Oh, Hot Dam

Who knew celcius went above 40 degrees? The climate–both temperature and attitude–of the Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) campus had met me and Kelly with a warm welcome. After arriving on campus last Thursday afternoon with the help of Prasan, an employee and former intern of SPS, we settled in for the first few days of the internship full of introductions to the organization and to new people, languages, and landscapes.

SPS Organization

I came to the CASI/SPS experience not knowing what exactly to expect, but I was still surprised to learn of the scale of SPS’s work. The main office of SPS is in the town of Bagli within the Dewas district, and the 100+ employees work a range of villages of various sizes and populations throughout the region. For example, on our drive from the Indore airport to Bagli, Prasan described her work with women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) that encompasses 4,000+ women of 4,000+ families over 4 clusters of villages (one cluster = 16 villages). SHGs are just one of the SPS programs including Watershed Development, Agriculture, Livestock & Alternative Livelihoods, Kumbaya, and the Right to Food with the goal of providing security and empowerment to the villages of the historically under-resourced Dewas district. As an intern for SPS, I am particularly interested in learning about the development, operations, and progress of the watershed program.

Campus Life

About a forty minute drive down the plateau from the main Bagli office is the SPS training campus where most of the interns and some of the employees and their families stay. There are a handful of other interns from throughout India also staying on campus who have been so friendly and helpful with the adjustment to SPS life. Most of the campus gathers 2-3 times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner served in the mess hall. The meals have been a variety of vegetarian dishes (potato, okra, peppers, jackfruit, grains, beans, etc.) served with rice, roti, and lassi. Over the meals, we have gotten to learn about the other interns’ work, as well as comparing food styles, music, and movies.Some of the English speaking residents have also been helping us pick up some new Hindi vocabulary.

During free time, when the sun starts to go down in the late afternoon, I’ve been able to join some of the interns and kids living on campus for football and frisbee. After dinner, the real competition begins with “ti-ti” (table tennis). Quick play and devious returns have made for some disheartening defeats, as well some glorious victories. Some highlights have been my first career football assist (I’ll glance over my number of fouls and missed passes) and showing off my semi-competent frisbee skills (thank you, American college!).

My room on campus is comfortable and complete with a western toilet, bucket shower, and water-cooled fan, which has been a life saver in the central Indian heat. I share the room with a few geckos who have been great roommates thus far for taking care of the flies and mosquitoes. Everyone on campus has been so considerate in asking on how I’m finding the stay, which has made the experience all the better.

A photo of my building on SPS campus.

A photo of my building on SPS campus.

Project Development

This past week, most of our work has consisted of learning about the history and programs of SPS through its books, articles, manuals, website, and films. After meeting with our supervisors, Viju and Nevidita, the initial project goal set for us is to collect case studies or “success/non-success stories” for projects implemented by SPS in the past 3-4 years, the time since SPS last had a major published update on its programs. To write the case studies, Kelly and I will divide up the different programs and conduct interviews with various stakeholders and make visits to project-specific sites. This project will help to update SPS’s records and website, as well as provide me a valuable learning experience in NGO project planning and evaluation. The first program I will be working with is the Watershed program.

Neemkheda Dam Visit

As a part of the introduction to SPS this week, we were taken on a visit to the Neemkheda Dam, built in 2007 as a water storage structure for the adjacent village. One of the SPS employees, Ardra, working on the Participatory Groundwater Management (PGWM) project, guided our walk to the dam, covering important geologic and hydrological factors that influence agriculture and livelihood in the village. After loosing the path, we were lead to the headwaters of the Neemkheda stream by a group of young boys herding their goats. Ardra pointed out the overflow structures, such as boulder checks and gabion structures, that slow stream flow and reduce downstream sedimentation. She described how both the engineers and locals built the structures using readily available materials (small boulders and mud) and local knowledge of stream habit. This style of barefoot engineering has proved to be successful in engaging the villagers in the water harvesting projects. Some of the structures, including the larger Neemkheda Dam, which stores surface water for post-monsoon season use, were in need of maintenance. This raises the question of who should be responsible for the maintenance–the implementing agency (SPS) or the structure users (the villagers)? Overall, the visit was highly informative, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Running notes on personal experience:

– I loved geeking-out at the rocks on our site visit: columnar basalt & Deccan trap flows

– The birds here are amazing–all shapes, sizes, colors, and sounds

– I’ve been learning some key words, such as theek hain (okay) and chini (sugar–especially important for the curd with lunch)

– The designated chai tea breaks have been wonderful

– The campus has begun a countdown to the highly anticipated monsoon. I’ll hold out on posting a video of my rain dance.

Staying cool,


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About Andrew Shannon

UPenn Earth and Environmental Sciences '15, Masters of Science in Applied Geosciences '16 Intern with SPS for the summer of 2015 in Bagli, Madhya Pradesh