Feature stories

Impact in fact

A private-public partnership has brought multiple entities together to transform 2,500 villages in Maharashtra by 2019

An overcast sky provides the perfect backdrop for the Suryaganga, a gently flowing river framed by lush, green vegetation. All that can be heard is the chirping of birds and distant vehicle sounds. Looking at the picture-perfect setting, it’s hard to believe that this green oasis was, until recently, barren land.

The Suryaganga, which now flows through Shendola Bk village in Amravati, Maharashtra, had been dry for the most part of 40 years. Continuous silt deposits had raised the level of the riverbed, and during rains, water would quickly overflow into the surrounding farmland and destroy crops.

Shendola Bk is part of Vidarbha, a region that has often featured in the news for drought and farmer suicides. Summers here were harrowing, with wells and bore wells running dry. For months at a stretch, Shendola Bk’s villagers had to rely on water tankers provided by the district administration. Reviving the Suryaganga was clearly a priority, but the project had been stuck in administrative procedures.

Things took a turn for the better in 2017 after Shendola Bk was brought under the purview of the Village Social Transformation Foundation (VSTF), a public-private partnership initiative that aims to transform 2,500 villages in Maharashtra by 2019.

Sustained efforts led by the Foundation have transformed the Suryaganga river in Shendola Bk village in Maharashtra’s Amravati district from a dry river into a healthy and perennial water body

Collaborative efforts by the district administration, VSTF, the Tata Trusts and the villagers have had a multifold effect: the Suryaganga river was widened and deepened, embankments were constructed to retain the river water, a cement pipeline was laid that gave farmlands access to the river, and a road was built to reduce the time taken by farmers to walk to their fields. Villagers are optimistic now about their future thanks to the river revival project and what it has delivered.

All for one

The Suryaganga revival is one of many VSTF projects that have been changing conditions in Maharashtra’s villages. Set up in January 2017, the Foundation has brought together leading business houses (Hindustan Unilever, Axis Bank, Mahindra Rise, etc), philanthropic entities (the Tata Trusts, Swades Foundation and many more) and the Government of Maharashtra. VSTF aims to plug developmental gaps and establish greater social capital in villages across the state. The Foundation and its partners have adopted 680 villages across 19 districts of Maharashtra so far, undertaking several development projects and initiatives.

The Tata Trusts have set up a dedicated field team that leverages the strengths of the Trusts’ expansive network in the adopted villages. This is done by converging the Trusts’ various initiatives that are already present across diverse portfolios in the region.

“We are already present in several of these areas and we are contributing with our own expertise and that of our partners through direct implementation of multi-thematic activities,” says Abhishek Poduri, head of special projects at the Trusts. “We are happy to have the opportunity to be, in a collaborative manner, the lead development partner for 36 villages in the Amravati, Yavatmal and Chandrapur districts of Maharashtra.”

The idea behind VSTF is to build a uniform, collaborative and data-driven platform that will allow the state government’s policies to converge with the corporate social responsibility (CSR)initiatives of companies which already have a presence in the rural sector. “Corporate India has long been involved in developing rural Maharashtra, but the efforts being undertaken are mostly in silos,” explains Mr Poduri. “The Chief Minister’s Office realised that the public, private and social sectors could learn from one another and work towards the common purpose of community empowerment.”

The Foundation brings together the vast reach of government programmes and the advanced technical expertise of private CSR teams to support holistic rural development. “Through VSTF, the partners involved in the mission are able to reach more than 600,000 beneficiaries,” says Mr Poduri.

The target villages were selected on the basis of several parameters: their ranking on human development indices, recommendations by the district collector, and the development partners’ presence on the ground. Activities were spread across 12 focus areas to enable a holistic development of the villages. Technology has been a key factor.

Understanding the village

The Tata Trusts have helped develop monitoring tools with features such as geo-tagging, offline and remote functionality, and local language support. These tools support the development of dashboards from primary data that help understand the village at a granular level and enable rigorous monitoring.

A crucial aspect of achieving impact involves understanding the villagers’ requirements and being able to facilitate that. “This is a partnership that includes the village itself,” said Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata Trusts, at the time of VSTF’s launch. “Some of the best ideas and thoughts in terms of what can be done in the village come from the villagers themselves. This project ensures that they are not ignored.”

This is where the ‘chief minister’s rural development fellows’ come into the picture. These are young professionals who are chosen after a rigorous selection process and live in the VSTF villages for two years to oversee development work. The work starts with a socioeconomic analysis to ascertain the needs of the locals. The fellows then act as facilitators between the community, government, corporate enterprise and NGOs to improve programme delivery.

Such engagement is what got the Suryaganga river project active again after years of being stalled. The locals give credit to Vaishnavi Kayalkar, one of the fellows, for unremittingly following up with local officials, including the district collector. “I would begin my discussion with this topic at every meeting and insist that it had to be done because my villagers urgently required water,” says Ms Kayalkar.

Shendola Bk is testament to the fact that the fellows have been game changers. “The fellowship is a core tenet of this mission and the fellows’ ceaseless advocacy is what sets a VSTF village apart from the rest,” says Mr Poduri. ‘The Foundation appoints fellows who can understand government budget processes, comprehend the bureaucratic situation and effectively pitch for the village’s requirement. The village community is happy to see that development tasks that hadn’t happened in the last 40 years have now been completed in just one year.”

The Tata Trusts have been integral to the success of VSTF in terms of financial support and in driving the rollout of the fellowship programme. “As a knowledge partner, we support the setting up of VSTF’s infrastructure to ensure the mission’s sustainability,” says Mr Poduri. “As the lead partner we mentor the fellows, work on capacity building and facilitate implementation of the government’s programmes.”

Capacity building

The Trusts have collaborated with organisations such as SELCO Foundation, Unicef and the Quality Education Trust (a pioneer in its field) to organise capacity building workshops for the fellows.

There is an additional investment from the Trusts — a hands-on, feet-on-the-ground approach. “We provided the villages with funds and on-ground support to get the cement pipes in Shendola Bk to help connect the Suryaganga water to the fields,” says Mr Poduri. “Our technical engineers visited the site to ensure work was being done correctly. The villagers came together and built the farm road themselves. So this project brought people together in all aspects, from finances to programme management. This is exactly what the VSTF initiative aims to do.” The team also steps in when required to help the fellows.

Another important role that the team handles is converging VSTF and the Tata Trusts’ programmes. “The Trusts run a lot of programmes in rural development and we bring as many as possible on board,” says Mr Poduri. For example, the Sukhi Baliraja initiative team has partnered the district administration to set up 80 commercial poultry units in Amravati. Farm ponds that were dug up in Chandrapur and Yavatmal under the Jalyukt Shivar project are now being converted into inland fisheries. The Trusts directly supply fish seeds to the beneficiaries. Once the fish larvae grow into fingerlings, the farmers sell them in the market. “These projects have a huge impact and ensure sustainability,” adds Mr Poduri.

The refurbished child-care centre in Pathrad Gole village in Yavatmal

Power of the collective

A group of around 12 toddlers play inside a bright pink room with colourful illustrations on the walls and toys ready at hand. This cheerful looking building in Pathrad Gole is the anganwadi (child-care centre), where kids up to six years of age spend a large part of their day. Just a year ago, the situation was very different: few children attended the anganwadi as villagers preferred sending their little ones to private schools with better facilities.

Once Pathrad Gole came under the VSTF programme, the team looked at improving preschool education. The local administration, the villagers and Kiran Ghorpade, the VSTF fellow, worked together to transform the anganwadi.

The building was refurbished and converted into a learning centre through educative illustrations on the wall. Toys were bought to make learning fun for the children. The new anganwadi has received a great response with more children being enrolled. The Tata Trusts are also working to provide digital learning content for the children.

One challenge was that the anganwadi building had no electricity. To resolve this, the Trusts partnered SELCO (a sustainable energy services company) to install solar units to power the lights, fans, a television and a water purifier. Now plans are on to organise capacity building workshops on solar energy for the villagers. This could lead to the development of solar entrepreneurs who could take over the maintenance of the systems installed at the child-care centre.

The positive spirit has affected the youth of the village. A group of around 15 teenage girls has caused a stir with their efforts to make a difference in their village. From cooking and serving meals to children in the anganwadi to campaigning for road repairs, from organising health camps for women to confiscating alcohol that was being illegally sold in the village, these girls have done it all.

They have chalked out plans, raised funds, tackled tough issues, created awareness and brought about a perceptible change in the village in just one year. What is even more commendable is that they have done all this despite the opposition they have faced from some villagers.

The most impressive transformation that is being seen is in the girls themselves. Earlier, these teens rarely stepped out of the house to socialise. It is a different story now. Their confidence has increased, they have a say in family discussions, and despite the occasional raised eyebrow from the villagers, continue their weekly gatherings and their improvement drives. The girls say they have even bigger plans to transform their village.

Under VSTF, the Trusts currently reach up to 40,000 beneficiaries in 36 villages in three districts. Plans are on to expand to 76 additional villages in existing regions and in districts such as Akola, Nandurbar and Dhule. VSTF’s success has boosted confidence that this innovative programme will not only transform Maharashtra’s villages, but also provide valuable learning for other state governments as well as corporate India on how to achieve sustainable social impact.

However, I feel a lot many things are needed to be done. Investment as well as infrastructure were the neglected sectors so far and I’m happy to share with you that industry houses from India as well as abroad have exuded confidence in our government by announcing new projects. Providing job opportunities too has been a critical issue and we are dealing with it through skills training, encouraging startups, and filling up the vacancies that exist in the state government.

What keeps me working is my commitment to the people of the state. I believe in hard work and results. I have planned a lot many things and I’m executing most of them.

A band of teenage girls from Pathrad Gole being felicitated by a government official for leading the change in their village