Walking from one courtyard to another, to be welcomed by women who refuse to express their displeasure at our intrusion into their busy work hours, has been a prominent activity for me in the past month in Himachal Pradesh. This blog is an attempt to paint a picture of my day in the remote areas of Kangra district, traveling from door to door trying to gather data and also improving my connection with the community.
At Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, we are attempting to gather data on organic farming from households involved with the organization under the SAFAL project. And with around 1000 households in total, the process is tedious and time-consuming. What makes all the effort feel worthwhile are the smiles that greet us. Even while struggling to fully understand the Kangri dialect in which they exchange answers and pleasantries with the Jagori workers that I accompany, it is a sight that I enjoy watching.
The process is carried out through the three Jagori field offices in Rait, Kangra, and Nagrota Bagwan blocks. In the past three weeks, I have been engaged more in the Rait block which has the highest number of families involved under SAFAL. Initially, I was skeptical about choosing Rait as my primary field responsibility over the other two blocks since it is farthest from the head office, near to which I have my accommodation. But my doubts went away within a few days at Rait. Jagori in Rait has an active group of workers who are determined to complete each task on time, and also happens to have more experienced employees compared to the other two blocks. Nowadays, I look forward to my regular visits to the Rait office, despite the hour and half long travel from the head office.
A day at Rait starts with a team meeting where everyone shares inputs from the previous day’s fieldwork and also discusses upcoming activities. I find it endearing that everyone at Rait addresses the team as sathiyon during the discussions. Despite my challenges in conversing in Hindi/Kangri, the team has always made me feel very comfortable and included in their discussions, often asking me for opinions and recommendations. These regular exchanges have made me feel more at home in the field office at Rait than I had initially anticipated. After the team meetings, I usually accompany one of the employees to their work areas. They usually have someone to meet with or some activity to follow up on. The data collection happens alongside. Soon I realized that the data gathering process can carry on in my absence if I properly demonstrate and support them in the process for a couple of days. This allowed me to include more field staff in the data collection process, so it can be finished sooner.
It is mostly Sarup or Raveena that I accompany. I think both are more enthusiastic about my company than the others. It could be because of the fact that I record the data directly via google forms and saves them the effort of writing it down on paper (but I think they like me either way). The locations can be said to be within walkable distances, depending on whether you consider a stretch that lasts 30-45 minutes as walkable. And sometimes you have to walk by the near empty Chambi river and sometimes cross small gorges jumping from one rock to another. It is scenic and, in some ways, exciting. We often have our lunch along the way- sometimes at a dhaba, and sometimes we open our packed lunch on the way wherever we find a water source. We try to delay our visits until noon since the rabi season is ongoing and everyone is usually busy in the fields until lunch. Around four hours are spent going from door to door asking questions and filling out forms because at each stop the conversations are never ending and also unavoidable.
We are always welcomed with drinking water in large tumblers. The wide and regular supply of drinking water in Kangra means you can blindly trust the water you are drinking. I haven’t boiled water even once in the three months here. It is also difficult to refuse the water being offered (the only challenge is in gathering the courage once in a while to ask where the washroom is). The people from the community will always have something to share, be it their worries or demands, often related to farming. The Jagori team member also tries to follow up on past meetings as well. Once it appears that the conversation will go on for some time, we are offered tea, sometimes without a question against which we might have had the chance to refuse it. I have often felt that offering tea is a matter of pride, especially among families that own cattle. Irrespective of whether we are running short of time, the family will insist and ensure that we wait for the beverage.
Collecting information is the easier part. Apart from a select few cases, the farmers do not show any reluctance to reveal information (it is possible that questions such as those regarding land and property raise doubts among farmers). Jagori’s connect with the community is a major factor behind the ease with which we are able to carry out the task. On an average day, we are able to talk to around 20 families- usually the members of a single Kisan Samooh. We get back to the office by around half past four. If possible, I try to finish up some work of manually entering data collected by the other team members.
The whole process of data gathering has been an important lesson for me in multiple senses. I have been able to improve my data collection skills such as like being able sharpen the questions when necessary. I believe that this process will create an understanding within the Jagori team regarding the necessity of having centralized data that is also regularly updated. The process has also helped me understand the community better as well as have a grasp over Jagori’s reach in these communities. The personal visits and the data together give a deeper insight into what goes on in the fields of Kangra, and I am able to develop a better perspective of the project as well as the subject in a wider sense. But it is always the experience of traveling and interacting with the community that motivates me, to keep doing something that can become monotonous and exhausting. I feel happy to pocket experiences that, I believe, will leave a positive shade over my memories here even as other things keep themselves from falling into place.