“How would you like your children to be when they grow up?”, he asked.
“Like you”, she said.
The man asking the question was R Venkataramanan, managing trustee of Tata Trusts.The woman – a farmer whose income had increased ten-fold to Rs 2 lakh annually through her work in self-help groups (SHGs).
Although her family’s life had improved thanks to an increased income, their quality of life on several counts had not changed. Schools in her village were non-functional and healthcare was non-existent. Her increased income, therefore, had not translated into better opportunities for her son.
Her statement–I want him to be like you–stayed with us. We were at Pradan then and had been working with communities across India for over two decades. At that point, we asked ourselves: What will it take for the next generation of Indians, whoever they are and wherever they are, to have the same set of opportunities as the privileged urban-born?
Can we look beyond just providing jobs, training, and skills to a generation of men and women and instead focus on ensuring equal opportunities for their children as well?
Why it can not happen on its own
Through our work in rural India, we know that despite rapid economic growth, if matters were left to market forces, the inhabitants of the bottom 100,000 villages (of the 600,000 villages in our country), do not and will not have the same opportunities as citizens born in urban India or even other villages.
Sure, we have an APJ Abdul Kalam, who came from such a background but rose to become DRDO chief and the President of India. But what about his friends, his brothers, relatives and neighbours? What are the chances that they got to similar work statures? We never talk about those left behind.
Individual ascension can happen–with some education and a great deal of luck.
But how do you take development to the entire village?
How do you build basic resilience, so that our future generations can aspire to and achieve better lives?
The stepping stones to resilience
It starts with food-sufficiency. We remember one of the first conversations we had when we joined Pradan. One of our colleagues told us “bhookhe pait bhajan na hoye”. One needs food in one’s stomach before one has the ability to aspire.
When Pradan started its work in the 1980s, addressing hunger and poverty was a priority. We believed that if you worked with communities to create strong livelihood opportunities linked to government and private markets, it would have a positive domino effect on the other challenges they faced– health, nutrition, education. There was also hope that there would be social progress in terms of gender, family relationships and caste.
But in 2005, when we looked back at our strategy we realised that this whole premise has failed to work.
So while there were enough anecdotes, in terms of scale, the impact was limited to increased incomes – in some cases as high as Rs 1.5-2 lakh annually.
Cash flows had increased and there was more food at home. But for most households this did not change other important areas – child malnourishment continued to be high as did maternal and infant mortality; women had little control over their increased incomes (even though all our activity was focused on women and increasing their incomes). They had even lesser decision making powers and almost no control over their own assets.
Building social capital
We became acutely aware of the second necessary condition for development: Social capital –acquiring a voice and some sense of agency – through the mobilisation of groups. The SHG movement, which started in a small way in the 1980s, was made huge by non-profits in the 2000s and later adopted by the government. Today there are large numbers of villages, even in the bottom 100,000 villages, where some level of social capital has been created.
Once this kind of foundation exists – enough food, money and some social capital – there arises an opportunity to work on the aspirations of the community.
But there are barriers
There is a sense of hopelessness
At the policymakers’ level, there is this sense of ‘Ki bhaiya, yaha toh kuch hone vala nahi’. (Nothing can happen here.)
There is a feeling of hopelessness and fatigue especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time and you see change happening really slowly. Many of us have worked on economic development issues and take pride in our work. But when we seek to answer the question of what will it take for their children to be like our children, and the increasing gap between the two, one can only feel overwhelmed.
There is a feeling of entitlement
We’ve reached a stage today where there is a strong sense of rights, but not of responsibilities. There is a sense of entitlement that has been seeping through in the way people think and act, and we’ve seen this increase over the two decades that we’ve been in the field with Pradan and now TRI Foundation.
To quote one such example: We were in Hazaribagh in central Jharkhand and talking to the women in the SHG. This SHG is among the top five percent of SHGs in India and a poster child of the movement. Every year, the women distribute a dividend among themselves of Rs 18-25K per person.
Despite the overall economic prosperity in the village, we saw malnourished children. When asked whether the women had thought about nutrition for their children, they were very articulate. They said that they had created a citizen report, had mobilised themselves and then gheraoed the officials demanding rations be delivered to their villages. They were told that the government machinery wouldn’t be in a position to deliver rations for six months.
It doesn’t mean you let the government off the hook; you should hold them accountable. But the reality is that people are not taking responsibility for their lives.
When we asked them, “You have the money, why won’t you buy the nutrient-rich food and feed the children”, to which the women answered “We are entitled to the rations”
We understand there might be other factors and this may be an oversimplification, but the reality is that people are not taking responsibility for their lives.
It doesn’t mean you let the government off the hook; you should hold them accountable.
But one must also focus on solving the problem; one must focus inward and see what can be done by oneself.
Build resilience–adopting a multi-pronged approach
We, along with the Tata Trusts and with guidance from Dr Sanjiv Phansalkar, analysed the situation on the ground. Having understood the enormity of people’s aspirations, we realised that if the development indicators had to change for good, we had to look at two aspects:
- Things that communities can do themselves with a little support in terms of knowledge and capacity
- Things that need external support from governments and markets
For instance, in the area of child malnourishment, the women can undertake many of the recommended practises themselves. But when the child is ready for vaccination, that has to be supplied by an external entity and injected by a trained person. This external ecosystem support could come either from the government or a private, market-based enterprise.
Having understood this, we broke it down further to understand the basic things that people require to live comfortably. After several conversations across multiple states we narrowed it down to four key areas:
- Prosperity: People in the bottom 100,000 villages need about Rs 8,000-12,000 monthly cash income to live well. This translates to around Rs 1-1.5 lakh additional income.
- Healthcare and nutrition: With a focus on pregnancy to the first five years of a child’s life and basic cognitive development. This covers preventive, formative and curative healthcare.
- Education: Primary education to ensure a certain level of foundational education and mobility.
- Water and sanitation: Safe drinking water and sanitation.
In order to ensure that the marginalised communities have an influence in local decision making and are not excluded from services and infrastructure, we also included local governance and gender as inter-linked issues.
Therefore, if we have villages where we are able to move the needle on these four result areas and the issues of governance and gender, then we will be in a position to say that this village has the capacity to thrive on its own steam and that its children are well-equipped to capitalise on opportunities across India and the world.
Connecting to urban India on equal terms
The opportunities outside the village are the ones that the woman who met Venkat wanted for her son. If the country is growing, the bottom-most rungs of rural India should also be able to participate in this growth.
To be able to participate on equal terms and negotiate these opportunities, there has to be an interplay between what the communities can do themselves and a supportive ecosystem of public and private markets – Samaj-Sarkar-Bazaar (Society, State and Markets) have to come together if we have to address the rural-urban divide.