49. Journeys (10): Return to Sylhet: a learning visit with colleagues

I spent the last three days in Sylhet, with some of my colleagues, on a group learning visit. (The trip formed part of a capacity building programme in the NILG, my workplace – see post 48.) I was delighted to get the invitation: this was my first ‘outing’ with co-workers. Mohsin was the organiser and was very helpful throughout, attentively ensuring that I was kept in the loop at all stages.

Our destination was the Bangladesh Rural Development Training Institute (BRDTI) in Khadimnagar, on the Jaintiapur Road, 10 km. east of Sylhet. Like the NILG, the BRDTI is a training institute under the auspices of the Ministry for Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives. While our remit is local government, theirs is rural development: they are the training division of the BRDB (Bangladesh Rural Development Board – see post 46). The latter is a sister organisation of both BARD (see post 46) and RDA (see post 55). The BRDTI carries out training for BRDB staff and beneficiaries, relevant to BRDB’s programmes in rural development, and also engages in research related to the implementation of those programmes.

As I boarded the train for Sylhet, I found myself thinking back to my first memorable, solo, train journey in Bangladesh (see post 18). Though very different, and perhaps not quite as exciting, this journey was nonetheless enjoyable. This time I was in a private compartment with colleagues, in comfortable and companionable surroundings. There was no shortage of nasta (snacks): lunch was a delicious rice box with egg, chicken and salad. The highlight of the journey though, as with that first one, was trundling through the beautiful and captivating landscape of rural Bangladesh.

A rural development project and a city corporation visit

After breakfast on our second morning, we went to look at the small library in the BRDTI. There was a nice old photograph of Dr. Khan there. People were surprised that I knew so much about him. (See post 46.) Our programme kicked off then with an introduction from the very affable director of BRDTI, M A Nesar Hossain Azad. This was followed by a presentation from Talukdar of the BRDB with Yojiro Fujiwara, a Human Resources Development Planning expert with JICA. They gave a detailed overview of the PRDP-2 LINK model of rural development being implemented by BRDB, with the assistance of JICA. (PRDP=Participatory Rural Development Project.) I already knew quite a bit about this model from my visit to BARD, and a prior discussion with Akira from JICA. (For more about the model, and rural development in Bangladesh, see post 46.) During the lively discussion afterwards, Yojiro was asked, in his capacity as an HR Development Planning expert, what he considered to be the key HR challenge for Bangladesh. His answer was simple: ‘motivation’. This was interesting for me in relation to my placement in the NILG: I too had identified this as one of the key challenges and obstacles in my placement.  (See post 25 and post 48.)

After tea, we had an ‘exposure visit’ to Sylhet City Corporation where we heard a presentation on its history and functions. Previously, I had attended local government meetings at union parishad level (post 32, post 34) and upazila level (post 32), so it was interesting to hear a little about city-level governance. [Note: A union is a subdivision of an upazila, consisting of several villages. See post 8 pt. 13.] We were told that this corporation was established in 2002 and employs 36 councillors in administration, engineering, revenue and health departments. It services a population of circa 6 lakh (i.e. 600,000). There followed long lists of works then such as the numbers of kilometres of earthen and bituminous roads, the numbers of drains, tube-wells, water tanks, waste disposal units, schools, etc. Notes on income and expenditure were provided and challenges highlighted. The most urgent challenges are those related to water and waste management. Towards the end of the meeting we were all presented with the now customary ‘snack box’.

A Manipuri cooperative society

After lunch we visited a Manipuri cooperative society in Sylhet. During my last trip to the Sylhet division, I had visited Ramnagar, a Manipuri village near Srimangal. (For more about the Manipuri ethnic group and that visit, see the related post 18.) After seeing life in the village, it was interesting to visit this women’s cooperative – Bagbari Narsingtila Mohila Samaby Samity – in the city. The society is affiliated with a programme funded by CIDA, and run by the BRDB. Achievements to date include a 100% literacy rate amongst the 37 families in the society and the widespread adoption of family planning and sanitary latrines. Safe water is now sourced from a deep tube-well. Funds are raised within the society through a co-operative savings scheme, and they receive training in vegetable cultivation, health care, etc. Employment has been created through handicrafts, cottage industries and tailoring. While we were being told their story (by a man), the Manipuri women were standing facing us, as if on display, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Once we began to move around and interact with the group it felt more natural. There was an onsite demonstration of weaving and a collection of colourful woven wraps and scarves on display for sale. Unfortunately, they all contained wool, to which I am allergic, and so there was nothing I could consider. A lot of my colleagues made purchases though.

A Sufi shrine, shopping and supper

Before dinner we visited the Shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal. I had been here back in May but it was nice to see it in the dark. To recap, it is the burial-place of the 14th century Sufi saint Shah Jalal and is therefore a major pilgrimage site for Bangladeshi Muslims. Next, we went to a market area of the city which is well-known for its textile shops. My colleagues bought sheets, bed coverings, wraps, scarves and fabric for shalwar-kameezes. I have never seen people buy so much so quickly. By the time we got back to the BRDTI it was very late and we were ready for dinner. There was mishti doi (sweet curd) for dessert which was delicious.

Nijpat in Jaintiapur

Our final day was a busy one. Our first stop was Nijpat union parishad, in Jaintiapur upazila (45km north-east of Sylhet.) There, the Chairman introduced us to Nehar, who told us about an eco–project that she manages for BRDB/ PADABIK (Palli Daridra Bimochon Kendra). She outlined some of their successful initiatives in the areas of water and sanitation in the Jaintiapur upazila area. They have set up community latrines; a well, with a pump, that uses surface water rather than ground water; latrines in schools; etc. Later we took a walk around the village to see the community latrines at the market place and the well and pump. Once again, I was reminded that safe water and sanitation cannot be taken for granted in Bangladesh, in the way that it is at home. The well that we visited was beside a very picturesque cluster of bamboo houses. Nijpat, like a lot of villages in Bangladesh, is very spread out. In another part of town, there were interesting looking ruins of what looked like old historic buildings, many engulfed by vines. I met a group of children near a large, circular, stone, medieval-looking well that was also overgrown. I would like to have had time to learn more about the history of this village.

Citrus Research Station

Next, we visited the Citrus Research Station, a division of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, located beside the Jaintiapur upazila building. The research centre, established in 1961 to further horticultural research, covers an area of 119 acres. We heard a very interesting talk by the head scientist. He told us that they collect germplasm from various parts of Bangladesh and evaluate their adaptability for selection and recommendation for this region. They also develop and research citrus varieties like mandarin, malta, pomelo, lemon and satkara which, again, may be suitable for the locality. They collect and evaluate local and exotic varieties of different fruits like mango, jackfruit lychee, guava, lotkon, taikar, pineapple, etc. By generating appropriate technology for the production of different fruit crops, they hope to create additional income-generating options for local farmers.  They provide technology transfer to farmers through training and demonstration. In addition, propagules of released and commercial fruit crops are distributed for planting. Up till now, I hadn’t thought much about the links between increased food production and crop species variety and suitability. It’s a very interesting area of research, both at the scientific and socio-economic research levels. After this stimulating talk, we took a wonderful walk through fabulous fields of fruit. There were some very picturesque houses too set in the midst of all this flourishing growth.

Poverty alleviation project at village level

Our next stop was nearby, and an example of a successful project under BRDB’s Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme (RPAP) in the Jaintiapur area. We had a short walk, along a dusty road through hilly terrain, to reach a picturesque village of well-kept, cream-coloured, mud houses. Some were thatched; others had roofs of corrugated tin. This meeting was in Bangla and I didn’t quite catch everything. From our handout, I understand that this women’s cooperative – Adarsha gram bittahin mohila dal – has a membership of twenty families. Loans are provided from their cooperative savings scheme to run a small dairy farm, for which skills training is provided by the project. Some of the benefits of the cooperative were outlined in relation to health, education, sanitation, clean water and tree plantation. Landless people in this area depend on stone quarrying in Bollerghat for a living. However, this is seasonal work and times are very difficult when there is no quarrying.  I felt a little uneasy in this village, as I had in the Manipuri cooperative. Rather incongruously, tables and chairs had been set up outdoors for our group. Again, a man spoke and ushered the group of women to line up before us. I would like to know if they are comfortable with this kind of ‘interaction’. Or is this an inappropriate projection of my own cultural sensibility? Without adequate language facility the answer is difficult to determine. In any case, I would love to have had time to wander around this village informally.

Tamabil: Zero Point

After a quick photo stop in a tea garden, we drove to the border town of Tamabil. Here, Sylhet in Bangladesh meets Meghalaya in India, and there was a queue of colourfully-decorated trucks awaiting admission. A few soldiers with guns lounged around at the border post. A sign for those departing Bangladesh read: ‘Welcome to the Scotland of the East’, referring to Shillong in Meghalaya. There were huge mounds of coal here that had been imported from India. We took a few photographs at a sign that my colleagues told me read ‘Zero Point’, though I failed to grasp its precise meaning.

Bollerghat

Our final destination was Bollerghat and the journey there, via Mamaducan and Jaflang, was familiar from my last visit. You can read more about the stone quarrying and the Khasi people who live nearby in the related post, 18. This was a brief stop: we walked along a touristy, shop-lined path which I hadn’t seen the last time I was here. We watched the stone quarrying activity for a while and then wandered back. I was glad I had been here before: there is so much more to see and understand. I would love to have had the time to take a boat over to the Khasi villages, and catch up with Agnes in Nokshir Punjee. So close and yet so far!

Time to leave

Back in the BRDTI we were joined for lunch by some of the staff of the Institute. This was followed by a feedback session and closing ceremony facilitated by the director. After a group photograph, we had tea with a lovely selection of mishti (sweets) and biscuits. Our journey back to Dhaka was by luxury AC chair-coach. It was the most comfortable bus I have ever been on. We had one tea stop en route and reached Dhaka at around 11.30p.m.

Reflection

This learning visit has been immensely interesting. It has got me thinking about participatory rural development and social capital; about the MDG target that relates to safe water and sanitation; about the links between horticultural research, crop diversification, crop management and the potential for increased food security; about self-employment generating micro-credit programmes; about cooperative activity; and much more. Since I have come to Bangladesh, my passion for rural development has been reignited. All of the projects that I visit and learn about in rural Bangladesh bring back memories of my PhD research.

In relation to work, I am a little puzzled though. This trip was part of a ‘capacity building’ programme for NILG staff. I am trying to figure out the relevance of this learning visit (and others like it) for skills development in the NILG. How does this visit inform practice in local government training back in the NILG? In other words, what are the linkages and implications of our learning over the last few days for training programmes in the institute? How was it decided what staff should participate in this trip and why? And what was the rationale behind the programme with regard to capacity-building? I would like to have had a chance to tease out these issues with Mohsin, but he was much too busy.

One of the best things about this trip was getting to spend time with some of my colleagues. There are no opportunities for social interaction (and very few for work-related interaction!) in the NILG. Getting to know my colleagues, some of whom I had never met prior to this trip, was the highlight of this learning visit for me.

I am glad though that I had visited this area of Bangladesh before. My previous visit had been a more informal, more spontaneous one with an altogether slower pace. I learnt a lot on that trip that I would not have had time to learn on this trip. On the other hand, this visit gave me first-hand experience of formal development activities in the region. I deepened my understanding of issues and challenges in rural Bangladesh. I learnt about some of the programmes and projects being implemented to address these challenges and I witnessed some of the results. This is the kind of understanding that would not be as easy to develop if I was wandering around on my own, particularly without a solid understanding of Bangla.  In many ways my two very different visits to the Sylhet division complimented each other perfectly. (Wouldn’t it be ideal if exploratory, informal, leisurely travel could be followed by informed, formal, learning visits, or vice versa.)

Below are a few photographs from my trip. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (96 photographs in all). Enjoy!

2 On train with Majhar and Thakur

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