As we begin to see another exodus of our fellow countrymen and women from large urban centres, the need to consider and transition into alternative models of context-based self-reliance in rural India has never been more important.
Covid-19 has resulted in significant vulnerabilities and has led to an increase in global poverty in a generation for the first time, pushing 100 million people into extreme poverty across the world. India’s collective progress in achieving the goals outlined in the government’s agenda for 2030 has seen a major setback as the needs of the most vulnerable people in the country have intensified due to the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on health, livelihoods and education. We have witnessed firsthand how this has been especially debilitating for economically weak sections of the society, women, and those living in areas exposed to natural disasters and families with specially-abled and elderly dependents.
A localised approach to resilience and recovery
Countries across the world are struggling to find equitable pathways within the complex ambit of resilience and recovery. In India, we have a legacy of courage and direction deeply ingrained in our spirit of self-reliance. This is an ideal that has inspired implementation of a model of self-sufficiency in the Indian village economy. Since independence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency have been the compass, using which we have fought back and returned stronger.
Today, self-reliance is a familiar, reliable and localised approach to making rural India resilient. This model is also being applied to urban initiatives and recovering sectors by demographic demands being met through local manufacturing. However, although production and livelihoods can be secured and sustained when costs have stabilised, pursuing self-reliance in isolation can endanger the value and benefits of our accessing global markets. A balance between the two is what will see India emerge as a country and people who embrace the world, but recognise the importance of local production, and consumption.
In our experience, self-reliance models that focus entirely on livelihoods and enhancement of income can be enriched and sustained with an additional focus on the reinvigoration of communities and enabling these to become vibrant and healthy units. Moreover, for livelihoods to be truly income-enhancing, there is a need for value addition and enablement of market linkages. By responding to crises with similar socio-economic effects, we have come to understand that private sector engagement through corporate social responsibility in non-traditional collaborative models (that nurture self-reliant, connected and healthy communities) can be a catalyst that can make the underlying goals of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat a reality.
Our vision for a healthy and self-reliant Bharat
The government’s vision of a self-reliant ‘Aatmanirbhar’ India (that could imbue resilience in all) was laid as migrant workers undertook perilous and arduous journeys to return to their villages in 2020. In 2021, rebuilding the health of these communities and workers as they return to their jobs as skilled and unskilled labour is critical. This is especially true for female migrant workers and caregivers in families. Existing iron and protein deficiencies in women and children, which may have been exacerbated due to limited nutrition options in the previous year, will need to be addressed. These needs are especially urgent in the case of pregnant or nursing women and adolescent girls to prevent stunting and malnutrition among newborns.
Self-reliance in health and nutrition is the most significant means India can adopt to achieve socio-economic freedom during the transition phase of Covid-19. By directing our focus on the production of nutritious, fortified indigenous varieties of cereals and pulses that are resistant to pests and require minimal water, and producing high-quality dairy and meat products for sale and local consumption, we will be able to address nutritional deficiencies and at the same time increase the incomes of our workforce.
Designing strategies for a resilient transition phase
Private sector companies and others that until recently focused on providing rations, hygiene-related material, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential products in response to Covid-19 may now need to be realigned to address sustainable development goals. This will support food security and health-building in vulnerable communities through interventions that promote kitchen gardens, poultries, livestock management and production of indigenous food products at the local level. In addition, strategies for enhancement of production and training on skill development could benefit from components related to value addition in products and market linkages, all enabling an environment of local economies but also sustained and stable livelihoods as the risk associated with conventional supply chains diminish.
Similarly, interventions that are aligned with nutritional goals, such as planting of fruit-bearing trees, provision of medicinal plants, promotion of local varieties of iron-rich vegetables, and desalinise, micro-irrigation and enrichment of agricultural fields, can all have a positive impact on the health of local communities. Promotion of kitchen gardens in schools and adjacent to community centres through collaborative community-driven models (to improve food security among landless families) can be another step taken to boost health and capacities for self-reliance among vulnerable groups.
Similarly, going the extra mile to select and address the needs of beneficiary groups that may not be directly involved in the work force, such as senior citizens, widows, children in difficult circumstances, women- headed households, adolescent girls, tribal communities, commercial sex workers, and survivors of third gender and gender-based violence, is critical in strategisation during the Covid-19 transition phase in the true spirit of equity and inclusion.
Parameters for achievements and sustained output
The underlying threat to any model of self-reliance and livelihoods is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to address the needs of affected people. And while an overall self-reliance-driven approach can direct interventions at the macro level, planning and execution at the local level through a multi-stakeholder approach is desirable at the micro level.
The recent inclusion of need and impact assessments for CSR projects undertaken by the private sector for the government is an opportunity for proactive action being taken in areas that are relevant for the realisation of the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat project. The private sector and funding agencies may however need to make a departure from a quarter-on-quarter view of project outcomes to ensure that needs and impact accrual through self-reliant models are not restricted by typical frameworks of social investment-related assessments.
Most importantly, for communities to become resilient and self-reliant, they will need to become participants in their own development by co-designing interventions for long-term benefits while addressing short-term needs. There has never been a better time for the government, private sector and NPOs to come together to find collective solutions to challenges brought upon us by this pandemic which has touched us all, but has done so in a far more adverse fashion to millions across our country and the world.
The author is a Vice Chairman of PwC India Foundation and Leader of PwC Global Office for Humanitarian Affairs
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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