Trials and Pursuits

by Rhea Gupte| Feb 4, 2019 |

By Rhea Gupte

The condition in Chitrakoot is heartbreaking. On one side, there are lush patches of green, cultural heritages and historical landmarks, while on the other there are sufferings through malnutrition, contamination and water shortage. Delphine has been working with the villagers in this area by herself and through the NGO Khusi Hona. Their team consists of only three people as they take steps to make change towards the betterment of this community. The NGO mainly champions health and hygiene with particular attention towards women and children. The Smokeless Cookstove Revolution (SCR) team is working with Khusi Hona to help resolve problems arising through indoor pollution by teaching the villagers how to build a costless and 70% – 90% smokeless cookstove.

The SCR workshops are slated to start off at Nayi Duniya and consequently in three other villages, in the area, over the span of five days. Their aim is for maximum villagers to understand the technique of building this cookstove to help reduce respiratory health diseases in the affected areas so that it’s one less of the several problems this community is battling.

We enter Nayi Duniya to find a vast expanse of green amidst a barren, hilly region. There is a stone paved path leading to small mud huts in clusters of three or four. Kids stare at us inquisitively. One kid wails, confused about why so many strangers have entered the village, her home. The adults are welcoming and allow the SCR team to inspect their chulhas (cookstoves) and cooking spaces. Most homes are dingy with low ceiling and no ventilation. The temperatures are high as the heat is trapped in the homes with the smoke stinging the villager’s eyes. Poverty and malnutrition have haunted the place so much so that most kids have discoloured hair and pot bellies.

I struggle to find the strength to take pictures. I feel I am encroaching on their space, their bodies and their misfortune. I walk around as a silent observer. As I am greeted with cheerful smiles and a mix of happiness and inquisitiveness at seeing my camera, I start to make pictures and conversation. The workshops sees two types of people, a handful who are keen to jump into action and the majority which stays recluse. Perhaps they have lost hope. After all, this may be one of the several NGO’s who claim to offer aid. The SCR trainers Tenzin and Neerav encourage them to pay attention and to learn. Explaining to them how harmful the fumes of an indoor cookstove are and how this method has zero cost and multiple benefits. Some stir, others remain.

We spend the second day in Lokheriya village. After a long winding drive through the forest, we finally reach a landscape of paradise with long stretches of green pastures on either side till the eyes can see. Unfortunately this beauty is only visible during the monsoon and remains barren all year round due to the presence of hard rock instead of soil. The picturesque location is antithetical to the acute water shortage it faces. We take a walk through the colourful houses of the villagers and they welcome us with kind smiles. A large crowd of over fifty people is interested in the workshop and immediately crowds around the trainers. The trainers demonstrate the technique and have villagers come ahead and make their own stoves. They are encouraged to install one in their homes.

A man from a neighbouring village happens to attend this workshop and requests us to conduct one in his village too. His enthusiasm furthers us to plan the workshop in his village, Barua, the next day. The response from the villagers here is overwhelming. Some of the adults have completed their school education and are thus more inquisitive about the working of the stove and what makes it smokeless. They bombard the trainers with questions who were happy to answer them all. The next two workshops go smoothly and we leave with the hope that this knowledge may spread to every household in these villages with Khusi Hona leading the charge. A few days after the workshop, we unfortunately receive the news of Khusi Hona having stopped operations in these areas. This was a sorrowful piece of information as it means the efforts of SCR may not come to fruition since continuous follow up is required after a workshop, for real impact to take place. This makes the involvement of a local NGO a crucial factor.

In the meanwhile, SCR has been successful at making measurable impact in the Khandwa region with decrease in pollution from smoke, reduction in the usage of firewood along with cooking time. I will be traveling to Khandwa to document their progress in that area in the next few months. I will also be continuing this photo series from Chitrakoot through the People category in the next few days. Even with the adversities they face, the hospitality, kindness and strength of the villagers is something I always take away from these experiences.

About Rhea Gupte

Rhea enjoys creating with subjects which are unpredictable in their form and movement, making clouds, waves and ink some of her favourites to photograph and then digitally manipulate. Her recent experiments have a minimalistic and surreal visual style with soothing and almost edible colour palettes. The aspect of day dreaming is important to her work as is being a storyteller. Rhea Gupte is a visual artist, photographer, creative director, writer and consultant based in Goa, India. This space serves as her portfolio showcasing her body of commissioned projects, self-initiated endeavors and reflective essays and poetry.