Zarina Screwvala is the Co-founder of the Swades Foundation & works full time as its Managing Trustee & Director. The Swades Foundation operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India through a holistic 360-degree development model. Zarina is a member of the UN Women Business Sector Advisory Council (BSAC). She was also one of the Founder-Directors of UTV (now a part of the Walt Disney Company India), one of India’s foremost media and entertainment conglomerates, where she led the creation and launch of leading broadcast brands including UTV Bindass, UTV Stars, UTV Action and Hungama TV in India and the children’s channel Astro Ceria in Indonesia & Malaysia.
Stories of change often make us feel hopeful about a poverty-free society, but situations such as pandemics, lockdowns, natural disasters undo all the progress we make.
Covid-19 has significantly impacted the Indian economy. More than 23 crore Indians have been pushed into poverty in the past year, increasing rural poverty by 15 percent. Millions lost their jobs, and the number of people who live below the national minimum wage threshold increased by 230 million during 2020-2021. The situation has been more challenging for India as two-thirds of its population resides in villages, and more returned during the pandemic. Despite agriculture being the only silver lining for a pandemic-struck rural economy, households engaged in non-farm livelihoods, like daily wage labour, self-employment and traders have been impacted severely. Additionally, a majority of rural communities that were engaged in the informal workforce have had to dig their savings and have lived in irregular jobs for over a year.
As former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life”. Hence, it is important to continue efforts towards eradicating poverty with higher motivation. Especially for our country to achieve the $5 trillion economy dream and make rural communities truly atmanirbhar (self-reliant), we need to grow at nine percent per year till 2025. To address these challenges, the government announced relief packages and new initiatives. However, relying only on government initiatives is not enough. Every effort in this direction has to be sustainable and, for a wider impact, the community should also be an equal stakeholder instead of having a “charity” approach.
There are many examples of self-sufficient Indian villages, and based on my experiences and learnings with them, here are some approaches to uplift rural India out of poverty
Understanding poverty as mental as well as material
My learnings have convinced me that poverty is both material and mental. We can remove material poverty, but mental poverty remains. It is the lack of hope and inability to dream of a better world for oneself and one's family. While development partners strive hard to uplift rural India out of mental poverty, building a ‘can-do’ attitude in rural communities is the starting point for uplifting rural poverty. Once the community realises this, an empowered rural India is possible. Mawlynnong in Arunachal Pradesh, Hiwre Bazaar, Ralegaon Siddhi, and Bhavshet Thakurwadi in Maharashtra are a few examples of empowered rural communities that are now "Dream Villages" or soon will be.
The Community must lead the change
The power of one can transform a community, a village, and an entire nation. Hence, it is essential to empower rural communities through community efforts contributing to making their own village development plans. That can come through community asset mapping, forming a village development committee (VDC), and focussing on the holistic development of the village and its implementation by the VDC. It has taken many failures to realise that a push vs pull approach enables the community to take charge of their prosperity with government and non-profit’s support. Pushing the community to meet our visions and goals cannot create a larger impact. On the other hand, when communities make their visions and goals, express what they need, it's safe to say that the empowerment process has begun. The goals set by the community and the solutions to their challenges should be contextual and utilise the best of their geography, culture, and heritage.
A holistic model of rural development
Once the community is empowered, the stakeholders have to work towards the holistic development of the villages. The approach has to be community-led and stakeholders support to ensure that four basic needs—water and sanitation, access to healthcare, education and livelihoods, skilling—are met. My experiences of interactions with remotest communities in rural Maharashtra, suggest these four impact every household and every community member. In the absence of these, community members, even children, cannot realise their best potential. These efforts require a strong execution from the community and non-profits scaffold their efforts.
The holistic model is simple, replicable and scalable. In our experience, a geographical approach to address the challenges of a particular area has delivered the best results in uplifting rural households out of material and mental poverty.
Collaborations and partnerships spurred on by the current crisis
Pushed by the Covid-19 crisis, we have a rare opportunity where civil society, non-profits, corporations and government are more willing than ever to work together to solve the problem. Given the scale of the work and complexity of the problem, collaborative efforts ensure a larger impact. My field learnings have convinced me that forging partnerships with stakeholders—corporates for financial resources, government for faster action orientation support on various schemes, other non-profits for expertise are essential to uplift rural India out of poverty. All this while keeping the community members we serve at the core.
This holistic approach for eradication and collaborative action can lead to permanent positive change. My belief is based on various learnings and results of many pilots and programs across the globe. These can be scaled up and replicated in different geographies.
We will observe the International Day of Eradication of Poverty on October 17, 2021. It gives me immense hope that while you read this, you will take time to put on the lenses to see poverty in both mental and material forms. Take some concrete steps to be part of the movement to eradicate poverty from our rural communities.
The writer is the co-founder, managing trustee and director of the Swades Foundation.