Thursday, 4 February 2016

Heading back to Thane

I am going back to Thane.  Literally.  As I tap these words, I am seated in the chair car of the ‘Garib Rath’ train (thank you Lalu Prasad Yadav).  The engine, some 15 odd carriages ahead of me, is pulling us valiantly along the tracks towards Mumbai.  My seat – and those of my passengers around me – is facing backwards so I can see lttle glimpses of green fields outsider our window as the two seat-mates on my right and left tap into their smartphones.

We were taken through the nitty gritty of writing up our proposals.  Putting out the basic issues that we want to address.  Figuring out the most important way we would like to address this.  Working on what outcomes will be most likely to see the big dream achieved.  Going through the careful business of placing specific tasks to see us complete the objectives.  Looking at what risks are there, finding out about the other stake holders, looking to see what each activity will cost….

The three days are now behind us – and I am very grateful to have been given a shot to get back into the swing of things with my colleagues.

The participants were a varied bunch – from urban livelihood programmes in Agra and Delhi, to interventions that work on mental health and children at risk, to rural livelihood and landscape management programmes like our work at the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital CHDP and a similar programme in the Kishangarh area of Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh.

At the centre of things were our facilitators – our three deputy directors for the Community Health and Development programmes of EHA.   Robert is an old friend – and still bears his gentle boyish face though he now has white hair (at least he has some – my follicles have deserted me long ago).  Dr. Jubin is in charge of the mental health programmes of EHA.  Somesh has a mind as sharp as a tack – and many years of broad experience in community change to boot.   For most of the time Dr. Ashok Chacko was also with us – my first boss at EHA and currently serving as the leader of the EHA community health and development programmes.  He is now a grand-dad and his goatee makes him look very much like a Catholic Priest – something that he is regularly taken for.

Somesh leading a session of the Proposal Writing workshop at Navinta
One of the basic concepts that was brought before us was the idea of a “Theory of change.”  How do we expect change to happen?  What precise sequence of events need to take place?  What are the conditions that need to be fulfilled at each step? 

At first I thought we were in for a colossal waste of time.  We are practitioners.  Surely we know what is wrong with the world, and how to set it right.  But then I realized that they were not looking for an overarching theory of everything.  The task is to strip down our work to a set of clear steps that we are committed to, that we are passionate about, and that we believe work.  If it doesn’t, well, then its back to the drawing board.

For example to set up a programme to help reduce child trafficking in northern Bihar, we talked through the following steps.  We will need to train the project staff in the nitty gritty of the juvenile justice act and the needs of children at risk.  If the staff have adequate knowledge of these issues, then we can survey villages that are especially vulnerable to the issues.  If they choose the settings well (families who are landless, families from the dalit communities, families living in places prone to flood) then they can approach the local leaders for permission to start the programme.  If they successfully get the permission, then the staff can do focus groups among young girls, landless laborers etc. to see what their experiences and vulnerabilities are.  If the staff get key information from these groups, then they can call a general meeting in the villages and share the issues at hand and suggest the formation of village child protection committees.  And so on.

If… then.   A clear set of activities, leading to a clear outcome which sets the stage for the next step in the chain.  Not so much a ‘theory’ as a practical (and testable) set of steps that we hope to follow to experience the change we need to see.

A women's Self-Help Group meeting in progress in our area
Lukash Prakash and I were trying to update our annual work plan and budget for 2016-17 for the watershed management programme.  We have just received the initial findings of an evaluation which had been done late last year.  It was a daunting set of suggestions – mainly focused on going beyond just ‘delivering the goods’ to actually seeing community based organisations make real and lasting choices on their own.  

How many of the village meetings by the Village Watershed Committee are attended mainly because there is a hope that through the project some of them will get work, others will have access to new agricultural techniques, and others will be helped with goat rearing etc?   It’s hard to know – there will definitely always be an element where a person or community buys into something because they want the benefit that comes with it.  But at the same time, the process of working together can really bring change, genuine change.  We have all had so many things invested in us. How grateful are we? What outcomes are there in our lives?

I am heading back to Thane.

Heading back after 2 weeks ‘in the field’ at the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital in Lalitpur.  Having already immersed myself in lots of different tasks – seen different issues up close and personal – and seen the deep difficulty of seeing change take place.

As of tomorrow, I shall have two and a half weeks in Thane in which I would like to write about Mum and Dad and have lots of organizing things to do.

I carry back with me lots of questions.  What are the long-term impacts of our water-shed management committees?  Why is it that we have drought for many farmers and yet others have patches of green land?   How can we better understand the maternal and child health work done by our village health volunteers?  Which ways can we incorporate local churches more in reaching out to the people we serve?   How much is the palliative care work of the hospital different to our work of caring for people with HIV in Thane?  How should I best use my time?  How will we fit in as a family in our new home?  What things should we take from Thane – and what things to leave?  How are we ever going to get the adoption formalities for Yohan done?

Lots of questions as the train takes me ‘back’ to Mumbai.  The vendor is walking through the train announcing ‘Garama garam tomatar soup’ and urging us to take his fare.  Dusk has fallen outside our tinted window.  My two seat-mates on either side of me are not tapping their smart phones now: one is fast asleep while the other is gazing contemplatively out the window.

The window-gazer is called Siddharth.  He has been ogling dancing girls for some time on his mobile.  He wears a NYC black hat and chains.  He is from Patna but was born and brought up in Nagaland.  An IT engineer for a famous builder in Delhi, he is on his way to his sister’s marriage reception in Surat – and also to meet his girlfriend in the same city.

I feel the window blinds of my eyes coming down and so close the computer for a short nap.


Persistence pays off!

I had asked the ticket collector earlier about whether he had any berths left.  He said to come after 6.30 or so.  And so I obediently sought him out again.  After waiting for some time, he told me that yes – there was a berth.  I followed him to the coach, wondering if we was going to ask me for a bribe.  He asked me where I was from and I gave my little story and told him what I was doing.

All he asked was the difference in fare between the chair car and the AC sleeper – Rs. 170 – for which I was given a receipt.

And so for the past two hours I have been horizontal, with the quiet whir of the airconditioner lulling everyone to sleep in the darkness, and the dull rattles of the train going down the two shiny rails towards Mumbai.

I am no longer ‘going back’ to Thane … I am going forward to meet my loved ones again!  And every minute brings me closer to them.


  1. A Thankful Heart Is a Joy-Filled Heart. The joy of the Lord will remove the burdens from your heart.

  2. As some one who succeeded Dr Ashok as EHA's CHDP Director when Laitpur was a bright star as far as CH ptograms under Antony Samy, I am following your Lalitpur writings with a lot of interest....

    1. thanks Shantanu - any suggestions most welcome!