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Rural issues, local solutions

For rural India, trust, empathy, aspiration and empowerment are as important as toilets

Written by Ronnie Screwvala |
Updated: October 25, 2014 1:00:14 am
rural_t Even 67 years after Independence, the quest for replicable models of development has relegated us to a constant state of experimentation.

In his first Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, the prime minister laid out his vision for rural India. He drew a broad sketch of what all Indians must aspire to; now it needs finer details, so that the vision is rooted in possibility. An action plan for rural India needs a sense of urgency, priority and direction.

To understand the problem, we need to tear ourselves away from our desks in our urban headquarters and view rural issues through local lenses. This calls for an altering of approach. In the new government’s promise to build a toilet for every home in every village is the underlying assumption that villagers will instantly abandon the common recourse of defecating in the open and use the facilities built for them, and that one year down the line, these toilets will automatically be maintained and used by the local populace. Unfortunately, our experience at the Swades Foundation suggests that things won’t play out quite like that.

In the last 30 months that my wife Zarina and I have been operating in rural Maharashtra, we’ve equiped schools expecting children and their parents to line up for admission before the paint dried; we assumed that every child will aspire to complete Class X, move forward and frame career goals. We’ve held eyecare camps and after identifying a staggering 19 per cent in need of spectacles or simple cataract surgeries, we expected huge turnouts. Sadly, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

India’s development agenda suffers from being predominantly top-down. Even 67 years after Independence, the quest for replicable models of development has relegated us to a constant state of experimentation. The era of mass models needs to be left behind. Instead, we must tailor our interventions to geography, prevailing culture and lifestyle of the communities for whom interventions are planned. One of our prime minister’s new schemes, the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, concerns me for this reason. It seeks to create a model village in every constituency, but our experience suggests that villages should be built on the framework of local needs rather than on a formula. No model can be effective unless it is replicable over a minimum cluster of villages (around 500-1,000 in each). Approximately 65 per cent of our population lives in villages. To form a model for all to follow, we will need a needle-moving number of model villages in each constituency to be able to make a significant impact.

The problem stems from a general misconception that rural India is eagerly awaiting sophisticated solution providers from urban India to rescue it, which simply isn’t the case. To be able to truly help improve the lives of rural communities, we need to internalise four words: trust, empathy, aspiration and empowerment. There is a vast chasm of mistrust that needs to be crossed by social enterprises. In the close to 2,000 villages in the Raigad district of Maharashtra where our foundation works, we have learnt that trust building is not an overnight process but one that requires sustained presence on the ground. Too often these communities have seen many who come enthusiastically, promise emphatically and vanish quickly. Once trust is secured, it is essential to build empathetic relationships that transform community feedback into channels for locally sustainable solutions. These solutions then increase the access of deprived communities to essential services like education, healthcare, sanitation and, most important, livelihood opportunities. At this stage, the aspiration level of the communities begins to rise, something we have experienced firsthand, and soon they begin to explore ways to empower themselves to feed their aspirations. This is a model that can sustain.

Another unfortunate truth of our rural development agenda is that, in all these years, we have only perpetuated an environment of “handouts” around our rural and less-privileged communities, so much so that they now expect some form of continued subsidy at every stage, which can only lead to a life devoid of any ambition whatsoever. This can never create empowerment and never bring about permanent change.

Thirty months ago, when we envisioned the ideal Swades Village, we decided to reach a million people to ensure it could be replicable as a proven model. We spanned all aspects of infrastructure, like potable water and toilets, education, nutrition and healthcare. First was “building” aspiration in the community and equally important was our target to improve the livelihood of every family tenfold. Our goal for education is that every child shouldn’t just pass Class X but leave with a forward career goal. And we entirely underestimated the challenges — attendance in schools is scanty and will remain so, teacher training is the base and there is no way the children, even if they get to Class X, would harbour aspirations as no one has asked the crucial question we’ve had the luxury of asking our children: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

Two among the several initiatives we undertook proved life-changing. The first, setting up libraries in schools. Students browsed the shelves during free periods and borrowed books to take home. The library cultivated a sense of pride and ownership in them about their school. Today, we are inspired to increase the number of libraries from 220 to 500 in the next nine months. Our second initiative was to introduce career counselling for all students in Classes VIII and above. We saw it brought parents and kids together for the first time and sought to know from them what they wanted to do in the future.

As Prime Minister Modi highlighted, while we have human resources in abundance, what the youth lack are skills, vocational training and confidence. Honing the skills of the young people from the hinterlands can help create a strong workforce. If only the government and social sector could work together to empower them and stop their migration to cities ill-equipped to handle the influx, there could be several thousand model villages. True empowerment is equipping rural India to help itself.

The writer is an entrepreneur and philanthropist.

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