Less than 60km from the shimmering prettiness of Udaipur, parched and cracking is Madla village in the rugged interiors of southern Rajasthan. It’s an unusual sight for a Sunday afternoon. A group of daily wage labourers, having taken the day off, are assembled in a quiet hut next to a swaying maize field. The womenfolk of the village, with ghunghats (veils) in kaleidoscopic colours covering their faces, are equal participants in the discussion that’s unfolding.
This is a meeting of Madla’s Gram Samuh, a collective of the village’s households, over the issues of water and sanitation. Every fortnight to a month, the samuh gets together to debate and take decisions on health, education and other issues of development affecting the village. Their proudest achievement has been the village school, built by the government but run entirely by the samuh—the teachers’ salaries are paid from the gram vikas kosh (collective village fund) formed out of contributions of residents. “Children matriculating from here score an average of 80-85%, the highest average in the district,” beams Dhula Ram Bhagora, the sarpanch, who’s also at this meeting. Much before he became a member of the official local governance machinery, Bhagora was an active samuh member.
Community building: A samuh meeting in progress at Madla village in southern Rajasthan. Divya Babu/Mint
The Gram Samuh and Gram Vikas Committee, the elected body that runs a notch above the samuh, are concepts introduced—and reiterated over a period of 30 years—to the village by Seva Mandir, the non-governmental organization (NGO) that has activated similar processes in 654 villages in the region. Seva Mandir’s approach to development isn’t about doling out 10 blankets to the “poor” every winter, but empowering people to participate in their governance; simply put, enabling people to produce their own blankets.
When it started out in 1968, Seva Mandir’s focus was adult education. With time, it expanded to other areas such as health, livelihoods and natural resources management. Many of Seva Mandir’s members—like Bhagora—went on to join the local panchayats, thereby carrying forward the vision of the local community into the official governance machinery.“But getting elected wasn’t enough; we realized that we needed to strengthen our groups’ capabilities for real development. Instead of asking for entitlements, we needed to engage more actively in the processes of governance,” says Shailendra Tiwari, who heads Seva Mandir’s Natural Resources Development unit in Udaipur.
And that’s exactly how this meeting progresses. The villagers organize themselves into groups, and map out the sources of water, be it their neighbour’s well, or more contaminated sources like a pond. The women are talking more, the older ones, louder and with greater authority. The participation of women in matters of governance, like many other things in the area, has also been a contribution of Seva Mandir’s work. No one knows the household better than the women.
Once they have mapped the sources of water, they decide as a group what their options are. At the start of the meeting, the facilitator for this meeting, Ronak Shah, had outlined the importance of 100% sanitary conditions: “Remember, if one person in the village gets diarrhoea or related illnesses, everyone else in the village is prone to it.” This also means that members of the community must cooperate—and the more privileged ones with personal wells must offer their wells to the rest of the community, else their own health is at risk. This is the ultimate aim of Seva Mandir: community building. “If we want true development, we must build a society that moves beyond the individual and work towards community benefit. Most problems related to development are because of fragmentation in society. We work towards a collective vision in communities that they will want to be involved in,” says Priyanka Singh, CEO, Seva Mandir, in Udaipur.
Once the community decides what they want built or changed in their village, Seva Mandir steps in. This also means that the villagers have to come to a consensus themselves; in case of conflict or indecision, Seva Mandir pulls out of the project. The water and sanitation issues of Madla, for instance, adds Singh, require construction work that won’t take more than 20 days. “It takes a few days to construct a few toilets and chlorinate tanks/wells. But that’s not what this is about, these are also processes around which we build solidarity. Only by meeting, deliberating and discussing among each other can people actively participate in their governance,” she says.
Giving up on a day’s wages is a big deal for farm labourers subsisting on daily wages, and Seva Mandir offers no compensation for their losses. At least in an individual sense. But every time they attend a meeting and participate, they come closer to making collective gains. This time, it’s probably a few dry toilets and chlorinated tanks. Next year, it might be another school. As a village resident Kamal Lal Bhagora says, “Bigde to bigde kaam, lekin meeting karna anivarya hai (If the day’s work is spoilt, so be it, but having the meeting is crucial).”
Seva Mandir: www.sevamandir.org