Where there’s a will…

India’s rural livelihood issues can be solved, and it begins with mobilising and enabling local communities to develop a sustainable future

Malavika Chauhan

Malavika Chauhan is head of rural upliftment at the Tata Trusts

Statistics from Asian Development Bank (2011) showed that 21.9% of India’s population, approximately 363 million people, lived below the poverty line. The rural poor accounted for about 260 million of this figure. A report by the Azim Premji University stated that an additional 230 million Indians fell below the national minimum wage threshold (375 a day) during the Covid pandemic.

In parallel, pockets of rural India are trapped in an intergenerational cycle of chronic poverty owing to their geographical location and lack of access to services and opportunities. Lack of irrigation facilities, poor soil health, the inadequate use of modern farming methods, negligible post-harvest facilities and a shortage of market linkages combine to make agriculture a high-risk activity for small and marginal farmers.

While the rural economy contributed almost half of India’s overall GDP in 2019-2020, employing 350 million people (68% of the total workforce), and while over the last five years the rural ecosystem has grown by about 10% a year, mounting job losses over the past few years have been hitting the sector severely. This is visible, for example, in the rising demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Households dependent on the Scheme climbed from 54.8 million in 2019-20 to 75.5 million a year later, showing how important it was in helping the country’s returning Covid migrant labour force.

Yet, at the same time, some of the very same numbers also point to the enormous potential for future growth. Over the past few decades, multiple government, nongovernment and private sector initiatives have buttressed India’s rural ecosystem. Community mobilisation and poverty-eradication programmes, the National Rural Livelihood Mission among them, in collaboration with civil society organisations, have enabled the establishment of a network of sustainable practices and processes, catalysing local economies and building a framework on which development can be advanced.

Physical infrastructure and connectivity have improved in rural areas over time, while smartphones and internet penetration have increased rapidly. Access to credit and government schemes are also better. Development and support for farmer producer organisations (FPOs) are now at the forefront, resulting in these becoming access points for farmers, as well as generating the capacity to fuel awareness and support new initiatives.

A self-help group in Chatiyani village in Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar district

Enhancement efforts

Overall, trends of this kind are producing a positive environment where progress can be accelerated through sustained efforts in training, skilling, innovation and entrepreneurship development. Furthermore, as newer generations of farmers and FPOs become digitally savvy, fresh business models are emerging across value chains, with information and transparency initiatives attempting to address existing inefficiencies.

‘Rural upliftment’ has been a key engagement area for the Tata Trusts for several decades, with programmes across agriculture, livestock and fishery, natural resource management, market development, technology and more. The portfolio’s core objective is to create robust livelihood opportunities that enable households to earn higher — and sustainable — incomes. These are based on integrated community-based interventions that anchor development activities.

Community-based organisations (CBOs) are the pivot for pulling together governmental schemes, credit activity, technology and market interventions. Crucially, community institutions bring villagers together and allow for a community-based identification of beneficiaries and activities. Most importantly, they help craft community ownership and responsibility, vital for long-term planning and sustainability.

Interventions are designed on the basis of need. They augment natural resources, while focusing on initiatives to increase productivity, such as promoting ‘packages of practice’ in agriculture, end-to-end value chain development for produce, setting up businesses and building high-value agriculture or micro-enterprises. An emphasis on sustainability, innovation, integration and transfer of ideas is at the heart of the programmes, from using more efficient agricultural machinery to popularising micro-irrigation systems and pushing alternate sources of energy.

Women weavers from Khaltse village in the Leh district of Ladakh

Partnership positives

Developing sustainable livelihoods to alleviate poverty demands collaboration of the public and private sectors, as also civil society. The Trusts strive to bring this about through their associate organisations, which help implement ground-based projects. Furthermore, the Trusts collaborate with central, state and local government bodies across the country, as also with the corporate and social sectors, to scale up successful programmes.

The portfolio currently operates in 19 states of India, reaching more than 6 million individuals. Programmes are designed to meet the requirements of specific geographies. For example, initiatives in the central Himalayan region include Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These initiatives were consolidated in 2007 under the Himmotthan Society, an associate organisation set up by the Trusts.

Himmotthan initially grew while learning to adapt to the complicated landscape of the Himalayas, a difficult topography with minimal community resources, impossibly small agricultural fields located at dizzying heights, and with minimal water, electricity and market-based resources. Pockets of the region continue to be isolated, with scant external support in agricultural development.

There were many positives to work with, though: gentle and eager communities, a unique and healthy environment, rare and high-value species of plants and animals, and pockets of awareness and learning that have come about thanks to the persistence and patience of local organisations.

Well before the Trusts had any base in the region, the Tata group, with its ubiquity of products and services, had a strong and devoted base among local communities. This was an advantage for Himmotthan. That the Tata name evoked recognition and respect even in the remotest of villages helped the organisation get started.

Himmotthan began by tackling a perennial problem: the desperate need of local communities for drinking water (it is estimated that women in the Himalayas walk the approximate length of India in a year carrying water, fuelwood and fodder). Starting with a programme to develop drinking water schemes across villages, Himmotthan took on livestock and fodder issues, agriculture, menstrual health, education and much more. A three-point strategy guided project outcomes: feed a gap recognised by the state as a widespread concern; make the effort replicable; and ensure that it is owned and operated by the local community.

Sustainability matrix

These three points were central to the long-term sustainability of the activities, with or without the future presence of the Trusts or Himmotthan in the region. This is recognition of the basic democratic principle of ownership by the community, and of involving the state as a backer of social development programmes. While village women are catalytic agents of change in most activities, men and youth are actively involved in the programmes.

A bevy of external agencies, advisors and organisations provide the expertise required. Himmotthan’s programmes currently cover 15 districts and 2,000 villages across Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Leh. It has under its umbrella 5,300 women self-help groups with about 42,000 members.

Much of Himmotthan’s work now focuses on building risk-tolerant local income sources that are linked to local and regional markets. Planning for this means bringing in credit, insurance, support networks and technical knowhow. The foundation on which Himmotthan was built has resulted in the creation of community-owned institutions, including an apex institution, the Trishulii Producer Company — named by the women who own it — process innovations that have led to sustainable mountain economies, and a rural community that is versatile, vocal, skilled and independent.

The Tata Trusts are now increasingly moving into the ecosystem-level management of resources, conservation and climate impact mitigation, overlaying the ongoing work on enterprise development, value-chain sustainability, and the increasing use of technology and green options. The intent is to enable growth and a future where rural communities can manage and run their own enterprises. While the problems India faces are large, such pockets of excellence show a path forward, bringing in equity, equality and trust.

These farmers from Takmachik village near Leh are part of the Tata Trusts-supported Leh Livelihood Initiative