Arrival at Chirag

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Hello-ello…(-ello…) from 7,000 feet above! I’m writing to you from
the Chirag headquarters in Village Simayal in Uttarakhand, up in the
Central Himalayan region. Lucia and I arrived here late on Sunday
night and have been spending our past few days adjusting to rural
mountain life. For one, I’m drafting this post in the canteen since
I’m not sure when the next power outage will be and therefore when my
next internet connection will be possible (speaking of which, sorry
this entry is a day late!). But it’s easy to understand why everything
– the people, the wildlife, even the vegetation – chooses to adapt to
steep slopes and challenging conditions in order to survive here. The
beauty and the peace in this place are unlike anything I’ve seen
before, and I realized this as soon as I woke up to my first daylight
view.

 

On our first morning, we spoke with V. K. Madhavan, the director of
Chirag. It was wonderful to finally meet him in personand he gave us
several ideas about the existing projects as well as proposed projects
that we may find interesting. He suggested that we take the next week
to observe and shadow other projects so that we can develop an idea of
what we’d like to work on. It’s relieving (and refreshing) to find
ourselves in an organization that obviously values its interns’
interests and time, so much that they’re willing to let us choose our
area of involvement. I’ll be happy to help wherever possible, but the
past few days have certainly helped me shape my ideas.

 

So far, we’ve tagged along on several visits to nearby villages to
observe the forestry and planting projects that Chirag has introduced.
We learned about the tiered/terrace system that is necessary for
planting in this environment- a series of levels which is designed to
catch rain more effectively and disperse it across the hills. The
runoff from these levels is also strategically directed to provide for
hand pumps in the region. Another interesting fact we learned-
although pine trees are not indigenous to this region, they were
introduced during colonial times to provide timber and pine products
for the British and have since taken over the forests. They’re
apparently more resilient and water-greedy than oaks and have been
starving other vegetation as a result. For this reason, Chirag is
behind a major oak regeneration project aiming to increase the number
of oaks in the forests. Lesson of the day: pine trees = evil symbols
of colonialism. I’ll never look at a Christmas tree the same way
again.

 

We have also been interacting with some of the women’s self-help
groups (SHGs) in the area. Women are a powerful force around here!
Through Chirag’s guidance, it appears that several SHGs have been
established to assist women in managing financial matters, both on a
commercial and personal level. One cooperative we visited was run by a
woman who coordinated all of the women farmers in the area and
organized their products for large-scale sale in places as far as
Delhi. The government imposes restrictions on how small produce
contributions can be for large-scale selling, so Chirag has encouraged
and guided the formation of this women’s cooperative to combine
products and split the earnings. It is up to the woman in charge there
to determine the best vendors, most efficient transportation, etc.
Micro-financing groups have also been formed to allow for micro
lending (some more successful than others – a possible area of
interest for me moving forward).

 

It appears that Chirag is involved in a number of really great
initiatives in the area, and the best thing seems to be that they’re
not satisfied- they are constantly questioning their practices, asking
how they can improve, how they can create a better-equipped community.
Judging from my experiences and company in the past few days, I can
already tell it’s going to be an amazing summer here.

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About Shumita Basu

A host/producer/reporter at WNYC Radio