A young Delhi University graduate transforms two Karnataka villages as part of a fellowship project
A post graduate from Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University and a UPSC aspirant, Ushma Goswami had always wanted to use her knowledge to help society. She had been studying the various social differences between the urban and the rural, castes, and the privileged and underprivileged sections. And now, she wanted to implement her knowledge to help erase these differences. So she decided to give one year of her life to do so before getting into what she calls a rat race of a UPSC rank or a job.
In 2016, Ushma was selected for the SBI Youth for India Fellowship and chose to work in the area of governance. While Ushma was born and brought up in Chandigarh and had been in Delhi for the past five years, she chose to work with DHAN Foundation, which mostly works in the southern part of India.
“I wanted to come out of my comfort zone and work. I have never been to a village before this and I had no clue of the languages spoken in the southern regions of our country. As I aspire to apply for foreign services in UPSC, I wanted to take up the challenge of the language barrier too. I am glad I did that as you get to know how blessed you are to communicate through a language only when you cannot use it,” she says.
Ushma reached B. Seehalli Panchayat in Bannur Hobali Village of Mysore District on August 19, 2016 and language indeed became a barrier in her work.She was assigned to open a paralegal clinic here to provide small scale legal advice and resolve small issues at the panchayat level rather than going to the courts.
However, for the first three months, she was the only SBI fellow in this village. The villagers did not understand her language nor did she understand theirs. She would wait for hours for the panchayat to come and join her in the paralegal clinic, but no one would turn up. By November 2016, Ushma had thoughts of running back home, but a small voice inside motivated her to stay.
Ushma then started going to the village’s Anganwadi where she would mingle with the kids and slowly started connecting with the language too.
She learnt Kannada and even started communicating with the kids’ parents. Meanwhile, she was also joined by another SBI fellow and had some support now. By speaking to the villagers she understood that they had no interest in getting legal lessons. So she decided to divert her area of work.
“I knew I had only one year to do something for these villagers. There were numerous problems to be worked upon but I had to choose something that was the need of the hour. This is when someone from Kodagahalli Panchayat of the same village approached me for building toilets in their Panchayat,” Ushma says. Ushma agreed immediately and without wasting any time, she started with the survey of both the panchayats. She would go door to door and check about the toilets and found that nearly 400 households were without any.
The next task was to convince the villagers to build a toilet at their homes. People would give various reasons to avoid building a toilet. Women would say that they go in groups to defecate in the jungle and that was their only chance to come out of their houses and socialize. Ushma would counter them by talking about hygiene and the problems they would face during pregnancy and with a newborn. “If nothing worked, I would tell them that everyone else is going to build a toilet and then they would be all alone to go to the jungle, which would be so unsafe and boring,” laughs Ushma.
Ushma would also go to the school to spread awareness about sanitation. When she came to know that there was no teacher to teach English to the class 10 students, she and her co-fellow took up this task too. Ushma proudly shares the result of the students today, saying that the highest scorer in English scored 85%.
This helped them in connecting with their parents even better. Ushma had to go through lot of difficulties to convince the villagers to get toilets but she did finally win many of them over.
But the problems did not end here. The next challenge was collecting the documents to build the toilets. Many villagers did not even have a ration card or Aadhaar card and caste certificates. Ushma then went on to apply for these documents. She also arranged for a loan of Rs. 20,000 each to 38 villagers who did not have money to build a toilet, which they could return once they got subsidy from the government for the same toilets. Today, after 10 months of twists and turns, Ushma has succeeded in her mission. She has helped to build toilets for 70 households in Seehali and Kodagahalli Panchayat. These households are now eligible for the subsidy.
Meanwhile, once Ushma gained the trust of the villagers, she also explained to them the importance of paralegal clinics and was successful in opening one in Seehali panchayat and participated in more than 10 RTI campaigns as part of a UN-funded panchayat project of Dham Foundation.Ushma aims to build atleast 200 toilets in both the panchayats before the end of her project this year. She is also focusing on the decision-making branch of governance within the panchayat.
“Yes one person cannot change the world but take out just one year of your entire life and do something for society. Even if you can make a difference in 10 people’s lives it will really matter. You might forget those 10 people but they will never forget you,” says Ushma.
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