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Swades Foundation – Building Capacity In Rural India

Remember the 2004 Bollywood film in which an NRI Mohan Bhargava (played by Shah Rukh Khan) returns to India and is moved by the harsh realities faced by the people in his village to become an agent of change? The name of that film was Swades, and here is an organization called Swades Foundation that shares a similar mission - to bring about change in rural India. To know how they are doing this, read more.

Swades Foundation – Building Capacity In Rural India

Some of you might remember the 2004 Bollywood film, Swades, in which an NRI Mohan Bhargava (played by Shah Rukh Khan) returns to India and is inspired by the harsh realities faced by the people in his village to become an agent of change. Here is an organization called Swades Foundation that not only shares its name with the film, it also aspires to a similar mission – to change and empower rural India. To know how they are doing this, read below.

Chandrakant Pawar holds a diploma in agriculture, but the lure of Mumbai – the dream city pulled him to Mumbai in search for a better life. He stayed in Mumbai from 2004-06 but, the struggle in the city was not paying off. He was marred by the city’s pace. Dejected and disappointed, that’s when he heard of the work being done by the Swades Foundation in his village and he decided to move back to his family and to his community. He participated in the Swades Foundations’ Self Help Group Training where he got motivated to put his two acres of barren land to agricultural use. The annual income of his household through agriculture is approximately about 3 lakh.

Today, a farmer by choice, he is a role model in promoting Agriculture as a lucrative career option amongst the community. He makes special efforts to reach out to his people, based in the city, to come back to their villages, where enhanced livelihood options exist; initiating a wave of reverse migration.

Chandrakant is also working towards developing a program on Agro-Tourism to show the world the beauty and culture of Rural India.

The cashew grafting programme in Pashti village
One of Swades Foundation’s agricultural initiatives – The cashew grafting programme in Pashti village (Photo Courtesy: Swades Foundation)

Sudham Mali and Balaji Patole are teachers with an unquenchable love for education. They run a school in a village called Pashti (which consists of 6 hamlets and a population of 282) since 1997. Children come from 8-10kms away to this school. Mali draws a salary of only Rs 1,800 for last 10 years, and he along with Patole spends double the time required to be spent as a teacher. Instead of an 8 hours job they do a 14-16 hours job to ensure that kids get a better education. The privately run school has a 100 per cent pass rate in SSC exams.

The duo has striven to create a strong mindset among village communities of sending the girl-child to school and to address the extremely high dropout rates. They have reached out personally to parents to ensure attendance and spent time post-school hours with their students to make sure they fare well during exams. Today, their school provides the students with English and Computer training, thanks to the help provided by Swades Foundation.

Several programmes have been undertaken by Swades Foundation to make education more effective and comprehensive in villages where they operate
Several programmes have been undertaken by Swades Foundation to make education more effective and comprehensive in villages where they operate (Photo Courtesy: Swades Foundation)

These are just a couple of examples of villagers in Raigad district who have seen changes and are bringing about changes within their own community. There are several other villages in the district that are seeing changes in the areas of agriculture, water sanitation and health programmes. And, they say none of this would have been possible without the support of Swades Foundation.

The Beginning
Operating for the last 15 years as SHARE (Society to Heal Aid Restore Educate), Ronnie Screwvala started the foundation when he was just 30 years of age. Since then the foundation has come a long way. Zarina Mehta, also a founder along with Screwvala refers to SHARE as the ‘first phase of Swades’, the foundation has since evolved and been rebranded as Swades to mark its shift onto a different growth trajectory.

The single minded focus of the Foundation is empowering Rural India. Explains Mehta:

Our unique strategy is to engage, execute, empower and exit: to engage rural communities with corporate entities, young urban India, not-for-profit organisations and governments, to execute programmes that empower our communities to transform their own lives, enabling us to exit (although not permanently) and allowing them to serve as role models and change agents for the rest of the country. The ‘swa’ in our name Swades embodies this thought and forms the core of everything we do.

Swades currently operates in Raigad and some parts of Ratnagiri districts of Maharashtra in the areas of Water Sanitation, Education, Agriculture, Livelihood, and Health.

On a visit to Raigad and the villages where Swades operates, one could feel the change that has been brought about. In Jambul, which consists of 3 hamlets – 170 households and a population of 858 – Swades undertook a health and water project. Swades research showed that children in the age group of 3-6 years were severely anemic. Swades undertook a 100-day health programme since September 2012. The effort was to bring down the anemia rate among children here. It is understood from Dr Vaibhav and Dr Hitesh who are Swades doctors working here that 78% children are anemic and of these 64% are severely anemic.

Dosage programme for Anaemia being administered in Jambul village
Dosage programme for Anaemia being administered in Jambul village (Photo Courtesy: Anusha Subramanian)

The dosage programme that started in December 2012 consisted of a 100 dosage programme wherein the children who were detected anemic was administered dosage to improve their hemoglobin rate. The dosage programme was held at ICDC centres and at the primary schools in the village.

Along with the dosage programme, Swades also designed an awareness programme on how to prevent anemia in children. The programme has seen the incidence of anemia reducing. After about 60 doses of medicine there has been about 96% improvement in the kids.

Similarly, another issue that Jambul grappled with was that of water sanitation and drinking water scarcity. Says Praveen Aggarwal, COO, Swades Foundation:

Most villages here face water issues. According to the villagers, the government facility provided was not enough to solve the water issues. For the villagers daily sustenance was more important than anything else. We therefore first looked at fulfilling the basic amenities.

“We started work in 50 Gram Panchayats which has approximately about 150 villages. We set up check dams and revived spring wells to help local plantation. We actually got water close to the community through setting up water reservoirs, small water tanks,” Aggarwal adds.

The 21,000 litre water storage tank built by Swades in Jambul
The 21,000 litre water storage tank built by Swades in Jambul (Photo Courtesy: Anusha Subramanian)

Almost a year ago Swades team of workers also combed the Jambul area and found a good source of water to build a large storage tank. The storage tank has a capacity of 21,000 litres of water and has provided a distribution line wherein each house in the area now gets 200 litres of water per day.

“The aim is to get water throughout the year,” says Mayuri Pashte, deputy sarpanch of Jambul Gram Panchayat. The villagers have also spent Rs.2500 each to get a tap within their house for the water so the women of the house do not have to go to the well to collect water.

Similarly, in the area of agriculture, Swades called in experts to impart training to the villagers in cashew grafting both in Jambul as well as in Pashti. Also earlier each farmer could only grow one crop. Today, that has changed and every farmer has started growing a second crop.

Farmers are being educated in organic farming and being taught how to increase yield. The villages have also started community farming. In the summer of 2013, they collectively sold 25 tons of watermelon in the local market which fetched them close to Rs 1.5 lakh. “There is in all 10 acres of land under community farming in Pashti,” says Chandrakant Pawar.

The cashew grafting programme
The cashew grafting programme (Photo Courtesy: Anusha Subramanian)

Swades also has a few programs for youths, imparting skills for making them entrepreneurs or self-employed people. “It’s more about entrepreneurial implementation through self-help groups, farmer’s clubs – indirectly taking care of under-employment of hundreds of farmers, training several dozen workers and plumbers, etc,” says Praveen Aggarwal, COO, Swades Foundation.

Explaining the Foundation’s strategy Aggarwal says, “We are looking at a transformational 360-degree approach, which means holistic contribution to water and sanitation, agriculture and livelihood, education and health, following best practices, utilizing modern technology and value-based approaches to cause an irreversible change in people’s life.”

According to Aggarwal, it’s about touching a human being’s life right from birth to old age, so that their lives, education and career path could be shaped, sharpened and secured in the right direction.

The foundation’s strategy began with developing programs and creating community-based organizations in those villages where they enter with their rural developmental programs so that they do not require further resource investment and financial investment. Swades currently works with a team of 100 people and provides regular guidance on every program that they carry out in any area.

“We have set ourselves a mission of empowering, creating a permanent positive change in the lives of 1 million in five years,” says Aggarwal. It is understood that Screwvala and Mehta want to spend Rs 50 crore annually towards social causes. But, they are very clear that it needs to be done strategically and with accountability. Additionally, Swades plans to leverage financial and non-financial resources of the government, corporates and other institutions to maximise its impact.

Medical dosage for Anaemia being given to the children
Medical dosage for Anaemia being given to the children (Photo Courtesy: Anusha Subramanian)

According to Mehta, Swades is a self-execution foundation and not one to simply cut a cheque and let execution of a project be run by someone else. Having given up her career in Media after almost 25 years, Mehta is now full-time involved with Swades. She personally looks into all the projects along with her staff.

In the last 5 years alone, Swades has provided 39,000 people in 139 villages in rural Maharashtra with drinking water and made inroads into livelihood, education and health. It has also created 276 womens’ self-help groups with 3,900 members and 111 farmers’ groups with 1,500 members.

Swades has so far been been able to cover every aspect of human life and under each one of these categories there are at least 15 programs in each. For instance in education, there is a component about building a capacity of the management principals and there is a teacher training programme and there is an English language and computer training module, scholarships, rewards and recognition, and in different schools building separate sanitation facilities for boys and girls.

It’s not been an easy road to tread upon too. Swades also has challenges. One of the first challenges Aggarwal says is that of scale. Let’s take the regular hemoglobin check up. 70% of my population is anemic. There is no technology which is available in a cost effective manner which can test people’s hemoglobin level and give me instant result, say in Rs 2. The current test is costing us Rs 20 or so for each individual, and in a day these laboratories don’t have capacity of doing more than 200-300 tests. These are issues affecting us, so scale is one.

Second challenge he says is cost efficiency – for instance, the spectacles that they were delivering to kids and adults who needed eye care were costing them Rs 150, but with a lot of in-depth research, they have been able to take it down to Rs 50. So there is a great need to cope with these challenges of cost and time.

The third challenge that he faces is that NGOs have a tendency to work at a slow place. So they are trying to change the culture in the organization by bringing in corporate governance, corporate efficiency, management routines, reporting, etc.

It is Mehta’s belief that

You have to professionalize the NGO. The social sector is now creating good career opportunities. So far NGO jobs have not been lucrative. But, if you want to attract good talent you have to create a magnet.

Apart from all the work in progress and the challenges being tackled, building a large following like most other private foundations using a business-like approach to social causes, the terms ‘scale’ and ‘timeline’ are other important factors to consider – getting to a level that is noticeable and which other people can replicate as a model.

This is where the goal of ‘1 million in five years’ enters the picture. In this process, rather than portraying Swades as just a philanthropic activity, Mehta endeavors to build a large following and inspire others in similar lines of work to contribute their brainpower to empower people and to then move on with their lives.

Anusha Subramanian started her journalism career 17 years ago as a general news reporter with Mid-Day. She has worked in the past with The Observer of Business & Politics, now defunct, Business Standard, Hindustan Times and Business Today from where she recently quit as its Associate Editor. She bagged the British Chevening Scholarship in 2012 for the South Asia Journalism programme. In the same year she also bagged the Press Club’s National Award for Excellence in journalism for her investigation into how environment clearances are given out for projects. She has been interviewed by CNN’s South Asia bureau and BBC Radio 4, London as a media expert talking about the Indian M&E sector. Anusha is a trained mountaineer and when she is not writing she is climbing mountains. Currently she is in Uttarakhand, helping in the relief work.

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