The Centre of Gravity Experience

– By Ashutosh Wakankar, Centre of Gravity

As we approach the execution stage of the project, I wanted to recollect the preceding stages and draw out some conclusions from it. Over the next few blogs I intend to share the transition we have made, from complete vagueness to a semblance of clarity on the subject of open defecation.

When we were briefed by Arghyam on the nature of the task, we were confronted with mixed emotions. On the one hand, we love that rare combination of a ‘making-a-difference’ assignment with a good client at the helm; on the other hand, I don’t recall an assignment where I was confronted with as many operational barriers (as it turned out they were mostly in our minds). 

To start with, this was a rural project and we had a very limited exposure to how things work in rural India. My collegue Balaji was fresh out of a project promoting handwashing, but personally I had not done anything remotely rural. In our work in microfinance and affordable education, I had worked with economically weaker consumers but they were urban and to that extent, in many ways, their design of life was familiar. When I stepped into an urban slum I understood how they were impacted by their geographical co-ordinates, the symbols of status, day-to-day challenges etc. However, in a rural setting, a whole lot of data that we process almost subconsciously is just not available. For example, we had very little understanding of the cycle of livelihood in the village as it is seasonal rather than daily. There are weeks of complete inactivity followed by a few weeks of intense labor, creating a very different rhythm of how money is earned and spent. The houses are organized by caste/community clusters, and status has a lot to do with the reputation of a family over generations. We certainly had no way of knowing that. 

Further, this was not only rural, it was Karnataka – a language and a geography all of us in the team were unfamiliar with. We were completely at the mercy of interpreters and clearly a lot of flavor would have been lost in the process. 

To top this, we were researching defecation – a very private, uninteresting topic for anyone to discuss. While observational research was more or less ruled out, we wondered if people would even be willing to discuss it openly. And if this wasn’t enough, we realized that open defecation (OD) was a challenge mostly faced by women, and we were an all-male team. 

There was also a high degree of concern in our team regarding the extent of research that was possible and if we could trust the quality of the data. 

As I said earlier, most of these doubts proved to be unfounded. While the differences do exist, human beings are similar in many more ways and it took some time, but we were able to get into the life context of our audience as deeply as we did with audiences who were more similar to ourselves. We found the topic of defecation remarkably accessible in our conversations and I would stick my neck out to say that it is far more devoid of any taboo or embarrassment when compared to urban settings. Women spoke frankly and freely on the topic even while talking to men.

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Centre of Gravity talking to people in Davangere during their research phase.

Looking back, my only regret (if I can use that word) would be that I did not speak Kannada. I am sure that, like in every language, there are words that capture a phenomenon, an emotion, an encounter in the life of our audience so precisely that no amount of sophistication, exposure or translation can compensate for. And I am sure our work is poorer to that extent.

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