SEDS, the Social Education and Development Society, was founded in 1980 by Rajen Joshua and Manil Jayasena as a grassroots development NGO, motivated by the desire to help the poorest of the poor in the drought-prone area of Anantapur District in Andhra Pradesh. In the early days, the main focus of the work was on community development by way of non-formal education and small loans to skilled target communities like cobblers, basket weavers, blanket weavers and others.

As Anantapur is the second most drought prone area in India and much of its natural resources are depleted, it soon became clear that environmental problems would have to be tackled first, if peoples’ livelihoods were to be made sustainable. Starting in 10 villages near the small town of Penukonda a scheme of pioneering work was developed which aimed to empower local communities and improve their environment. Initially small nurseries were started for homestead plantations and planting of avenue trees along village roads. Re-a-forestation and more sustainable agricultural practices were introduced. From 1990, SEDS started using a more participatory approach, through the formation of Community Based Organizations. Involving the communities more in the effort made them actual stakeholders in the development process of the region. Throughout the years the scope and area of the work increased and the fruits of the sustained efforts became visible in the greener environment and the enthusiasm of the communities.

Today, SEDS is working through an integrated rural development approach with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, watersheds, re-a-forestation and natural resource management. This is within five Mandals in the southern part of Anantapur District, in south western Andhra Pradesh namely, Penukonda, Roddam, Gorantla, Somandepalli and Chilamathur. In these 5 mandals SEDS currently supports 125 villages, being some 12000 women and their families, 980 Self Help Groups (SHGs), 120 Village Organisations (VOs) & 5 Mandal Samakyas (MMSs) .

Through its sustained efforts SEDS has made a significant impact on the lives of the people in the area and the local environment. The SEDS slogan “Towards a greener tomorrow” has become a reality.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Coming to SEDS

Coming to India was something of a whirlwind, touch and go affair for me. I resolved to travel to Andrha Pradesh to work at the Social Education and Development Society (SEDS) with my close school friends Nikki Ghorpade (whose family lives in Bangalore) and Douglas Jakobi during an equally impromptu visit to Miami – where Nikki attends university – back in March. What I didn’t count on was the rigidity of the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C., who basically refused to issue a visa to a UK citizen studying in the United States.

What followed was a flurry of rejected visa requests and applications, frenzied calls to companies designed to ease the process and the eventual realization that I would have to simply apply when I got home to London and then join my friends in India a little over a week later.

While I was twiddling my thumbs, watching rubbish films like Pirates 4 and venturing up to Twickenham Stadium to watch two rugby games in the space of seven days, my friends were sweating it out in the Indian heat .

My passport finally came back with the visa intact and within a few days I was on the Heathrow to Bangalore flight. A conversation with a Bangalorian sitting next to me on the plane confirmed many of my suspicions about India as a first time visitor: yes, Bangalore is very busy; yes, you should watch out for taxis and storekeepers trying to scam you; yes, the trains and buses couldn’t get any more crowded. But Andrah Pradesh? No tourists out there, hardly any crime, very traditional experience.

Certainly, walking out of the uber modern Bangalore airport at four in the morning and being confronted immediately by a Baskin-Robbins and a Subway was not quite what I was expecting from a country which I knew mainly from old Sharpe novels and certain parts of East London.

But as my taxi driver drove us out of Bangalore, the novelties of city life fell away around me. English signs advertising Sheraton hotels or jewelry stores were replaced by signs written in Hindi directing patrons to small shacks selling crisps, water and coconuts; bridges and tunnels disappeared and all that left was the road. For a few hours of my life, at least, I felt like Dean Moriarty, hurtling down that flat road into somewhere that I didn’t know, something that I had never experienced before.

As we dodged errant wild dogs which threw themselves in front of the wheels of the car and swerved to avoid cows or sheep which were simply sleeping in the middle of road, I was struck by just how totally different it was from where I had been just one day earlier. Skinny women sat on the ground, breaking nuts with a stone or a brick, with their children running around in the dirt, smiling and laughing and breaking out the biggest smiles in the entire world.

We arrived at SEDS at 7:30 AM, drove in through the golden-yellow gates and continued down the dusty driveway lined on both sides by tremendous coconut trees. SEDS’ motto is “Toward a Greener Tomorrow” – and on that front, they are certainly making progress. The driveway is paved with bright green royal oak trees which wouldn’t look out of place in Malibu, and the rest of the campus is chock full of coconut trees, bushes and plants.

Within a few hours I had awoken Douglas and Nikki and we were hurtling down the road in a resilient old Land Rover belonging to Rajen Joshua, one half of the married couple who created SEDS back in 1980. Rajen is a very large man with a big bushy mustache who carries a lot of respect around this rural area; I had previously heard that he had successfully repelled an attempt by the Indian mob to run him off the property.

As we drove down the road, Rajen exchanged harsh words with the driver of a small white car because he cut him off near the train track and literally ran into a cow that didn’t move out of his way fast enough. Twenty minutes later, we were bouncing along rocky trails which led into the Barren Hills where SEDS has set up watersheds to trap the few spats of water which fall over the monsoon season in manmade lakes in order to raise the water index and help nearby trees to grow. Rajen was very proud of the work that he and his organization has accomplished over the last thirty years and treated us three foreigners to an Indian picnic of fried chillis and mangoes in a shady grove in quite possibly the most isolated spot that I have ever been in.

We returned to SEDS and I collapsed on my bed, exhausted. Since then the experience has been a strange but culturally rewarding one. I hope to write a few more of these blog entries over the course of my three weeks here and try to show both my growing appreciation for the nobility and character of the Indian people as well as the work being accomplished by SEDS in this area.