25 March, 2013

Rural Internship 2012

The number of poor people in India, according to the country’s Eleventh National Development Plan, amounts to more than 300 million. And for a developing nation like India, such a huge mass of people plays a very important role. Upliftment of rural and tribal people and making them more aware about  how they can play a role in shaping India's future by teaching them upcoming basic technologies, observing challenges faced by them and trying to figure out solutions by applying ICT was the main reason behind this one-month internship.

Under the guidance of Prof. B.N. Hiremath, I volunteered at NGO People's Training And Research Center , Khambhat . This is a voluntary organization working on issues related to Occupational Safety and Health and other aspects of labor life. Even before PTRC was registered in 1992, it was involved in activities like Vyavsaik Syasthya Suraksha Mandal (Occupational Health and Security Group) since 1986.

We were posted in one of its projects at Shakkarpura, Khambhat, a small town near Anand district with a population of about 11500 people and the population mainly comprises of Muslims, Kshatriyas and Scheduled Caste(SC). The major occupations in the village was cottage-units based Agate Industry substituted with farming, kite making, salt-making and cattle rearing as the Agate industry is very hazadous to the health of workers because of silica dust that becomes air borne during the processing of agate stones. This particles, when inhaled continuously for a long time, settle in the lungs of workers permanently, resulting in disease silicosis. There is no none cure or treatment for it and about 70% of village population is involved in it.

In Khambhat, PTRC works for the prevention of Silicosis among the workers of agate industry. They run a day care center for the children of women working in the agate industry to prevent silica exposure among them, run weekly clinic for silicosis victims in collaboration with Sri Krishna Hospital, Karamsad And Cardiac care Center in Khambhat, provide free medication to the victims, help the Silicosis Victims Association in advocacy for their rights, support widows and school going children as well as bed-ridden agate workers. I was a part of this program at Shakarpur Village in Khambhat.

The work assigned mainly included IMPARTING TECHNICAL EDUCATION to the staff of NGO. They required help in learning the basics of computers as they were trying to computerize the existing records of patients and other details. The main office work was maintaining records of the agate workers and silicosis patients, and thus, teaching them Microsoft Excel was most important. We started with basics and moved on to features like sorting and filtering which are especially useful for them as they require to organize the workers’ data. The staff was also taught other Microsoft office features which included PowerPoint and Word. Keeping in mind the necessity of Internet in this century, we created a mail-account on Gmail  This was helpful to them as they frequently require corresponding with the CEO, and often need to send him details of workers. Giving them a glimpse of what actually Google is and how the relevant information on any topic can be acquired from its database, further they were explored to g-translator & Google-Gujarati, which was quite useful for their lack of English skills. In the end, a small practical exam of the office staff was taken wherein they gave an exam individually and scored 70% on an average. After all had completed their exams, we gave them a quick-revision on the topics which were difficult to grasp for everyone.

The second most important task was ORGANIZING DATAUpdating the records of the silicosis patients with about 686 records with 18 long columns each with each small in a different file and plenty of mismatch datas and contradicting datas with 5 people having same name along with same last name!

 Mr. Jagdish Patel, our CEO, publishes a Gujarati newsletter called Salamati in which the data of accidental deaths in all fields collected from various newspapers are recorded. We compiled lists of the occupational deaths for the years 2008 to 2011.

Interaction with Silicosis-Affected Workers: We visited some silicosis patients. They have stopped working on the agate stones and now sit at home, with one person constantly engaged in taking care of them. We enquired about their medication and whether there is any improvement in their condition. We also asked about the means of their livelihood now that they are unable to work. Families of patients have taken up farming or kite-making to earn their bread. In some cases, the wife continues with the same grinding work despite seeing her husband's condition. Although the NGO provides them free medication, the cost of coming up to the dispensary is also high for them.

Observing the processing of agate stones: From what we observed, I strongly feel there is a need for an improvement in the existing technology of agate grinding. As instructed by Mr. Patel, we observed the various procedures involved in the processing of agate stones and made a small note which explained each stage in great detail. This note is to be presented in organisations like Techpedia and Sristi which encourage innovation at the grass root level. Here is a summary of the observations:
1.      The stones are first heated in a furnace to make them easier to cut.
2.      Then, they are chipped with a hammer (made of cow or buffalo horn) into small pieces. This work is done by ‘fodiyas’ or breakers.
3.      The stone pieces are fed to a wooden drum where they are rotated for several hours. This is done to give rough rounding to the stones. This is a highly dusty process.
4.      The broken pieces are ground into finer shapes. This work is done by ‘ghasiyas’. The grinding wheels are motorised but the machine itself is not automated. There are two machines available for this work, depending on the shape of the stones required.
a)      Vertical shaft grinding machine (bakdo): Any type of shape can be produced by this machine. There are two subdivisions:
1)      Bakdo emery. This consists of a vertical shaft where the emery wheel runs horizontally. It is a dry process and a lot of dust is generated.
2)      Bakdo diamond. Here, the cutting wheel is cobalt coated. This machine involves a weight process method, in which water is dropped on the wheel so that the dust doesn’t become air borne. The dust generated is less than that in the case of the emery wheel.
b)      Horizontal shaft grinding machine (Patiyu):  It is used for making equal-sized spherical beads which can be used in making necklaces. The emery wheel is rotated with an electric motor. The beads are held in the grooved notches of a wooden plank against the movement of the wheel.
5.      To drill a bead, the worker places the bead in a wooden stand. Drilling is done by a long spindle studded with diamond on its top.
6.      The processed stones are placed in an electrically rotated drum for around 15 hours to give the stones lustre.
Of all the processes, the work of the ghasiyas (grinders) is the most dangerous. A lot of dust is generated in the work environment and the workers hardly employ any methods to protect themselves. As such wearing masks (cloth) is not effective since the particles of silica dust are smaller than the pores in the mask. The weight processing is the only method that has been accepted and implemented to reduce the dust levels. But in this method too, the workers are required to put more efforts and consequently complain of backaches. The production of spherical beads on the horizontal shaft (Patiyu) does not have any mechanism to control the dust levels. Also, most of these units are home-based, and even the non-workers including children are exposed to considerably high levels of dust, putting them at a risk from a young age. The so-called “maaliks” are not concerned about the exposure to which the workers are subjected during the different stages of processing, but just interested in the final product. This was highlighted when we went to meet a businessman of agate stones. The entire cost of the process has to be borne by the workers. The workers are sadly under-represented and underpaid. For the spherical beads, the workers are paid only ₹25 for every 1000 pieces. The price increases as the complexity of the shape increases, but even the highest price is about ₹5 for a piece which is still only about one-fourth of the price at which they are sold in shops and showrooms.

Helping the Doctor
Every Wednesday, a doctor from Karamsad Medical Hospital comes for weekly check-up of silicosis affected workers. We helped the doctor in finding the appropriate case papers for the patients and packing the prescribed medicines for them. The patients included people affected by silicosis as well as tuberculosis.

The most memorable and fun part, to which would never be exposed except for this internship was staying for a month in village. For two people who have lived in a city for their entire lives, living in a village was an entirely new experience. Of course, we had our share of doubts and apprehensions about the village life. Also, as our internship required us to work with the NGO employees as well as teach them, we were unsure of how the staff and the people of the village would react to us. However, these doubts were futile, as the staff gave us a warm welcome.
We were provided a room of our own in a small Dharmashala, while the caretakers, an old couple, lived in their house which was just in front of our room. They provided us breakfast and tea every morning.
We had the opportunity to interact with Kanti bhai and wife (the caretakers), our neighbour, Mitali ben, a jovial lady, and an old, retired man who also stayed nearby, apart from the staff of the NGO and the agate workers. Each of them told us their life stories which were very interesting, and also, we got to learn about the various customs, hardships and restrictions of the village life. What we were observing was a closely knit society where everyone practically knew every other person, and what one person did was everybody’s business. This was a stark contrast from the city life that we are used to because in a city, everyone is involved in their own lives.
The experience of familiarising the staff with computer basics was also not exactly what we anticipated. Since we, as engineering students, have become so used to being around the computer, it was a bit strange when we had to begin by teaching the difference between and a file and a folder. Nevertheless, the staff worked hard with us on this, and we are proud to say that by the time we left, they were able to manage and manipulate the data records on the computer on their own.
The plight of agate workers struck us the most. Apart from the obvious health related hazards of their occupation and the extreme poverty that they are living in, the workers also face social ostracism. Most of the workers are vary of strangers and live in the constant fear that somebody will stop all their business. We ourselves observed this when we went to see the different stages of agate processing. The people were suspicious about us, and they let us watch them work only because they knew Ramesh bhai (NGO’s staff member who had taken us to the field) personally. Even then, many of them refused to be photographed.
Rural life has its own charm, and the trials and tribulations that the people face are also different from the city life. It was illuminating to observe the village life and the different perspectives of the rural people.

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