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Down to Earth: Working and learning in India’s villages

Three young professionals chose to work in villages under the PM’s rural development fellow scheme. What they learnt on the job

Two years of working in rural areas to implement welfare and development schemes has taught them a thing or two — about how small steps can help bring about big changes in the lives of those hidden from the mainstream. The challenges for young professionals, chosen under the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows (PMRDF) scheme, are varied — from bureaucratic hiccups to overcoming scepticism to winning the trust of the people they are working with.

Here are the experiences of three of the fellows from remote areas they were assigned to work at. Sponsored by the ministry of rural development, the scheme has been implemented with the support of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

Nukala at a mini-apparel unit in Karimnagar Nukala at a mini-apparel unit in Karimnagar

Vamsi Krishna Nukala I 28
Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh
After completing his engineering degree in 2007, Nukala started working with Wipro Technologies as a software engineer in Hyderabad. He later moved to Chennai and then to Bangalore. “While I was working at Wipro, I used to engage in activities like visiting a school for the visually challenged. The more I engaged with them, the more I started disassociating myself from machines,” says Nukala, who belongs to Nandyal in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh.

In 2010, he quit Wipro to pursue a master’s degree in social entrepreneurship at TISS. The rural fellowship programme followed.

Initially, Nukala was asked to develop livelihood programmes with a budget of Rs 1.5 core, under the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), a centrally-sponsored scheme that allocated a total of Rs 30 crore for the entire Karimnagar district. The activities included establishing a tussar cocoon bank, mini apparel units, development of a vegetable hub and deploying livestock units in interior areas.

“The tussar cocoon bank was established in March 2013. It aimed at eliminating middlemen and providing a fair price to tussar farmers, ensuring year-long work and better prices to weavers, besides regular income to silk reelers,” he says. Soon, a weavers’ society and a common interest group of reelers was formed, and cocoons were purchased from farmers using IAP funds. “The cocoons are released to weavers and reelers based on demand, with the condition that they have to give the final product back to the society,” he says. After the sale, the profit is paid to individual members.

He also works to create opportunities for women trained in tailoring under various government schemes. “Mini apparel units were set up to serve as a platform for women to utilise their tailoring skills. Initially, we were just getting government orders, now we are getting even private orders from nearby areas,” says Nukala.

In his spare time, which doesn’t come by easily, Vamsi likes to cook. When not cooking, he likes to update himself on current affairs.

Aditya Tyagi I 32
Jamui, Bihar

tyagi-story Tyagi with villagers in Jamui

A master’s in computer application from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) later, Aditya Tyagi from Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, started working with McKinsey Knowledge Center, Gurgaon, in 2005. Soon, he realised that his time and efforts were helping billionaires become multi-billionaires, and “I didn’t want to be on that side”.

The fellowship came as a “golden opportunity” for Tyagi, who was assigned to work in Jamui.

“After I started working in Jamui in 2012, I realised that the shades of Naxalism in Bihar are different from that in central India. While the latter has problems regarding forest and mineral rights, displacement and related issues, in Bihar, it’s mostly about caste conflicts. In Jamui, it’s a conflict between the landowners and the landless from different caste groups,” he says.

The first step was to battle perceptions. “When a colleague in Jharkhand was abducted by extremists in January this year and released two days later, local officials said he was from the PMO. Extremists alleged he was a CIA agent,” says Tyagi, adding they now call themselves research fellows.

Once he started assessing the problems in Jamui, Tyagi realised that government policies fail to take into account the special needs of any district. “While Bihar is largely affected by floods, this district is drought-prone. Ironically, the 176-page agricultural road map of the government has only half a paragraph devoted to such areas. The gap between the needs of people and what the government brings to them was startling,” he says. Rice is the staple food for people in eastern India, and cultivating the grain needs a lot of water. “So begins the irony,” says Tyagi.

Other than government schemes, he works on I-Saksham, a programme that helps fast-tracking learning for out-of-school children, and skill development.
Another area is skill training programmes, including data entry and MS-Office skills. “The problem is that most people migrate to metros to earn Rs 7,000-10,000 per month,” he says. Tyagi and his team now arrange freelance assignments for the locals.

Typically, it takes over four hours of bus travel, two hours of a bike ride, and a few kilometres’ walk to reach the interior areas from Jamui, where he lives. There’s little time for himself, but he has no regrets. “Nowhere would you get to work on the ground with so much independence,” says Tyagi.

Shila Matang I 26
Khunti, Jharkhand

shila on a mission Matang (Source: Shuaib Masoodi)


For Matang, poverty meant not having access to private hospitals or schools. A month-long rural stint in Dhenkanal, Odisha, in 2008, as part of an internship during her postgraduation at TISS as a Master’s student of social work, changed her perspective. “It’s a combination of factors like lack of voice and choice. In the Indian context, poverty has its roots in a caste-based oppressive structure, which I have experienced first hand. For instance, land, capital and access to education are concentrated with the so-called higher castes,” says Matang, who was born and brought up in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

A history graduate from MSU, Baroda, Matang did her post-graduation from TISS. After working for a couple of NGOs, she joined PMRDF in 2012, and started working on capacity building of panchayat raj institutions. She also worked on a rural sanitation project, which gives a subsidy of Rs 9,000 to rural households to build toilets, besides organising farmer communities for collection, storage and sale of non-timber forest products.

Khunti district being “a source of trafficking, forced migration and migration of girls”, she soon started working on curbing human trafficking. Along with her colleague, Belmati Jonko, Matang focussed on imparting skill-based training to the girls. But the task wasn’t simple. They faced resistance from the girls themselves, some of whom run away to work in bigger cities. “That’s the reality of Khunti. Poverty and lack of opportunities make tribal girls vulnerable. One of the girls who ran away after being rescued from a Noida home, was trafficked by a Delhi-based agent. She didn’t get any salary for a year as it went to the placement agency that had taken her to the city. But a year later, she started earning and life seemed better to her. Such stories inspire other girls of the area.

Living as a servant, getting food and money, is what they aspire for. They don’t understand that there are no checks on these placement agencies,” says Matang.
She knows a little Mundari and can manage broken Sadri, local dialects of Jharkhand, to communicate with the community. “Without having any formal authority, it was not easy to establish ourselves as the ‘facilitators’. I also realised that new schemes are implemented without taking into consideration ground realities. But it feels rewarding when the community starts recognising you,” says Matang, with a smile.

Matang has now moved to Kashmir, where she is working on issues of human rights and women’s health.

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