02Jul2014

Sehgal Foundation Hosts Roundtable entitled “Water and Women: Village Development in Rural India

This is the first in a series of blogs on Sehgal Foundation’s roundtable on water and women in rural India

Water scarcity in countries such as India is of global concern. Nearly 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural areas, many of which face unprecedented water shortages. The job of providing water for the household invariably falls on women, often at the expense of their education, income earning opportunities, and cultural and political involvement. The development of effective, sustainable water initiatives in rural India is vital to the country’s future and the empowerment of women. Reliable access to clean water allows Indian women to realize a greater potential in their communities and live fuller lives.

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For more than a decade, the Sehgal Foundation has developed replicable, scalable solutions to the problems that face the villages of India, most notably water scarcity, low agricultural productivity and income, and poor local governance. These development models have been implemented in select villages in Mewat, a water-stressed and socioeconomically lagging district of Haryana. To truly make a significant impact, Sehgal Foundation is working to take its models to other parts of rural India. This requires additional human and financial resources, for which Sehgal Foundation is actively seeking effective partner organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Sehgal Foundation is an initiative of the S.M. Sehgal Foundation, which was established as a trust in India in 1999. Both entities receive primary financial support from the Sehgal Family Foundation, USA (based in Des Moines, Iowa). For simplicity, the S.M. Sehgal Foundation and the Sehgal Family Foundation will be referred to henceforth as The Sehgal Foundation.

In an effort to begin a focused discussion on tactics and initiatives that have proven their effectiveness in promoting sustainable water access and promote women’s empowerment in rural Indian villages, Sehgal Foundation on May 17, 2012, hosted a roundtable in Washington, DC, to discuss issues related to water and women in rural India. This roundtable brought together a diverse and knowledgeable cadre of nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and federal agencies to examine opportunities and best practices for creating sustainable water security in India’s villages.

The narrative began with a brief welcome by Ben Sehgal of the Sehgal Foundation, followed by introductory remarks by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates (washinitiative.org), who moderated the ensuing discussion. WASH Advocates is dedicated to bringing water and water service providers together to provide safe water sources in underdeveloped countries and areas. Mr. Oldfield is a recognized leader in drinking water and sanitation issues.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Sehgal introduced the audience to the Sehgal Foundation, which was established by his father, Suri Sehgal, a respected seed scientist and agribusinessman who was raised in India and headed a successful seed company there. Ben went on to explain that his father started the Foundation primarily to help small-scale farmers in rural India; but, after asking the villagers what was most important to them, he quickly realized that waterwas the key issue that connected and underpinned all the others. Women’s empowerment is another such issue. The Foundation then adopted a more holistic approach encompassing other critical aspects of sustainable rural development. The Foundation established Sehgal Foundation to research, develop, and test practical, sustainable models that could be replicated on a wide scale. Ben concluded his remarks by emphasizing the success of these models and the need to deploy them in many more villages in rural India. He stated unequivocally that “IRRAD does solid work and deserves funding. Sehgal Foundation is transparent, ethical, focused. There are some 2-3 million NGOs in India, of which about 500 have been third-party certified. Sehgal Foundation belongs in the top five.”

Oldfield then set the stage for the roundtable by putting the problem of sustainable access to potable water in rural Indian villages in context. He recalled Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration about water, “I would like our children to be taught at a young age the importance of cleanliness.” But India has a great deal of work to do as a country to ensure all of its citizens have access to safe water supplies. He recalled Jawaharlal Nehru’s assertion that when everyone has a toilet in India, it shall be considered a modern society by the rest of the world. Oldfield noted that, unfortunately, nearly every discussion internally in India about access to safe water supplies centers around access to additional sources of water, not necessarily using the available sources in a more efficient and sustainable manner. The discussion blossomed once the stage was set.

The topic of the first half of the discussion was “On the Front Lines: Perspectives from Public and Non-Profits”; it featured short reports on current activities in India presented by the following:

  • Jay Sehgal, Executive Vice President, Sehgal Family Foundation
  • The Honorable Mitul Desai, Senior Advisor for Outreach, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US Department of State
  • Michael Kugelman, South Asia Associate, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The topic of the second half of the discussion was “Successful Partnerships: Corporate Investments are Paying Dividends”; short reports on corporate social responsibility efforts in India were presented by the following:

  • The Honorable Raymond Vickery, Senior Director, Albright Stonebridge Group
  • Jessica Arnold, Environmental Team Leader, International Trade Administration, US Dept. of Commerce
  • Dr. Surahbi Garg, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Americon Consulting Group; Founder, U.S.-India Trade Group

Each session was followed by an open dialogue on the specific issues highlighted during the presentations. An in depth review of each panel discussion and views of some of the attendees at the roundtable will follow in subsequent articles on this blog.

The Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon, Haryana, India, is an initiative of the S.M. Sehgal Foundation, India, and is supported by the Sehgal Family Foundation, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. Sehgal Foundation promotes sustainable rural development with emphasis on water management, sustainable agriculture and agricultural income enhancement, sanitation and hygiene, and rural governance. Women and water are at the heart of all these activities. Please see www.smsfoundation.org for more information.