‘Action with quality on time’ is the need

That’s the never-fail formula to secure social development outcomes of consequence for people and communities — and the effort will speak for itself

Iam on the threshold of a new chapter. I began my journey in the development sector in the late 1980s after almost a decade in advertising and have recently retired after about two decades of being closely engaged with the work of the Tata Trusts. This is an opportunity for deep reflection on the changing dynamics of the sector as well as what remains unchanged.

I transitioned from the corporate sector with no formal training in rural development or a degree in social work. The leaders, professionals and communities I have worked with have been my teachers and the field has been my classroom.

Nayantara Sabavala
Former director, programme design, Tata Trusts

My first experience of the sector came while I was still in Lintas, and it was fuelled and shaped by my then chief executive, Alyque Padamsee. A true son of India, Alyque was fearless in his demand for justice and peace during times like the 1992 Mumbai riots; he was committed to giving back to society.

The cell he started for public service advertising — which he gave me the chance to lead and develop during its initial years — is still in existence 1. Alyque brought all the discipline and high expectations demanded by the highly competitive advertising world to bear on the work we set out to do. The planner that each of us was given had our names embossed on it along with the acronym AQT — ‘action with quality on time’.

The public service cell was working with clients as diverse as the Maharashtra government’s public health department and a private developer–architect partnership that wanted to run a campaign promoting a coastal road in Mumbai. Alyque was inflexible when it came to quality and insisted that our communication work be informed by activists and research, even if it conflicted with the intent of the client.

Required: moral courage

The private developer-architect team did a quick retreat when it realised that the campaign would ask the public to vote after putting across the pros and cons. It is with some sadness that I observe what looks like the genesis of a coastal road now emerging in front of my house in Worli in Mumbai. The newspapers occasionally cite environmental damage and the objections of fisherfolk to this and similar projects, but who is listening? And where is the kind of moral courage that Alyque showed?

My next lesson came from another unconventional development stalwart, Rippan Kapur. Once an airline purser and the founder of CRY (a nonprofit that works for child rights), Rippan had a simple theory, one that I hope I have been able to put into practice: let your work be defined by the communities you serve.

The needs of people, not donors or nonprofits, should define social development interventions. This requires the ability to observe and listen, to resist being pulled into flavour-of-the-day issues, to avoid parroting catch phrases that don’t mean much. Above all, you have to be participatory and invisible in the process. You have to actually live the term ‘development partner’.

In my years with the Tata Trusts, there has been ample opportunity to put the participatory approach into practice and to tread new ground. My ‘guru’ and predecessor at the Trusts, Suresh Suratwala, followed this philosophy during the 35 years he worked with the institution, and on the ground in Devapur, a drought-prone village in Maharashtra’s Satara district.

Between 1958-59 and 1971-72, Devapur’s per capita income went up by 236% 2 and its agricultural output by 270%. Russi M Lala wrote of Devapur in his book, The Heartbeat of a Trust: “The first lesson was that without the active participation of the people the process of development would be both lopsided and short-lived. What was achieved was possible even against great odds because, unlike at present, a [Tata Institute of Social Sciences] graduate devoted his whole working life of 35 years to those villagers, knowing each one by name and their problems.”

Villagers in Khaparwadi in Maharashtra’s Akola district getting together to build a water-harvesting system; the participatory philosophy has been at the centre of the social development interventions undertaken by the Tata Trusts over the years

Give it your all

The graduate referred to is Mr Suratwala, a quiet and reflective person who did much to define the work of the Trusts. He inspired new entrants like me to learn from the field, think deeply, research and plan carefully, to give our all.

The participatory philosophy was the forerunner of the integrated, multi-thematic development interventions that the Tata Trusts have initiated in specific geographies over the last decade. And it is the core of the efforts being undertaken by the Trusts and their associate organisations today.

What the development sector needs now more than ever are clones of Mr Suratwala — in government, in donor agencies, among NGOs and on the ground. The Trusts are fortunate to have many such individuals, dedicated professionals with the commitment and the knowledge to do good work.

There is a message here, too, for new entrants in the sector. There are no shortcuts when working with communities and learning from them, no alternative to spending time in the field, no option but to seek guidance from experienced practitioners and technical experts, no business plan or formula that will automatically realise objectives. We need people who are proficient in both theory and practice, with experience, with technical knowhow and, above all, with integrity of purpose.

Had I had formal training in rural development or social work, I could possibly have done more, and better. But I was fortunate to have some of the best faculty in the world to learn from.

For scale and sustainability, you need to work with the government, its agencies and its people. Working with government needs three things that are crucial to success: finding a champion within the system who is like-minded — there are many — being uncompromisingly rigorous in planning and execution, and making certain every stakeholder is accountable.

The best government-nonprofit partnerships are forged when government resources are tapped and the partner focuses on areas outside of the state’s ambit and on technical support. The courage to question is essential in this context.

Problems galore but...

Many of the social development problems India faces have been with us forever. There is a growing agrarian crisis. Much of our country remains without access to sanitation, electricity and connectivity. Many of our children are still out of school and some of those who are in school do not demonstrate the requisite learning levels. The list is endless but there is sufficient success and experience on the ground to tell us what needs to be done and how.

So what are the answers to the demands of the day? The blueprint is before us in what the founders of the Tata Trusts and many exemplary development workers have demonstrated and accomplished. The need is for ‘action’ (not just talk or ideas) with ‘quality’ (carefully planned after drawing from participatory research, data and technical expertise) on ‘time’ (without shortcuts and in a time-bound fashion). On the visibility front, the work will speak for itself.

Nayantara Sabavala retired in October 2018 from the Tata Trusts.

1The public service cell of Lowe-Lintas is now known as SOMAC — social marketing and communication unit.

2Evaluation of the Devapur Project, Report, 1976 — YS Pandit.

Nayantara Sabavala (extreme right) with beneficiaries of Doosra Dashak, an education intervention, in Falna village in Rajasthan’s Pali district