Hoshangabad, (WFS) - Lata (25) used to be just another housewife in a small village in Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh (central India). She wanted to work to supplement her family income, but she was illiterate, inexperienced and her husband didn't want her to go out among strangers, especially men.

Today Lata earns Rs 1,000 (US$1=Rs 47.5) a month. She works three to four hours every day processing sauces, jams, juices and pickles using modern machines installed at the village centre. Her husband is happy too as her income promises them a secure future.

Like Lata, women and men from more than 300,000 families in 2,500 villages of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh (central India) and Jharkhand (eastern India) have benefited from the Science and Technology Applied for Rural Transformation (START) project. Initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the project uses simple but appropriate technology for social development.

Local NGOs train villagers to conduct surveys of local resources and infrastructure. The information is fed into a Geographical Information System software at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, to prepare comprehensive village resource maps.
START operates through a network of technology development centres and resource centres. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, the Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) in Bhopal acts as the technology centre, while local block-level NGOs offer space for resource centres. Each technology centre develops a network of smaller NGOs and women-dominated self-help groups (SHGs) to implement the project. The project is executed under the guidance of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. "We strongly believe that social development is possible only when people's stomachs are full," says Dr M V R L Murthy from RRL. "This project fulfils the twin objectives of productively using the natural resources of the region and using technology as an enabling tool to enhance opportunities."

Initially, a comprehensive mapping of village resources and infrastructure is undertaken. Local NGOs train villagers to conduct surveys indicating agricultural production of the area, farm size, number of households, cattle and wells in the region. This information is then fed into a Geographical Information System (GIS) software at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, to prepare village resource maps. "We spent around Rs 500 for mapping each village. These low-cost precision maps are not only useful for the implementation of our own projects, they are also in great demand for planning and execution of welfare schemes by government departments," says Dr Murthy.

Based on this information, the local technology centre is equipped with training inputs to put village resources to best use, thereby creating sustainable employment opportunities for the local population. Take the centre in Kesla block, Hoshangabad, where Lata works. The area has a rich produce of tomatoes, oranges, chillies, carrots and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. While the 'A' and 'B' grade produce is picked up by the market, farmers are left with a huge lower quality stock that would be left to rot. Now, this produce is bought by the technology development centres at competitive rates.

Lata and other women are trained to work on food processing machines and churn out ready-to-market juices, pickles, sauces and jams. The food processing machines include pulpers, double-jacketed steam kettles (for cooking), pulverisers, dryers and corking machines.

Each product is put through rigorous quality checks, implemented by SHG members themselves. 'Surbhi', their brand of pickles and other items, already has a huge demand in the vicinity. The Kesla centre hopes to get a license to market products in urban centres. "I sell more than 30 kg of pickle every week," says Pushpa Sahu, member of the Kesla centre. "People are addicted to its taste. I earn Rs 150 every week," she adds happily.

Other technology resource centres have also taken up activities like growing medicinal and aromatic plants, planting low-cost nurseries, mushroom cultivation and poultry farming. Two major activities being pursued at most centres are detergent-making and producing vermi-compost. While SHG members themselves use most of the vermi-compost produced at the centres, detergent-making has proved to be more revolutionary. Packed in small 100 gram packets, priced at Rs 2, the detergents are a big hit with local shopkeepers, tribal people and in neighbouring markets where SHG members set up temporary stalls.

Many START centres have also started manufacturing sanitary napkins. In a region where poor menstruation-related hygiene causes mammoth health problems for rural and tribal women, the sterilised sanitary napkins (Rs 3 per pack) are an affordable necessity.

A heartening trend has been use of technology centres as counselling and aid forums. Members frequently discuss and solve mutual problems as they go about their work at the centres. Small banks have also started in some centres. Each member of the Kesla centre deposits Rs 30 per month with the youngest member of the group, Manju Chauhan. The money saved is loaned at three per cent interest to members in need. Chauhan also operates as part-time teacher in the centre.

START project leaders are now planning to work on easy credit facilities, professional rural marketing and standardised packaging for members. They also propose to cash on the high demand of organic products in the market. They hope to make START into a self-sustaining project.