Covid-19 recovery: How to rebuild sustainable rural livelihoods?

Community-led volunteer programs, skilling, market access, empowering rural women entrepreneurs are some of the ways the rural economy's recovery can be strong, self-reliant and sustainable

Zarina Screwvala
Updated: May 20, 2021 12:29:12 PM UTC
Divil community farmers with their produce

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives globally with the second wave almost paralysing us at home. While numerous measures are being taken for immediate relief by the nation, we simultaneously need to think long-term and also focus on livelihoods for sustainable recovery.

There is a definite opportunity for sustainable livelihoods in rural areas to help recover from a Covid-19 impacted economy. These rural livelihoods can result in a Return On Investment (ROI) of anywhere between 1.5 to 2 times within less than a year in non-farm interventions like skilling or off-farm programs like poultry, fishing, goat rearing, and more, to a couple of years for on-farm based ones. While rural communities engage in these, there is an urgent need to mobilise, enable and strengthen more people to adopt these programs to facilitate faster recovery of the rural Indian economy.

After having worked in many villages over the years and learning from both successes and failures, here are some suggestions for building sustainable rural livelihoods:

Community-designed village development plans
Our greatest learning has been that community ownership is the way to make rural communities truly self-reliant. One must start by creating empowered and motivated communities to take charge of village development. In the last year, many tribal villages in the Sudhagad block in Raigad, Maharashtra, made plans for their village prosperity under the leadership of a volunteer group, the Village Development Committee (VDC). The village plan captures the economic and social development of every house. The plan links each household to government schemes and other non-profits for developing rural livelihood options. For instance, the VDC’s of Bhavshet Thakurwadi and Ghotawade Kasarwadi linked 72 households to various off-farm and non-farm livelihoods that have augmented their household income by Rs 40,000 to Rs 100,000 and, today the average household income is doubled to Rs 160,000.

Vaishali Vikas Nikam, a tribal woman and rural entrepreneur from Raigad, is sustaining her family with backyard poultry. She is the only earning member in the household since the lockdowns began.

Rural women entrepreneurship We have learned that rural women aspire to engage in livelihood opportunities to support their familiesif their basic necessities like water and toilet at home are fulfilled. Today women in Raigad are supporting their families since the lockdown. Meet Vaishali Vikas Nikam, an Adivasi woman from Raigad who started backyard poultry in February 2020. During the first lockdown, Nikam took good care of her chicks and soon began selling the birds and eggs to nearby villagersToday she is an equal partner with her husband in ensuring prosperity for her family. She has earned over Rs 90,000 since March 2020.

Community-collective efforts
Bringing marginal farmers together is a big enabler and works wonders. About four years ago, Surendra Jadhav, Shekhar Chikne, and Subhash of Divil village in Raigad, Maharashtra, were encouraged to start farming jointly on three acres of land. They got drip irrigation on subsidised rates and training from a non-profit, and also trained other young farmers in their village. Today, the acreage has increased to 30 acres and more farmers have joined the trio. Now this group of 25 farmers doesn’t grow paddy like other farmers, but grow vegetables. They plan and cultivate their crops together and sell their produce jointly to wholesale dealers in Mumbai markets. In 2019-2020, these three farmers alone made a net profit of Rs 900.000. 

Credit linkages and market access is a major stumbling block for poor farmers
We have seen a large number of fishermen in our communities benefiting from microfinance institutions in difficult timesthey got credit for buying fishing netsbut scores of dairy farmers in Raigad have suffered a lot due to lack of loans, despite their high demand. Most dairy farmers have limited or no land to give as collateral for bank loans. Linking them to institutions like NABFINS can help them get easy loans to pursue dairy farming. Such linkages ensure that maximum people engage in rural livelihoods without the worry of the high initial investment.

Mansi Khandagle receives honorable award from the local authorities of Raigad

Skilling of youth
For a promising future of rural youth, investing in vocational skilling, if initiated 11th standard onwards, can assure uptake of rural entrepreneurship and readiness of skilled labor force for the formal sector. Mansi Khandagale, a 21-year-old Covid-19 warrior who was trained under a General Duty Assistant program, today works for a hospital in Pune and supports her father to meet the needs of her family.

Applying the above along with a 4-E model (Empower, Engage, Execute, and Exit) for self-reliance and sustainability can scale these interventions. Engaging deeply with the community to understand their real needs, empowering them through various institutions, and providing them technical training and financial literacy, before executing the programs will allow for a kind of exit strategy where the community is empowered to take care of their own lives. Proper design and implementation of these suggestions by a few passionate people can help the rural families respond to the pandemic challenge and recover successfully, and will lead to building a strong and resilient India.

The writer is the co-founder, managing trustee and director of the Swades Foundation 

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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