Ushma Goswami was an SBI Youth for India Fellow for the period August 2016-17. As a fellow she helped build 70 toilets in a rural region in Karnataka.
She interned with NoticeBard (the website you are at right now) and we extracted an interview from her!
1. Tell us a bit about your school life? What sort of things were you interested in? Who influenced you and how?
I completed my schooling in Chandigarh. I was quite an introvert during my school years and was pretty ‘average’ academically till high school.
When I took Humanities in 11th standard many of my friends and relatives were critical of my choice, writing me off as a non-ambitious person. However, I knew where my interests lie so I decided to stand by my decision and till now I have no regrets about my choices.
I have always been interested in understanding the world we inhabit so since childhood my general knowledge has been strong. I was also a huge cricket-buff in my school days. I had completed my 12th standard syllabus in October (before it was finished in school!) because I knew that the 2011 World Cup will fall during my board exam days and I did not miss a single match.
I have never really believed in the concept of ‘role models’ but I do admire traits in people and try to learn from people I come across in life.
2. Tell us about your college life? What sort of things were you interested in? Who influenced you and how?
I completed my Bachelors in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College in 2014 and Masters in the same from the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2016. Moving to Delhi was a big turning point in my life, especially my years at LSR made me realize how restricted my earlier worldview had been.
Interacting with people coming from different parts of India and having a diverse set of opinions helped a lot in my personality development and honing my intellectual acumen. My professors and close friends had a huge impact on broadening my mental horizons.
International politics and public policy were my core interest areas. I also interned at NHRC in 2015 which gave provided me practical experience in the field of rights advocacy.
3. How did the SBI Youth for India Fellowship happen?
During my final of MA, I was wondering about what to do next. Mostly everybody I knew was either applying for MPhil or preparing for competitive exams.
However, I felt only theoretical knowledge about the state and society is not enough so I wanted some real ground-level experience in the field of governance.
When I came across the opportunity SBI Youth for India in 2016 I was still confused about taking the conventional path or choosing something different. So I applied without giving it much thought while simultaneously giving JNU MPhil entrance exam. I cleared both.
Then came the hour of reckoning, my professors suggested to go MPhil and not waste the chance. But I knew I will not be completely committed to research and will regret not doing something different, so I decided to go for the fellowship.
4. What was the application process for SBI for Youth India Fellowship like? Any tips for future aspirants?
The application process is fairly simple. The first step is filling the application form which is provided on the website. The most important section is the one where you have to answer why you want to be a fellow and resolving an issue based on a hypothetical social situation.
Think properly while addressing this section and be honest in your answers. The second stage is the interview round where they assess your compatibility with the goals of the fellowship and your ability to survive for 13-months in (often very remote) rural parts of the country.
5. What happens in the SBI Youth for India fellowship? How does the logistics work?
This is a 13-month rural development fellowship where the fellows have to reside in a village and carry out a project from the 12 identified thematic program areas.
SBI Foundation has partnered with 8 NGOs working in the development sector in the country and each fellow is attached to an NGO, who assist the fellow in their project implementation and logistics.
Fellows are provided a monthly allowance of 15,000 to meet their living expenses and 1,000 as travel allowance. They have to identify development challenges in their area and work along the local community to address these challenges.
6. Tell us about your first project (which failed). What did you learn from that?
I was attached with Dhan Foundation and arrived in Bannur area of T. Narasipura block of Mysore district in mid-August 2016. I started working in the Beedanahalli panchayat of Bannur.
Having lived in North-India throughout my life, I had no knowledge of Kannada language which combined with my social awkwardness which sets in whenever I am in new surroundings, proved to be a big impediment in the beginning. So I was dependent on the local NGO members in guiding me.
My earliest project was on opening legal aid clinics in the block and spread awareness Right to Information (RTI).
I had my first taste of working with local bureaucracy and it was not very encouraging. While on paper my project was a success within the first 2-3 months after I opened a legal-aid clinic in Beedanahalli and participating in over 15 RTI campaigns, I knew on the ground not much was happening.
The local panchayat refused to engage with a ‘north-Indian city girl’ and I was left waiting for 3-4 hours in panchayat office every day. I was disheartened by this and started questioning my decision of choosing fellowship over MPhil.
However, I decided to give another try and give my best in it. So I changed my panchayat to Seehalli and visited all government officials from village panchayat members to IAS officer in Mysore, telling them about my fellowship and asking them how I can assist.
I shed my social inhibitions, sitting with village ladies and school students with a stupid smile on my face for long hours, picking Kannada words for basic conversation. I did door-to-door surveys and asked people what they want me to work on. So, at last, I finally connected with people and found my project area- Sanitation.
7. Tell us about your ‘toilet project.’ How did you go about it? What were the successes and failures? What were the learnings?
After interacting with local officials and community members, I realized that a large number of people still defecate in open. I saw that there is a deficit of trust between community and panchayat officials. At the same time, the level of awareness on the issue of why toilets are important and about general sanitation was also low.
Other reasons for not constructing toilets were identified as lack of space in households and lack of initial sum to start the construction process. Hence, my project had two major components – Creating awareness and sensitization of community about sanitation and governance; and the implementation aspect which was the construction of toilets and their usage.
I constructed 81 toilets in two villages of Seehalli and Kodagahalli village under Swachh Bharat Mission.
I also started a ‘sanitation loan’ in collaboration with Dhan for financially weak households. I bonded with the local community and helped put whenever I could. There was a lot I could have done more especially I could not implement my plan for constructing community toilets.
The fellowship has been beneficial to me both professionally and personally. I got to know about the local governance process and improve my social skills. It made me test my limits and realize my potential to bring change through small contributions.
8. Tips and advice for students.
From my own experience, I can say that going for seemingly unconventional career choices can be highly fruitful in the long run. Do not limit your understanding of your potential on the basis of just academic achievements and what others think you are capable of.
Explore new opportunities and give them the same respect and dedication you would have given your conventional jobs, you might surprise yourself.