"Whenever we have enabled communities to chart their own progress, they have reached far greater heights," points out Pearl Tiwari - CEO of Ambuja Cement Foundation in this riveting interview with Thrive.
THRIVE: What do you mean by a Sustainable community?
PEARL: Sustainability as a concept focuses on the long term. In our context it is about enabling village communities to take independent, wise decisions in favour of development. To enable this, the community needs to be empowered with knowledge, decision taking capabilities and requires it to be inclusive. As the community progressively becomes more independent, the dependence on other people's altruism or philanthropy goes down, making the community a sustainable one.
THRIVE: Why is it important to create sustainable communities in India?
PEARL: Unfortunately, in India, the culture of subsidies or 'subsidy raj' is strongly interwoven with politics and elections and has caused more harm than good in rural communities. Used to subsidies being doled out, people become heavily dependent on them and are reluctant to invest in the long-term sustainability of their livelihoods. While certain subsidies are needed, such as those for Public Health, doling out rations and other freebies is detrimental to a community's sustainability. This mindset to dole out freebies is prevalent not just in the government, but also in many development agencies and NGOs. In our experience, whenever we have enabled communities to chart their own progress, they have reached far greater heights. Mangi, a village close to Chandrapur was recently declared a 'Smart village' and awarded Rs. 11 lakhs by the Govt. of Maharashtra. A typical approach to making the village 'smart' would have involved us cleaning up the village, building the toilets needed and creating drainage systems. This, however, would never have been sustainable. Instead, we got the community to take the lead on the initiative, inviting them to see for themselves the benefits of being clean and sufficient by showing them model villages. Consequently, the community bought into the proposition and now own the initiative, ensuring lasting impact.
THRIVE: What, according to you, are the key elements to achieving sustainability in communities?
PEARL: Motivating the community to understand and take ownership of initiatives that will aid them in their own development, is a key element to achieving sustainability. Another key element is investing in people to build capacities and institutions that are age, gender and class inclusive. Invariably, the most marginalised people in a community are denied access to resources as they are not included in discussions and decision making. By ensuring that everyone gets represented in these people's institutions and setting the right processes along with the right ethics and governance practices, the path to sustainable development with equitable access for all is established. Respecting and including the traditional wisdom of the community is another key element to achieving sustainability.
THRIVE: While convincing the community of the economic benefits of sustainable development may be easier, how do you convince community members of the need to effect social change for sustainable development?
PEARL: Rather than focusing on changing culture or existing social norms, our approach has always focused on investing in people. By identifying people from within the community itself who can be strong enablers for the entire community, we are able to drive sustainable change much more effectively. In the tribal communities of Jiwati in rural Maharashtra for example, pregnant women would earlier be moved into a separate hut once the labour began. This practice led to high incidence of mother or child deaths. We approached this grave issue by first educating and training women from the community itself as health workers (Sakhis) and convincing them of the benefits of institutional delivery. Subsequently, these Sakhis were able to convince the entire community to do away with the practice. As an organisation, we are also able to learn and absorb views from such community enablers which ensures that the community gets the best outcomes. All our verticals focus on educating and training a few community members as peer educators who then convince others in the community. The bottom-line is about building trust in the community that we are there for their good. Sustainable communities are created when people can drive both economic and social changes, themselves.
THRIVE: What do you see as the biggest challenges to making a community sustainable?
PEARL: Very often we see that people are habituated into expecting others to drive change for them, driven by a lack of confidence in themselves. When we work with communities, instilling confidence by making them a part of the solution, it is a conscious step we take to make the progress sustainable. This is done through capacity building measures where community members are enabled to make informed decision through education and training. This step is also the most challenging, with significant investment of time and energy, and the benefits are not immediately tangible. In dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many organisations focused on working with the government to set up COVID centres and and handing out rations which had tangible outcomes. While we also focused on these immediate relief measures in the first month, in addition we reached out to the communities we supported and encouraged them to take responsibility in preventing an outbreak in their villages. For this, we initiated Zoom calls with Gram Panchayat members besides our community SPOCs (Single Point of Contact), letting them know that only they could protect themselves and enabling them to take leadership over the situation. With no clear picture about when this unprecedented crisis will pass over, precautionary behaviour needs to be embedded in the community. Enabling people has been our USP across all our verticals of support.
THRIVE: In the face of the current pandemic, is there a shift in ACF's thinking of priority areas of intervention to make communities sustainable? What is the way forward?
PEARL: There is a realisation now within the Government that GDP outlay for Health is abysmally low at 1.3%. I am hopeful that more players, government and otherwise, will look at public health more seriously. There is a strong need to build Public Health at the grassroots level. Within ACF, there has been no shift in focus, but we have integrated COVID-19 behavioural protocols into all our programs. For example: when engaging with farmers, we are now not just talking about high yield seeds but COVID responsible behaviour such as social distancing and hand washing. The need to address availability of water, one of our core program areas, has become even more crucial. In our health program, we now look at mental health in addition to physical health of rural communities. Our engagement with rural communities is a consistent and on-going one because of which our assessment and resolution of needs is strong and timely.
THRIVE: In all your years of experience with ACF, what impact do you see in creating sustainable communities?
PEARL: For us it has been a delight in seeing progress in rural communities. 20 years ago, when we started in Kodinar, getting women to even come out of their homes and form an SHG was arduous. They could take no decisions of their own or even sit outside with other women in the neighbourhood. Today, with our support, 500-600 SHGs in the region which have merged to form a federation with over 8000 women. These women are taking independent economic decisions and dealing with social issues such as women's abuse. In Darlaghat, 15-20 years back low-cattle quality impacted milk production which limited economic progress of the region. Now, we have Pashu Swasthya Sevikas (Veterinary Health Workers trained by ACF) who have been able to both address cattle health and improve livestock. Consequently, a dairy has been started by the women, leading to economic prosperity for their families. When supporting the creation of people's institutions, we have been successful in making them realise the need for equity in distribution of resources. Competent, sustainable practices and processes together with the creation of farmer groups and federations have seen them become stronger and willing to experiment and adopt newer technologies and concepts which can make them prosperous. To me, this is true empowerment.