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Fighting rural poverty in Andhra Pradesh

If you’re reading this, I am assuming you are prosperous enough to have a toilet in your home. Millions of villagers in India, however, are not as blessed.

Enter good Samaritans like Chaitanya Educational and Rural Development Society (CERDS), one of whose projects is to financially help people build toilets. But more on that in a bit.

The Drive

It was a hot afternoon (then again, it is always a hot afternoon here, in Guntur). We were driving through the villages in Chilakaluripetamandal. Only the elderly seemed to be home. The younger, more able-bodied folk had gone to work in the fields around the villages, or in mills and sundry other occupations in the town of Chilakaluripeta. The children were off to school. Here and there, a few groups of housewives could be seen lazily street-gazing.

I was with Mr. Srinivasa Rao, the founder of CERDS, who seemed to know these villages like the back of his hand. He talked to me about his aims and his organization’s work. The Society does a lot of work for the extremely poor in rural areas. Their beneficiaries are mostly people from the scheduled castes and tribes. Their programs are targeted at individuals or families, and span across categories – sanitation, support for HIV patients, support for school-going children, and skill development for women, to name a few.

The Present

CERDS’ activities and donations are all simple and individual-based. The projects target different segments of the rural poor – disabled people, HIV-infected patients, widows, school-going children, farmers, fishermen and women, to name some. Domains of work include sanitation, running water facilities, income-generation, protecting the interests of the farming community, women’s issues and health.

CERDS works in 18 villages in Prakasam district, and 42 villages in Guntur district. Further, it also works with habitations (40 in Prakasam and 50 in Guntur) that do not fall under the limits of these villages. These habitations are either situated in dry lands where there is always drought, or are sea-coastal and are repeatedly hit by floods, cyclones, tidal waves or coastal winds.

The donations may be slightly unstructured sometimes, and could be improvised depending on the circumstances of the beneficiaries. As an interesting example, there are tribal communities that are not used to tending to large sized animals, but are good with smaller animals like goats. To these people, CERDS may donate goats.

Sanitation Support For The Disabled

CERDS helps disabled people construct toilets for themselves right at their own homes. Mr. Rao was inspired to start this project when he saw disabled girls and women defecating in the open, with the support of other people.

Give donations fund only part of the cost of the construction. The remaining cost is shared by CERDS and the beneficiary. The actual design and construction of the toilet is up to the beneficiary – some people may want a Western model, others prefer the Indian-style toilet. These villages have no running water, so Western toilets aren’t the common choice.(In rural areas, even if toilets are built, they are rarely within homes – they are within the property or compound wall of the house, but unattached to the main house.)

So far, 59 toilets have been installed across several villages. This project changes lives in a significant way, when you take into account that some of its beneficiaries are women. JampaniSujatha, a disabled lady, is an example. Before she got a toilet built in her compound, she had to walk long distances with her limp, away from agricultural fields and into bushes – and with someone for company.

CERDS doesn’t stop there in its support for the disabled. Wheelchairs and tricycles are also distributed to some of them.

One beneficiary I met, Nagaraju, lost his left leg to an electric shock while he was working for a cable company. He and his entire family were happy to tell me how installing a toilet next to their house has helped them immensely.

A digression: a sad fact to be noted is that disability brought about by accident is a rare case in these villages. I am told that there are several people with congenital defects, all thanks to the age-old practice of consanguineous marriages.Nagaraju’s nephew is an example – this 4-year-old was born with a cataract! While his cataract was reportedly treated, the kid wears glasses as thick as a slice of bread.Further, I saw two families with children with various disorders – two were mentally challenged, and one kid was suffering from some kind of progeria.

Then there was this disabled ten-year-old girl, Tirupatamma, who has no legs. She was being sent to school earlier, but one afternoon changed her life – she was molested at home by a close relative. Now, her parents have stopped sending her to school, because of the social stigma. And going by her interaction with Mr. Srinivasa Rao, the girl also appeared to have been mentally severely hit by the trauma – she was mentally very slow to understand what Mr. Rao was asking her.

I realized that social taboos and priorities are very different in rural areas. The villagers do not see the world like we do; all they think of probably is to shield Tirupatamma from social mockery. Sadly, Tirupatamma or her family have no knowledge of her rights, or even that she is being continuously wronged, not only when she was molested, but also now, when she is being denied an education.

Skill Development For Women

We “progressive” women may not like it, but the realities in rural areas are pretty harsh and rigid. Girls aren’t encouraged to pursue jobs and dreams beyond their village, because understandably, their safety is an issue. For parents to confidently send their daughters even to the nearest town for anything – better education, jobs – is a big deal. The rural hinterlands, picturesque as they are for a road trip in a car, are not accessible by bus or other public transport.Even if they are, there is never an assurance that the roads are safe for young women. I also suspect that many of these girls are content in their little worlds, not really caring for an education.

CERDS tries to work within these constraints, and helps women build skills and earn money right within the limits of their villages. The Society does this by training teenage girls and young women in tailoring. As an example, KommaboinaChinnamma turned entrepreneur after CERDS’ training. Chinnamma now earns money by teaching other girls in her village for a fee of Rs. 400 per student every month.

The number of trainees covered in this project till date are 103. Sewing machines are donated too.

What this achieves is self-reliance for all those involved, without them havingto step out of their habitations. It is to be noted that Chinnamma’s students are mostly dropouts from school. One enterprising girl wants to continue her degree education though.

Child Support For Education

In another initiative, CERDS donates school bags, uniforms and casual wear to poor children. Over 850 children have been supported in this project so far.

The two beneficiaries that I met were BhagiMadhavPurushotham, who was a disabled child,&BuduriBhulakshmi. Bhulakshmi is the younger sister of the molested disabled girl I described earlier.

Livelihood Support For Widows

Noting that poor, uneducatedwomen are usually left financially helpless after the death of their respective husbands, CERDS helps them earn money by donating milch animals to widows in the villages nearby. 46 widows have been supported in this activity. These are people from extremely poor communities, and own only a bare minimum of necessities.

One animal, usually a buffalo, is donated to each beneficiary. Eventually, the animal gives birth to a calf. It immensely helps its owner to have at least two milch animals, since in the season that one of them doesn’t produce milk, the other one will. The beneficiaries I met in this regard were MathangiSumathi andNagabyru Siva.


The lack of running water puts many Indian villages at a point in development that the rest of the country has passed by decades ago. CERDS does its bit by funding deep borewells in the villages it works with. 432 borewells have been installed by it since 2008.

I was taken to a village called Gopalamvaripalem, where MarlapatiSrinivasa Rao, the convenor if the local farmers’ club (again, a CERDS initiative), was pleased with the borewell drilled for them.

Problems Faced

While daily administrative hassles are commonplace, Mr. Srinivasa Rao does not recollect any major obstacle in his work except the government. He has been wary of tying up with government programs, since CERDS was not paid the committed amount after CERDS delivered.However, CERDS now runs farmers’ clubs in villages as part of a NABARD project.

The Board

Mr. Rao is currently the Executive Secretary of CERDS. Other board members are Mr. O Venkata Rao (President), a retired government employee; Mrs. Siva Rathna Kumari (Vice President; my hostess during my visits to CERDS projects; also a well-wisher of Mr. Srinivasa Rao’s family), a social worker; Mr. G Anil Kumar, a lecturer; Mrs. K Siva Parvathi (Treasurer), a teacher; Mr. T Suresh Babu, a social worker; and Mr. I Srinivasa Rao, a social worker. Siva Rathna Kumari is also an SHG champion.

Venkata Rao worked in Sangam dairy, took VRS, worked in an agri firm, and then was asked to be president. MSc Agriculture.

For an organization that seems small-scale, the documentation that is maintained is extensive. Details of activities, projects and beneficiaries are carefully recorded and filed. The process begins right from the application letter that a potential beneficiary writes, requesting CERDS to support him or her. Medical certificates are collected, in the case of a health-related donation. Two other staff members help in the distribution and other admin tasks.

The Future

While rural poverty continues to be his area of work, Mr. Srinivasa Rao also wants to work in towns like Chilakaluripeta, to support people whose suffering is independent of location – for instance, HIV, and women’s unemployment.

I found Mr. Rao to be a modest, energetic and compassionate social worker. As the leader of CERDS, he is eager to help as many as possible, and is constantly on the lookout for more ways to support the underprivileged, and for more beneficiaries. He knows that scaling up takes a lot of administrative work, and he isn’t enthusiastic about diverting so much attention to dealing with the multiple things that expansion will entail. He’s happy doing what he is and making a difference to the ocean of rural poverty, even if it is drop by drop.

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