(Note: this post covers our experiences on July 21st but will, hopefully, be posted today, the 27th. I’ve been working on this post since the 22nd but repeatedly hit delays in finishing it. Part of it is our schedule – we’ve been starting our work days early in the morning and going until late in the evening. Part is internet access – the last two hotels we have stayed in have had spotty wifi at best. But the biggest reason for delay is understanding what is true. As you can imagine, when you are talking about culture, poverty, how one group of human beings treat another group of human beings, and other complex issues, and trying to understand them as an outsider, you rely on discerning what is true by talking to several people and trying to pick out what fragments of what you are told are true, which things are not true because someone is attempting to spin the truth, and which things are not true but those telling it believe it is. In the end, I’m just sharing what I took away from these conversations as truth. That’s the best I can do.)
While that morning the Taj Mahal was beautiful and the Agra Fort showed some impressive engineering and architecture, the afternoon and evening of Day 8 beat the morning backwards and forwards. We drove outside of Agra a few miles to a nearby village, Barara. Barara has a population of about 6,000 people. As we drove into the village, we passed what can best be described as a man-made lagoon that was connected to a drainage ditch.
There is nothing really particularly peculiar about that in a village in India. What was unique about it was that it had been stocked with a handful of courageous little boys who were taking advantage of the recent rain, and the accumulation of water in the lagoon, to practice their cannon ball dives and swimming strokes.
Boys swimming in Barara “lagoon”.
The boys were having a good old time and when they saw our bus drive by, they really began to ham it up.
We stopped, piled out of the bus, and gathered in the covered driveway of one of the bigger homes in the village. Our guide to the village, Solanki, introduced us to our host in the village, Rajveer Sikarwar. Raj appeared to be in his early 40s. Once everything had settled down, he and Solanki told us about life in Barara. They talked about the local school, the clinic, and the government benefits that were given to families living in villages like Barara: heavily subsidized rice, wheat, and natural gas; 5,000 rupees placed in savings accounts for baby girls born in the hospital (more about this later), subsidized cell phone services, and other programs. As Raj talked, and as he began to answer our questions, we began to see something in him, and in Barara, that had been sorely lacking in the tribal village – passion for the village, compassion for neighbors, dreams for the village’s children. It was pretty cool to watch.
Rajveer Sikawar (in blue shirt), our host in the Barara village, discusses life in the village.
Raj and Solanki took questions for quite a long time, probably longer than they intended. Eventually, Raj’s brother arrived and asked if we would like to see a snake charmer. The snake charmer followed him in and Raj’s brother pulled a cobra out of his basket and offered to let the students hold it – there were quite a few takers on that offer.
The snake charmers.
We left the carport and Raj took us on a tour of the village. Along the way, we stopped at one of the homes and were invited in to watch Geetha, a young woman who seemed to constantly have a smile on her face – not a pretend smile, but an authentic smile, and she was constantly laughing at things. Geetha led us through her house to the back patio, where she had lit a fire in a small clay oven.
The living area of Geetha’s home.
Geetha squatted down and began to make roti – a small, flat bread that looks pretty much like a taco-sized pita bread. She grabs a handful of dough out of a pan, rolls it up in a ball, then smashes it methodically into a pancake and drops it onto a metal pan sitting on top of the clay oven. Once the roti is firm, she props it up on one of the sticks of firewood that is protruding from the oven so that it can bake further.
Geetha baking roti bread on clay oven.
As we watched her working, Rachel and Evan took turns rolling the balls of dough into pancakes. As time went on, quickly the patio began to fill up with neighborhood children who were excited to meet us. Geetha’s mother arrived and Raj did the introductions.
Rachel baking roti bread.
Raj introduces Geetha’s mom and family.
So at one point, Geetha’s patio (roughly 12’ by 12’) was not only full of STEM MBA students and kids, but goats began showing up as well. Sheela tried to show us her goat whispering skills. She should probably stick to mathematics and finance.
Sheela shows off her goat whispering skills.
We left Geetha’s home and continued to walk through the village. As we walked, we continued to attract children and they seemed very happy to have us visit. We eventually ended up at Raj’s family’s home, a compound that apparently is home to Raj’s dad and uncle, their children, and their grandchildren. They had prepared dinner for us and we enjoyed wonderful hospitality from them.
Relaxing before dinner at the Sikawar’s home in Barara.
So this is all only part of the story. In our last village visit, to the tribal village, the lack of leadership, the lack of initiative, and the apparent marginalization of women stood out as substantial problems. In Barara, the story was just the opposite. Let me explain.
Leadership. Though we only spent a few hours in the village, after observing Raj and talking to others who know him and are familiar with the workings of Barara, it was clear that Raj, and probably other members of his family before him, were very good leaders. As he spoke about the village, he talked of how they are very much like a family. If one member of the village is in need, they all try to address the problem to help. Across India each year, a number of farmers commit suicide when their crops fail, due to drought or flood. Suicides among farmers hasn’t occurred in Barara. Some of our questions probed for problems that we had read about before coming to India, or seen firsthand in other villages, but Raj was quick to explain that those conditions did not exist in Barara, that the people of the village would not allow it.
Raj’s family has prospered and they share some of their blessings with others in the village. Because he was concerned about the quality of the water in his home, Raj’s father had an expensive reverse osmosis water purifying system installed on the well that serves his home. At first, he shared the water with the rest of the village. Some people wasted the water, so he began to charge a nominal fee for the water and the waste stopped. (As a marketing professor, I appreciate his solution – people tend to not value what they don’t have to pay for).
When Raj told us earlier that the village looks out for everyone in the village, he meant everyone. As we were walking through the village before dinner, the students stopped in the doorway of one home to admire the henna tattoos that two pretty little girls had on their arms. Raj explained to me that the family were Muslims. Barara is a village that is nearly completely Hindu, in a country that is largely Hindu but holds a significant population of Muslims; a country whose relationship with it’s neighbor – predominately Muslim Pakistan – is constantly one of great tension (a 14th student from UA was not allowed an Indian visa because his father, born in Bangladesh, was identified by U.S. immigration as a native of Pakistan, and the Indian visa application specifically asks about Pakistani ancestry of the applicant); a country who lost many of its temples and art to invading Muslim armies over a 300 year span earlier in the second millennium AD. Raj explained that it bothered him that religion was being used as an excuse to discriminate against others, that people in other parts of the country were voicing concerns about their safety being threatened by Muslims. He remarked that these were just children, just a mother and father – they were no threat to anyone, they were just another Barara family.
Doorway to the home of a Muslim family in Barara. Muslims are a very small minority in the village.
Raj isn’t the only important leader in the community. Remember Geetha, the young woman with the terrific smile? She is respected by the other women of the village, and Raj often relies on her leadership to help solve problems that arise that are better addressed by a woman.
Barara is full of hope for its children. Its people are proud of their life here. Leadership has been largely responsible.
Treatment of Women and Girls. Perhaps because of the international media coverage of the treatment of women in India over the last few years, perhaps because of the United Nations MDG focus on women and children, the treatment of women and children in India is a sensitive topic. Female infanticide has been a recognized problem. Sociologists and human rights activists have studied the problem and offered explanations and prescriptions. It is a hugely complex issue that, of course, can’t be adequately covered in a blog post written by a marketing professor, so these are just my own thoughts. A couple of common explanations for the rise in female infanticide in India in previous years are (1) the dowry system that has been common here in the last century, and (2) the economic value of girls vs. boys in a poor home that depends on children contributing to the family economically through labor. The unimaginable cruelty of female infanticide in India, when it has occurred, is heart breaking. The government has responded to this problem in many ways, but a couple are worth noting and we have run into their mention repeatedly during our stay in India. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the government now offers families 5,000 rupees for birthing children in hospitals, where care is provided by trained medical personnel, the birth is officially recorded, and the baby is kept at the hospital until it is decided that it is healthy enough to go home. Second, though sonography in pregnancy is common in India, it is illegal for medical personnel to divulge to anyone, most of all the parents, the sex of a fetus based on sonography. The concern is that if the parents knew the fetus was female they would choose an abortion. In an earlier visit, we spoke with an American woman who currently works in India and is several months pregnant. When I asked her what sex the baby was, she explained that she didn’t know, even though she had twice had a sonogram, because of this Indian law.
When we spoke with Raj about the treatment of women and girls, he brought up all of these issues without us probing. He passionately argued that in Barara, a child is a child and loved equally, regardless of its sex. He argued that, in fact, economically girls were more beneficial to the home because they work much longer hours. As evidence, he pointed to the large crowd of boys who had gathered around to watch our visit, and noted that girls were absent because they had a stronger work ethic and were out working instead of playing. He explained his views on the outdated dowry system, its origins and evolution, and how it was falling out of favor.
Young boys quickly gathered around us to watch our conversation with Raj.
When we visited Geetha’s home, Raj interacted with Geetha and her mother in a warm, genuine way. The girls in his home, when we visited for dinner, were dressed in western clothing, were outgoing and seemed to be very happy.
Judging by criteria developed by the World Bank and others to measure equal treatment of women, such as equality of education, women’s roles in politics, equality of pay, and equality of health services, Barara and other villages and cities seem to be making progress. However, for much of the work that women do, it is not work for which they receive compensation – they work in the home but that work is not something they receive income for, but that’s true globally. Still, we observe a number of social regularities that give pause. Why is it still tolerated for a man to stop in the middle of a sidewalk and urinate on a wall? Why have Indian males and children completely adopted western clothing, while adult women continue to wear traditional clothing? Why do Indian males consumer a far larger share of alcoholic beverages? Something to think about.
Sustainability. India is famous for its frugal innovation, and frugal innovation is the rule in rural villages. In Barara, as you walk past home after home, you might be put off by so many homes having a 3-5 water buffalos or cows in their side yard, eating from a trough, defecating in the dirt yard, and often just laying around, but these animals are hugely valuable to the family for two reasons. First, most of these families are farmers and occasionally encounter a year when there is either a drought and all of their crops die, severely cutting into the family’s income, or there is too much rain and they have the same economic result. If the family has a handful of cows, they can milk them each morning and each evening and sell the milk in Agra, providing an economic supplement that allows them to accumulate some savings during good years, and serve as enough to get them through a year when the crops fail.
A village family’s yard. In the left foreground you can see the chopping machine, with the big crank wheel, that chops cherie into small bites that are fed to cattle.
Water buffalo and cows in manger at a village home.
Second, the animals produce another product that is just as valuable as milk: dung. Families will stockpile dung, as you can see in the photos below, and it provides them with fuel for cooking year round. Nothing goes to waste. The cows typically feed on cherie, a tall plant that looks sort of like corn stalks without the corn. They will keep 1-2 acres of cherie and each day cut what they need, take it home, and run it through a hand-powered device that chops the cherie up into small pieces that the cows love.
Haystack-shaped pile of cattle dung behind Geetha’s home. Dung is an important fuel resource in the village.
In the shack on the right, dung is being stockpiled for fuel.
Cherie is an important resource to the farming families who chop it and feed it to their cattle as the main source of the cattle’s diet. Here, the family stores the day’s supply just inside the front entrance to their home.
All in all, Barara was a terrific visit!