Building a Healthy Community in Bodoland, The Action Northeast Trust , Assam
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
The Ant (The Action Northeast Trust) is a voluntary organization registered as a public charitable trust based in Rowmari, in Chirang District of Bodoland, in lower Assam. It was started in October 2000 by Dr Sunil Kaul, a medical doctor who left the Army Medical Corps after ten years of service in 1994 to work in rural India and Jennifer Liang, a trained social worker who graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).
Serving and Building a Healthy Community for the Tribal Population
The ANT's work
The Ant operates in a fragile conflict-affected area and aims at rural development and building social integration between different ethnic communities. They are working across seven work clusters affecting the lives of more than 200,000 people under 40 Village Council Development Committees (akin to Gaon Panchayats).
Apart from its direct Village work, The Ant has also started a weaving organization called “aagor” which gives work to over a hundred women weavers. It has also set up a separate entity called The Ants Craft Trust to promote a positive image of the northeast through selling high quality works of art and craft. Over the years, The Ant as worked with rural and poor voiceless communities mainly in the northeast. Currently its spectrum of interventions has:
Child and Youth development
Education: through Science classes, teacher training, Sports for Development (S4D)
Women’s Empowerment: forming women’s collectives
Peace and Justice: promoting cross community interactions and nurturing saf
Child Development Centers
Like playful dolphins, The Ant wanted to bring joy and fun into the learning experience of children in government schools.
Project Dolphin was thus started in 2017 with a pilot phase in 12 village hamlets around Bengtol area in Chirang district which has now expanded to 40 hamlets. ‘Joyful Learning Centers’ that have been set up in schools to provide spaces for enriched learning of science, maths, reading and writing. Under this project, The Ant focuses on Joyful learning sessions: 4 R’s- Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic and Recreation. In 20 Lower Primary (LP) schools for 3 days in a week. Further conceptual learning through different Teaching Learning Materials is imparted.
Recreation session: in LP schools once a week, where the children engage in Singing, Drawing, Painting etc.
Social Education is undertaken in both the Lower Primary and Middle schools once a week. In order to inculcate an understanding of rights and democratic values in children, parliaments are organized and they democratically elect their leaders for different activities like sports, health, etc.Youth group meetings: While children are the prime focus of The Ant’s work, they also know that young adults are at a greater risk of exploitation in conflict-affected areas like theirs. So in order to harness their youthful energy, youth groups have been formed in villages. These would culminate into federations, where teenagers belonging to different ethnic communities get together, discuss about current problems and develop action plans. Quarterly workshops are also held to sensitize them on the themes of gender, health, environment, education, career etc. Sessions on leadership skills, educational careers, sports, peace building and inequalities are discussed and understood.
VLCPC (Village Level Child Protection Committee) have been formed in the area, and regular sensitization workshops and consultation meetings on the issue of child rights are being held. They include prime people like village headmen, ASHA workers, government officials and organizations like CSOs and VOs.
Other interventions: The Ant also conducts onsite training on kitchen gardens and swachh school toilet campaigns. They conduct competitions, in which students are motivated to take active roles. In addition The Ant also celebrates national or international events like an environment day that teaches them about keeping their environment healthy and clean and also conduct educational tours for children.
Bigyan Project to – Learning Ecosystem Augmentation Project
Due to repeated outbreaks of witch-hunting, The Ant decided to work on building scientific temperament amongst the children by deciphering ‘magic’ and gradually going with science demonstration tools to schools troubled by inadequate science teachers. AScience-on-Wheels program to better the learning and teaching of science in Government middle schools started in 2013 in the Chirang District. This expanded to the Bigyan (Science in many Indian Languages) program which covered 23 middle schools with over 2100 students. As Science education didn’t address all the issues of education, it now has morphed out to a Learning Ecosystem Augmentation project that covers 150 Lower Primary schools in order to improve numeracy and literacy skills and 15 middle schools to improve Science, Maths and English. Conscious Citizenry sessions are extra-curricular sessions focusing on health, gender, education, constitutional rights, etc.
As part of the science intervention, to sustain and scale up this program The Ant purchased Lab-In-Boxes from the Agastya Foundation in Andhra that have all the material to explain the middle school curriculum of science. The Government teachers get trained by expert trainers also. LIB is a unique concept wherein Science models and experiments are organized concept-wise based on pre-designed learning modules and placed in boxes, covering physics, chemistry and biology select concepts. These boxes are rotated amongst cluster of schools. The school on their part sets aside 3-4 hours for the students to carry out experiments and The Ant staff also remain present on the science practical day along with teachers to see that the science learning is in carried out efficiently and effectively.
Sports for Development (S4D)
The S4D Project has been working for over 3 years imparting social education through sports. The S4D project has three age groups ; 7-10 ; 11-14 and 15-19. Of the total 3200 participants, 1530 are girls. The sessions are divided into two phases - games in the beginning followed by life lessons through that game. S4D is a medium of breaking a lot of barriers including gender, religion or ethnic.
The participants are encourage to have a collaborative rather than a competitive spirit. They also get a platform to express their self and also to explore their innate potential. The objective of S4D is to help children:
Learn the importance of education as a medium to voice opinions
Improve school attendance and increase participation of parents in school management and school quality improvement
Improve personal hygiene and also intake of nutritious food
Sensitize boys about gender equality amongst boys and girls and encourage girls to participate in sports
Improve social cohesion and tolerance for other communities and respect for diversity and non-violent means of conflict resolution
Increase awareness of Children Rights, child trafficking and child marriage
Under this program The Ant's staff undertakes S4D sessions in every project village every week and also takes up a session with respective parents every month. Further the project also focusses on capacity development by identifying and training youth facilitator and a community youth mentor.
The Ant's constantly striving to reach out to more children and youth as well as to people with disabilities. It has also been instrumental in forming dedicated Ultimate Frisbee teams in the 96 project villages.
Preserving Traditional Dance and Music
In order to protect traditional Music and Dance, The Ant conducts workshops to train boys and girls to play the traditional instruments Sifung (flute) and Kham (long drum) and the Serja (long string Violin).
Youngsters got an opportunity to learn to play the instruments and enjoy music and get to participate in Bodo and music festivals. Girls learn the traditional dances and also get to lead the procession of dancers and musicians in meetings of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha and All Bodo Students Union where women earlier were never seen.s given supplements.
AVAHAN Self Help Groups
In 2001, The Ant initiated social awakening by forming Jagruti Groups of rural women to tackle social issues. Though regular savings and lending was gluing the women together, they were encouraged to take up social issues. The Ant now works with 246 groups consisting of 2609 women across 81 villages. These Self-Help groups of (SHG) women work for building women’s leadership, enabling women to enjoy social, economic and political rights.
Over 96% of the groups have been linked to bank and government accounts and over 50% of them are now self-sustaining. They have now become skilled in maintaining their books of accounts, getting linked to banks and even carrying out income generation activities.
Mahila Suvidha and Cycle Bank
Through this project, women’s groups were provided cycles which they forwarded to their members on loans and helped women in gaining mobility and hence empowered them. With no public transport system at that time and with poor roads, cycles were the only means to get around. Women with their traditional clothes could not get onto men’s cycles and men never bought women cycles.
Initially it started as a cycle rental service, which later became a sustainable revolving cycle bank. The banking concept helps women buy cycles on loans and puts mobility and reduces their dependence on men.
There are over 800 cycles across 7 cycle banks now which have given independence to women in this area. The Cycle bank concept was extended to Mahila Suvidha Bank which provides loans to women to buy Pressure Cookers and gas stoves. Several demonstrations were conducted to help overcome fears of Pressure cooker explosions. Now many women have adapted to the gas stoves and pressure cookers as an easier, safer and quicker means of cooking. Mahila Suvidha Bank provide loans for the same.
Fighting Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence (DV) against women is an accepted norm in most societies. Worst is that women accept it as a way of life. Hence these women are very vulnerable and as no one supports them, they are unable to protect themselves or their children as they cannot fight back.
During The Ant's initial findings it came to light that 24% get beaten daily, 38% once in two weeks and 56% of women reported physical violence from their husbands in the past one year. Domestic Violence survivors have faced violence at least once every quarter. These figures were shocking and laid a foundation for The Ant’s Project Avahan (Against Violence at Home- Act Now).
This initiative started in May 2017 aims at reducing the incidence of domestic violence by 60% in Chirang District through a slew of services like legal services, emotional and counseling support, security, shelter and livelihood support to DV survivors and capacitates the SHG women members to take action against men targeting the women of their household with domestic violence.
It is also working on activating Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), by training the duty bearers and sensitizing the police personnel on gender and laws relating to women. It also regularly celebrates the International Fortnight highlighting Violence against Women in end November and early December. Poster presentations at bazaars and community places with a fortnight campaign with women’s rallies around this time to highlight the domestic violence where men too make important contributions.
Voice Against Gambling Menace
In Manickpur, a village primarily dominated by Bodo community, had been losing many men to gambling. Women during the ANT’s training sessions had voiced that unemployed men lose all their hard-earned money in gambling, which in turn creates a hostile environment at home, eventually leading to domestic violence.
Recently the SHG women of this village held a meeting, where they openly shamed the men involved in gambling. Some women even pulled down the shutters of a popular gambling house in the village. Women have been successful in creating a stigma and men now avoid gambling in public, out of sheer fear of getting shamed by the SHG women.
Community Mental Health
Starting with providing camp-based treatment facilities to people with mental illnesses and seizures, The Ant decided to provide a holistic community approach to mental illness, and started a Community Mental health project (called Jana Man Swasthya Program) that covered close to a lakh of people by reaching out to villages through community health workers.
A central camp at its campus and 6 outreach camps held at Government PHC level institutions are held each month , for diagnosis, medicines, counseling and follow-up support. A flat fee of rupees ten a day or Rs 300/month is charges to over a thousand patients taking benefit of this program every month. The same model has been now started with 6 different NGOs in 6 districts of Assam under project MITA or Mental Illness Treatment in Assam Village faith healers called ‘Ojha’ and gurus are usually the first ‘doctors’ they consult and as villagers believe that mental illness is a ‘curse’ caused by an ‘evil eye’ upon them, The Ant decided to work with the faith healers so as to understand their system and through them help people get a proper treatment. It took time to win their trust, but finally the relationship has worked to the betterment of patients. The Ant also advocates with the government for free services and quality treatment for mental patients and has set up family support groups in the project villages, which would grow as advocacy groups for rights of mentally ill patients in the future.
Justice & Peace Building
The Legal Aid
The Ant started a Legal Aid Centre in 2014. A lawyer and a paralegal support work together assist in resolving domestic violence cases, land disputes, citizenship disputes, and also in providing access to relief, compensation etc. This helps poor people in seeking justice and a base to fight together for their rights and entitlements. It has also been instrumental in educating people in resolving conflicts in a non-violent manner.
A series of street plays are organized, influencing audience to think of non-violent way to resolve conflict. The youth in the age group of 16-25 years undergo workshops to resolve conflicts amicably. Sports events and festival celebrations and joint cleanliness drives also help in building bridges amongst communities.
Relief and Rehabilitation
Floods and violence both are recurring themes, The Ant believes that it is the government’s responsibility to prevent them and ‘treat them,’ the conflicts of 2012 and of 2014 saw The Ant responding to the long drawn conflict by providing those in relief camps by providing them with blankets, food, tarpaulin sheets, etc.
It also supported few other NGOs to help displaced people during 2014 floods. They also provided food for over 10,000 displaced people and relief material such as mosquito nets, bleaching powder, candle packets, blankets etc. and to build back livelihoods by distributing agricultural implements and goats, etc.
Learning from its Sports for Development project and to bring communities together, The Ant introduced the Ultimate Frisbee to the conflict sensitive areas, as it resonates with its philosophy of non-violence being a no-contact sport and ensured that each team had people speaking at least 3 different mother tongues and professing 3 different religions.
The institute of Development Action
The Institute of Development Action (IDeA) was formed by The Ant to strengthen and support the voluntary sector efforts in the northeast region. It has a network of partner organizations all over Assam and has trained over 1500 NGO personnel on developmental issues and 50 NGOs of Assam by guiding them to better manage their Community Health and Rights & Entitlements programs. It also gives grants to select IDeA partners and start-up NGOs helping them with training, mentoring, and hand holding support to grow. Some of the NGOs trained have set up voluntary for a in Assam to work ethically on sustainable development.
The Ant is currently funded by Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, Bengaluru; Caring Friends, Mumbai , Arpan Foundation, USA; Child Aid Network, Germany; DKA and kfb, Austria, terre des hommes, Germany, besides a number of friends and relatives in India and abroad.
In the past, the ant has received funds from the National Foundation for India, Tata Trusts, Ford Foundation, British High Commission, UNICEF, UNDP and many others. The founders are ably supported by experienced development practitioners on its Board of Trustees and a team of dedicated and hardworking young colleagues.
Awards and Recognition
The ANT was awarded GuideStar India NGO Transparency Awards to recognize their transparency and accountability in the public domain. This award is meant illuminate the transparency level of civil society organizations and to inspire greater trust in the work of an NGO and garner support for their cause.
We visited the Rowmari campus of the ant to better understand their work. The campus is the main operating centre for its various initiatives including the weaving program.
The weaving centre is full of color and life, as you see the weavers busy at work. The skilled weavers produce handcrafted designs through an intricate process of amalgamating different threads of color. The women weavers run the organization and through their more than Rs One crore of sales, distribute roughly 40 lakh rupees as wages and salaries in the local area.
We had the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful project teams and see many of their programs in action, such as children learning via sports, self -help groups, legal aid for domestic violence, community health projects, science initiatives such as lab-in-a-box, schools in remote forests as well as partner NGO schools.
Both the project coordinators as well as students were beaming with enthusiasm. The hard work and passion put in by the ant team has helped create a sustainable livelihood for the beneficiaries. It is quite evident that the ant has done commendable work to promote peace and justice amongst communities. The various intervention areas of the ant especially on empowering women and bringing a social change seem to have had a lasting and positive impact on the community.
It is heartening to see the impact of the ant’s hard work, where there has been an improvement in school attendance and in learning outcomes. Awareness of nutritious food and personal hygiene has also taken a big leap. There has been a mind shift in the community towards gender equality and the importance of education for their girls.
Bodoland had been ravaged by conflict and climate disasters that have scarred the life of its inhabitants especially women and children and had its own impact on health, education and overall development.
Amidst the dismal scenario there were sparks of hope and the ant working on bettering lives of the poorest and disadvantaged sections provided such hope to the community. A salute to the (indomitable) ant, which silently and collectively works to achieve objectives much bigger than their size. Their journey remains very inspiring and has laid a path to bring marginalized communities to the mainstream. It is truly a cause worth supporting.