Why understanding mental poverty is crucial to transforming rural lives

If we are to work towards uplifting our rural communities from material poverty, we must first rekindle their ability to dream. Here's how one can start

Zarina Screwvala
Updated: Apr 5, 2023 02:57:21 PM UTC
Every new generation can be a great driver of change if equipped with the right tools—education, exposure, and awareness. Image: Swades Foundation

At the beginning of our journey in philanthropy, we asked ourselves a seemingly simple question: What is poverty? It took a year of travel across the country and beyond, and hundreds of discussions for us to realise that poverty is of two kinds—mental and material. We realised that to remove material poverty in a scalable and sustainable manner, we must remove mental poverty. Mental poverty is the lack of aspiration and hopes for a better future. It is the lack of ability to change one’s life and that of those we care for. For me, it is a terrible form of poverty, perhaps even worse than the heart-wrenching material poverty.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen poignantly summarises it when he writes, “poverty is not just the lack of money, it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.”

According to NITI Aayog's multi-dimensional poverty index 2021, 32.7 percent of India’s rural population is multi-dimensionally poor, compared to 8.8 percent of our urban population. If we are to work towards uplifting our rural communities from this vicious cycle, we must first rekindle their ability to dream. But where does one start?

1) Create local heroes as role models for the community

Much like in our work in film and TV, we learnt to create local heroes, creating the possibility for one of the best kinds of learning—peer-to-peer learning. Relatability goes a long way in making an ideal look achievable. Instead of aspiring to be distant role models that come from a milieu different from theirs, the communities must engage and be mentored by local heroes that have faced similar challenges.

Ruma Devi of Rajasthan, who received Government of India’s Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2018, started by convincing ten women in her village in Barmer to start a SHG (self-help group) and take up textile and handicraft design. Thanks to the successful pilot and the local role models that it created, Ruma has now raised a network of 30,000 women that engage in patchwork, applique work and so on, and retail their products on ecommerce sites catering to Western markets.

2) Community ownership

Any social transformation needs to begin from within the community. Underserved communities, especially tribal communities, naturally approach ‘outsiders’ with a sense of apprehension. The process of change, therefore, must begin internally.

Creating a Village Development Committee or VDC has proven to be an effective way to do so. A VDC is a body of elected members comprising 50 percent women, along with a fair representation of youth and the elderly. Trained and informed of various programs and schemes, it drives change from within the community. Pui, a women-led VDC in Raigad, has ensured that their village is plastic-free. It has mobilised the entire village to come together and clean the village periodically while sending their dry waste to a recycling unit. In another beautiful instance of social change, the VDC in Jangamwadi has encouraged its houses to mention the names of its women on the nameplates. The gesture has given women a sense of empowerment within the household.

Many villages in Nashik and Raigad have benefitted from the service of local health volunteers that have taken the onus of providing accessible healthcare to their communities. Geographies with community-led health volunteers are known to ensure over 95 percent institutional delivery.

3) Create awareness about government processes and schemes

Often communities are unaware of the many government schemes they are entitled to—that can lift them out of a dire situation. Empowering them with knowledge about these can enable them to lead better lives. They should be encouraged to understand local administration or better even be part of local governance.

This reminds me of a tribal village in Raigad called Ghotawde. For many years the folks in Ghotawde lived with ‘kachcha’ unfinished roads that posed a difficulty, especially for the elderly. Monsoons were a whole other battle. The community was empowered to take the issue to the local administration office and after months of follow-up, able to lay out a pakka road. As small a victory as it may seem to some, it has hugely impacted life in Ghotawde. In Bhavshet, another hamlet in the vicinity, close to a dozen senior citizens have leveraged the Niradhar Pension Scheme to live dignified lives without dependence on others.

4) Empower the youth

Every new generation can be a great driver of change if equipped with the right tools—education, exposure, and awareness. Providing scholarships to rural youth, organising exchange programs with children from outside their communities, facilitating mentorship programs, skilling programs and so on can go a long way in empowering them to lead transformed lives. Vijay Barse, a school football coach from Nagpur who established a club for slum kids gone astray, is a fine example of a youth enabler. When Barse saw that young boys in the slums were engaged in an anti-social activity but had the skill and passion for football, he encouraged them to play the sport and formed a club. This club rehabilitated many young men and allowed them to dream. Some of them also became football coaches in the same organisation. Barse’s efforts also inspired a Bollywood biopic Jhund with Amitabh Bachchan playing his character.

Also Read- Technology, financial literacy, and mentoring: The way ahead for self-help groups

In addition, perhaps the most important aspect of transformational change is giving communities the courage to make mistakes and succeed. We must ensure that the communities have someone they trust to guide and mentor them through the process of change. This can be the work of volunteer-based organisations and not-for-profits. We need to offer our communities the ability to dream but also the pathways to achieve those dreams. They need to know they are not alone. That there are hundreds, even thousands, ready to pick them up should they fall and cheer them on as they begin to live joyful, dignified and empowered lives.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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