There is a silent revolution sweeping rural India, and it is here to stay. The story that follows is only one of thousands, and offers important insights.
For centuries, the Santhal tribe has lived in isolation, their settlements scattered in the Ayodhya Hills and Sundarbans of West Bengal. Forgotten by the government, these tribal families live without electricity, roads, medical facilities or any kind of development. Until recently, they had never even switched on a light bulb in their homes. But they are a strong people who have never given up their hope for a better life.
Watch the video to learn more about their story and their fight against darkness -- their first step towards uplifting themselves.
The Santhals of West Bengal are part of a growing silent revolution sweeping rural and underprivileged India: one where rural communities have begun actively working to improve their lot. People have realised that handouts can last only so long, and governments take time to deliver.
So if they need to earn better, they are seeking out livelihood training and support to set up their own microenterprises. If it's clean water and sanitation they want, villagers are forming self-help groups to set up piped water connections, implement water harvesting solutions and build toilets in their homes and schools. If they need cheap lighting and electricity after sunset, they are exploring alternative solutions like solar energy.
The solar power adoptions, in particular, are growing at a rate that has never been seen before. Hamlets in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are coming together to install solar micro-grids, working with organisations like Mera Gao Power and MLINDA. Elsewhere, rural and semi-urban communities are opening themselves up to the Liter of Light project. In other rural areas, particularly in states like West Bengal, Odisha, Mizoram, and Tamil Nadu, households have already adopted the use of solar lanterns and solar home lighting systems as a consequence of the awareness-generating efforts of social organisations like the Mahashakti Foundation, WSDS, and Gramalaya. Rural communities are now asking the question: "When will we be able to power everything using solar energy?"
"Making the beneficiaries active role players in these initiatives is a key factor. The principle has been: 'no handouts, only support'."
These initiatives in rural empowerment and development have taken off at a faster rate and enjoyed better success than traditional government projects, which have needed time to build scale, mobilise finances and initiate momentum.
Three key factors are the driving force behind the success and sustainability of these initiatives, lending them the nature of a revolution.
- Inclusion: Making the beneficiaries active role players in these initiatives is a key factor. The principle has been: "no handouts, only support". Individuals and communities are given financial assistance in the form of low-interest microloans that they are expected to repay.
- Sustainability: The non-profits working with these people are not merely dishing out cash and saying, "Start a business or buy a lantern." They are teaching people how to earn, sell, save and invest. They provide marketing support for rural businesses, maintenance help for solar devices, water conservation training and sanitation awareness. They are setting them up for sustained success through all-round training, awareness and support.
- Innovative funding: None of these efforts are possible without quick access to low-interest capital. For this development model, raising funds from banks and investors has its own challenges, such as high interest rates that if passed on to the rural beneficiaries, could put them into oppressive debt cycles. However, by partnering with crowdfunding platforms like Milaap and Kiva, these non-profits are able to raise zero-interest capital in exchange for a small service charge. The funding is provided in the form of small loans by socially conscious people -- the urban rich and middle-class who have always wanted to contribute to rural upliftment, but didn't know how.
In the case of the Santhals, for instance, MLINDA's field workers spend time among the Adivasi communities, gain their trust and explain the solution. They offer to install the solar grids on the condition that the community will pay for them in the only way they can really afford to -- using the money they would have spent on kerosene. They train community members on maintenance and repairs. By giving the tribal people a strong role to play in their own upliftment, they ensure adoption and ownership. The capital MLINDA needs to invest in these installations is crowdfunded as and when a tribal hamlet needs it.
Inclusive, sustainable rural development with innovative funding, which draws in active financial support from the urban classes -- therein lies a lesson to be learned.