24Nov2015

How can the outstanding rural development contributions of Sehgal Foundation be replicated in other parts of India?

Dr. Bhamy V. Shenoy

As an honorary advisor to Sehgal Foundation, I have had a close-up view of how the Sehgal Foundation team succeeded in developing a practical model for rural development and learned from their experiences.  

Corruption and financial irregularities are common in the majority of NGOs in India. Many of the one million to two million NGOs registered in the country were often started by politically connected people with questionable agendas. Another large number is virtually inactive because there is no mechanism in place for voluntary deregistration when an NGO becomes defunct. A rare exception to this long-term pattern of corruption and mismanagement is Sehgal Foundation in Gurgaon, Haryana. Founded by Suri and Edda Sehgal in 1999, Sehgal Foundation (SF) has been helping villagers to help themselves for more than fifteen years starting in Mewat district. The SF team strongly believes that development must be community-led to be sustainable as described in this article1. Mewat is not far from Gurgaon. While shining Gurgaon is driven by 21st century
technological advances, residents of Mewat district are suffering from poverty burdened by centuries-old traditions. Government welfare programs have failed miserably to reach the villagers of Mewat. Travel through these communities is enough to demonstrate that the poverty level in Mewat is more than 80 percent, even using the appallingly low planning commission criterion. Sehgal Foundation serves as a beacon of hope to the residents of this bleak environment.

As an honorary advisor to Sehgal Foundation, I have had a close-up view of how the SF team succeeded in developing a practical model for rural development and learned from their experiences. Their valuable learning has made it possible for others interested in India’s development to adapt the most successful SF models in other areas—in both rural and urban environments. Officials in charge of implementing Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana can learn from these experiences.

Long Learning Journey

Efforts to reduce poverty in Mewat have entailed a long learning journey by the Sehgal Foundation team as they experimented with different approaches to find an optimum strategy for rural development. In the first few years, the team implemented projects they thought were most needed by the villagers. Since the average family in Mewat had 7.5 members, the team tried to encourage smaller family sizes. Projects were launched to increase agricultural productivity and improve connectivity to the market. The foundation’s strategy shifted as a result of listening more carefully to villagers about what they felt they most needed.

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A priority was to engage in projects with the villagers that would continue on with or without the foundation. SF assisted in building community centers and mobilized village-level institutions and individual villagers to take part in the development activities. Projects improved water management (to assist in helping the communities with what they repeatedly called their greatest need), enhanced farmers’ income, taught skill-building (such as tailoring), and involved villagers in preventive steps to improve their health. Recognizing the seemingly endless needs and the limited financial resources of a single NGO, the Sehgal Foundation team shifted strategies again starting in 2006 to embrace a rights-based approach to development. This shift was reinforced by the government adoption of groundbreaking legislations, including the Right to Information Act (2005), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005), and eventually the Right to Education (2009) and work begun to ensure that villagers knew their rights with regard to all government welfare programs—all of those, as well as Public Distribution System, Mid Day Meals, Integrated Child Development Scheme, etc. Check dams and other water augmentation systems built in partnership with village communities have recharged the underground water, helped to increase agricultural output of nearby farms, and supplied sweet water for drinking.
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With the implementation of an initiative called Good Governance Now! (GGN) model, residents of Mewat villages have been empowered to exercise their rights and demand services entitled to them from the government with minimum hassle and without paying bribes. School management committees and village health committees are functioning better with startling results. The SF team has taken the GGN model to 403 villages in Mewat and to villages in Alwar, Rajasthan. Thanks to GGN volunteers, residents of Sabras village are able to secure their correct allocation of rations from the PDS shops. Residents of Nizampur village complained to SF staff that they were only receiving their rations from the PDS shops three or four times a year.

 

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Good Governance Now! focuses on developing a critical mass of actively participating villagers to bring about effective governance in their communities. SF’s experience of developing a model village, Notki, starting in 2008, showed the power and importance of Good Governance Now!–an initiative that was selected as a finalist for a 2010 Global Development Network award. The foundation team worked with the Notki community to transform it into a demonstration model village in part to show villagers what was possible. The community had an engaged and active sarpanch at that time. Improvement included household toilets, paved roads, roadside plantings, solar streetlights, wastewater disposal, and a fully equipped and properly managed maternity clinic. An orchard generated funds to ensure the maintenance of the infrastructure by the panchayat. When the successful project was completed, SF shifted its role from direct implementation to support.

 

When some deterioration in the roads and loss of trees occurred after two years, the newly elected sarpanch expected the foundation to take care of repairs. The SF team worked with Notki citizens for almost a year before successfully countering this expectation. GGN training helped villagers understand the importance of taking responsibility for their own development and exercising their rights with appropriate government programs and services.

Sehgal Foundation remained an active partner with the people of Notki to continue building the capacity of their village-level institutions and supporting citizens in demanding their rights. Meanwhile, five other villages in Mewat surpassed Notki in becoming demonstration villages during the same time period, because they started the development process with Good Governance Now training first.

As a result of the training under GGN, villagers were able to improve PDS delivery (quality products on a timely basis), Mid Day meals scheme (meeting the standards laid out by the government), quality education (improved teaching, return of illegally collected fees), MGNREGA (timely payment of salaries and less scam), Anganwadi (better service and regular attendance), and sanitation (cleaner roads, less garbage, building of toilets for BPL families). Villagers learned to make better use of the Right to Information Act to ensure timely government assistance. This reduced scope for corruption.

Sehgal Foundation has developed modules to train elected representatives of panchayats as well as members of school management and health committees. My interaction with one village health committee in Rawli village convinced me how members equipped with the knowledge of their rights can work wonders. Committee members were mostly illiterate women. Still they managed to get two feet of cow dung in the central place cleared after acquiring a government grant. The dung had been a source of bad smell and a breeding ground for mosquitoes for years. The village looked very different when I visited it.

Superior Management Structure
Just like any well-managed company, Sehgal Foundation has well-defined annual and long-term goals staffed with motivated and well-trained people. For example, the Good Rural Governance program team is committed to making citizens aware about government policies and programs for improving their well-being, enhancing citizen participation in government programs and institutions for promoting inclusive, transparent, and accountable governance, and making policy recommendations for improving transparency and accountability in governance.

The Rural Research team provides the relevant information on the actual performance of different projects so that the management can learn from its success and failure to take corrective steps.

The Communications team provides a communications platform for rural communities, using community media, especially community radio. The Resource Mobilization staff seeks funding assistance and partnerships with outside agencies and companies that complement funding from Sehgal Foundation in the US.

The Water Management team helped develop a biosand filter to provide potable drinking water and improved the water supply in Mewat villages with new models for water augmentation. The Agricultural Development program has helped farmers to improve their productivity by optimum use of fertilizer and micronutrients.

Sehgal Foundation has been successful in attracting highly qualified graduates with different academic backgrounds from leading academic institutions. Interns come to the foundation each year from around the world. Employees working at SF are not just earning their livelihood; they have a rich opportunity to give back to society. Every project undertaken is evaluated by Rural Research staff before and after it is undertaken to assess its potential and its impact. Corrective steps are taken when needed.

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Anna Hazare’s movement for social justice has showed that any activism, however justified, may become counterproductive if it is not properly handled. That was the lesson Mahatma Gandhi attempted to show through his nonviolent Satyagraha movement during the freedom struggle. Gandhiji often said that the objective of his protests were not to push the opponents in the corner by highlighting their faults but to conduct protests in such a way that the people themselves will repent for their actions and take corrective steps.

The Good Governance Now! model of SF is based on a similar nonconfrontational activism wherein the villagers themselves demand their rights. This approach has helped to bring together government officials as well as political leaders to work with Sehgal Foundation with minimal conflict.

Impressed with the outstanding contribution of Sehgal Foundation, institutions such as Coca Cola Foundation, The Mosaic Foundation, Key Management Group, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd, NABARD, TERI, Department of Science and Technology, Maruti Suzuki, Millennium Alliance, Misr Hytech in Egypt, etc., have funded project partnerships to recharge groundwater by constructing check dams and other water augmentation systems; trained farmers on soil health, drip irrigation, and the use of appropriate fertilizer; and empowered citizens to obtain their rightful entitlements.
Critical Success Factors behind SF
It is encouraging to see how a committed NGO working with a dedicated panchayat led by an honest sarpanch backed by funding from an interested corporate partner can make a difference in rural communities. Sehgal Foundation has been able to create ponds for recharging groundwater, irrigating farms, and supplying water to plantations. More than 35,000 native plants have been planted in catchment areas and around check dams, ponds, and school boundaries.
Through Village Education committees, funding libraries in schools, providing roof-water harvesting in schools, etc., Sehgal Foundation has supported education. In 2015 the team started an innovative program to impart Life Skills Education to adolescent girls to build their confidence and equip them with knowledge to take up governance-related issues in their villages. At least 150 girls have been trained in five different centers.

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In its short existence since 1999, Sehgal Foundation has demonstrated how villagers themselves can avail various government welfare programs, increase their earning capacity through improved farm productivity, give quality education to their children, improve sanitation, etc. The Good Governance Now! model developed is replicable, scalable, and sustainable throughout India. The foundation team has assisted Swades Foundation in Maharastra in spreading GGN in about 300 villages of Rajgad by training its volunteers. GGN has reached villages of Samastipur district of Bihar and in Alwar district of Rajasthan.

SF has begun to promote Good Rural Governance in 200 villages through community radio Kisan Vani, Madhya Pradesh, and Radio Rimjhim, Gopalganj, Bihar. Women will play a key role in village development activities. In every new initiative, Sehgal Foundation promotes the involvement of women in leadership roles. Promoting the development of women’s collectives, Mahila Sangathans, and providing training in governance has already led to improvements in water availability, more responsible panchayats, improved cleanliness, construction of toilets, and better school management.

Finally receiving government services due to direct participation by the people is far more effective in reducing corruption than adapting laws to curb it. However, Sehgal Foundation cannot by itself undertake such a gigantic task without partnerships with other corporations, philanthropists, educational institutions specially law colleges, and IITs to replicate the GGN model. The resources required are not huge. The most important requirement is the desire and concern for larger society. Are companies and other stakeholders in India’s development ready to accept the challenge of the nation building?