The Bagichhawalas! – Story of the Gram Panchayat Facilitators

Sukhdev, one of the Gram panchayat facilitator of the Muniguda block working in the Food and Agroecological Approaches to Malnutrition Project on  Improving Dietary Diversity of the community, starts his day at 5-5.30 am so that he can reach his villages on the mountain by 7 am. He explains, “As I reach the village I speak to everyone who I meet on the way, wish them and call them for the meeting. I go house to house and invite people to sit down for a meeting but sometimes they are not available or have some other work, in such situations I note down at what time and day they will be back from work and sometimes wait till the evening to conduct meetings. The villagers treat me well since I have been working there are often give me food and place to sleep”

GPF Dinesh recollects his first few days when he joined as a GPF, “I didn’t know where I would sleep that night and if at all the villagers would entertain me. I ended up sleeping on a bed made of hay in a cold winter night with no roof!” Conducting meetings for GPFs like Sukhdev, Dinesh, Shyam Sundar and Damodar of Muniguda Block were not as smooth as they might seem now. It is extremely important that the GPFs build a relationship of trust with the community over a period of time and gaining this rapport and relationship can be very difficult in the beginning. Damodar explains that it is after several visits to their assigned villages that they learnt their availability pattern. “While doing the baseline, we understood when the villagers go to work in the field or to collect food from the forest. Now we know what the best time to visit the village is.”  The village volunteers need to be informed beforehand about the meetings so that they can spread the word in their villages but due to poor net connectivity in the hills GPFs have to communicate through people and other informal ways which requires establishing rapport and knowing the everyday routine of the villagers.

Different group of villages have different days when they come down to the town to sell their produce and collect their pensions. Knowing this information is critical to pass on information so that by the time the villagers reach their respective villages they will inform others about the meeting which would be scheduled the day after or later. The GPFs plan their PLA-LANN meetings based on criteria like travel time to the village, which is mostly half a day, availability of villagers based on their routine and festivals and medium through which information about the meetings are passed.

Dinesh explains that they when they initially started their work there were certain challenges they had to face. Securing a safe place to stay when villagers were not familiar with them would create have often created uncomfortable and harsh conditions to the stay the night in the field because returning back after evening is not preferable. He vividly remembers, ”Once I was captured by two naxals thinking that I’m an agent of some sort and detained me for a few hours. After I explained to them with the rough plans I had made for the PA-LANN meeting that I worked for Living farms organisation they decided to check if I was telling the truth. They asked me to conduct the meeting in the village and sat through it and then went away when they realized that we were trying to help the community. In such situations we feel really scared!”

“In Bedapodar village people thought that we were naxals and closed their doors and refused to speak to us. It is only after waiting for few hours and slowly convincing people did they come. They had heard of few people who had come to neighbouring villages to make nutrition gardens. When we explained to them what our work was, they said ‘Oh! So you are the Bagichawallas!(Garden fellows!)’. Nobody would know living farms but if you tell them Bagichawallah they will recognise immediately” laughs Damodar as he recollects that incident.

There are some moments on the field when the GPFs feel delighted and the outcomes of their efforts are extremely rewarding. Shyamsundar narrates how in Bodaserubar village he struggled to convince people to see the value in growing nutrition gardens. “Finally I managed to convince two of the households in rainy season to try nutrition garden and said that I would take the responsibility if anything went wrong and even promised to help in preparing the fencing and liquid manure. Out of these two households one was the house of Banasa Majhi. Banasa Majhi was the most sceptical person about the nutrition garden idea but when the garden gave lot of vegetables without much investment and chemicals he became a believer!!”  By winter Banasa Majhi became self-appointed advocate of nutrition gardens and inspired 10 more nutrition gardens in his village. This made Shyamsundar realize the power of positive influence and the importance of touching one person’s life but to do it with full dedication. He took Banasa Majhi to the nearby Kamari village as he spoke their language and Banasa Majhi’s story of a person who turned from a sceptic to a believer inspired 12 out of total 14 households in the village to start cultivating nutrition gardens.

GPFs use different strategies and innovative approaches to build a rapport and a bond of trust with the community. It is necessary that they understand not only their routines but also their ethos. Understanding their everyday life is pertinent to be able to communicate through informal means like explained above, through market days; PDS and pension collection days and schedule their meeting accordingly. GPFs do immense amount of planning for every village in order to be able to facilitate meetings and convince the communities.

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