Pillion rides in Naxal Territory – Internship at TATA Trusts
“The summer heat is unbearable. At 45 degrees, the air itself seems to have taken on the magical property of suffocating humans in broad daylight. I curse myself for having opted out of the summer internship process of my college in order to spend two months in the social sector. As I hold on to the rear of the motor bike for dear life, the only person I can think of, strangely enough, is Heimdall, the guardian Sentry of Asgard in the Marvel Comics Universe. “Heimdall, beam me up from this godforsaken place!”, I utter a silent prayer.
After another uncomfortable 30 minutes on the bumpy road, we finally arrive at our destination. Soaking wet with sweat and covered with the dust thrown up by the wheels on the unpaved road, I wasn’t in the best of moods. I sit down under the gigantic tree beside which we had parked our bike. The minutes pass. A short time later, to my utter surprise, I find a group of 12-15 women clothed in identical brightly yellow sarees trooping along towards me with mats under their arms and carrying an earthen pot with water. After offering me a glass of water, they spread the mats below the mammoth tree and we subsequently begin what turns out to be my first meeting with a Self-Help-Group. I learn that these small groups of women dot the tribal landscape of Jharkhand and act as agents of women empowerment at the grass root level and also as the nodal points through which various NGOs carry out their programs in the villages. In one word, it was fascinating.
At the end of the meeting, I utter another small prayer to the all-seeing Sentry. “Heimdall, my old man. Good thing you did not beam me up after all.” ”
– Diary entry, first day of my internship
For the very first time, XLRI had conducted a summer internship process for the Social Sector last year, termed ‘Parivartan’. ‘Parivartan’ concluded before the normal summer internship process (for corporate internships) began and only two of us managed to get through and got placed with the Tata Trusts.
The Trusts, some of the oldest philanthropic institutions in India, are heavily involved in improving the livelihood of poor and marginalised tribals of the country. As grant making bodies, the Trusts work through various NGOs to implement changes on the ground. I was handed the task of conducting a Value Chain Analysis of Lac (a farming product). Since the Trusts were involved only in the farming portion of the value chain, this project would help in the identification of the areas in the Lac value chain where the Trusts can intervene for maximum effectiveness.
Jharkhand being the largest producer of Lac in the country, I spent my entire summer travelling around in the tribal pockets of Jharkhand. By the end of my internship, I had covered over 1650 kms by road to meet my project deliverables.
I spent the first two weeks in a town called Khunti, approx. 40 kms from Ranchi. I tied up with the local NGO partners, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra (NBJK) and SUPPORT, to make field trips into the villages to conduct interviews and collect primary data on the farmer’s production volumes and techniques. To be honest, the field trips were the scariest part of my internship. I was never allowed to travel alone and always rode pillion on a bike with a representative from the partner. Only much later did I come to know that some of the villages were well within the ‘Red Corridor’, and an unknown face travelling alone were liable to be stopped and ‘questioned’ by naxalites!
From farmers I moved on to interviewing traders and factory owners, who were the downstream actor in the Lac value chain. I also made a trip to the largest commodity market of raw lac in India, located in Balrampur in West Bengal, to develop a working model of how the market functioned and how it could be leveraged for increasing the farmer’s income. By the end of May I had traced the movement of lac from the farmer’s fields in Khunti and Hazaribagh, through the local markets and traders, to the lac factories and finally till Kolkata port, from where the processed Lac was exported by sea to customers in various countries like Germany and the US.
The data collected was analysed to identify business models for the farmer that could be used for increasing his earning potential.
1. Be prepared to work in an unstructured environment. I had to work under minimal supervision and was expected to interact with the NGOs and farmers to create my own itinerary and travel plans. Although the freedom can be quite exhilarating, it can also lead to project drift if one is not careful.
2. No matter how altruistic your reasons may be for joining the social sector, be prepared for regret! Facebook, that bane of our modern lives, won’t let you sleep in peace. Even though your project may have a direct, tangible and immediate effect on the earning capacity and lives of some of India’s most marginalised people, you’ll still feel that twinge of regret when you see images of your best friends raising toasts at HRC Bangalore or walking the beaches of Singapore at sunset.
To conclude, my summer internship was oddly satisfying, inspite of the numerous ups and downs. At the end of the day, no one can take away from you the satisfaction of knowing that you had used your hard-earned managerial skills for the ‘greater good’. Someday, I’ll sit down with my best friends and have those two beers at Hard Rock Café, Bangalore, but I’ll never again get the opportunity to be up close and personal with the tribal hinterland of India.
(official entry to Summer Saga 2015)
Pranabjyoti Kalita is a student of Human Resource Management at XLRI, Jamshedpur. He blogs here.