(Ms Anjali Kanitkar, the Founder-Trustee of Aroehan, was Associate Professor, at the College of Social Work Nirmala Niketan. Recently she retired as Director, Social Audit, Government of Maharashtra and is involved in conducting social audit of MGNREGA, Old Age and Widow Pensions and Housing schemes of the Government.) I interviewed her on various issues before Aroehan.
Vivek: It must have been a difficult task to set up ‘Aroehan’ NGO. You have been one of the Founder Trustee of Aroehan. Tell us about your experience and share your insights..
Anjali Kanitkar: As you know, AROEHAN was initiated as a Field Action Project of the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai in 2006. It took its inspiration from the Millennium Development Goals and set off to reduce malnutrition deaths among tribal children. As College projects depend largely on faculty and student involvement, by default the geographical area has to be accessible from Mumbai. Even by these standards, Mokhada in the erstwhile Thane district was far- no railway station close by and weather-beaten roads which made the four-hour drive last for six hours, besides being costly.
College projects also by default, think small as they are dependent on funds which get raised along the way; we therefore decided to limit ourselves to one PHC area; namely, to Gram Panchayats falling within the jurisdiction of one Primary Health Centre. We looked at it more as a Demonstration rather than as a full-fledged project. Staff therefore was limited to one Project Officer (a former student of the College) and two local youth.
Not knowing anyone in this remote tehsil was another issue. We knew some organisations who had been working with tribal communities in the district for some decades, but nobody specifically in the tehsil. Working out the logistics of accommodation, travel and food for our Project staff and the students who would visit the area every week, was our next challenge. Safety of our personnel was also a major concern initially until we got acquainted with people and they gradually understood the reason for our presence. In the early days, there was a whisper campaign against us- probably brought on by the name of the College and because several students who came for fieldwork were Christians. The rumour was that we were Christian missionaries and were there to convert the tribals!
A micro-planning exercise we did in all the hamlets of the Tehsil, helped in us getting to know and getting known to the villagers. The flip side was that we then had to exceed the boundaries we had set ourselves- geographically and programmatically too.
This meant that we set off on a journey of extending our health-related work to education and then to water. It also meant that we recruited more staff and got into the groove of writing fund requests to sustain the staff. As work increased so did our need to constantly get into fund-raising mode. Our leap into water conservation work in 2010 was a big one. It resulted in exponential growth of the organisation and also brought corporate funders to the organisation.
This was a double-edged sword. Water conservation work meant building structures- getting into construction; this was an entirely unknown territory for social workers like us. It also meant more money, more compliance, more monitoring, setting up processes and systems of spending, accounting, staffing, and the rest!
We realised soon that organisational development is not a linear process. The team that was working then was keen to take the leap and walk the uncharted paths. This helped the visibility of the organisation tremendously- in the eyes of people, in the eyes of the local government officials and in the eyes of the corporate donors. The rest of the challenges however, lagged behind. We learned certain lessons late in the life of the organisation!
With hindsight, one of the drawbacks of being a College project was that despite being able to garner a lot of funds for the programmes- thanks to the goodwill that the College has in Society- we were not able to build any corpus for the organisation.
Vivek: And what is your perspective for the coming years?
Anjali Kanitkar: Aroehan’s work over the years has ranged from awareness building of the communities on their rights and entitlements on issues of concern like health, education, employment and water, to rights-based and advocacy work on these same issues. It ranges from facilitating the generation of resources and building people’s capacity to manage these resources to educating people to engage with systems that control these resources.
Emerging from our learnings of fourteen years of dedicated work in the area, we have again re-confirmed to ourselves that the way forward is to align ourselves with the Sustainable Development Goals especially those which say No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Clean Water and Decent Work. Of course, to achieve all these for our communities we must build and empower a Responsible Citizenship which understands and engages with governance at the local levels.
These goals have helped us to focus on some significant key area of work in the forthcoming five years. Recent experiences due to the Corona pandemic have also added to our resolve. One of the foremost tasks we have set ourselves is to try and reduce by 50% the seasonal migration that pushes households into a cycle of poverty. This means generating sustainable livelihoods locally, strengthening agriculture practices to increase yield, and exploring new employment avenues for the youth, along with accessing Government schemes of employment generation and livelihood promotion.
Our initial goal was to reduce malnutrition related deaths in Mokhada. We have been able to put a dent in the numbers in the last few years, but we would like to reach a place where hunger does not kill. Our work related to Maternal and Child Health comprising of tracking and hand-holding pregnant women, ensuring that ICDS and Health services reach each and every household, empowering women in the communities to monitor that no family or child goes hungry, will continue on a war footing.
The pandemic has brought home even more strongly the fault-lines in our education system. Access, equity, quality is always an issue; national statistics show that 70% tribal children drop out of school by the time they reach Standard tenth. Our tribal ashram shalas and ZP schools are easily identifiable for what they don’t have rather than what they do. Lack of teachers, of infrastructure, of student-friendly pedagogy and a syllabus they can relate to – all are responsible for this drop-out rate apart from the need to join the work force. Retaining children in schools and making schools capable of retaining children at all costs, is our challenge. Working with teachers on pedagogy, facilitating the connection of school syllabus to lived realities of children, incorporating discussions on constitutional values, democratic principles, governance systems, gender equality, environmental consciousness, etc. and linking them to the situation of the communities from where the children come is a steep challenge.
In fact, through schools and through working with villagers, we aspire to build the concepts and values of ‘responsible citizenship’ – a scientific way of problem analysis to understand the processes and dynamics of village transformation. This constitutes our work on governance- people becoming knowledgeable about their entitlements and rights and being able to engage with the systems that control the operationalisation of these rights is an exercise in deepening democracy. Building Citizen’s Forums that will advocate for the rights of citizens in the tribal and poor communities of the region is essential if systems have to be nudged to fulfil their obligation to achieve the greatest common good.
Vivek: Ambitious goals indeed! What are the challenges before Aroehan?
Anjali Kanitkar: Needless to say, all our goals are uphill tasks! One of the first challenges is to develop protocols for all these and put in place milestones and measurable indicators. As in the case of all qualitative change, it is difficult- though essential- to work out activities and connect these to the outcomes expected.
Consistent training of our staff- all local youth- and equipping them with the cutting-edge knowledge and skills to empower the communities is another challenge.
Raising funds for this work is perhaps even more difficult now than ever before. Currently, corporate funds have been severely curtailed due to the economic situation, funds are being diverted to government and to Covid-19 relief work, and newer, more stringent compliance rules are tying down the non-profit sector. In such a scenario, developmental work which is qualitative in nature will not find many donors. We therefore need to connect with donors who think like us or are willing to walk with us on this difficult journey of transformation.
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.
“Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”