Feature story

Good road ahead

A data-driven community development project along the Jamshedpur-Kalinganagar corridor, has been a pathbreaker for 450 villages in Jharkhand and Odisha

Among the many meanings of the word 'road' is 'a way or means to achieve something'. When applied to the Jamshedpur-Kalinganagar Development Corridor (JKDC), or Raah project, it is a trailblazer that promises to improve the lives and future of more than 100,000 people in some 450 villages of the two states.

A collaborative effort involving the Tata Trusts and Tata Steel Foundation (TSF), Raah covers a 280-km stretch between Jamshedpur in Jharkhand and Kalinganagar in Odisha, and runs through some of India’s poorest regions. Raah translates as road in Hindi and that is a name appropriate for an initiative that seeks to create a pathway that balances conventionally understood development with the all-round needs of underserved communities.

Launched in 2018 and located in the expanse between Tata Steel’s plants in Jamshedpur and Kalinganagar, JKDC Raah is an unusual endeavour in more ways than one. It employs a corridor approach to encompass a greater number of beneficiaries; it is centred on community participation; and it uses data to effect transformation at the grassroots level.

The need for the corridor is driven by harsh ground realities: it sits in an extended area that has always been classified as backward, with human development indices that are among the worst in the country. “JKDC Raah is in the zone of National Highway 20, and this highway has impacted people’s lives in terms of bringing positive change as well as throwing up challenges,” explains Paresh Manohar, a programme officer with the Tata Trusts.

“JKDC envisages creating a first-of-its kind, comprehensive development corridor that demonstrates to the world how industry and communities can jointly and harmoniously prosper,” says Debdoot Mohanty, head, TSF.

Locals at a community mobilisation drive in Chanpada village in West Singhbhum district

Survey for surety

The initiative started with a mapping of the corridor to get a clear picture of the socio-economic, demographic, cultural and environmental status of the people and places it touches. A survey pinpointed households and businesses in the project area, which includes 72 panchayats (village councils) in the East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Seraikela Kharsawan districts of Jharkhand, and the Jajpur and Keonjhar districts of Odisha.

The findings of this survey have guided the design of the JKDC project and the route it has taken, particularly with reference to local communities. Data mapping has aided in planning and decision-making at the village level, where the focus is on engaging with villagers.

The project adopts a bottom-up approach, placing the community at its centre, and its design gives all stakeholders — local communities, village councils, elected representatives and government — a place and a role in the development journey that is being catalysed.

A participatory planning framework has resulted in village communities having a big say at every stage. “The data-driven approach we have selected takes into consideration the specific needs of the community rather than allocating resources based on any arbitrary generalisation of their requirements,” says Mr Manohar.

The data-collection tool and dashboard in the initiative enable community-driven information gathering and easy access. A vital factor here has been the streamlining of gram panchayat development plans (GPDPs), which are statutory documents created at the village council level to reflect the needs of rural communities. Village development plans are vetted by village councils before going to district administrations to become part of the GPDPs.

“Till now, elected members of gram panchayats relied on their own insights to address issues; the absence of village-level data made it difficult to prioritise these issues,” says Dipantari Sardar, head of the Tudi village council in Jharkhand. “JKDC Raah and the data it has unearthed, will help in identifying and reaching out to marginalised groups.”

DELTA connection

The data collection for the project was done by more than 550 village volunteers and field coordinators, who were trained to use smartphones and an app called DELTA (data, evaluation, learning, technology and analysis) that has been employed by the Trusts for their data-governance programmes. The approach builds on the Trusts’ experience of designing and utilising the DELTA framework to empower communities to contribute towards their own development.

Besides the two state governments, TSF and the Trusts have been supported by several partners in getting the project up to speed. Plenty of the work here has been concentrated on building bridges with the community and multiple facets have been addressed for the purpose: understanding traditional practices, preserving and reviving local arts and culture, staging kala jathas (street plays), holding village sporting events and even charting the region's biodiversity.

The results of the JKDC Raah effort are already visible on the ground, with 72 GPDPs having been finalised. This would not have been possible without the backing of a host of entities — among them civil society organisations, educational institutions, the donor community and the private sector.

Data being collected in West Singhbhum’s Hatgamahria village
Data being collected in West Singhbhum’s Hatgamahria village

Data makes a difference

Programmes in the data-driven governance (DDG) portfolio of the Tata Trusts aim to strengthen rural and urban decision-making systems through the use of information and technology. The Trusts have been providing functional and technical support to the central government and a few state governments in carrying out data-intensive planning as a means to support social development and to improve governance mechanisms.

The DDG framework employed by the Trusts is called DELTA (data, evaluation, learning, technology and analysis), and on-ground surveys are its bread and butter. Beginning with a single gram panchayat (village council) in 2015, the DDG footprint now extends across 85 districts in 27 states, covering over 2.5 million people.

Another model that the Trusts employ is DELTA-plus, which aims to smoothen last-mile linkages in rural reaches while providing direct benefits to about 56,000 households. The DDG team has trained some 500 government administrative officers in using data for better decision-making, and nearly 5,600 volunteers, drawn from villages, in digital data collection.

The Trusts have forged several state- and central-level collaborations through its DDG initiatives, most prominently with the Maharashtra government for its ‘village social transformation mission’ and with NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s public policy think tank, for its ‘transformation of aspirational districts’ programme.