Yes, I’ve spent the last four months traveling to Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha meeting over a hundred NGOs working across a myriad of issues.
And yes, I’ve been doing all of it on my own.
Quick rewind: I chanced upon the Himsagar Fellowship some months ago when I had contemplated quitting my full-time desk job in pursuit of a higher order goal. Whatever that goal would be, I knew it had to have the travel component. After all, I was quitting to explore opportunities linked to work and travel.
What is the Himsagar Fellowship?
The Fellowship is a 6-month expedition where, in a bid to influence local non-profits across the country to move their data collection and monitoring process online, a fellow travels to remote areas and meets with them.
What’s It Like Being a Himsagar Fellow?
Ever since I’ve started this journey in January, I’ve been asked by many about the fellowship. Those who haven’t been able to ask me (because I haven’t been around) have driven my parents crazy with their questions. So I decided to deconstruct it a little and here’s what a month in my shoes could look like – and just so you know no two months have ever been alike!
“How Did You Hear About Us?”
That’s what almost every NGO I’ve met so far has always asked me. This is Step 1 – scoping out NGOs within a particular state, or market research that determines the travel itinerary.
I had spent about 2-3 days prior to heading out to Patna scanning multiple websites and reaching out to my network within the development sector to help zero in on NGOs I could reach out to. Doing it on my own helps me familiarise myself with the NGOs a little by little. I’ve realised that the ones in the capital of the state are easier to identify. It’s the ones outside of the capital that I’ve wanted to meet because that’s the goal of the fellowship – taking technology to the grassroots.
Tatkal and the Art of Multitasking
As an avid solo traveller, I have been used to planning out my logistics a little in advance. This has changed with the fellowship because things fell (or were made to fall) in place on the go. For instance, the day I returned to Delhi from Bihar was also the day I learnt that I’d be headed to West Bengal in another 10 days’ time.
The response received during the initial outreach is indicative of the time you’re most likely going to spend in a given state. I spent over 5 weeks in Bihar – a lot more than intentioned. This was because, apart from those identified during the scoping exercise, I learnt about additional NGOs through recommendations from peers within the network. In another instance, I moved to Odisha from Chhattisgarh in a little less than 2 weeks and planned my meetings in Odisha on the go.
Taking Technology to the Grassroots
This is the part where it gets real. A typical day is one where I meet three or four NGOs at their respective offices to understand the type of information they collect across their different projects.
For the uninitiated, NGOs often undertake a needs analysis prior to carrying out any activity. This includes detailed information about the constituencies they seek to serve. Many go on to collect information over the entire lifespan of a project which typically lasts between three and five years. Yes, that’s a lot of data. Imagine this being done repeatedly over and over again because there is little awareness on how to digitize and make it more accessible!
This understanding of what the NGO’s needs are is critical because, as a fellow, my role has been to facilitate dialogue and discussion. During my very first meeting in Patna, I could hear my heart pound out of sheer nervousness as I spoke to the CEO at the NGO. But in the end he commented that it was easier for him and his team to understand why I was even there because I’d managed to explain the technology minus any jargon. This is something I continue to remind myself of every time I am in these meetings.
The Himsagar Fellow is no different from a foot soldier. You become the eyes, ears, nose, you name it…. on the ground. And your role is not merely talk to about Collect as a data management tool. Your role is to understand what else has already been done as well as what needs to happen. Your role is to facilitate dialogue that’s beyond just the transactional. And I’ve realised that being the foot soldier has also meant providing inputs back to the team on what’s working as well as what isn’t.
In return, I’ve learnt. A lot.
I’ve learned how some issues are more central to one state over the other. So while in Bihar it’s mostly disaster management (especially floods), in West Bengal it’s child vulnerability because of our porous borders. Similarly in Chhattisgarh, it is land and forest rights of the indigenous population while in Odisha too it’s disaster management (due to cyclones) and forest rights of the indigenous population.
I’ve learnt that gaps in available data have widespread consequences. Because the number of differently abled persons who have availed of the MNREGA scheme isn’t tracked, it impedes the way policies are designed. Similarly, disaggregated data on gender, which can help understand the magnitude of women migrating for work, does not even exist.
I’ve learnt that, if the absorptive capacity of water bodies can be monitored over time, it can help predict the probability of a flood during the monsoons. Similarly, if reasons for children dropping out of school can be monitored and studied, retention rates in schools can possibly be enhanced.
And it’s through those non-transactional conversations that I’ve not only seen but also experienced people and places from beyond the stereotypes. Including just how safe and welcome I feel whether in Bastar or Kalahandi!
That I’ve learned a lot more about myself than I possibly could have imagined is not an exaggeration. Striking up a conversation with a bunch of CEOs from across different NGOs during the day and conversing with another over the phone in the evening while simultaneously planning my itinerary so I can book my ticket through Tatkal the next morning is not the extent of multi-tasking I’d ever imagined getting into!
Not to mention having the nerve to traverse solo through states that are on very few people’s wishlist!