In the Jatara block of Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, villagers may not have ‘pukka’ houses, but every household seems to have an unlicensed gun or sword.
Facing severe drought, it is common to see civilians armed with weapons guarding water bodies to prevent the water mafia or ‘paani ki chori’ (water thieves). When Shubhangi Tribhuvan, an IIM Udaipur postgraduate, started working in the surrounding villages as part of her Buddha fellowship programme, she was in for a culture shock.
Acute water shortages or unemployment are not the only social malaises that mar the lives of villagers. Casteism is rampant, more so, even within the most backward castes in the villages.
“I remember attending the Gram Sabha once where the Sarpanch of the village wasn’t allowed to sit on a chair merely because she is a Dalit woman,” she says speaking to The Better India.
Today, Shubhangi is working in association with the government and the non-profit Srijan to improve livelihood opportunities for farmers in the area – which was once deemed to be the worst place in India for farmers.
Today the farmers in Bundelkhand are reaping the benefits of pomegranate orchards and its processed products.
With qualifications from a premier institute, Shubhangi could have easily lived a corporate life minting a five-figure salary or perhaps more. But she made a conscious decision to work at the grassroots level. The same choice was made by ten other Buddha fellows, who traded a conventional corporate career to embark on a transformative journey to become a ‘Development Entrepreneur.’
What is the Buddha Fellowship?
Axis Bank Foundation, in association with the NGO, Srijan, through the Buddha Fellowship Programme, has taken on-board IIM graduates and is nurturing these young individuals to take up entrepreneurial roles in the development sector.
The idea is to build young thought leaders to make India, ‘Sone ki Chidiya,’ again by improving the livelihoods of the most underprivileged citizens in its villages and making them self-sufficient.
After a selection from campuses, the Buddha fellows go through 45 days of ‘immersion’. During this period, they live with underprivileged families and experience village life first hand. The ‘immersion’ is to sensitise them to poverty, unemployment, risks, the vulnerability of farming, lack of access to health and education services.
They also observe the changes the NGO has brought in health, education and livelihoods to inspire them to set their own goals.
The idea behind the programme is to help these Buddha fellows “learn by doing.” So they work on various assignments in SRIJAN, JSS and KEF in association with various government departments.
Many of these fellows are involved in assignments in the livelihood sector such as processing custard apple, marketing its pulp, and scaling the value chain of the fruit for villagers, establishing a nascent farmer producer organization (FPO).
In its first and current batch, Ravi Reddy from IIM Udaipur is working with a rural community that is entirely dependent on the wildly grown custard apples in the forests. For years this community has been exploited by several middlemen and wholesale buyers who wouldn’t let them gain profits from local markets.
Ravi has worked on scaling up the highly perishable fruit’s valuation by establishing village collection centres, standardising processes, setting up deseeding facilities, blast storage. They have even increased production of the pulp so much that they can supply it to popular ice-cream chain Dinshaws.
The efforts have earned over Rs 5 lakh in profits!
Many of the other Buddha fellows also work in the health sector assignments to create strategies for frontline health workers such as ASHA and Anganwadis to improve health outcomes or eliminate grave health problems.
Pooja Barre, who is an alumnus of IIM Raipur, is working on maternal and child health in Annupur district of Madhya Pradesh in association with the National Health Mission of Bhopal.
Annupur district records the death of 71 children per 1000 live births and a Maternal Mortality Rate of 361. Home deliveries, improper healthcare practices and the influx of immigrants the are primary reasons for the staggering numbers. Working with frontline ASHA sahayoginis, influential block coordinators and leaders, Pooja is encouraging breastfeeding and proper health care practices among villagers.
She hopes to bring down the IMR and MMR in Annupur by 30% by June 2019.
Towards the end of their fellowship, these Buddha Fellows are expected to come up with a business plan that could secure funding from an impact investor. They may either scale up (10 X) an existing operation such as the custard apple value chain or simply design an entirely new enterprise, say for eliminating sickle cell anaemia from a tribal district, based on their experiences.
These enterprises, including the new ones, are likely to be within an organisation where the risk is mutually shared. Many could even choose to set up a civil society organisation themselves or join the government as consultants.
The motto of each Buddha Fellow’s life is to bring transformative change in the lives of 5000 rural poor families.
Until 2022, 100 Buddha Fellows will be able to impact change in over five lakh lives.
“Buddha Fellowship is a powerful and a well thought out initiative. Interacting with the young Buddha Fellows is a stimulating experience. Their passion for making a change and then actually stepping up and doing something about it is truly inspiring.
Be it setting up a Farmer Producer Companies or creating efficient Supply Value Chain; they are taking firm steps. At Axis Bank we are committed to closely work with them and create an enabling environment for them,” says Rajesh Dahiya, Executive Director, Axis Bank
Did the stories of the Buddha Fellows inspire you to explore social sector entrepreneurship?