In his first Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, Prime Minister Modi laid out his administration's vision for rural India. He performed the statesman's role of broadly sketching out what all Indians must aspire to achieve, but now the finer details need to be filled in so that the vision is not a utopian dream but one rooted in possibility. The movement towards reconfiguring our approach to rural India needs a sense of urgency, priority and direction.
To understand the problems and needs of people living in villages, we need to tear ourselves away from our desks in urban headquarters and view rural issues through local lenses. This calls for an altering of approach. In the new government's promise to build a toilet for every home in every village is the underlying assumption that villagers will instantly abandon the common recourse of defecating in the open and adopt the facilities built for them, and that one year down the line, these toilets will automatically be maintained and used. Unfortunately, our experience at the Swades Foundation suggests that things won't play out quite like that.
In the last 33 months that my wife Zarina and I have been operating in rural Maharashtra, we've equipped schools expecting children and their parents to line up for admission before the paint dried; we assumed that every child would aspire to complete Standard X and have career goals. We've held eye care camps and after identifying a staggering 19% in need of spectacles or simple cataract surgeries, we expected huge turnouts. Sadly, we couldn't have been further from the truth.
India's development agenda suffers from being predominantly driven top-down. Even 67 years after Independence, the quest for replicable models of development has relegated us to a constant state of experimentation. The era of mass models needs to be left behind. Instead, we must tailor our interventions to the geography, culture and lifestyle of the communities for which interventions are planned.
One of our Prime Minister's new schemes - the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana - concerns me for precisely this reason. It seeks to create a model village in every constituency of India, but our experience suggests that villages should be built on the framework of local needs and wisdom rather than on a formula. A model cannot work unless it's replicable over a minimum cluster of 500-1000 villages. Approximately 70% of our population of over 1.2 billion live in villages. To form a model for all to follow, we will need a needle-moving number of model villages in each constituency to be able make any significant impact.
The problem stems from a general misconception that rural India is eagerly awaiting sophisticated solution providers from urban India to rescue them. To be able to truly help improve the lives of rural communities, we need to internalise four words: trust, empathy, aspiration and empowerment. There is a vast chasm of mistrust that needs to be crossed by social enterprises. In the close to 2000 villages in Raigad district of Maharashtra, where our foundation works, we have learnt that trust building is not an overnight process but one that requires sustained presence on the ground as well as ongoing communication. Too often have these communities encountered those who come enthusiastically, promise emphatically and vanish quickly. Locals need to understand and participate in the development that is proposed for them. Once trust is secured, it is essential to build empathetic relationships that transform community feedback into channels for locally sustainable solutions. These solutions then increase the access of deprived communities to essential services like education, healthcare, sanitation and, most important, creating livelihood opportunities. At this stage the aspiration level of the communities begin to show a steady rise, something we have experienced firsthand. Soon, these communities begin to explore ways to empower themselves to feed their aspirations. This is a model that can sustain.
Another unfortunate truth of our country's rural development agenda is that we have perpetuated an environment of "handouts" around our rural and less privileged communities, so much so that now expect some form of continued subsidy and external support at every stage, which can only lead to a life devoid of any ambition. This can never create empowerment and, in turn, never bring about permanent change. And it is permanent change that we need here on, not continued support.
Thirty three months ago, when we defined our model for the ideal Swades village, we decided to reach a million people to ensure it could be replicable as a proven model. We spanned all aspects of infrastructure such as potable water and toilets, education, nutrition and healthcare. Our first aim was to build aspiration in our entire community and equally important was our target to improve the livelihood of every family tenfold. Our goal for education was that every child in our community shouldn't just pass Standard X, but also leave with a forward career goal. And we entirely underestimated the challenges: attendance in schools is scanty and will remain so, that teacher and principal training is the base from where to start and that there is no way any of the children, even if they get to Standard X, would have any aspirations as no one has ever asked them the crucial question that we've had the luxury of asking our children, "what do you want to do when you grow up?"
Two among the several initiatives we undertook proved life changing. The first, setting up libraries in schools. These libraries altered the children's perception of school. They came to browse in free periods and borrowed books to take home. It created a sense of pride and ownership about their school. Today, we are inspired to increase the number of libraries from 220 to 500 in the next nine months. Our second initiative was to introduce career counselling for all students in Standard VIII and above. We saw it bring parents and kids together for the first time and we sought to know from them what they wanted to do in the future. Ask 27,000 of them this question and you witness aspiration being born. These learnings only come by being live and on the ground and these life changing and permanent initiatives are needed in health and livelihood too.
As Prime Minister Modi reflected, while we have human resources in abundance, what our people lack are skills, vocational training, aspiration and confidence. Honing the skills of the youth from the rural hinterlands can help create a strong workforce to build India, while simultaneously raising their families out of poverty. If only the government and the social sector can work together towards empowering the youth and stop their migration to cities ill-equipped to handle the onslaught, then there can be several thousand model villages in the place of just one in every constituency. True empowerment is equipping rural India to help itself.