Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a DifferenceEdited by Vikram Singh Mehta, Neelima Khetan and Jayapadma RV
380 pages|₹ 699
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
AS I CIRCUMAMBULATED the closed corridors of the high-rise building in which I stay in Mumbai at the height of the Covid lockdown, one thought kept running through my head. The educated liberals spend a disproportionate amount of their time critiquing the State of the Nation. The focus of their conversations is on India’s failure as a socio-economic polity; the erosion of the institutions of governance; the poor quality of leadership; corruption and bureaucratic stasis and, in general, the failure of India to realise its potential. The conversations seldom dwell on what has gone right; on the many examples of interventions by governments, businesses, civil society organisations (CSO) and individuals that have made a positive difference to society; in short, on successes.
There is no gainsaying the strength of the above critique. India has indeed failed to deliver on the promises made by its founding fathers to build a just, egalitarian and sustainable society. India is still home to the largest number of poor people in the world and it remains divided by class, caste, religion, language, and race.
But this said, the critique was, I felt, imbalanced. It ignored the achievements that had, over the past 75 years, in some small way shifted the needle of social progress in a positive direction. I felt that the narrative should shift from what has not been done to what has been achieved and through this shift, endeavour to derive the lessons from these achievements so that they can be, where appropriate and relevant, inputted into future development models.
My feelings were influenced by my personal experience. I come from Udaipur, a city that has been at the forefront of voluntarism and civic service. There are probably more CSOs in this city than other comparably sized cities in north India.
My grandfather, Mohan Singh Mehta, was the leading progenitor of these movements. He was from a feudal family that had for generations worked for the Maharanas of Mewar but from early adulthood he displayed a proclivity to level the social hierarchy. He did his PhD from the London School of Economics in the late 1920s and his academic colleagues were, by and large, Fabian socialists. On returning to India, he had “no option” but to join the Mewar administration—the ruler’s command was everyone’s wish, such was their absolute hold—but he did not let that diminish his interest in social service. He persuaded the Maharana to let him start a school for the underprivileged based on Gandhian principles. This first step led subsequently, over the years, to the creation of 10 other educational institutions, including a university for agricultural research, a teachers’ training college, a polytechnical college, and an environmental centre, so much so that today these 11 (maybe there are now 12) institutions organised under the umbrella of the Vidhya Bhawan Society are arguably the largest educational establishment in Rajasthan. Post-Independence, and after two decades as a diplomat (he was not a career diplomat but a political appointee) and an educationist (he built up Rajasthan University as its first vice chancellor), he set up Seva Mandir in Udaipur, an NGO focused on social initiatives related to health, education, poverty alleviation and community development in approximately 1,000 villages of Udaipur district. He worked in Seva Mandir until the day he passed away.
I was never directly involved with Vidhya Bhawan or Seva Mandir but that did not preclude me from gaining an insight into the extraordinary impact that these two entities have had on society. It is this insight and the conviction that my grandfather was not an exception, that there were many others like him, that there were organisations like Seva Mandir that were incrementally but surely making a difference, and that the stories of these organisations needed to be told so that conversations about the state of the nation were leavened by such successes, that I wrote up a proposal for a book for the publisher HarperCollins to consider.
There is no silver-bullet response to the complexity of India’s social challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of problems that must be addressed. Each issue has to be tackled through tailored, localised responses. It would be wrong to presume that the addressing of one aspect of a social issue or one component of poverty would result in an osmotic improvement along other dimensions of sustainable livelihood
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My proposal encapsulated four objectives: One, to get the progenitors of “successful” grassroots interventions over the past 75 years to narrate their “stories”; two, to ensure that through this narration, readers derived an understanding of how and why these organisations achieved success; three, to distil the common principles and learnings (if indeed a unifying connect could be established) from these stories for possible inclusion in future developmental models; and four, to shift the tenor of the public narrative from the negativism of failure to the positivism of success.
HarperCollins accepted my proposal but urged that the project be brought to completion by the start of the 75th year of our independence. As I have no hands-on experience of grassroots activity—my career has been far removed from this domain—I invited two experts, Neelima Khetan and Jayapadma RV, to help me with the project.
The book Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a Difference, edited by the three of us, is now in bookstores. It contains 24 different stories of grassroots interventions and one synthesis chapter that pulls together the connecting themes and common learnings.
The selection of these 24 stories was not easy, for our research had identified close to a hundred interventions that had made a difference. Twenty-four barely touched the richness of these variegated efforts. We managed by deciding that the coverage should be expansive in time (that is, across several decades) and geography (pan-India), multi-topical (for example, women’s empowerment, water, education, poverty alleviation, etc), and inclusive of less well-known entities (some well-known and oft written about CSOs were excluded as a result). We also sought the advice of a group of external experts.
This article cannot provide a catalogue of all the stories in the book but what follows is an illustrative subset.
MYRADA AND SEVA MANDIR commenced their operations in the 1960s. MYRADA focused on helping small, decentralised groups of predominantly women sophisticate their habits of savings and credit. In the process, it laid the seeds of the now widespread concept of self-help. Seva Mandir directed its efforts towards mobilising the rural and tribal communities in Udaipur district to protect their natural resources. It introduced the concept of Gram Vikas Kosh (village development fund). Dr(s) Raj and Mabelle Arole pioneered a comprehensive, community-based primary healthcare programme in the Jamkhed region of Maharastra and catalysed the creation of the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA). Eklavya changed the nature of pedagogy from conventional rote learning and top-down didacticism to scientific temper and enquiry-based study, initially in Madhya Pradesh but later across the country. The Spastic Society leveraged its individual and international connections to develop community-based rehabilitation programmes for children suffering from cerebral palsy and requiring special attention. Gram Vikas in Odisha encouraged the locals to contemplate community ownership and decentralised management of their water and sanitation systems. They were arguably the inspiration behind the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014 and the Jal Jeevan Mission in 2019. Dastkar developed a multi-pronged model around strategic design, production and marketing to connect the crafts communities to the modern market without undermining the power and vitality of their traditional legacies. PRADAN trained young professionals to help tackle the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment. And Goonj built a model around the idea that value could be derived from linking the surplus material generated by the affluent urban to the knowledge and labour of the rural community.
A read through the 24 chapters throws up one clear message. There is no silver-bullet response to the complexity of India’s social challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of problems that must be addressed. Each issue has to be tackled through tailored, localised responses.
There is, however, a unifying thread that binds these varied interventions. A thread that transcends geography and time, and connects seamlessly because it is woven by the commonality of objectives of each intervention. This thread has several strands.
All authors are driven by the conviction that they are addressing what one referred to as the “salient problems of our time”. They all recognise that success hinges on giving the “poor” a voice and an equal stake in the process and outcome of social change. The poor are not passive agents and interventions have to be designed around them.
The authors do not differentiate between “means” and “ends”. The two are inseparable. For them, the “how” of an intervention is as important as the “what” of the outcome. The challenge has been to prevent a wedge being driven between the two.
Leadership is another unifying theme. In this context, what is striking is the preponderance of women in influential positions and behind successful social transformations.
Post-Independence, and after two decades as a diplomat and an educationist, my grandfather, Mohan Singh Mehta, set up Seva Mandir in Udaipur, an NGO focused on social initiatives related to health, education, poverty alleviation and community development in approximately 1,000 villages of Udaipur district. He worked in Seva Mandir until the day he passed away
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Partnerships and the support of government are also cross-cutting factors of importance. Few CSOs succeed without forging strategic alliances.
And, not surprisingly, unsupportive bureaucrats and politicians, or an unfavourable policy environment, can present an existential challenge.
Some nuggets of caution for CSOs can be distilled from the chapters. It would be wrong to presume that the addressing of one aspect of a social issue or one component of poverty (such as, education, health, jobs, credit, etc) would result in an osmotic improvement along other dimensions of sustainable livelihood. Such a presumption could lead to the counterproductive search for silver-bullet solutions. It would also be wrong to read too much into the increasing interest of the youth in social service organisations. The widening chasm between their aspirations and the capacity of the state to deliver is a potential dampener. And finally, whilst funds are a necessity, CSOs must be cautious about the ‘quality’ of the funds. It is not easy to differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ donors, but what is clear is that CSOs should look for money from donors that empower and encourage and not from those that place conditions and create distortions. The strength of conviction to say “no” must be in every CSO’s quiver.
Looking into the future, the stories in this book confirm that the “poor”, the “disadvantaged”, the “differently abled”, whatever be the term, can change their destiny and compete against the privileged and advantaged if they are empowered to “own” the process and the outcome, and are supported by skill, technology and resources. CSOs should see themselves as conduits for these resources and facilitators to create cultures of consultation and collaboration so as to develop and deliver holistic solutions for sustainable livelihood solutions.
The stories also suggest that women are more effective than men in triggering change and in striking the right balance between the imperatives of change and the compulsions of tradition. A developmental model that does not give women a central place would be suboptimal.
Individuals matter and not just those vested with formal authority. Behind each successful intervention are exceptional people who have, through sheer dint of intellectual vitality, physical effort and ‘urgent patience’, moved the social needle. Such people need to be found, encouraged and made integral to the process of development
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They also show that individuals matter and not just those vested with formal authority. Behind each successful intervention are exceptional people who have, through sheer dint of intellectual vitality, physical effort and “urgent patience”, moved the social needle. Such people need to be found, encouraged and made integral to the process of development.
At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 75 years ago, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked whether, as India awoke to “life and freedom” and stepped out from the “old to the new”, we Indians were “brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future”. Seventy-five years on, there are many who will argue with evidence that India has not kept its “tryst with destiny”.
This book does not refute the evidence. It shows, however, that every segment of our society has at some time or other, and in some small way across the length and breadth of the country, successfully addressed the issues of social inequality. It suggests that while the journey to bring political democracy in alignment with social democracy is long, the destination is attainable. The book lays out the markers. What is important is to not allow the more conspicuous tombstones of our ‘failures’ to suggest this is a chimerical objective.
(This essay draws on Anchoring Change: Seventy-Five Years of Grassroots Intervention That Made a Difference, edited by Vikram Singh Mehta, Neelima Khetan and Jayapadma RV)