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Data Is The Next Best Thing To God?

Fieldwork teaches you to respect data, love data, understand data and most importantly know the amount of effort, endurance and planning that goes behind each cell we so dearly call a dataset

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When you commence fieldwork, they tell us that step 1 is to inform authorities, the local thaana or the block level officer.

We had an amusing experience on one of our trips to the Jharkhand neighborhood. We reach the thaana at 8 am and we see men on the first floor brushing, while wearing vests and pants from their uniform. The local constable comes out as he observes chattering and asks us, ‘yahan kaise’. We tell him we are here to do some research involving data collection and wanted to seek their permission and keep them posted, lest something go wrong. The chief thaanedar comes out and says, ‘Kya research karenge baabu’. Our supervisor steps in, ‘Shiksha aur swasthya sambandhi jaagrukta’. He retorts, ‘Yahan par sirf sharab peene ki jaagrukta hai, uska programme kariye, baaki koi nahi sunega’. We break into peels of laughter.

We often say, that while on the ground, you see certain harsh realities so up, close and personal and in your bones, that your responses and thinking become practical, if not desensitized.

We reach the tehsil chowk and commence the search for our sampled village. The village is so remote that the locals don't know about it. After a fifteen minute discussion with the paanwaala, people at the samosa stall and random passerbys who stop since we are in a big car (cars in these parts are not commonplace given how far they are from the nearest town centre, the absence of pucca roads and the overall inaccessibility), we come across a school teacher who is headed that way. Bingo!

We follow up until the road takes a steep turn downwards, there are bushes on one side and the driver is not happy about it. We nudge and coerce him into going ahead anyway; 200 m into a very dusty, crazy spiral of a path, we don't see the school teacher riding his bike anymore and the dusty road ends. All we see are hills surrounding us in a circle and a river criss-crossing us. The driver turns around and saya, ‘Madam ye mao-waadi ilaaka hai, gaadi kharab hui to fas jayenge’. Our supervisor goes, its 10 am, new day, nothing can go wrong. The driver takes our bait. We roll up our window, and he drives our jeep into the river, the water splashes the wind shield and its akin to a jungle safari. Straight out of it is another crossing. Our supervisor goes, ‘Jai mata di’ (As if to encourage him to keep going). Two more criss-crosses and we see women carrying jungle firewood atop their heads, and women collecting water for household chores. They spend about 3 to 4 hours everyday doing just this. We drive up the hill, the jeep makes uneasy sounds as the number plate breaks and the water seeps into our silencer. We spend 30 minutes restarting the car.

We reach the school and this is where we must stop. We barely see any household. They are in clusters of five or six, separated 200-300 m apart and by hills. We look at each other, as if acknowledging that this must be a day of hiking.

We decide to divide and conquer. I go ahead with a female fieldworker and my supervisor with a male fieldworker. We enter cluster number 1. The women and children are outside. I see a child fighting with a goat, as it wants to force its snout into the childs’ bowl of pulses and rice. This is a two year old child. He’s sitting on the ground with a t shirt on, shorts and mind you, this is winter.

Resilience we call it. I see a goat nuzzle its way into that bowl of rice, two seconds later, the child pushes the goat away and continues to eat.

The woman can’t understand what we are saying and the young girls, about 15 years of age, step out with their offsprings. They are married at the age of 13-14. I’m trying to ask how many family members they have. But the women can’t answer. She’s not sure.
The concept of date, days and age is largely absent in remote India. Barely anyone knows their age, or that of their children. They are unsure about the grade their child is in or the number of years they have been in the same grade. Its all ok we tell ourselves and move along.

At this time, a man comes out with a 4 feet axe. He’s extremely fit and has a demeanour of intimidation. My field worker nudges me and immediately says, ‘We are not from the government, we are form a private NGO’. At this point, the man goes, ‘O that's alright then. We are always afraid. What if you are a Mao-waadi’. We do our survey and move to the next cluster.

My fieldworker Shashi goes, ‘Madam, they themselves are a part of these insurgent groups. If you tell them, you are from the government; they take you hostage and then ask for ransom. Be careful what you tell these guys.’ I take note.

We walk up a hill, through a small field of mustard, jump over a fence and reach the next cluster. Children crowd us. I notice a 3 year old happily sitting atop a buffalo and just sitting. He t-shirt reads, ‘This is a fantastic girl’. I get a picture with the child.

I meet my supervisor here who is trying to interview a household. Counting households in these parts is a battle. People want to over-state the number of families, since they assume you are from the government and hence here to get them a ration card or include them in a public benefit scheme. The greater the number of family units, more the benefit reaped. We reiterate the reason for our arrival numerous times to get the point across. This is an uphill battle of a different nature.

Every time we visit a household we must mark it in chalk/marker. We write in multiple places, for these are mud households and then mud the house every few weeks. We tell the household head to not remove the marking, lest we miss their house. They give us a nod in comprehension.

I come across a woman who refuses to sit on a chair or chorpoy for she is from a lower caste. We insist that she sit next to us, but she is adamant. Years of conditioning make our offer or equality seem frivolous. It is ironic that her name is Draupadi. It reminds us of the socio-economics of the country we are a part of. I remember a poem I read a few months ago by Pushyamitra Upadhyay

Kal tak keval andha raja, Ab goonga behra bhi hai
Hoth si diye hain janta ke, Kanon par perha bhi hai

Tum hi hkaho ye ashru tumhare, Kisiko kya samjhayenge
Suno draupadi shastra utha lo, ab Govind na ayenge


People in the villages are accepting of who you are, they will welcome you inside their houses, no questions asked. They will trust you and give you time. They will listen to you and look up to you. Moreover, they will show an interest in you, and be willing to answer endless questions. They will treat you special, for instance, by offering prized commodities such, plastic neelkamal chairs for your comfort or offering their own meal to you.

Fieldwork teaches you to respect data, love data, understand data and most importantly know the amount of effort, endurance and planning that goes behind each cell we so dearly call a dataset.

I see kids in school uniforms, ready for school all day, with no school to go to. I see kids in school uniforms, at home, for there is no teacher at school.

I see farmers at home in the middle of the day, for their plot of land is too small to work on, all day. I meet women, who don't consider themselves good enough to sit at the same level as I do. They will sit on the floor, if I sit on a chair. If I sit on the ground, they will stand up. I see children with lice in their heads, for they haven’t showered in two weeks. There is only one handpump in the village and it must be used as a drinking water source. I see blood shot eyes at 10 am of men who are high from drinking ‘taadi’ (local alcohol prepared form rice). These are eyes in pain and anguish. They drink, for they have no answers, no questions and no means. I see a child using goat poop instead of kanchas to play goti.

This is a call out to all institutions, MPs, academics, policy makers who believe that good on-ground data and hence research is a step towards solving some of our bigger problems. I await the day when our work means little, when big data is all we will need, Unfortunately, only about 18 per cent of us across India are online. Until that number flips to an 81, small data i.e. a direct connect with our people is what we need. Help us, help you reach out to the other 1 billion, whose voices, opinions, and needs matter just as much as ours.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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data research fieldworker Outline India

Prerna Mukharya

Prerna Mukharya is the Founder of Outline India.

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