Conference Call with Anawim Project in Mangalwadi
Friday, May 28, 2004 9:45 PM
Attendees: Asha – Tara, Vishnu, Saurabh, Suma; Anawim – Shanti; Mangalwadi – Bhagwati (teacher)
Special thanks to Vishnu for his superb Tamil/English translating skills!
After some brief internal discussion, we called Shanti, the Anawim representative who is now coordinating all of the Asha Centers on behalf of Anawim. Shanti lives close to Mangalwadi in another village with an Asha Center. She has taken over coordination of the Asha Centers from Shekhar, who has been promoted to a position in Coimbatore. He comes back once a month to visit/advise Anawim. Shanti is very enthusiastic, is very much in touch with all of the villages Anawim is working with in the area, and was very informative. We will miss Shekhar and wish him all the best in his new role, but we are also very happy to be working with Shanti.
Shanti told us that the Mangalwadi project is coming along very well. The students are all doing well in their studies and are very enthusiastic about the program. The students all passed their exams this year, and several did exceptionally well. 7 (maybe 8?) of the students recently attended a water conservation/management seminar run by Anawim, and 3 students attended a 15-day computer course run by Anawim. The students are continuing to attend the Asha Center through the summer holidays. Bhagwati has completed her teacher training, and Shanti is happy with her progress. She considers Bhagwati to be an experienced and well-trained teacher.
We walked through the most recent account statement with Shanti, line by line. (See http://www.ashanet.org/datastore/data/Chapters/NYCNJ/Projects/Mangalwadi/Mangalwadi_-_May_04_Accounts.pdf.) The expenses all seemed reasonable to us and were in line with our expectations. The classes and other activities are unfortunately still taking place in a small shed temporarily (since the new land was just purchased and construction is soon to begin) so there have been some repair/maintenance costs to keep the shed in decent shape. Other costs included the teacher’s salary and the cost of nutritional supplements (spirulina, which is made into biscuits for the children, as well as grams and other nutritional foods), the regional newspaper (which the class reads together in the morning), play materials, transportation (to seminars, to district-wide meetings, and for Anawim representatives who visit the villages), etc. Also, the new plot of land was purchased and they just received the documents from the registration office. Construction will thus begin in the first week of June, and is expected to take a couple of months. The one line item that jumped out at us was the budgeted cost of the new construction, which has increased roughly 50% since our initial estimate. This is due to a large rise in the cost of the building materials (the bricks, sandstone, mortar, etc.). We have experienced this increase in prices at other Asha/Anawim centers as well as at other projects (e.g., SKB). Note that the cost of the initial attempt at construction (in the old location) does not show up on this budget as it never got beyond the foundation-digging stage, and so the cost was nominal.
Regarding the microcredit program, Shanti explained that some of the prior loans — under a prior program, not our microcredit program, which has not yet begun — on which villagers had defaulted were slowly being repaid (only about Rs. 5,000 have been repaid so far, out of loans of Rs. 34,000). In some cases, this was because the women misused the money, using it to pay back moneylenders to whom they were indebted, which meant that they could not use the money for income-generating activities and hence could not pay it back. While the prior loans may never be fully repaid, Shanti seems confident that the new loans will not be subject to the same issues. Many women have approached her regarding the new microcredit program and seem eager and committed to begin new ventures. This commitment will be supported by a stronger network (and thus more peer pressure!) and the knowledge that the funds will all be benefiting the women’s and the village’s own children.
Some of the income-generating activities that women in this area undertake include the making of palm-leaf mats, the making of thatch from coconut, the retailing of soap for a commission, the cooking and selling of various food items (sweets, idli, dosa, vada, etc.), and the formation of a petty shop. The latter — a small convenience store that sells soda, candies, cigarettes, newspapers, etc. — is particularly popular in this area and the one that has been founded in Mangalwadi is doing very well.
Shanti mentioned that there are actually three separate women’s groups in Mangalwadi, but the fact that there are multiple groups has not created problems (i.e., competition, hostility, etc.). Also, she noted that the recent change in the government may be favorable for the project. The villagers have submitted requests for several loans from the government, but there are all still pending and have not been approved.
Regarding the question of sustainability, Shanti mentioned that two of the Asha Centers (Valasubramaniapuram, supported by Asha-WAH, and Kurangantattu, supported by Asha Seattle) have become autonomous. The two centers are 3 and 4 years “in the making,” respectively, and became autonomous in April and January of this year. The centers are continuing to do very well on their own, coordinated by the women’s groups in each village. Thus, the underlying business model of these projects seems to be proving itself out. One of these two projects took 4 years to reach this level of sustainability primarily because the microcredit program did not start until after a year had passed. Thus, since we are in a similar situation, we can probably expect the project in Mangalwadi to take about 3 more years before it is ready for autonomy.
Another interesting thing that Shanti mentioned was that the women’s groups across all of the villages in this area (which Anawim is working with) have formed a federation. Within the federation, there are clusters of villages in the different districts which meet monthly to discuss and exchange ideas. Overall, they seem to be building a very active and helpful local network!
At this stage, we conferenced Bhagwati (the teacher in Mangalwadi) into the call.
Bhagwati had similar praise for the students in Mangalwadi. There are 51 students attending the center regularly (25 boys and 26 girls) between the 1st and 12th standards. They all passed their exams and several did exceptionally well. Though most of the children are younger, two students passed the 10th standard to continue to the 11th standard, and one girl passed the 12th standard (with marks of 890/1200… not bad!) and will be starting a B.Sc. in Nursing later this year. Many students attended the water conservation seminar organized by Anawim, and three students attended Anawim’s 15-day computer course, finished their training, and received a certificate.
Over the summer holidays, the students have continued to come to the center to do some light work and reading and to play carrom and various other games. Also, they have taken up various projects in the summer. For example, the Eco-Club, run by students, led by one boy and one girl, meets monthly to discuss their thoughts and ideas regarding their environment and how they can improve it. The club presents their recommendations to the teacher, who advises the group and helps them to implement their ideas. Over the summer holidays, the club has cleaned the surroundings of the new village well and cleaned the village streets. They have gotten other youngsters and villagers to help them in the process. The club also organized a celebration in which they talked about the environment, performed skits and other items, explained how to keep the environment clean, etc. There was a very large turnout of villagers at this event, and all were very impressed and pleased with the work of the club and the students in general.
Overall, the villagers seem enthusiastic, very happy with the Anawim/Asha program, and very supportive of the program and the efforts of the students. This strong support has been very helpful to the program and will help sustain it in the future.
Regarding the construction project, Bhagwati explained that there have been no further hassles, the land has been purchased and registered, and they have ordered the materials for construction, which is scheduled (and expected) to begin on June 1. She thinks that the construction might take a total of 6 months (versus Shanti’s estimate of 2 months … it is unclear why their expectations differed).
We asked about the resources available to the Asha Center, what else we may be able to provide, and how else we could help the group in Mangalwadi. Shanti explained that the center has everything it needs – plenty of books, lots of play materials (carrom board, ludo, monopoly, business game, football, volleyball, cricket, chess, marbles, etc.!) – and that the villagers have been very supportive and have even offered to help the center procure additional materials. (Cool!) All that Bhagwati asks of us is our continued support.
We also asked Bhagwati what she thinks of the progress Mangalwadi has made so far. She said that things have been going really well in the last year, that lots of goodwill has been generated with the villagers and their support is incredible, and that the group is ready to continue and achieve more things. (By the way, 5 new students entered the 1st standard at the center this year.)
Regarding microcredit, Bhagwati seemed confident that the women’s group was ready for this responsibility. She noted that there was a lot of interest in the program, and that women planned such activities as the ones Shanti mentioned above and more (e.g., selling coconuts, opening a mechanic shop). Like Shanti, she mentioned that the “petty shop” is doing particularly well. The women seem to have a genuine interest in starting these ventures and seem committed to the microcredit program. There do not seem to be any issues with bullying or other frictions in the village that would restrain/limit any of these ventures.
We asked for some photos of all of the cool activities she had told us about, so that we could add them to our website and other materials here and show everyone what great progress they were making. Shanti will coordinate to get the photos for us. Also, Vishnu may be able to visit the project next month, so he should be able to take many more photos … so that we can show everyone how much is being accomplished in Mangalwadi.
Finally, we thanked Bhagwati and Shanti for the incredible work that they are doing and said good night. Afterwards, the Asha participants regrouped and discussed our perspectives on the call. Overall, we were all very pleased and impressed with the project’s progress, the support the village was providing the project, and Bhagwati and Shanti’s commitment and enthusiasm.