Rural Transformation Needs Grassroots Mantras


Rice threshing near Sangrur, SE Punjab, India. (Photo:  Neil Palmer (CIAT)/flickr/cc)
Rice threshing near Sangrur, SE Punjab, India. (Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)/flickr/cc)

Tackling poverty requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below .This principle must be at the core of any programme aiming at transformation of their lives. It is only then that if it can be lasting and meaningful. If people can be given the support they need to make important decisions in their own communities, to build their own societies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only lift their own communities out of poverty, they will take the world with them. Change must come from within so that the inherent momentum continues to be self driving.

It requires a new kind of leadership: not top-down, authority-based leadership, but leadership that awakens people to their own power — leadership “with” people rather than leadership “over” people.

The best approach to local development is to tap into the knowledge already available and think of ways it can be leveraged to achieve a more appropriate, locally useful and sustainable development. Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities and native    of rural people and that systematically build on experience have a reasonable chance of making significant advances in improving those people’s lives. A critical success factor is creating organizational capabilities at local levels that can mobilize and manage resources effectively for the benefit of the many rather than just the few.

Experts  must not volunteer for work where they  ‘educate’ the community about its problems, in which they generate plans and then get ‘buy-in’ from the community, and in which the priority is the development product (latrines, health centre, church building) rather than the people.  It results in a subtle dehumanization of the people who are the objects of the development intervention. It’s not intentional, but it happens, especially when they roll into a village with projects already formulated .This kind of ‘help’ is likely to stunt development because it creates dependency, conflict and feelings of helplessness among the recipients of development aid. It’s as if they have got a hammer and are looking for nails. This approach shifts the people in the   community from the subject to the object of development. If the inhabitants have not yet given their trust, and shown their social topography, the people may even seem like obstacles! ] .Development is an ongoing, endogenous process. It cannot simply lurch along, dependent on outsiders arriving with solutions and resources.

Instead of mapping problems from needs through external solutions, the planners must help the community identify them and then map these to develop a vision and action plan that embodies the local vision. In other ways Intervention has to be of the kind   that gets them over a bump in the road, not the kind that builds the road, provides the car, petrol and driver, buckles the seatbelts and pays the tolls.

I saw villages that enjoyed a dramatic increase in crop yield and incomes after agricultural scientists advised farmers on watershed techniques—a fancy term for digging ditches so good that soil is not washed away. While it will not solve India’s deep-rooted agriculture problems, better information can significantly boost food production and rural incomes.

Although there is much discussion in public forums of involving stakeholders for appropriate development of the society in which the poor live, poor people rarely get the opportunity to develop their own agenda and vision or set terms for the involvement of outsiders.

One of the things that can happen as you go into a community to serve it is a subtle dehumanization of the people there. It’s not intentional, but it happens, especially when you roll into a village with projects already formulated. There is a difference between being invited into town to live and learn where you can help with the endogenous development process already underway, and arriving with ready-made solutions to problems you haven’t yet encountered, but assume (or hope) exist. It’s as if you’ve got a hammer and are looking for nails. This approach shifts the people in your new community from the subject to the object of development. If the inhabitants have not yet given you their trust, and shown you the social topography of the community, the people may even seem like obstacles! You think “If it weren’t for these damn people and their baffling behaviour, I’d have had these women’s projects finished long ago!”

The entire participatory paradigm illustrates that people are participating in plans and programs that we—outsiders—have designed. Not only is there little opportunity for them to articulate their ideas, there is also seldom an institutional space where their ingenuity and creativity in solving their own problems can be recognized, respected and rewarded. The situation of the proverbial cart having been placed before the horse.

Six hundred million Indians defecate outside every day, straining the health, economy, and social infrastructure of India. The practice of open defecation is linked to spread of parasitic infections  , sexual violence against girls and women, and the stunting of children’s growth.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019 with his “Clean India” campaign, but   the problem is more complex than simple access to toilets.

Despite years of work and billions of rupees spent addressing the problem, few interventions have been successful in ending the practice and decreasing its health-related problems on a large scale.

While conducting his PhD research on sanitation, sustainability, and policy in India, Andrés Hueso, policy analyst reported. “I think there is a real preference [for open defecation],” he says. “There are many reasons why and they vary for each individual. You can call it religion or culture or tradition or some kind of disgust of having to handle feces. So a lot of people prefer to go somewhere, drop it and leave instead of having it near the house and having to figure out what to do when [the toilet pit] fills up.”

Open defecation continues to be a socially and culturally accepted traditional behavior by the community. Females reported that males are often not supportive of toilet construction, but some women mentioned that lack of water and money prevents us from not having a sanitation facility.

The major thrust of all sanitation campaigns should be to promote attitudinal change that will create demand and further lead to improved access. In the long term, behavior change communication is imperative to sensitize people to use sanitation facilities and appreciate the positive aspects associated with it. Behavioral aspects vary by gender and age.

In a country as large and diverse as India, it makes sense to connect those who live in similar climates and by tracking the effectiveness of the projects they manage and making appropriate, informed changes to those that aren’t working. People who pioneered successful social programmes   recognized this potential and sought to evoke. It is possible if we imbibe the true spirit of Modi’s oft repeated mantra:  “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (partnership of all, development for all “

(The writer is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker and Women in Islam: Exploring New Paradigms)


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