) Grameen bank website
3) Edmund Burke