Model Indian Villages to Keep Rural Relevant

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The world’s rush to urban centres is the great challenge of the 21st century. In 2007, the world became a majority urban place. The consequences of this shift can be seen in the blight of urban poverty, with its slums and squalor, environmental degradation, and rising social tensions. But there are people working on keeping rural areas relevant and pleasant places to live. These rural advocates see a vibrant countryside as part of the solution to the world’s plethora of crises.

In India, a pioneering initiative is reviving impoverished rural villages. Drawing on self-organizing methods used in India since 1200 BC, the Model Village India (www.modelvillageindia.org.in) is based around India’s democratic system of Panchayats: a village assembly of people stemming back to pre-colonial times.

“Decentralizing is necessary if development is to reach the grassroots,” said the concept’s founder, Rangeswamy Elango, a head of the village of Kuthampakkam, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the bustling city of Chennai, and one of the 12,600 Panchayats in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

While all villages have the ability to use the Panchayat system to improve their lives, few are making the most of this system. The model villages are about showing other villages the true power they have at their disposal. And that with a plan and determination, they can increase their income and improve their quality of life, attracting more money from government and other sources to do so.

The concept has now expanded to 30 model villages. At its core it is about being positive, eschewing griping about problems and instead getting down to work to solve them.

“We demonstrate the basic infrastructure, sustainable housing, food security,” said Elango. “If the government is not bothering, maybe through the local people’s efforts, we can try to demonstrate a variety of development models.”

As India’s economy has boomed, its small towns and villages have withered. Home to the majority of the country’s population, they are in crisis, with declining populations and high suicide rates. India’s urban slums are where people are going – they are growing 250 percent faster than the country’s population. India is a country in danger of neither having a viable rural economy, nor viable cities, but just vast tracts of slums.

Originally left out of the first draft of India’s constitution, Panchayats became legitimized in 1992. They are now elected in every one of the 260,000 villages in India. If they use them, the local Panchayats have extensive powers to transform the destiny of a village, with control of budgets, and decision-making power on how services are to be delivered. This ranges from the provision of clean water, to burying the dead and building roads. The trick is in getting people to realize the power they wield over their destiny and how it can transform their economic situation.

“The village-level local governments are constitutionally important bodies,” said Elango, “but the way it is implemented is not good. The system is unable to deliver the goods to the people.”

The model village approach has revived once-declining villages plagued with high unemployment, chronic alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. The residents are involved in the building of new and healthier homes, providing clean drinking water, waste facilities, education services – including an academy dedicated to teaching the skills and lessons leaned by the villagers to other villages – and even trying to break down the barriers between people because of India’s caste social hierarchy.

“Instead of having a big college, this is a practical people’s model,” Elango said. “It is not done by an academic but by a layman. The learning is spontaneous and emotional.”

Elango is driven by making his village a model that works, and in turn, becoming a magnet for others wishing to improve their lives and their villages.

Elango’s village was not able to support itself with its two crop harvests a year and the villagers resorted to illegal alcohol production instead to make a living. Despite being well connected by highway with nearby Chennai, the village was socially and economically dying.

Like a spreading ink spot, the concept is to create a network of like-minded villages that act as self-reinforcing positive role models, spreading the prosperity and stability outwards. The “Network Growth Economy Model” is a direct challenge to the “special economic zones that benefit only capitalist owners,” said Elango.

Ambitious, Elango is hoping to draw in 2,000 villages over the next 10 years, until a tipping point is reached, and the model explodes across India.

A native of the village, Elango became saddened by the community’s decline, including widespread domestic violence against women. The booming city of Chennai’s prosperity had not rippled out to the village, and it was still lacking good infrastructure and sanitation. A trained chemical engineer, he was elected the President of the Kuthambakkam Panchayat in 1996, and set about using his engineer’s perspective to draft the village’s five-year plan from 1996 to 2001.

But the budget was tight. And he had to turn to innovative solutions: recycling building materials, conserving water and reducing electricity consumption. But the resourcefulness paid off, and the state of Tamil Nadu provided the money to upgrade roads, drains, build a community centre, child care facilities, 200 low cost toilets, and work sheds for the village’s industries. By the end of 2001, most basic needs were being met. He then turned to providing good quality housing for the villagers still living in thatch huts.

He has used the “Network Growth Economy Model” to tackle the unemployment and low incomes. It works like this: rather than buying food and other products from outside the village, the villages band together to establish industries to provide those products to each other. This creates jobs and increases income by keeping the wealth within the network of villages, rather than it benefiting far-away companies. The new businesses include Thoor dhal processing, dairies, soap making, bakeries, ground nut oil production, and leather making.

“India was strong when this model was in place – we had strong villages,” said Elango. “Globalization’s trickle down is not working for India.”

Resources

  • Unleashing India’s Innovation: Toward Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, a report by the World Bank. Website: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/SOUTHASIAEXT/0,,contentMDK:21490203~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:223547,00.html
  • NextBillion.net: Hosted by the World Resources Institute, it identifies sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poorest citizens. Website: http://www.wri.org
  • CIDEM and Ecosur specialise in building low-cost community housing using eco-materials. They have projects around the world and are based in Cuba. Website: http://www.ecosur.org

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