Joe was one of those people one meets when your father calls you out of your room and introduces you to his ‘old friend’ whom he finally got back in touch with. I had faced my fair share of such meetings and walked out one day and was introduced to a kurta-clad person who had a smile of a person who is at peace with himself. At first instance, I found Joe Madiath, founder and executive director of Gram Vikas to be an extremely engaging and focussed person. I found that I need not equal him at age to understand and reply to what he says (unlike some conversations where I used to feel ill-equipped to join in). When my father told me what Gram Vikas is all about and how old friend Joe started it, it piqued my interest.
My visit to Gram Vikas at a small town in Ganjam district called Mohuda turned out to be one that left me yearning for a next visit. The serenity, the woods, the small town hospitality were all in place. To speak about Gram Vikas, it was an NGO founded by Joe Madiath in 1979 when he and a handful of his friends came to Orissa in 1971 following the cyclone which ravaged it and Bengal. Through Gram Vikas, Joe aims to reach the impoverished villages of one of the poorest states in India, Orissa and provide facilities that even the government sometimes does not deign to provide. While travelling through rural pockets of Orissa, Joe noticed an otherwise normal rural India phenomenon, villagers defaecating in the open, by the roadside. The government, under various ‘schemes’ for them, constructed toilets which were on inspection, nothing but a hole in the ground. Like Joe says, it is as though the government feels that poor people deserve poor quality. Through a water and sanitation focus, they aim to provide clean, fresh water for use by entire villages. He sought to deflate the concept of construction being the ambit of engineers. Furthermore, village folk consider it quite all right to bathe in a common pond and bathe animals in it as well. Gram Vikas took initiatives towards these ends as well.
A brainchild of Joe Madiath, the programme has a very simplistic approach to empowering villages and village folk. Gram Vikas aims to provide clean water to every home through three taps, one each in the bathroom, toilet and kitchen. When taking up a village for sanitation, they insist on 100% involvement of the residents. That is to say that every household must have agreed to the initiative and the construction would be done by the villagers. An average of Rs. 1000 is collected from every household, each to his capacity. To this end, Gram Vikas provides the cement, pan, door and steel. An overhead tank is constructed along with wells and bore-wells. This way, even the village youth is taught masonry and can earn a livelihood. A bathroom and a toilet are constructed for each house then using labour from the village itself. Furthermore, pumps are installed for each village as per requirement. In those villages with electricity, pumps are fitted for filling the overhead tanks whereas the villages which are still impoverished of electricity, the tanks are equipped with water drawn using the principle of gravitational flow.
Providing water and sanitation is not the only way this initiative has helped the villages. Self-help groups of women are formed for managing finances for household expenses. One of the main grouses of women across villages was that the men folk would waste all the hard-earned money in alcohol and illicit liquor. After Gram Vikas came in, it was a necessary condition put down that alcohol is banned from the village as a whole. Though it faced more than a fair share of resistance from men, this step actually worked and has made a lot of villages alcohol-free. Women still express their gratitude to Joe for this.
Gram Vikas has also installed more than 55000 biogas plants in villages across Orissa to help meet fuel needs. More than 128 villages have been touched by Gram Vikas in a span of 30 years. When one spark strikes a leaf, it sooner or later creates a forest fire. So did it happen with Orissa. The prosperity of one village had neighbouring ones enquiring about what brought about such drastic transformation in the village. And so the story of Gram Vikas spread.
A Gandhian by philosophy, Joe Madiath feels that this is one small way in which he can assist in making the villages of India self-sufficient and empowered. In his youth itself, he was notorious for rallying his plantation workers against the poor way they were treated by his family. It earned him a seat in boarding school but did not kill the kindred spirit within. Working for the people of Orissa, according to Joe gives him a sense of peace and feeling that he has been able to help the world in a small but meaningful way.
In the past few years, the work of Gram Vikas has been touching one village after another across the land of Kalinga. Though in India, not many people are aware of this low profile yet high-powered organization, nor of Joe himself, Gram Vikas has created waves in the world of community service across continents. The Kyoto World Water Grand Prize and the Skoll Award for Social Entrpreneurship have been awarded to Joe Madiath, the face of Gram Vikas. Organizations from various countries have approached gram Vikas for assistance in similar efforts in their community. Even some states in India have looked to Joe for help in their villages, to replicate the Gram Vikas model for water and sanitation requirements.
I believe that this is an achievement which has received less recognition than its work deserves by far. Transformation of villages is not left at the hands of a government which already has enough on its platter. If a few Indians like Joe cropped up in different parts of the country, it would definitely add up to a mighty story of self-reliance, independence and dignity in people who thought that the government is their sole “maai-baap”. The smiles on the faces of villagers in Ganjam district are a certificate to this achievement.
This entry has been made by Uma Balakrishnan. “I’m a student by qualification and an answer-seeker by choice 🙂 (of course, the two need not be related!) I am pursuing my MBA in Praxis Business School, Kolkata where I have my fingers in the pies of the Strategy, Marketing and Quiz clubs, apart from being the co-editor of the college newsletter.
I don’t think I’m out on a mission to “Save the Earth” or bring world peace to fruition, but yes, there must be something I can do which makes Life worth living. Well, I love travelling and meeting people from different places because it has given me the opportunity to meet interesting people and unearth fascinating perspectives. Books and music make up a major part of my leisurely occupations. Ayn Rand and Jeffrey Archer are what I find riveting (though Atlas Shrugged is taking me more time than warranted to complete!). I also enjoy penning down things that touch a chord in me, most of it being poetry.”