Always keen to work for the development sector since my graduation days, I joined the 13th Batch of IIFM in June 2000. Experiencing the course in the next two years made me sure that I was meant for the grassroots and so did both my OTs with grassroots organizations – SRIJAN and PRADAN. In the same spirit, I joined PRADAN in 2002 just 15 days after passing out from IIFM.
I worked with some of the poorest people of the country in the Vidisha Project of PRADAN, in a small place called Sironj. It was a real eye opener for me – I had no idea how hollow all claims of development, cried hoarse by the media, were. I witnessed the abject poverty resulting from a total failure of the development system – lack of basic amenities (health, education facilities, safe drinking water and proper roads existing only on paper) and rampant corruption in government agencies. My studies in Forest management were left behind somewhere; there was no forest to manage and in face of such grave deficiencies, even talking about rejuvenating the barren forest land felt criminal to me.
For a little more than two years that I worked there before leaving the job on the face of serious health complications, every day approached me with a new learning, not just as a development professional, but as a human being. One of the many things I was unable to understand was how a human being could exploit another in such a blatant manner! How someone could rob a penniless peasant for providing a copy of land records to him? How a health worker could refuse to visit his villages in spite of knowing about a disease killing infants like an unrestrained banshee? I was humbled as a human being; I felt ashamed witnessing it as a mute spectator. I did whatever I could within my capacity as a development worker and as a human being, but soon realized that the problem was not just the providers of amenities and the services. It was the community as well.
Centuries of colonial rule of the British has made the once self-reliant Indian villages and its community totally dependent on the system (read Government). Once all the resources of the village used to belong to the community. But in the beginning of the 19th century the market, and the resource-hungry British Government, took over all of them – land, water, forests, everything – and made the community totally dependent on it. Due to a conflict in interest between the government and the community, a series of famines followed, in which more that 85 million Indians lost their lives – not to disease, not to invasion, but to the greed of a colonial power. Unfortunately, no one even talks about these unfortunate compatriots who lost their lives to hunger then. Today, famines may have stopped, but the dependency has not. In Kankerkhedi, my first village in PRADAN, which has a population of 150, 14 people including infants lost their lives in just one year due to water borne diseases, yet despite having sufficient funds I could not get a hand pump dug there for a full year, as the community simply refused to deposit Rs.2500 as part of their contribution, mandatory in the Project in which I was working. They demanded to know the reason they had to pay when the government provided everything free (at least in principle, with all bribes and everything!).
Now, this particular aspect of the process of development makes it a little difficult. It is comparatively easy to create infrastructure – roads, houses, schools, wells, dams, etc. – but changing the attitude of a community is an arduous task. It is a slow process and all the more difficult when you are trying to do it in an environment which is otherwise exploiting and corrupt – the poor being taken for a ride by traders and big landlords, politicians, government servants and the mushrooming fly-by-night NGOs in connivance with each other.
However, in the recent past we have seen the attitudes of Indian communities being changed in many instances. The same market forces that once ravaged Indian villages in the form of the British East India Company are today changing the scenario of urban and rural India. A few decades back no one had heard of Maggie Noodles, Pepsi or Coca Cola. Today, colas have penetrated deep inside the Indian hinterland. At times you may not find safe drinking water in some remote corners of the country, but the mighty cola is omnipresent (never mind the CSE revelations)! Thus, we have witnessed that the community attitude can be changed in relatively less time, but it needs specific factors like an environment promoting change, desire and motivation to change, a foolproof strategy and huge resources to bring about such a change. This does happen, where market forces decide to provide a particular service or product in rural areas – not for charity but for profits.
The biggest and most visible example today is that of the mobile phone services. I remember, during my schooldays in the late eighties and early nineties there used to be a long waiting list for getting a phone connection. One had to either approach a neta or pay bribes to get a phone connection. Hardly two years ago in Sironj mobile phone was unheard of. Today I frequently receive calls from the Sarpanch of one of the villages who, calling from his cell phone, asks me which new Yojana is being dispatched by the Sarkaar in Dilli! Not just he, but many in the villages where I used to work have got mobile phones now, which is not a luxury for them but a boon to their remote villages that are cut off from the rest of the country for many months every year during rains.
Unlike NGOs (which have limited resources, vision and motivation) and the government (with its red-tapism, attitudinal and human resource problems), the corporate sector has huge resources, man power, access to the latest knowhow and the biggest asset – an ability to think out-of-the-box to achieve their goal. The biggest challenge in this case is how to link the problems in rural India to the market forces. In other words, how a problem of rural India can be translated into a corporate revenue model, thus transforming the problem itself into a solution. Can the human resources of villages be tapped as in China? Can our agricultural productivity be raised as in Brazil? Can there exist local BPOs operating from rural India? Can there be a wind power park on the coast of Orissa? Can there be a thousand megawatt super solar power plant in vast, sunny spans of the Thar Desert? All these ideas may sound impractical and too dreamy, but we have to remember, before petroleum was discovered, the Middle East was just another desert!
Here lies a great opportunity for IIFMites. With our exposure to rural India and its problems and our training in management, we can act as a bridge between the rural issues and the market forces. If some of us can come up with a feasible revenue model of linking one of these issues and converting it into an opportunity for the Indian corporate sector which is currently undergoing a boom, there is no dearth of capital for an off-track, yet feasible business model. The biggest example here is the foray of Reliance Industries and Bharti Group into the agribusiness sector with thousands of crores of capital. Another good example is the advances of ICICI Bank Ltd in rural banking and microfinance, which will literally capture the rural credit market in the years to come. To set an example as well as benchmarks within the IIFM fraternity, some IIFMites have already pioneered developing the linkage between the process of development and market forces. Vineet Rai (PFM 1996) with Aavishkaar, Mumbai; Sameer Singh (PFM 2001) with IFC, New Delhi; Deepak Mitra (PFM 2002) with Phillips India Ltd., Gurgaon – are a few among many in this growing genre of IIFMites, who are noted for having performed exceedingly well in this relatively less traveled path for IIFMites.
For the current IIFM batches, some more inputs from IIFM – in terms of some research in this aspect, more related courses of enhanced quality, distinguished visiting faculty from the industry – would go a long way in turning IIFM students into stalwarts of a new breed of industries: hybrids of corporate spirit and rural resources. At the same time, the students too have a major responsibility in bringing about this change. Rather than considering our course in IIFM as a ‘paid holiday’ (as one of my seniors told me on my first day at IIFM), we need to widen our horizons of knowledge working hard 24X7, keeping our eyes and ears open, reading and learning latest developments and looking for opportunities that would take us beyond the current trends in IIFM, lest the ‘paid holiday’ (sic) turns into a holiday that has to be paid for all through one’s life!
For those of us who have already passed out, probably the need of the hour is that the entrepreneurs among us come up with an idea out of their experiences in rural India and understanding of Indian economic scenario as of now. The pioneers in this venture are most likely going to leave a lasting impression on the Indian economy and society in the days to come. This is the ultimate opportunity to establish brand IIFM in Indian corporate and development sector with a paradigm shift in the perception of others for us, once and for all.