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The Élan Vital of Rural Development

M.J. Arul

Working Paper #38
(Available at Institute of Rural Management, Anand - 388001, India.)


Amidst glaring failures of rural development efforts by the government, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have shown exemplary performance. This paper describes the efforts and activities of one NGO and examines the effects. It also discusses the process by which the organisation carries out its work. Tracing the success of the organisation to its ideology and the consequent dedication of the field workers, the paper ventures into some generalisations as possible lessons for rural development interventions at large.


Growth is a natural process, but development involves intervention -- a deliberate intervention to direct and accelerate growth selectively. India recognised the need for development in her rural areas long ago and made provisions for it right from her First Plan period. Having, thus, given due priority to rural development, the Government of India has ever since been trying out various strategies (Singh 1986) for achievement of the goal. These strategies seem to have been based on distinct assumptions. For example, the strategy manifest in programmes such as the Intensive Agriculture District Programme, the Intensive Cattle Development Programme and the High Yielding Varieties Programme is said to have been based on the trickle-down assumption, meaning thereby that the benefits of increased production would percolate or trickle down to the poor. The results invalidated the assumption and there followed a welfare-oriented strategy with programmes such as the Minimum Needs, the Applied Nutrition and the Midday Meals. While the intention in these programmes may have been to ward off malnutrition and build human capital, the underlying assumption or implication appears to have been: the poor are incapable of solving their problems and, therefore, the government with its specialists and resources must identify and distribute what is good for them. As it turned out, however, the strategy became a drain on the government's resources, besides creating a dependency syndrome in the people. The government then began to realise that development would not occur until people themselves participated in it. A strategy to involve the people,therefore, was evolved. The anti-poverty programmes of the 1970s, namely, the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP) and Training of Rural Youth for Self Employment (TRYSEM), were manifestations of this well-conceived, participative, strategy.

The soundness of the latest strategy notwithstanding, the results have fallen far too short of the expectations. Indeed, the dependency syndrome of the earlier welfare strategy seems to have been rekindled by the government machinery engaged in the implementation of the new strategy!

In the face of such glaring failures of governmental intervention in rural development, there have been encouraging results from the efforts of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs). A study of how these organisations operate, therefore, may be useful to all those who are concerned with planned alleviation of poverty in rural India. As regards the role and relevance of NGOs, the reader may refer to Maheshwari (1987) and Roy (1987). A critical report on these organisations is also available in Chowdhry (1987). The present paper discusses some of the findings from the author's field stay-and-study of the rural development work done by an NGO at Natham, an administrative block of Tamilnad, South India.

About the Organisation

Way back in the sixties, some Sarvodaya workers recognised the plight of most of the bhoodan allotees and realised that it did not do any good to distribute bhoodan lands to the landless and leave them with no wherewithal to use the land productively. With this recognition, realisation and inner urge of a mission, a few Sarvodaya activists got together in 1969 and helped develop about 70 acres of uncultivable bhoodan land in Sevalur-Pudukottai area of the erstwhile Ramnad district, Tamilnad. This initial project demonstrated that bhoodan allotees could indeed improve their lot if the necessary support was provided. Impressed by this fact, the volunteer group extended the scope and coverage of its work and, by 1978, it had 16 such farms in five districts of Tamilnad, covering about 800 acres of land and benefitting 364 families. It was now felt that the bhoodan allotees of other States in India also needed such support. To meet this need, the volunteer group considered it necessary to have a nationwide organisation. The NGO under study was thus born on December 30, 1978.

The long-term goal of the NGO was, and continues to be, to establish gram swaraj (village self-rule) and through it create a sarvodaya society -- an ideal social order in which no individual or group would be oppressed, exploited, alienated or excluded; all persons would share the produce of their labour; the strong would protect the weak and function as their trustees; and each would promote the welfare of all.

The NGO is at present engaged in about 100 projects, spread over seven States of India. These projects include six Block Development projects. Natham is one of the six.

An Overview of the Activities

The NGO under reference is engaged in a variety of developmental activities, both individual and group, related to agriculture, animal husbandry, cottage industry, education and health. The field staff regularly carries out periodic verifications of assets with the beneficiaries and records are available at the project office. The author was first inclined to lift the statistics from these records and present them in a host of tables. After his visits to the villages, however, he realised that such tables would not reflect the real impact the project had on the people and would be totally dumb about the processes that were part and parcel of the developmental effort in the field.

For example, the NGO organised five National Service Scheme camps: Students from the colleges of a nearby city were brought to the villages and they constructed link roads in five villages, with an average length of 1 km. This is part of statistics, all right. Where is development? The village youth first watched their educated city counterparts; very soon some of them offered a helping hand; a little later, many of them joined full-swing. Later on, the village youth began to get together in their respective villages and voice their ideas in the gramsabha about what could be done in and for the village. In one village, the youth initiated work and completed a two-kilometer link road, where there had till then been only rocks and thorny bushes. Now there are 49 youth clubs in the block, each with its own identity and carrying out developmental activities on their own. Two of these clubs have purchased certain agricultural implements, such as sprayers, and hire them out; some of the youth who are familiar with the operations, also lend their services for a fee, in addition to renting out the equipment. Several of these youth clubs have expressed the idea of generating enough funds, which they would use for financing local needs in the village at less than the market rate of interest. One youth club is thinking of using part of its fund to assist poor students who want to pursue their studies.

Several landless families in the block claim that they have successfully come out of their poverty trap with a one-time timely support from the NGO in activities these families were familiar with. Rearing heifers, for example, on behalf of non-resident owners was in practice for long in the area. The "owner" used to finance purchase of a female calf, which would be reared by the caretaker up to its first pregnancy and sold; the profit (selling price minus loan & interest) used to be split "fifty:fifty" between the owner and the caretaker. Now, the NGO advances a loan to such calf-rearers at 4% interest and the "caretakers" own the calves. This phenomenon is common in the area. Mr. Panaiyan of Sathambadi village is one such calf-rearer. He is 35, landless and a father of three children. He could hardly ever make both ends meet and hence used to borrow from his neighbours frequently. In June 1986, he approached his gramsabha (the village assembly) and had a loan of Rs.800 advanced to him from the NGO; he bought a crossbred calf. He took the animal along wherever he went for his daily work and that took care of the grazing. On his way back from work, he brought some grass home everyday. The following March, Panaiyan sold the animal (eight months pregnant by the temple bull) for Rs.2600. He repaid the loan and bought another crossbred for Rs.900 to repeat the cycle on his own. Some families have taken such support for goat-rearing and bee-keeping as sources of supplementary income.

Small farmers who had lost hope of farming for lack of requisite resources resumed their farming when help was available from the NGO. The case of Mettupatti Ganapathy is illustrative: Ganapathy had three acres of land and a rock-bedded well, which had run almost permanently dry. He had given up farming for two years and become a pedlar -- selling pant and blouse cloth pieces door to door on a commission basis. This took him places, but the family remained poor and also missed him. One day, in the gramsabha, Ganapathy's aged father broached the subject of his family's plight, which he said could be ameliorated if the land was cultivated. The gramsabha recommended the case to the NGO and a loan of Rs.2000 was advanced. Ganapathy had his well deepened.

But the well could irrigate only half an acre of the land with the help of hired bullocks, for the water in the well was so little and Ganapathy owned no bullocks. So Ganapathy approached the NGO through the gramsabha for another loan of Rs. 3000 so that he could make his efforts productive and be able to pay back the loan in instalments. He was granted the loan. Ganapathy had his well deepened further and also bought a pair of bullocks with the money. He began to cultivate 2.5 acres of his land. He has sectioned this land into several patches and he raises groundnut, chilly, tomato and millet--all in the same year. He farms eleven months a year and says he feels happy and settled. As he talked, showing his land and well to the author,the latter could sense Ganapathy's feelings of achievement. Ganapathy expressed his pride over repaying his loan in small, but regular, instalments. The records at the project office bear out Ganapathy's claim.

There are also examples of people in the area learning to work cooperatively. Nine lime-maker families of Poosaripatti village, for instance, had been very badly off, unable even to buy the raw material. Following a discussion in their gramsabha, the NGO provided a working capital of Rs.5000 as a group loan. Work progressed and lime production went up. But marketing became a problem. The lime producers discussed the problem with the NGO's community worker, who suggested formation of a cooperative marketing society which could secure support from any bank. The suggestion was accepted and a loan was obtained from the local bank for building a storehouse. From then onwards,the marketing society bought all the lime produced by the member families, stored and sold it at a margin and shared the profit with the members, besides raising a reserve fund. All the nine families paid back the NGO's loan and the society was repaying the bank loan regularly.

Cooperation showed up even in realms that had till then been typically private. For instance, several groups of four to five farmers with contiguous land-holdings began to own a common well in one of the plots, by paying the owner of the plot a compensation for the land occupied by the well. They also worked out equitable norms of water use, including an agreement not to raise water-hungry crops. Cooperative well-owning had not even been heard of in that part of the country till then.

The people of the block have now come to realise that most of what they need, but cannot have by individual effort, can be had through joint effort. There are fifty-six gramsabhas functioning in the block now. They confidently approach the banks whenever some loan is needed. The banks are more ready to advance loans to gramsabhas than to individuals. The madhar sanghs (women groups), of which there are forty-eight now in the block, also enjoy a similar credit-worthy status.

The developmental intervention by the NGO in the block has not smothered the people's sense of efficacy and responsibility there. In one village, for example, a whole building was spared for a year, free of charge, by the owner so that the village could have the proposed school immediately. The owner did so on condition that the village arrange for a piece of land and a shed in one year's time. As the year was approaching its end, the gramsabha met on the issue. The author happened to be present there and could clearly sense the feeling of urgency that weighed on everyone in the meeting. The land had already been earmarked and "shramdan" (gift of labour) agreed upon, but the problem that persisted was unavailability of a mason. Finally, one of the villagers stood up and committed himself to procuring the mason in a week's time.

The Operational Process

The sample of cases presented in the preceding section shows that the developmental effort of the NGO has had desirable results -- in contrast to the government's efforts through its IRDP and other development programmes. The difference is probably attributable to the approach followed and the processes the approach triggers off. The "cooperative well", for example, emerged from lengthy discussions between the people and the NGO's community worker, who confronted the farmers, many of whom wanted a well each in their fields, with the poser: "You do not need wells; what you need is water. Can we think up ways by which you can irrigate your fields and yet save your tiny plots of land from being swallowed up by wells?" To illustrate the intervention process further, here is a piece of the action, typical of the NGO's work in the block:

It is eight O'clock one evening -- a couple of months before the next sowing season. Farmers from the neighboring hamlets are trickling in at the temple premises of Ooralipatti, their revenue village. It's 8:20 and they've all sat on the floor, in a spontaneous form of what resembles a well-filled circle. One young man (the community worker), seated about the middle, chants a short hymn that in essence says all religions are the same and strength lies in unity. There is silence among the ninety-five participants.

"What are we to discuss today?" asks the NGO Project Manager, who, having been invited by the people for the meeting, is also seated there. Simultaneous voices are heard from several of those present. One articulate farmer suggests in a loud and clear voice: "Why not one representative from each village, one after another, speak out the problems faced in his village?" "That's a good idea", seconds the NGO Project Manager.

One farmer speaks out: "Our wells are going dry; some of them are already stone dry. Unless we deepen them, we cannot raise anything on our lands. We have some other problems, too--seeds, pesticides, etc., but the most urgent problem is water." A farmer from another hamlet follows suit: "We have the same problem -- water. Further, the price of groundnut seeds has shot up and is unbearable. Most of us cannot continue with the "commission agents". If we could arrange for some loans at a small interest, it would be a great help. Our commission agents are ready to give us seeds on credit and charge us an interest of 3 paise per rupee per month (i.e., 36 percent per annum). But then we will be obliged to sell our produce to them. These agents buy our groundnut always at lower than the market price. They also keep false accounts; some of us have been cheated thus in the past". A few more voices in the meeting echo these problems as relevant to their villages also. One farmer goes on to say, "Why not we have a cooperative store to service the farmers--something like the one they have in Sambappatti village, but specially dealing in items of farm needs?"

Spontaneous discussions follow: "Yea, why not start something like that? ...What can it do? ...What items to keep?.......How much would be the initial investment? ...Where should the store be? ...Who can be members? ...Would it (the cooperative store) be capable of serving the varying needs of every farmer? .....For all crops or only some crops, like cotton? ...Why not limit it to groundnut, for that is the most capital intensive crop? ......Okay, but how do we start the store?"

The NGO Project Manager opens his mouth now: "One of you mentioned the Sambappatti cooperative store. Do you know how it started? All those who wanted the store there contributed various amounts of share capital and our NGO added to it by way of a loan at 4% interest. The gramsabha took a building on rent and appointed a storekeeper from among its villagers for a salary. The store has been functioning for about a year now. The kind of store you are thinking of can do a lot more than what the one at Sambappatti is doing. The needs you've been discussing can be served not by a mere shop-like store, but by a service centre--an agro-service centre. Besides dealing in seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, the agro-service centre can hire out implements such as modern ploughs, dusters, sickles, stalk-pullers and sprayers. It can be a pooling spot for your produce and thereby avoid distress sales, which are common amongst you for lack of holding or storing capacity. The Centre can also arrange to call up a mobile laboratory to test your soils, ..."

"How much is a share?" inquires one of the participants. "What's the minimum we must pay?" asks another. "I suppose", answers someone, "we must collect enough to ..." A so-far quiet participant voices a query: "How much can the NGO loan us?" "Five times your collection", answers the Project Manager.

A clear and confident voice is heard: "I will spread the word in my village, call the whole gramsabha tomorrow and prepare a list of all who want to be members of the proposed Agro-service Centre and also collect the shares. If the other villages also do the same, we can soon hand over the list along with the money and ask the NGO to open the Centre immediately. "The NGO will not; you will do it! You will erect a shed or building, ensure its safety, run it for your own benefit and profit and repay the loan in instalments so as to stand completely on your own feet year after year. Our NGO will certainly give you all the help and guidance whenever you need it."

"Yes, that's it;" chips in one of the farmers, "that's the way the Sambappatti store started. I talked to people there and found out also the details of how it operates. We should now collect the shares tomorrow or the day after and meet again here before the week is out. Let's fix a date." Audible consultations take place and Wednesday night is agreed upon. The farmers ask the NGO Project Manager if he will be available for the meeting. He says, "yes". It is now 11:45p.m. and people get up to go home. Someone asks, "How about the deepening of wells?" The NGO manager replies: "Discuss the point in your own gramsabhas and come up with proposals for three or four specific wells in each village. Our engineer will then visit the sites and assess the viability of the cases." ... "Three or four wells won't be enough;" said many a farmer, "there are about 200 wells around here and at least 50 of them need deepening now." The NGO manager says: "We won't be able to help 50 wells right away. By discussion amongst yourselves in the gramsabha, select the most deserving cases and we shall see. Are you meeting on Wednesday for the Agro-service Centre?" "Of course, we are", said all in a chorus and the meeting ended.

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