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The grass is greener on the rural side

Buoyed by its own resilience and with a little help from the outside, rural India is riding out the storm of an uncertain present. By Philip Chacko

It pays to have social protection in times of crises. The bonds of family and community, a welfare architecture that has often been a lifeline and the comfort of the familiar have sustained India’s rural heartland during a period of unprecedented troubles, providing that rare bright spot in landscape littered with unrelenting challenges.

While urban India continues to suffer the battering of Covid-19 and its consequences, its rural counterpart has surprised naysayers by holding steady. Social welfare support initiatives such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Public Distribution System have been invaluable in keeping rural distress at bay, while community institutions and village bodies have punched above their weight. Together — and with another good monsoon adding to the positives — there is reason for cheer in the countryside.

Social development in all its hues has played a meaty part in creating the conditions for rural India to stay relatively stable in the face of multiple obstacles, to the extent that it became a haven for those driven back to their homesteads in the wake of the pandemic. The raft of community uplift programmes and initiatives unfolding in the villages of the country are having an effect, despite the almost inevitable lapses and cracks. 

Two women at their home in Kyunja village in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand, a state where the self-help group movement has blossomed
Two women at their home in Kyunja village in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand, a state where the self-help group movement has blossomed

The government, at the centre and in the states, is the critical factor in the bulk of these programmes. Aiding the community cause are funding agencies, charity institutions and NGOs. Whether individually or in partnership, these entities are putting their shoulder to wheel of social development — in health and education, water and sanitation, livelihoods and nutrition.

Livelihoods is among the most vital in the list. It is estimated that up to 50% of the country’s population is a single ‘income shock’ away from sliding into destitution (that would add to the 22% Indians already below the poverty line). Initiatives to enhance incomes and livelihood opportunities are, in the context, crucial to people on the margins. It puts more money in the hands of the poor, especially women, food on the family table and it improves the possibilities of communities as a whole.

The livelihoods logic is central to the entire spectrum of social uplift projects and initiatives that the Tata Trusts undertake in rural India. Organising village communities, through self-help groups, federations and farmer organisations, is an imperative. Agriculture by itself is never enough in the equation thereafter. The extras — livestock rearing, dairy development, fisheries, etc — have to be brought into the mix.

Dairy farmers in the Dungarpur district of Rajasthan
Pithoram Baskey (left), part of a livelihoods programme, with his family in Patna village in Odisha’s Keonjhar district

Activities allied to agriculture ... are what actually sustains underprivileged rural communities.”

Arun Pandhi, director, programme implementation

“The majority of India’s small and marginal farmers are in agriculture out of compulsion; they don’t have an option,” explains Arun Pandhi, director, programme implementation, at the Tata Trusts. “Activities allied to agriculture, be it selling milk or keeping goats, are what actually sustains underprivileged rural communities.”

Experience and expertise are the lodestar in the effort. “Working with the rural poor is in our DNA and our forte is bringing about catalytic change in the communities we engage with,” says Malavika Chauhan, head of rural upliftment at the Trusts. “The bottom of the pyramid is our focus — the poorest of the poor — and we reach out to them with the best possible package that we can engineer and the most sustainable processes we can put in place.”

Mr Pandhi is optimistic about rural India and its prospects. “If you consider the development paradigm across the world, our evolution is at par,” he says. “People will move to urban areas unless there is something for them to stay back for. Can you reverse this? No. Can you guide it better? Yes. Are we doing a good job? Not quite as a country, but if we get our fundamentals right over a period of time, we can do a lot more.”

As the stories that follow show, the Tata Trusts have got their fundamentals in order.

Malavika Chauhan, head, rural upliftment, Tata Trusts

“The bottom of the pyramid is our focus — the poorest of the poor — and we reach out to them...” ,

Malavika Chauhan, head, rural upliftment, Tata Trusts