A Rural Sanitation Model That Works

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories, Water & Sanitation


A woman collects the drinking water from the third tap in Simlipadar village in Thuamul Rampur, Kalahandi | Picture courtesy: Ajaya Behera

Raibari Bewa standing near the toilet, bathroom unit and collecting water from the third tap in Dudukaguda village, in Thuamul Rampur block, Kalahandi district of Odisha. On the walls, details of Swachh Bharat Mission benefits availed by her in Odia | Picture courtesy: Ajaya Behera

BHUBANESWAR, Odisha, India, Jul 30 2019 (IPS) – Research and experience across more than two decades in rural Odisha, India, show that an effective rural sanitation model requires both financial assistance and an integrated water supply.

There are studies and field reports that have analysed the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in terms of coverage and use of toilets in rural India. The official government survey, the NARSS 2018-19, shows that 93 percent of rural households have access to a toilet and 96 percent of those having a toilet use them. Critiques of the survey point out the contradictions between NARSS and micro-level assessments in different parts of India. Other studies point out issues related to how comprehensive the approach to sanitation needs to be, if SBM is to truly address the large scale problems of ill-health, malnutrition, and poor quality of life caused by poor sanitation practices.

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has already issued guidelines for follow-up components, such as the ‘Advisory on ODF Sustainability interventions‘. It is quite likely that with the Prime Minister and his government taking charge for the second term, the sustainability of the first generation SBM efforts will be given high priority. In this context, it is pertinent to throw light on some micro–level issues, based on more than two decades of experience in rural Odisha.

A rural sanitation model that works

Gram Vikas, the organisation I lead, started its work in rural sanitation in the year 1994. Our model of 100 percent coverage of all households in a village, all of them building and using household level toilets and a bathing room with piped water supply, has been recognised as a best practice nationally and globally.

Infrastructure alone is insufficient to sustain health benefits. Additional efforts are needed to motivate people to adopt safe sanitation practices…There are other aspects of personal hygiene and sanitation, including personal habits, disposal of child faeces, and menstrual hygiene; these need to be addressed by demonstrating workable models, accompanied by education

The integrated water, sanitation, and hygiene (WSH) intervention that we support rural communities with, is built on the following principles:

  • Participation of 100 percent of the habitation’s households; it is all, or none.
  • Cost sharing by the household, partially towards construction of the facilities, and fully for operations and maintenance.
  • Ownership and management by a village water and sanitation committee, consisting of representatives of all sections in the village.
  • A sanitation corpus fund built from a one-time contribution by all, towards providing cash incentives for future families in the village to build toilets and bathing rooms (ensuring 100 percent coverage at all times).
  • A maintenance fund through regular household fee collection, for maintenance of the piped water supply system.

In 25 years (up to March 2019), the Gram Vikas WSH model has been implemented in more than 1,400 villages, covering close to 90,000 households. The villages are financed primarily through the sanitation and rural drinking water schemes of the government, and Gram Vikas has mobilised private resources to fill in gaps.

What we learnt

Over the past two decades, working with rural communities of different types, we have realised that bringing about attitudinal and behaviour changes towards safe sanitation is not easy. When we began in the mid-1990s, saying that every house in the village will have toilets, bathing rooms, and piped water, most people laughed.

Between 1994 and 1999, we could cover only 30 villages—this resulted from our own efforts at motivating people, and not any felt desire on their part. Then started the gradual process of change—fathers of unmarried girls motivating future sons-in-laws’ village elders to take up the sanitation project; women taking the lead to convince their men to build toilets, and even stopping cooking for a day or two to make their husbands see reason; migrants who worked outside Odisha coming back to their own villages and motivating their parents, and so on.

When it comes to rural sanitation, government financial assistance matters  

Between 1999 and 2007, the government’s support to sanitation, as part of the then newly launched Total Sanitation Campaign, was INR 300 per household, for below poverty line families. Support for community-led, piped water supply projects came much later, in the form of Swajaldhara in 2003.

The prevalent thinking among policy makers in the early 2000s was that financial incentives were not necessary to promote rural sanitation. This was based on the limited success of the subsidy-led Central Rural Sanitation Programme, that ran between 1986 and 1998.

Financial incentives to rural households for building toilets is more than a subsidy, it’s about society meeting part of the costs of helping rural communities build a better life. To compare, urban dwellers who may have built their own household toilets, do not pay anything for removing the human waste from their premises; municipal governments ensure sewage lines and treatment plants. The cost of this (which is borne by the government) is not seen as a subsidy. And yet, the upfront payment made to rural households to help build toilets is looked down upon as wasteful expenditure.

In 2011, the policy moved to a higher level of financial incentives to rural households for constructing individual household latrines, mostly likely in recognition of the fact that rural households needed the financial incentive as motivation to change sanitation behaviours. But today, with statistics showing 93 percent or more coverage of toilets, the policy prescription is likely to move to the pre-2011 phase–big financial incentives are not needed for building rural household toilets.

Our experience has taught us that nothing can be further from the truth. First, actual coverage of usable toilets is likely much less than what the numbers show. Second, households will need support for repairs and upgradation of the already built latrines. In addition, there are two categories for whom the financial assistance must continue: those who, for various reasons, have not constructed latrines so far; and new households that have come up in villages that have already been declared open defecation free (ODF).

Availability of water in the toilet is critical to encouraging use and maintenance of the facility 

In most cases, where water is not available in proximity, the load on women to carry water has increased. A pour-flush latrine, the type mostly preferred, requires at least 12 litres of water per use. With 4-5 members in the household, the minimum daily requirement becomes about 60 litres, forcing women to collect at least three times the water they would otherwise collect. We have observed that without water in the household premises, women’s water carrying load increases to more than twice the pre-latrine times.

The addition of a bathing room, affords women more privacy, and a better way to keep themselves clean and hygienic. In most villages we have worked with, women especially, equate this part of their physical quality of life to what people in the city enjoy.

During the last few years, financial allocation for rural water supply has decreased. While the allocation to drinking water has reduced from 87 percent (2009-10) to 31 percent (2018-19), the allocation to rural sanitation has increased from 13 percent to 69 percent in the same period. This is definitely not a desirable situation, as noted by many.

Mainstreaming the community-owned and managed method of rural water supply will ensure equitable distribution 

Doing this, rather than pushing for large water supply projects across many villages, will give rural communities and local governments greater control over managing their resources and meeting the needs of every household in an equitable manner. The Swajal programme of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which talks about village level, community-based water projects, is a step in the right direction. Much greater push is needed by the central government to ensure that the state-level apparatus moves to a more enabling and empowering approach in addressing rural drinking water needs.

Research and experience across more than two decades in rural Odisha, India, show that an effective rural sanitation model requires both financial assistance and an integrated water supply.

A woman collects the drinking water from the third tap in Simlipadar village in Thuamul Rampur, Kalahandi | Picture courtesy: Ajaya Behera

Second generation challenges

The water and sanitation infrastructure, when first built, contributes to a substantial decrease in water-borne diseases in villages. These are borne out of several studies conducted in villages in Odisha.

After the initial round of benefits, we find that the infrastructure alone is insufficient to sustain health benefits. Additional efforts are needed to motivate people to adopt safe sanitation practices. The ensuing issues have been highlighted by many. For instance, changing long-standing beliefs and attitudes related to toilet use requires intensive hand holding, particularly for older people. There are other aspects of personal hygiene and sanitation, including personal habits, disposal of child faeces, and menstrual hygiene; these need to be addressed by demonstrating workable models, accompanied by education.

From Gram Vikas’ experience in Odisha, we have been able to enumerate several challenges that need to be addressed. Even when piped drinking water exists, households prefer to store drinking water. We have found that handling of stored drinking water is an area that needs better education.

Disposal of child faeces, especially by mothers who do not think the child’s faecal matter is harmful, is another area of concern. We are also coming across new forms of discrimination in households, where menstruating women are not allowed to use the toilets and bathrooms.

While issues related to personal hygiene and washing hands with soap are already quite widely discussed, the next set of challenges relate to safe disposal and/or managing liquid and solid waste at the household and community level.

A charter of demands

We hope that the next iteration of Swachh Bharat Mission will truly lead to a Swachh Bharat. Based on our experience, we would like to draw the following charter of demands:

1. Strengthen the ways of providing household sanitation infrastructure

  • Add a bathing room component to the design and costing provided in the national guidelines; increase financial support per household to INR 18,000 for new entrants; allow additional funding of INR 6,000 per household for those wanting to add a bathroom to their existing toilets. 
  • Create provisions for repair or upgradation of toilets built, till 2018; provide for additional assistance to households whose toilets were built by contractors without involvement of the household. 
  • Provide financial assistance for new households in villages already declared ODF. 
  • Correct errors in the baseline of deserving households. 

2. Integrate piped water supply with sanitation at the household level, and facilitate greater community control over rural drinking water projects

  • Enlarge the scope for Swajal scheme by allocating more funds. 
  • Where ground water availability challenges dictate building of larger projects, it will make sense to separate the pumping and supply, from household distribution of water. The former could be done centrally for a large number of villages, while the latter could be managed by the communities at their level.
  • Make individual householdlevel piped water supply the standard design principle for rural water supply projects. 
  • Build community capacities to manage groundwater resources and undertake watershed and springshed interventions. 
  • Integrate water quality management as a communitylevel initiative, by demystifying testing technologies, and creating wider network of testing laboratories. 

3. Deepen and integrate WSH interventions for better health and nutrition outcomes at the community-level

  • Incentivise states to achieve stronger schematic and financial convergence between National Health Mission and the Integrated Child Development Services at the intermediate and gram panchayat level.  

4. Create a multi-stakeholder institutional platform to deepen and sustain SBM across rural India

  • Incentivise states to enablPanchayati Raj Institutions to play a greater role in the SBM process.
  • Allow for more active participation of civil society organisations as facilitators and implementors, to support rural communitybased institutions to adopt sustainable sanitation interventions. Provide financial incentives to such organisations based on outputs and outcomes.

Liby Johnson is the executive director of Gram Vikas, Odisha

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


What Standardised Testing Doesn’t Tell Us About Learning

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Education, Headlines


When we say that children aren’t learning, what we mean is that they are not fitting into our assessment of their learning outcomes | Picture courtesy: Nilesh Nimkar

When we say that children aren’t learning, what we mean is that they are not fitting into our assessment of their learning outcomes | Picture courtesy: Nilesh Nimkar

THANE, MAHARASHTRA, India, Jun 6 2019 (IPS) – When we look at learning outcomes for children, we only look at standardised tests, ignoring any indigenous knowledge, language, or problem solving strategies they might have.

The brick kilns of Sonale were bustling with activity—children running around, indigenous technology being used, and lots of mathematics being done. I recently went there after a teacher from the nearby primary school approached our nonprofit, Quest, because the children living there were simply not learning. The concern was, if they didn’t even know their multiplication tables, how would they cope in classes V, VI, and VII?

So I went to see for myself. I asked these children, “To make the mortar for the bricks, how many pits have been dug?

“On one side 11; another side 12”

They also told me they would put three containers of raw material in each pit. So I asked them how many containers they would need in total, and after running off to count them, they came back with the right answers. They could also explain how they arrived at those numbers. What I found was that they were counting in threes. Not the way one recites the tables in the schools, but visualising it in their mind.

Clearly, these children knew how to multiply. That they failed to memorise their tables was beside the point. They had understood the concept and had demonstrated a strong meta-cognitive ability when they explained how they arrived at the answer

Clearly, these children knew how to multiply. That they failed to memorise their tables was beside the point. They had understood the concept and had demonstrated a strong meta-cognitive ability when they explained how they arrived at the answer. In my further conversations, I was amazed to see the kinds of calculations the children at the brick kilns did. For instance, 13 multiplied by 11 was done mentally because they were able to understand it within their own context (that of the brick kiln).

Standardised testing disadvantages marginalised children

This example illustrates one of the biggest challenges of our schools today—standardised assessment—which further disadvantages marginalised children. These children have a different type of cultural capital that schools and tests hardly recognise.

Western research in the field of math pedagogy points to the importance of children’s indigenous knowledge and strategies in solving problems and considers them to be the starting point for sound understanding of elementary mathematics. But what are those indigenous strategies in the Indian context? We still don’t know much about them. And our lack of knowledge results in us asking these children to run an unfair race.

Today, when we say that children from marginalised communities aren’t learning, what we mean is that they are not fitting into our assessment of their learning outcomes. By completely ignoring their indigenous knowledge, language, and problem-solving strategies, we have so far continued to focus on what they don’t know, and never paid attention to what they do know.

The process tells us more than just the outcomes

I do not deny the necessity of having some common indicators to understand the status of education in a given cluster, block, district, or state. But setting and chasing these indicators mindlessly could be dangerous.

Take for example, an encounter I had at an SSC exam centre in a rural school a few years ago. While I was visiting, I saw that the teachers were openly giving students answers to questions while they wrote their exams. When I asked why this was happening, a teacher said to me, “These children are weak from the beginning. It is almost impossible that they pass the exam on their own. If they fail, it will affect the result of our school and this would create a lot of trouble for us.”

This encounter is a classic example of what will happen if we neglect the process of learning and just focus on the numerical indicators of success. Our belief tends to be that if we can control learning outcomes, the quality of education will improve. But children can rote learn, or use unfair ways to pass their exams—we have no system that can check it at scale. What’s more, we are forgetting to track whether or not these children truly understand what they’ve been taught.

Ever since the ASER and other such reports have been published, we’ve been talking about how poor the learning outcomes are. But what have we really done to change things? We have been experimenting with examinations more than the actual process of learning, finding newer and newer ways to test the learning outcomes. But, if a pipe is choked, no matter what bowl you put under the opening, no water will drip into it. Similarly, no matter what exams, standard tests, and evaluation tool we use, only a little will change if we fail to address the core issues related to the process of learning.

When we say that children aren’t learning, what we mean is that they are not fitting into our assessment of their learning outcomes | Picture courtesy: Nilesh Nimkar

“What I found was that they were counting in threes. Not the way one recites the tables in the schools, but visualising it in their mind” | Picture courtesy: Nilesh Nimkar

What needs to be done

1. Strengthen the process, invest in teachers

One of the positive outcomes of the Right to Education (RTE) Act is that it improved enrolment rates. But we know that it’s not enough to get children into schools. We need to alter our schools to meet children’s needs. If we want to set the process of education right, we have to strengthen its most impacting factor, the teacher.

Teacher education and ongoing teacher professional development are areas where we haven’t paid much attention. Instead of offering our teachers quick fixes to the challenges they face, we need to begin working with, and for our teachers.

One example of how to do this could be through a technology based distant mentoring system for teachers working across geographies. Quest, the nonprofit I run, has a system like this on a much smaller scale—here, teachers send audio recordings of their classroom activity to mentors (experienced teachers, teacher-educators, or researchers in the field of pedagogy), who then provide them with ongoing feedback to help them fine-tune their skills. This type of support system needs to be created on a larger scale.

2. Change the way we test

We need to alter the tools and parameters we use to assess success. We had a chance to do this when the idea of continuous comprehensive evaluations was introduced. However, the teachers and education community at large could not free themselves from the idea of examinations, and we lost a golden opportunity to bring our focus on to the process.

In a country as diverse as India, the assessment framework could be common for all. But the actual tests should be local and culturally appropriate. For example, I have seen assessment tests that show a picture of a well-maintained French garden or a city park, expecting a rural child to talk about it. In this situation it is obvious that the child will show poor oral expression.

Or yet another example is that of asking children to write words only from the ‘standard’ language—when in reality, Marathi spoken in different parts of Maharashtra is not the same. But normally the assessments are not sensitive to this regional variation, which means that children with a home language that is different than the standard variant of Marathi will always perform poorly.

The question we must ask ourselves is, do we want to make the education system more inclusive, or do we want to use it as a sieve to weed out the ‘weaker’ children? We need to design an overarching framework and build a bank of regionally, culturally appropriate testing items. Unless we do this our focus will always remain on what children don’t know.

Nilesh Nimkar has over 20 years’ experience in the field of early childhood education, elementary education, teacher education and curriculum development. He has initiated several innovative programs for teachers and children, specially in the rural and tribal areas. He has received the Maharashtra Foundation Award for ‘Outstanding social work in the field of education’.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


India’s Most Significant Innovations Have Roots in Civil Society

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines


Handpumps, participatory rural appraisals, wadi programmes, and so on, all came from an innovation or technology developed by civil society | Picture courtesy: Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India)

Handpumps, participatory rural appraisals, wadi programmes, and so on, all came from an innovation or technology developed by civil society | Picture courtesy: Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India)

AHMEDABAD, GUJARAT, India, Jun 4 2019 (IPS) – When we look at some of the things we take for granted in India today, there is a common thread to all of them. Every single one. They all originated from civil society.

People hear the word civil society and react differently; and it depends on where they come from. For the business leader, social and environmental concerns are impediments to business. “Environment ke liye poora project band hojata hai, what about growth, what about the economy?” (Entire projects have to be shut down for the sake of the environment).

I’ve also been in conversations with some government officers who say, “woh kaam chhota karte hain aur credit bahut le lete hain. Kaam toh hum karte hain paisa toh hamara hai.” (The nonprofits hardly do any work but take all the credit. We are the ones who do the work, the ones who put in the money).

But nothing is farther from the truth. When we look at rural India, and look at some of the things we take for granted todaybe it women self-help groups (SHGs), ASHA workers, biogas plants, RTI applications, and so onthere is a common thread to all of them. Every single one. They all originated as innovations in civil society.

Our largest government programmes were born in civil society

1. National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and Self Help Groups (SHGs)

When we look at rural India, and look at some of the things we take for granted today—be it women self-help groups (SHGs), ASHA workers, biogas plants, RTI applications, and so on—there is a common thread to all of them. Every single one. They all originated as innovations in civil society.

One of the largest programmes of the governmentthe National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM)is based on women self help groups (SHGs). And the concept of an SHG was developed by Aloysius Fernandes and his team at MYRADA.

In the 1970s, MYRADA was working with large primary agriculture cooperative societies (PACS), all of whom seemed to be failing. In some of the geographies however, while the cooperatives had collapsed, there were some villages where small groups were saving and giving credit to each other.

Aloysius and the MYRADA team saw this, identified them as empowered groups that the banks could lend to, gave it form and structure, and took it to NABARD.

NABARD realised the value of what MYRADA was helping build, because they themselves were trying to reach out to the poor and their existing institutional portfolio was failing because the cooperatives weren’t functioning. They supported MYRADA and then pushed the banks to lend to these groups of poor women who saved regularly.

So, in a sense the SHG movement was started by MYRADA and to some extent, NABARD. The state was not in the picture at that time.

Then the first SERP programme came up in Andhra Pradesh. They used the base created by NABARD and MYRADA and they promoted the SHGs. And because the SERP programme worked, and because the World Bank was funding SERP, when the government created the NRLM, they used the same principles and structures.

Today the NRLM, which rides almost entirely on the SHG infrastructure, is the only large-scale institutional arrangement that the government has to reach out to poor. Every government uses it, regardless of what end of the political spectrum they occupy. It is pro-poor and still has elements of the marketthe state can extend its entitlements directly to the people, while also enabling them to be self-reliant by promoting enterprises. But if there hadn’t been MYRADA, we probably wouldn’t have had NRLM today.

2. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) 

India’s most talked about government programme MGNREGA came about because Jean Drèze and others in civil society drafted it, and advocated for it.

The idea of MGNREGA did borrow from an earlier employment guarantee programme that was started in Maharashtra by Mr Vitthal Sakharam Pagechair of the Maharashtra State Legislative Council, and a social activistwho wrote the first draft in 1965. But it was only when several civil society activists fought for it in the early 2000s, that it became something that the Central government took seriously and passed into national law.

3. Integrated Water Management Programme (IWMP)

The early work around watershed management was done in Sukhomajri in Haryana. A more integrated approach was later piloted at Ralegan Siddhi by Anna Hazare. This, and the Hiware Bazar model by Popatrao Pawar became models to emulate, and the IWMP guidelines that are in place today are a result of contributions from many nonprofits.

These are just few examples but the story repeats itself again and again regardless of the sector. Consider these two others examples; one old and one relatively recent:

  • ASHA workers: The concept of ASHA workers was born in Jamkhed. The ArolesDr Mabelle and Dr Rajstarted a programme in 1970 which involved semi-literate women delivering home-based care to mothers and newborns. It was taken to scale by the government, and our country now has over six lakh ASHA workers.
  • 108 Service: The 108 service that everyone lauds as a model of efficiency and scale was started as a service by EMRIa nonprofit in Andhra Pradesh under the aegis of Satyam Foundation (EMRI was later taken over by the GVK Foundation). It was handed over to the Andhra Pradesh government, and later, other state governments implemented it. Today it runs across 15 states and two union territories.

The list continueshandpumps, participatory rural appraisals, wadi programmes, and so on. Essentially, almost any government programme worth its salt came from an innovation or technology developed by civil society. This is not to belittle the role of the state, which is by far the major development actor, but to emphasise the role of civil society in nation building.

Despite this, we are seeing a marginalisation of the civil society sector by markets and the government because we haven’t told our story well enough.

Civil society is too self-effacing

What is the philosophy of a civil society? We believe that we will develop solutions which over time the community will own and the state or market will support. When that happens, we believe our work is done.

In a way, it’s a very phoenix-like approachyou create and you disband. And you start all over again on some other problem. We don’t patent anything; we don’t take credit for anything.

And perhaps this is because we know that something as complex as social change requires the contribution of many peoplecommunities, grassroots organisations, the state, funders, and so on. But we have gone to the other extreme. We don’t even acknowledge our role in the change; in fact, we undermine it.

When people ask us if we have successfully run a programme, we say “Nahi humne toh kuch kiya nahi hai, ye toh sab gaonwalon ne kiya hai” (No, we didn’t do anything, it was the villagers who did everything). And while it might be politically correct to say that we are only the catalysts, and the real work is done the community; it’s not always an accurate representation.

Civil society is more than the catalyst; we are innovatorstechnical innovators and idea innovators. We take really complex problems and come up with new ways to address them. We do effective work but refuse to take credit for it. And our refusal to take credit only feeds into the government’s view pointif the community is doing everything and civil society isn’t doing anything, then we will deal with the community directly.

People don’t understand our unique proposition

Because we have undermined ourselves, our unique proposition is not known. Our value to society is not only what we do or how we do it, but also at what cost we do what we do.

Many of us work at ridiculously low costs but we don’t document it, and we don’t measure it. So, some corporates, who want to work on social programmes, believe that they don’t need nonprofits. All they have to do is take the nonprofit’s staff and implement it on their own because it seems easy and cheap to do so.

The reality is different. Running a programme is complex. It takes years to build trust. And it requires humility, rigour, and persistence. It requires training, all-weather support, and hand-holdingall things that lead to an enabling ecosystem that a good nonprofit creates.

But some corporates don’t know this; they just want to take on the programmes because they believe they can do it better on their own rather than share space with nonprofits. It’s we who are at fault because we allowed this to happen.

The assumption is that nonprofits cannot scale

Scale is the new measure of ‘success’, where others find civil society wanting. Small, local and specialised civil society organisations are disappearing, and are not considered relevant in this new India which is in a hurry.

If one studies what has worked in the past, one realises that many, relatively small organisations have transformed the country. Consider MKSS, which started its work in a small village in Rajasthan, and even at its peak, worked largely in Rajasthan for the citizens’ right to information. That the RTI Act eventually became one of the most effective legislations by the state to hold itself accountable to its citizens, is a story of how impact is not necessarily a function of size.

We are constantly told by corporates and governments that we can’t scale. But then I reflect on what is it that a large corporate that has scaled typically does? They pick one slice of a human being’s life, for instance, the fact that people might like to drink cold sweet water in summer. It is one needone would think a very unhealthy need but nevertheless a need. And then a multi-billion-dollar soft drink industry gets created around this need. You serve nothing; in fact, you take a poor man’s good water and convert it into this sweet water and charge him INR 20 for it. That is your net value addition to society. So that is all you know. To understand one very small slice of a human being’s need and address it.

Now compare that to what civil society is trying to do. We are trying to transform the conditions in which human beings live. This is dramatically different from creating a market for one small need of an individual.

It’s easy to scale a product that is uni-dimensional, serves a very specific micro-need, to which you can throw a ton of resourcesmoney, talent, technology. But can you do it when it involves changing entrenched social norms across all aspects of a person’s life and livelihood?

The problem is while we in the sector might know how to do some of this, we don’t know how to articulate it and how to measure it.

And because we haven’t articulated it, we cannot argue for resources, for space, for anything really.

Even if the state hasn’t failed, we will always need civil society

Civil society is that critical third pillar of the samaj-sarkar-bazaar (society-government-market) triangle. Without it, no society can function. Even in most successful countries across the world there will always be people who are marginalised, and issues that are not on government or company radars.

There will always be a human problem which the market will never take up and the state will not realise either, because it is too buried, or too out there in the future. Even in its best form, the government is not designed to look at these things. And countries that have a majoritarian democracy will ignore those who are not a part of their majority. It’s a design problem.

So, who will look out for these people, who will help change entrenched social norms, who will build awareness of issues that matter?

Apoorva Oza is the chief executive officer of Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India). He is also actively involved in founding and supporting nonprofits and nonprofit networks, as well as influencing government policy. A mechanical engineer with a diploma in rural management from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, he has also completed courses from Cranford University, United Kingdom, and Cornell University, USA.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


Rural Education: Moving Past “Poor Solutions for Poor People”

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations


People often believe that the problems in the education space have more to do with curricula or pedagogy, or with the capacity of teachers. We disagree. The main issue is that today, communities are missing from the school ecosystem.

Photo Courtesy: Sachin Sachdeva

NEW DELHI, May 6 2019 (IPS) – Communities are treated as passive recipients, giving them no say in the functioning of their schools. Here’s why this needs to change.

During our work with people living around the Ranthambhor National Park on issues of conservation, livelihoods, and eco-development, a constant question we were asked was how long we thought we could continue helping them. And then, an accompanying question — would their children never be in a position to help themselves? To advocate for and implement the change they wanted to see?

People had been led to believe that sending children to school was a precondition for a better future. Despite this, what they kept seeing was that the education system accessible to them was not equipping their children with the skills and abilities that they required to negotiate better futures for themselves.

Poor solutions for poor people

Working in Sawai Madhopur made us painfully aware of the community’s past experiences with education. Over time they had experienced the Shiksha Karmi Programme (which trained daughters-in-law to run schools), and the Rajiv Gandhi Pathshalas (which trained a young person who had passed Class 10, to run schools), not counting their countless experiences with government schools in the larger villages, most of which were sub-optimal.

When we look at the pitfalls of the government schooling system — be it teacher absenteeism, quality of textbooks, a lack of adequate infrastructure, constrained budgets and human resources — and the plans or schemes that have been created to address them, we realise that most of them could be categorised as ‘poor solutions for poor people’.

People often believe that the problems in the education space have more to do with curricula or pedagogy, or with the capacity of teachers. We disagree. The main issue is that today, communities are missing from the school ecosystem.

The current school system has made communities passive recipients of whatever the government tosses at them, giving them no say in the functioning of the school. It does not work with the community to help them actively engage with the process.

People don’t understand the gap between their aspirations and reality

The idea that any kind of education should lead to a job (preferably a government one) is prevalent amongst the communities we work with. However, what is less clear is how exactly that will happen, and what the probability is of it happening at all.

People had begun to realise that their education system was leaving children under prepared – they may have completed class 10 or 12, but their capacities and skill sets were far lower than they should have been – making it impossible for them to find the job they dreamed of, or continue on an educational path that would get them there.

What’s worse, by dedicating most of their time and resources to school, these children were sometimes unable to take up their traditional occupations – be it in agriculture or livestock rearing – making them incapable of earning a substantial income.

In such a situation, with huge gaps between their reality and aspirations, young people often found themselves helpless. There was scarcely anyone in the village who could have told them what needed to be done to become a doctor, engineer, bureaucrat, lawyer, entrepreneur – or what it entailed.

Despite this, children would go through their schools and come to urban centres looking for opportunities – be it that elusive government job or being a professional. It was only upon reaching the cities that they would realise how under-prepared they were, and as a result end up taking whatever work they could get–as waiters, drivers, cleaners, helpers, construction workers and similar positions in the informal sector.

It is no surprise then, that when it came to education, people in the community were losing faith in government schools.

Communities are the main stakeholder in their education

People often believe that the problems in the education space have more to do with curricula or pedagogy, or with the capacity of teachers. We disagree. The main issue is that today, communities are missing from the school ecosystem.

The community is the biggest stakeholder in the education space, and they need to be treated as such. People need to have a real idea of what they can expect from the system, and they need the system to be accountable to them. This has never happened.

So while there is plenty of work being done to train teachers, help principals, build the skills of School Management Committees (SMCs), design curriculum and change pedagogy, there is not enough being done with parents and community members. Even though parents make up the bulk of the SMC, they tend to be involved only in issues related to infrastructure or for instance, looking at teacher attendance or organising events – essentially any activity that is easy to monitor and does not demand engagement in processes.

It is time that we understood that education is about creating the right ecosystem for learning to happen, and that a village and its community are part of that process. When families have a better understanding of learning processes, they will also ensure that the home environment provides the right encouragement. When community members are able to offer their knowledge—as farmers, mechanics or officers in government—to students, they are teaching children about different possibilities in their future. It is only through involvement of the community that people will learn to ask the right questions, to seek accountability from the system. SMCs, being a subset of the community, offer a channel to do this. And if the community is aware, the SMCs will also function well.

For change to occur, communities must be more aware, and in charge of their education.

People often believe that the problems in the education space have more to do with curricula or pedagogy, or with the capacity of teachers. We disagree. The main issue is that today, communities are missing from the school ecosystem.

Photo Courtesy: Sachin Sachdeva

Working with communities to improve the education system

Having said that, we have to keep in mind that today, most communities, having been passive recipients of education thus far, are unprepared to challenge the system. It is therefore essential that we work to change this.

Based on our work at Gramin Shiksha Kendra (GSK) – an organisation which works with communities to enhance the quality of education in government schools – over the last 14 years, here are some suggestions on how this can be done:

1. Give them positions of seniority/power

Include members of the local community in your organisation board and involve them in the decision making. For example, at GSK we have people from the community on our board – some of them are parents who missed the opportunities of a quality education for their children, and two of them have never been to school but bring in their insights, wisdom and understanding of the local context.

These community members have guided and helped the organisation evolve its strategies, brought concerns and aspirations of the people to the board, and cautioned us against taking decisions that might not have the right impact.

2. Change your metrics of success

For example, we have kept the strength and management capacities of the school management committees as our apex indicator of success/failure, rather than only focussing on learning outcomes. We believe that when the schools and government-appointed school teachers become accountable to the SMC, and the SMC is in a position to guide and manage, the initiative will have succeeded.

3. Involve them in the work being done

Members from the community are invited to teach in the schools as guest teachers. Their experiences add to the curriculum of the school and are adapted for the schools. To be a teacher is still a valued profession, which gives parents a sense of importance and respect in the area.

Additionally, in an attempt to create a community-led ecosystem for education, we have an annual education festival called Kilol in our villages. The village community takes responsibility to organise Kilol’s and GSK shares, through exhibits and processes, our ways of teaching science, language, math, as well as the importance of components like pottery, sport and carpentry. The festival gives everyone in the community an opportunity to celebrate learning and understand what happens in school.

4. Give the initiative that is for them, to them

Our latest attempt is in handing over one of the schools that GSK set up back to the community to manage. That is when the school will become truly community-owned and community-managed.

We made this possible by, over the last 14 years, giving different members from the community a chance to be a part of the SMC. This has resulted in over 35 members in the community who have at one point or another been members of the SMC.

Because of their experience, the SMCs will soon be able to take over the management of the school and run it. GSK plans to facilitate this process and will help the SMC and the community evolve a future course of action – whether that leads to a science education initiative in the area, a comprehensive school, or an outreach programme.

This is important, as it defines our education initiative in the area. We don’t intend running the schools for ever, we want the community to take over. This will be our biggest success and we will continue providing them the technical support – or any other support that they may require. Most importantly, by giving the school back to the community, we are giving power back to the people – which is where it should be.

Sachin Sachdeva is a Co-Founder of Gramin Shiksha Kendra, www.graminshiksha.org.in , an organisation which works with communities to enhance the quality of education in government schools. Sachin has worked with development initiatives over the past 25 years and has been working with communities to help them look at their futures from a position of strength. GSK works with over 70 schools around the Ranthambhor National Park and along with the community runs three schools, one of which has been set up in a rehabilitated village. He is currently Director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s India programme.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


Want Social Change? Give Communities More Agency

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Human Rights

if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected.

Photo Courtesy: Jan Sahas.

DEWAS, India, May 3 2019 (IPS) – No external force can bring about real change in society. Only the community itself can.

There are 650 districts in India. However, most nonprofits work only in a few districts. Given how large our country is, there are only two types of people that can work towards creating change at scale – the communities that are facing the issues first hand, and the government.

The government has not been able to work on issues related to social justice in the last 60 years. Perhaps they think that this is not important enough, or there is no political will to do it. So, we at Jan Sahas, chose to involve the community.

We realised that if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected. If it didn’t become the community’s own initiative, or if they kept thinking that some civil society organisation or government agency would come and work on their issues, it would never be sustainable.

That’s why in 2001, we started a national campaign named Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. Centred around the idea of dignity, this campaign was aimed at mobilising Dalit manual scavengers, all of whom were women. We wanted to empower them to move out of this work and enable them to scale up the programme on their own. We thought that working with manual scavengers would be a good entry point to work on ending exclusion.

Caste-based marginalised communities in our country have faced historical injustice — not just for the last five-six generations, but for the last 2,500 years

But caste-based marginalised communities in our country have faced historical injustice — not just for the last five-six generations, but for the last 2,500 years. Even if they earn money and stop doing caste-based work, the social stigma never goes away. Even if the person becomes a collector, or starts an enterprise, the discrimination continues.

We need three types of rehabilitation

If people have to come out of caste-based work, they need three types of rehabilitation:

1. Economic or livelihood rehabilitation

In the caste-based work of manual scavenging, the biggest issue is that the oppressor or employer provides them food, clothing and shelter. In rural India, they get two rotis every day, clothes twice a year — during Holi and Diwali, and the panchayat gives them a place to stay, So, in essence, their basic needs of roti-kapda-makaan are taken care of by the person or the institution that employs them. What this means though is that they are unable to negotiate with their employers.

If you are going to get paid in cash for work, you can negotiate. For instance, if the employer says ‘I will give you INR 20’, you can say, ‘No, I will charge INR 50’. But if your life itself is dependent on what they give you, then you can never negotiate.

Therefore, if we have to start changing the way caste is viewed and reinforced, we have to start with economic rehabilitation. If marginalised caste groups get work which pays them in cash, they can negotiate the terms for their wages, working conditions, dignity and relationships at the workplace.

However, this is only step one. The second, and more important one, is social rehabilitation.

2. Social rehabilitation

The government never thinks about this aspect. Under social rehabilitation, if someone gives up their (caste-based) work, they should be given work that factors in the social aspect as well.

For instance in 2013, we appealed to several state governments; we said that when you appoint ICDS workers and helpers — positions that do not require an educational background, offer INR 3,000-4,000 monthly salary and where the employee has to be a woman, give priority to the women from the manual scavenging community.These women could prepare the meals provided under the ICDS scheme, and all children regardless of their caste would eat that food.

This process was started in Uttar Pradesh but many powerful groups forced the state to rescind the order; today it is no longer compulsory. In Madhya Pradesh on the other hand, while there was some struggle to start with, it has now been firmly established in many districts.

The discrimination extends across several government schemes. In many villages, where the PMAY is being implemented, Dalit communities are given homes in a separate place. They call it a ‘colony’ and it is commonly understood to be land outside the village. However, all the resources such as electricity, water, anganwadis are available only inside the village.

If you want to stop caste-based practices, you cannot work with the excluded people alone. Other related stakeholders have to be held accountable. Like they say in the gender discourse — if you want to end sexual violence, you have to get the male members of the community involved.

3. Political rehabilitation

Being political is not about party politics. It is about the power of representation. If women from excluded communities want to be part of the local panchayat, they should have the space to do so. The problem is, that today, they don’t have this space.

For example, we started a campaign with rape survivors, that they should contest elections for the panchayat. As a result of this campaign, 104 women participated in panchayat elections. Almost 50 percent of them won. Many of them contested on unreserved seats. They fought and they won. The idea was for them to challenge the power structure.

In some places we had to work with their family members as well, in some with the society at large. When these excluded women gain power, then at some level, the discrimination stops.

We realised that if issues around social justice had to be taken to scale, and if we wanted to create deeper impact,we needed to involve the communities affected.

A Dalit woman stands outside a dry toilet located in an upper caste villager’s home in Mainpuri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

It takes years to break social barriers, even among the marginalised

Jan Sahas works with manual scavengers, rape survivors and young girls who have been forced into commercial sexual exploitation. One of the biggest challenges we face is that it is very difficult to make these communities come together. Getting ‘outsiders’ to change their social behaviour requires work at a different level. But even within these disadvantaged groups, people follow discrimination and untouchability practices.

For example, in Bhaurasa, a village in Madhya Pradesh, we had women who had managed to stop doing caste-based work.  There were 17 women from the Valmiki community, and 10 from the Hela community. Valmiki is a Dalit Hindu community, while Hela is a Muslim community. It took us three years to bring them together in one place for a meeting.

For two and a half years, we conducted meetings with adults in the community to convince them. Despite that we failed to change their beliefs. But when we started working with the young — using games and activities — it took almost no time.

One of the games we played was taking one child from the Valmiki community and the other from the Hela — one a Dalit and the other a non-Dalit. We told them that the Dalit child would become non-Dalit for a day, and vice versa.

We observed a big change in behaviour. The children soon realised that what one was doing with another human being was not based on any rationale. There is no rationale for caste discrimination, and that it didn’t make sense to follow this nonsensical practice.

The activities brought about a change in the children; they then started convincing their families and the families changed because of the children’s intervention.

At a rally in New Delhi, Dalit women burn baskets used to collect human waste as a sign of protest against the caste-based practice of ‘manual scavenging’. Credit: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

Communities can solve their own problems. All they need are platforms.

Most of us in civil society who work with marginalised communities feel that ‘we are going to give them something’, ‘deliver’ something. In reality though, no one really is in a position to deliver anything to the community. What do we really know about the communities? How can we assume leadership on their behalf when we don’t know enough?

Consider the Dignity March where 25,000 rape survivors travelled over 10,000 kms and spoke openly in public forums about being raped. Jan Sahas might have coordinated the march, but the idea was not ours.

We were conducting a meeting in a village. There were four rape survivors along with their family members. One of the women said that there had been a conviction in her case, while a second women said that she was still struggling with her case and was facing many problems. The families were fighting among themselves, and demanding answers from us, saying if  one woman’s case was solved, why wasn’t there a judgement yet in the second case?

One of the rape survivors told us: “You don’t explain what the problems are; let the woman who got the conviction explain to the others what steps need to be taken and how they can bring their own case to a closure”.

When she started explaining, the idea clicked in our minds; that instead of us doing this work — going to each village and talking to all the families about how to fight their cases — what if 1,000 rape survivors came together in one place and travelled all over the country and explained how to get a conviction to other survivors.

Nonprofits should only play the role of facilitators

We can’t be leaders of the manual scavengers, or rape survivors, or communities who are involved caste-based commercial sexual exploitation. They are their own leaders because they know what that pain has meant in how they live their lives. We cannot even imagine how much power or courage is required to change this situation.

No one else can do it — no Chief Minister or Prime Minister can work on it as effectively as a rape survivor can work on rape, or manual scavengers can work on their own issues. We need to understand this.

The role of the government or nonprofits is limited in this. We can help create appropriate forums for them; but it is they who will come up with the strategies. During the march, we observed this very clearly: people who’ve been facing oppression and discrimination, were ready to take up the struggle; they were ready to find solutions. What they needed was a platform to talk about their issues.

The current strategies which are made by the government or other institutions, rarely involve the affected communities. But no external force can bring about real change in society. Only the community itself can.

Translations from Hindi to English by Anupamaa Joshi.

Ashif Shaikh is an Indian social activist, known for his role in Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a campaign for the eradication of manual scavenging. He is also a co-founder of Jan Sahas, a human rights organisation. Since 2000, Jan Sahas has been working to end caste- and gender-based slavery and violence through the eradication of manual scavenging, caste-based sex work, forced labour, and trafficking. He has won several awards for this work, including the Sadbhavana Award and the Times of India Social Impact Award.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)