In village India, the challenges for development are great. India may be the largest secular democracy in the world, with constitutional guarantees against discrimination on the basis of religion, caste or gender. Nevertheless, feudal and chauvinistic practices remain, and a large section of the rural population is effectively marginalized.
Life is especially difficult for adivasis (tribal people who have occupied the land and forests since prehistoric times) and dalits (members of the "untouchables" caste) who have lost their traditional access to sources of livelihoods due to post-independence government policies. For the use of resources from the forest, such as stone for building their houses or fuel wood for cooking, they often have to bribe forest guards. Moreover, markets for the forest produce that they do collect, their main source of sustenance, are now mostly governed by exploitative monopolies and intermediaries.
Facing such realities, development work must address people's immediate needs in ways that also promise the security and dignity of sustainable livelihoods. The best bottom-up development initiatives typically focus on building rural economies through the investment of seed capital to make better use of available local skills and resources. But they also integrate careful attention to all aspects of fostering sustainable livelihoods -- strengthening local assets, increasing social equity, rehabilitating damaged ecologies and enhancing local control. (1)
The approach is well illustrated in the efforts of two Indian NGOs: Development Alternatives (2) and Gram Vikas, (3) both of which operate in villages of rural India whose most marginalized residents are adivasis and dalits.
The Development Alternatives program began with the establishment of TARAgram, a gradually expanding technology resource centre for small-scale enterprises that is within walking distance of a dozen villages in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh. The centre's activities now include papermaking, building materials manufacturing and biomass energy generation, all using local resources.
The Gram Vikas' Rural Health and Environment Program (RHEP) is much more extensive, involving over 60 villages in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. RHEP provides clean water and sanitation improvements in ways that build co-operative local governance structures and skills, giving villagers more tools for self-directed action to improve their lives.
The two cases are in some ways quite different. Development Alternatives uses microenterprises and mixes public and private sector components. (4) Gram Vikas rural health and environment projects rely on strengthening co-operative village governance structures. But both groups use appropriate technologies for lasting local economic opportunities, while carefully integrating social needs with attention to ecosystem capacity. And both see women as the primary agents of change.
It was July and there were still no signs of rain. Mithila's family (name changed had prepared their field of less than a hectare and sown the seeds in early May in anticipation of the monsoons in June. With no other source of water, the field was now completely parched. There seemed little hope that their crop would survive the drought. In desperation, Mithila's husband had borrowed from a moneylender. Their family of five needed two quintals (200 kg) of wheat to survive the year, and if he waited any longer, the rising market price of wheat could make it unaffordable. Husband and wife both needed jobs just to be able to pay the monthly interest on the borrowed money. They were paying ten percent interest per month and had little hope of ever returning the principal. In effect they were bonded to the moneylender.
This was the story of more than one family in the Bundelkhand region in the summer of 1995, the year …