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Joydhak Workshop at Devipur, in the Sunderbans – May’30, 2010.

June 20, 2010

Joydhak Workshop at Devipur, in the Sunderbans – May’30, 2010.

The background:

Fifty Kilometers away from Joynagar railway station in the district of  South 24 Parganas of the Indian state of West Bengal, there flows a river called Thakurani. One of its banks is covered under the dense canopy of mangroves and on the other bank, surrounded almost on all sides by the various branches of Thakurani as well as by the main river itself, stands a village called Devipur.

Devipur is a very interesting place. Its one of the frontier human settlements standing between the civilized world of mainstream Bengal and the menacing Sunderbans and thus has to serve two masters for survival. The two masters , the nature on one side and the human ‘civilization’ on the other, function at two  completely different levels, both equally inscrutable and unpredictable.

The continuous subjugation to two such different , difficult and demanding masters has left an indelible stamp on the entire settlement. It’s a study in contrasts. People discuss the latest nabbing of a burglar or nabbing of a tiger on the village grounds in the same pitch as if there’s no difference between the two.

A casual visitor will find any number of such contrasts strewn around in the village grounds as well as in the collective psyche of its dwellers, but more of that later..

The Vishwashuk Sevashram Ashram of Ichhapur, 24 pgs (N), a voluntary organisation working for the economically weaker sections of the society, has got a branch at Devipur. During the Joydhak workshop at Ichhapur Ashram in January’2010 with their child beneficiaries, the Head of the Ashram had made a request for conducting a joint field visit and a workshop at Devipur to see what the Ashram could do there for the welfare of the local residents. The workshop in the village was scheduled on 30th May 2010.

The team:

The Joydhak team comprised Debjyoti Bhattacharyya and Sri Arindam Debnath.

Sri Shukananda Brahmachari (Makhan Maharaj), Secretary and Sri Shankar Mondal a voluntary worker joined us from the Vishwashuk Shevashram.

The visit:

We started at around nine in the morning in a vehicle of the Ashram. It was an old Maruti Omni converted into an ambulance (i.e. by putting a stretcher inside and a blue lamp outside on the roof of the car).

It happened to be an election day in Bengal as well as a Sunday. We gratefully flew through the almost deserted roads during the first leg of the journey. Everything was peaceful and not a ghost of any trouble could be seen anywhere.

The trouble began once we crossed Joynagar. It was around 11 AM. By then we had already driven 90 KMs in two hours and around 50 KM road was left. We were expecting to reach the destination by 12:30.

But, suddenly the road changed its skin and the hitherto smooth and sleek track became a terribly rough and bumpy one. The drive now became extremely slow and jerky, the sultry heat almost unbearable. At places there was absolutely no surface left and the car was behaving like a storm-teased boat. After a while the octogenarian Maharaj had to lie down on the stretcher. His head peacefully resting on Arindam’s lap, eyes closing occasionally stealing a few moments of fitful slumber, our discussions on various issues and projects  continued intermittently. The journey was proving too much for his body but not for his indomitable spirit.

Covering a distance of around 15 kilometers in the next one hour  we stopped for stretching our limbs a bit and went to a roadside tea-and-sweet vendor for a swig of tea. He was a short man with a disproportionately large moustache and a calm stoical look hanging like a permanent fixture on his face. For some time he appeared to communicate in a language made up of  gestures and monosyllables only. The break came when Arindam tasted one of his sweetmeats and expressed his high appreciation for it. Suddenly the man opened up and gushed out his feelings about how correct Arindam’s appreciation was and how the other city people did not appreciate anymore the true spirit of a Bengali sweetmeat.

Then came a long chat about many things under the Sun ranging from last year’s cyclone ‘Aila’ to the zooming price index and plight of the rural poor to the man’s surreal fixation about witnessing a moonrise in the southern sky. (This needs a little explanation: During our conversation the man had suddenly lowered his voice a notch and had informed in a conspiratorial tone  that for the last two days he had been watching  the moon rising on the southern sky. He had mistaken us to be traveling journalists and wanted us to write about this when we went back. Maybe a shrewd ploy at a gimmick to bring his name in the media! Who knows. The man didn’t appear to be insane or inebriated.)

“When do you think we shall be able to reach Devipur?” Arindam asked the man while we were preparing to leave.  “Two hours more,” the man informed, and then added stoically, “Since the Aila last year, the roads here have really deteriorated at places……its all bad luck you know…….”

He was speaking as if the road and its condition was also a natural feature and should be accepted as if it was handed down to man by nature. Nowhere in his tone could we find anything remotely resembling sarcasm or skepticism towards the slow pace of state intervention in restoring damaged civic amenities. He has accepted the terrible road condition continuing now for around a year just in the same manner as he and his ancestors have always accepted a bad monsoon or a flash flood. That’s what is popularly been called the ‘Oriental fatalism.’ Being familiar with this laid back mental set up prevailing in many areas of rural India, we did not find this attitude out of place. But then, everybody is not like that! Two hours away, a different kind of mindset was awaiting us.


The tea shop owner proved right. It was almost past two when the van finally pulled up in front of a largish piece of land sporting a few huts and a small brick structure. That was the Ashram property at Devipur.

A local resident was waiting there for us with a can of sugarcane juice. The middle-aged man was quite well to do in local standards and thus was in a position to  devote some spare time for pious work. So he has taken the responsibility of looking after the Ashram as a local manager. A small blackboard hung at one corner of the long verandah indicating that some teaching activity was done there. The man informed that his son, who had made a failed attempt at graduation at some point of time, gave lessons to some local students at this facility provided by the Ashram. And there ended the role of the Ashram in the local society.

But why, despite having this excellent piece of property, the Ashram is not able to increase its activities here while they can run free schools, low cost dispensaries, press and many other such activities in their other locations?

The local person had overheard our conversation while pouring the cane juice into glasses and handing them over to us. Suddenly he intervened with a simple remark, “For the Ashram to be active some Ashramite needs to come as a resident in this Ashram–somebody who is capable enough. Otherwise the Ashram will be able to do nothing.”

Makhan Maharaj nodded his assent and added, “He is right. Somebody should come and stay here and start the work. These people are ready to take the responsibility of maintaining him. Their food is simple, coarse but sustaining. The man will get all the basic amenities like food , cloth and shelter. But, nobody is ready to come and stay. Obviously, a family man will not be able to do that. Only a Sannyasi can do that, and that is the rarest kind of human resource these days. I donot understand why they are becoming so rare—-’

The demand of the local man and the confused lamentation of the Maharaj are logical results of a long social evolution. It will not be out of place to discuss it a bit here.



What the Maharaj was trying to say relates to a unique  development model which has been time tested in rural India. In this model, the wandering monks, knowledgeable men who   renounced all personal worldly hankerings, used to carry the light of (both worldly and transcendental) knowledge from place to place and wherever they stayed they became the source of knowledge and guidance for the local simple rural folk. With the advent of Europeans and the resulting commercialization of both education and development under the aegis of Occidental perspective of life, the model took a back seat and retreated from the happening scenes of Indian ‘mainstream’ to that vast hinterland called rural India. That was beginning of end of this model of development in India.

Slowly the model lost its relevance in an ever increasing sense as the urban society expanded. However, due to a not-so-advanced communication technology the slowly shrinking rural community remained  insulated from the changes in the urban domains and hence this model of development could still continue in such insulated domains where time stood still. But finally, beginning from the eighties , the revolution in communication technology  spelt its final doom. The predominant market driven social model stepped in, and without outwardly changing the villages into cities, recast the lifestyle and perspectives there, remodeled the lifestyle philosophies and created a different class that has essentially become consumerist without first becoming urban.

Quite naturally this social environment is not conducive to generation of people fit to serve in the ways the traditional Sannyasi has served  the society, and as a result of rapidly diminishing supply of adequate number of resource persons this model is fast losing its steam as well as role, so fast that sometimes the existing people in this trade, the Sannyasis who had started their career as social servants and reformers a few decades back, feel dizzied by the speed of the change and manifests a sense of loss through these kind of comments.



The need for leadership and guidance however remains strongly felt in these hybrid societies with an urban aspiration and a rural look, because of  still existing inequalities in the societies. Though the people here are being fast programmed by the aggressive communication and media tools to know more of the dainties of an urban life, the basic infrastructures for food, shelter, education  and health are as yet inadequate and a lot is required to be done in those areas.

The existing Sannyasis with their static world views are not adequately equipped to handle these situations. They even donot speak the prevailing language! The situation needs a new breed of social workers trained in the intricacies of this new socio-economic fabric, the new desires, the new fears and the same time they should be selfless too. Such people are not born in the regular processes of the society. They are the exceptions but they do exist. Joydhak has been witnessing a number of such new gen Sannyasis in the form of Subrata Biswas in Priyabala Vidyabithi, Falguni heading the Ravindra Smriti Vidyalaya at Bamangachhi, Shivaji, who has created a Ramkrishnite free school, again at Bamangachhi, Mr. P.K. Biswas and his school “Nivedita Vidyapith at Radhanagar, of South 24 Parganas,  Sri Dulal Maharaj, operating mainly among the rural tribal folks of Maharastra, and many others like them.

The above discussion will hopefully explain the dynamics of the two casual remarks mentioned earlier, one by the local caretaker of the Ashram properties regarding need for a resident leader  and the confused lamentation of  the Maharaj in response.


The local resident gave a picture of the socio economic structure of this marginal settlement balanced precariously on borderline between human society and the mangrove wilderness.

A lot of local land has become salt caked due to the floods following the destructive cyclone of last year. At least another year’s rain will be required to cleanse the land to some extent to make them productive. The producing lands are single harvest ones but if one can manage a shallow bore well the same land is capable giving two harvests (“As my land is doing. I have a shallow,” he added smiling”) But then not everybody can afford that and there exists no infrastructure through which the community can provide such facilities to weaker individuals.

“There is yet no electricity supply here. That’s a major problem,” the local caretaker of the Ashram lamented. At this , another youth sitting close by and listening to the discussions interjected, “But soon we shall have electricity here. They were discussing the other day. Soon the government people will start putting poles and drawing cables…we shall not have much difficulty then. There will be light, and we shall be able to watch television….” and that’s the local youth’s involuntary response to the question of  how to make use of electricity!

Health facility is poor. The local quacks are the main source of health service. The nearest health station is quite a few kilometers away. So are the nearest bank and railway station. The only contact with mainstream Bengal is through the ill maintained vein of road through which we came and the only protection from the mangrove predators in the  wall of flowing water of Thakurani. Tigers do visit the village. The latest one roamed free for two weeks before it could be netted by the forest officials.


Our food had been arranged in the house of this mentor. After a  quick wash and lunch of rice, dal and some vegetables and fish we gathered under a large tree. Small talks on various subjects gradually gravitated towards the main focus—poverty and lack of future in their lives.

The only question that was being fired to us in various forms and in various tones ranging from pleading to sarcastic was, what assistance could we provide through government machineries for the villagers? The mood was pretty clear, if you are capable of that, tell so and we shall discuss, otherwise you are wasting our time.

We enquired as to what they understood by “Assistance”. The replies that came back , again in various forms and with varying levels of clarity was that they felt that they needed more share of the various government aids provided to the rural poor in the form of different poverty alleviation schemes.

The schemes, in place in various forms for some decades now in India can be summarized in one line—push in some money in the rural economy in the form of food or wage for artificially generated work.

Various such schemes do exist , both for men and women, and they are playing a great role in avoiding hunger and sufferings arising out of abject poverty in many segments of the country. In essence the schemes are a form of aid that makes an weak attempt towards equitable distribution of aggregate wealth generated by the nation by channeling some extra wealth from its wealthier regions to the poorer regions.

Such schemes , though playing a major role in rural lives of India for quite sometime now, are riddled with many problems ranging from corruption to inadequacy of fund and issues of inappropriate timings. But the most glaring drawback of such schemes (positive statistics notwithstanding) is that most of the times they are not executed to ensure that the money so injected in a system recycles and multiplies itself. An aid mostly remains an aid and is not transformed into an investment capable of recouping the capital in time and of generating a profit in the process so that the same money can grow and re-inject itself into the system. In short, such aids do not put in place a permanent solution by transforming itself into a permanent and profit generating asset. Thus , in effect it remains a dignified alms given by the richer citizens to their poorer brethren through the governmental machinery , a significant part of which again is siphoned off before reaching the targets by various modes which we can generally term as ‘Transmission loss’.

So we began our talk by simply asking them whether they had been getting any such assistance already.

The replied that yes they were getting some work or monetary assistance under some such schemes but that was far less than adequate.

Our next question was what they had done with that money. This drew a clear blank. First they did not understand the implication of so trivial a question. Once again we repeated it and they replied that they had spent the same in satisfying various domestic needs.

Next we asked whether they ever gave back anything in return. The answer was a no.

The next question was simple and straightforward—whether they considered themselves as beggars or not.

The question drove home. The people fell silent for a while only to come back with a gusto, “Then what do you people suggest?”

So we made our suggestion. It was simple. Make use of existing resources, however meager they are and make the grow.

A discussion ensued where the existing resources and their possible uses were listed. These were:

1. Working space:

    The Ashram had a property of around two bighas. They will allow the villagers to make use of this.

    2. Capital:

      The men of the village run a small rural financing business. The scheme is very simple. Each contributed some little fund to make a small corpus of few  thousand Rupees. When somebody is in need of money they lend it from the corpus at a high rate of interest. The income is distributed among the stakeholders proportionately. Some take it out and some reinvest it, thus increasing his stake. It was planned that a portion of this could be invested as initial capital.

      3. Ideas:

        For men: Moong dal hasking machine is a low cost item and easy to handle. Installing this machine in harvest time would generate enough seasonal work that would pay for the machine in a season or two. Then the rest would be profit.

        Mustard production is quite substantial in this area. The production is mainly used for production of mustard oil at subsistence level but the presses available in the area are less efficient and give lesser output. If a high efficiency press could be installed , the villagers themselves, expert and intelligent farmers as they are, were convinced that the machine will get job round the clock. Coming to the issue of power to run these implements, one member gave a simple solution, Purchase one diesel operated motor and different types of belts and the same motor can run different machine based on need.

        Once they have some assets to show they will also be able to get loan from banks, thus increasing their working capital. Once started, this will multiply, but the most difficult part was to make the beginning.

        We left the germ of the idea at this stage in their minds allowing them some mental space to mull over it and judge its various consequences. We put our confidence on the native intelligence of the farming community and decided to await and respect the outcome of their thought process.

        It was decided that Shri Sankar Mondal, representative of the Ashram, will keep in touch with the people there, help in developing the ideas further with assistance from the Joydhak team and when the people are psychologically and physically ready to begin the venture, will arrange to provide the requisite infrastructure in the form of making a part of the Ashram space available for the project, assisting in procurement of the machines (if possible , second hand machines at cheaper price) from the Kolkata market and getting necessary help in installation of the simple devices.

        It was decided that the matter would be reviewed again after the rainy seasons are over and when the season for mustard and moong draws near. That will be right point for the second push.

        The fundamental principle of the proposal was developing a partnership were the benefactor would invest only in kind (providing some physical infrastructure and the requisite initial leadership) while the beneficiary group will garner their existing resources—money (whatever meager amount they can bring together  would have to do as a start), human resource and skill. This will help in developing a sense of ownership about the scheme among the beneficiaries and it will not remain merely a Government aid programme from which one expects some alms only, giving back nothing in return.

        For Women: Two schemes came up during the discussion:

        (a) a soft toy making business could be started by a group of women. The group should have at least 7 to 8 members. Soft toys have got a huge readymade market at all levels of the society. There are wholesalers who provide the requisite raw materials and take delivery of final products on payment of wages. The role of the Ashram would be to provide basic local infrastructure, help in primary skill development among some of the women by arranging for their training and then to arrange for initial selling of their products in the wholesale markets.

        (b) Arindam came up with a second suggestion: one of his friends has a business of domestic and overseas selling of Indian handicrafts. One item of his trade is painted clay pots and lamps. It will be the employer’s responsibility to provide all the raw materials and the work will be done on wage basis. No capital investment is required by the women. All they would need would be some space and some rudimentary basic skills which could be easily provided.

        Once the ball starts rolling a part of the income could be invested in micro finance , but that would be a second level idea, to be considered if and when the first stage succeeds.

        It was decided that the matter would be reviewed after  a period of one month between the Ashram representatives and the representatives of the group of women of the locality wherein the plan will be finalized and next course of action started.

        The date for that second stage is approaching now. By end of June we shall be able to provide updated information regarding progress of this scheme. In the meantime a group of institutes providing training in soft toy making has been identified by Joydhak and the list has been provided to the Ashram representative.


        While coming back we had stopped the car at a deserted spot. Shankar, who is a frequent visitor here, led us through salt encrusted sterile lands to a spot near the river. The majestic Thakurani flowed silently with its silvery gray spread of water. It was low tide time. A rivulet emptying into the river lay idle– its water mass almost completely drained by the sea-ward  pull of the low tide. A thin line of water was still trickling through the very center of it. The dense forest on the opposite bank was gradually enveloping itself into the evening mist. A menacing silence prevailed, accentuated by the constant whining of wind all round us. Under the calm of that approaching evening , the village waited silently for a change. Will this change happen? We shall wait and see.

        A request

        This Devipur experiment has just begun. All ideas and suggestions to enrich it are welcome. Please send in your ideas in comment mode. Any idea counts.

        8 Comments leave one →
        1. biplab permalink
          July 5, 2010 18:42

          I had gone through the write up. I think I can help in technical development side – as i am working on the same subject for alst 15 years in Gujarat. pl give me contact no such that I can call and try to understand in detail and then prepare the action plan. I will love to assist Joydhak team in all developmental initiative. I am confident of a +ve outcome .
          Biplab K Paul

          United Water International, SW
          Dutch Water Services(India)

          • July 5, 2010 22:11

            Thanks for your proposal. We have sent you a mail already at your mail ID. Kindly have a look.

        2. rahul permalink
          July 27, 2010 17:19

          really great job..!!!!!!!!!!!!

        3. Sanhita permalink
          September 20, 2010 23:33

          From the whole text I can sum up 3 points on changing the situation:
          1. The river transgression and subsequent breaking of dams can be prevented if the mud dams are constructed during May and subsequently covered with chunks of local grasses on both river facing as well as leeward side of the dam; after installing grass chunks sprinkle of water is essential. The rest of the longevity will be taken care off by subsequent rains. later on during rain, Palms (taal); phoenix, date palm, betel nut trees can be planted along the dam to strengthen the soil binding along the structure.
          2. The salt water intrusion into the agricultural fields can be resisted by means of rain water harvesting. No big harvesting tank is required. Just collecting of roof top water (of the most of the roofs – slant of flat, if not all) and channeling it into the ground water table is enough. The slant roofs’ can be bordered with halved bamboo channels with a slope in the direction of the portion from where the downward movement of water starts; these bamboo channels will collect all the rain water coming from the roof and then send it through the downward whole bamboo channel upto 4-5 feet underground. Rest is natural process of raising ground water table above the level of salt water penetration. The existing salt content will be diluted as a corollary effect of rainwater harvesting.
          The other solution for decreasing salinity is to plant mango, jack fruit, kadam trees around the agricultural fields, if these are not inundated by tidal water; otherwise, germinated seeds of mangrove trees can be collected and planted during lowtide day time along the boundaries of agricultural lands.
          3. Women can cultivate mushroom like SHGs of Nimpith (contact no. 03218-226003). or can raise the plants on which honeycombs are built by the bees of Sundarbans and subsequently raise apiary.

          • arindam debnath permalink
            September 23, 2010 13:29

            We intent to visit the village on 10th of October and we will pursue the whole idea to the villager.

            Arindam Debnath


        3. Devipur Experiment–latest workshop on 23/1/2011-an Update « So much to do!!!!

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