Mumbai: India’s top companies and celebrities will join the Maharashtra government in transforming 1,000 villages over four to five years through a first-of-its kind initiative, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced on Thursday. The state government will form a governing council headed by the chief minister and comprising all participating companies to formulate a holistic strategy for this transformation and implement it, Fadnavis told reporters after a two-hour consultation with industry heads and celebrities at Mantralaya, the government’s administrative headquarters.

The model being worked out for this mission will look at converging existing rural development schemes and optimising their benefits, Fadnavis said. Companies in India run rural development projects as part of their corporate social responsibility work, but Maharashtra has become the first state to institutionalise a formal working arrangement between the corporates and the government.

To begin with, a corpus will be created with equal contribution from the participating companies as well as individual or philanthropic donations and the government of Maharashtra, Fadnavis said. The size of this corpus has not yet been fixed. Representatives from around 50 top companies attended the consultations on Thursday and agreed to be part of the initiative, the chief minister said.

The government has not yet decided how to formalise this mission. “We are still debating the two options of registering this initiative as a charitable trust or incorporating it as a company under Section 25 of the Companies Act," Fadnavis said.

At the press conference, Fadnavis was flanked by Tata Sons chairman emeritus Ratan Tata, Mahindra Group’s chairman and managing director Anand Mahindra and actor Amitabh Bachchan. Fadnavis said the model being worked out by the Maharashtra government and the top companies would consolidate corporate expertise, technology and capacity building, with the government effort and infrastructure.

“Corporates have professional expertise, technology and capacity building skills. Right now, government efforts to achieve rural transformation are scattered because of the thin spreading of limited resources. With the top companies coming on board, the effort would get consolidated," Fadnavis said.

Ratan Tata pointed out that the model was a result “of a growing realisation in the country that we must focus on the rural hinterlands". “We have industrialised our cities but the rural hinterland has not really benefitted from this growth. The chief minister has been bold enough to initiate this important and forward-looking move for transformation of hinterland. This may lead to rural parts becoming prosperous," Tata said. He said the good thing about this model was that it was based on involvement of rural population.

Mahindra listed out what he said were unique points about the model. “There is clear purpose and convergence. The idea to transform villages is not new but the approach of convergence is certainly new. Second, the private sector collaboration is direct here. Three, there is an approach of prototyping not just for Maharashtra but for the country. Four, there is passion in the government for this project. I asked the chief minister if today was the first and last time that we saw him attend such consultation and he told us he is going to be driving the project," Mahindra said.

Bachchan said he had agreed to lend his voice and face to this mission to create awareness and provide communication. Asked if Bachchan could be called the brand ambassador for this mission, Fadnavis said the term brand ambassador was much clichéd. “Mr Bachchan would do much more, much beyond what the term brand ambassador denotes," Fadnavis said.

Apart from the companies and celebrities, the government has also roped in experts from the field of rural transformation. Popatrao Pawar, the much-acclaimed former sarpanch (elected village head of a gram panchayat) who has transformed his village Hiwre-Bajar in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra into a model of rural development, is consulting the government. Dr. Anand Bang, part of the Gadchiroli-based Society for Education, Action, and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) project, has provided inputs on developing a strategy for rural health. Dr Abhay Bang, who has set up the SEARCH project, applauded the initiative but said the government must focus on developing the “right processes" to achieve results. “It will be a challenge both for the government and the companies to work with each other," he said.

Fadnavis said the mission would not be run on a “one size fits all" philosophy. “There are some broad areas this transformation will focus, like agriculture, water conservation, education, and health. But for each village, the strategy of transformation and projects to be taken up will be based on the needs of that particular village. We won’t impose the model on the villages. Rather, the project will be village-driven," he said.

Of the 1,000 villages, 50% would be picked up by companies with some ground feedback from some of their own CSR activities. The remaining 50% would be chosen by the government on the basis of low human development indices. Of the 1000 villages, 25% would be tribal hamlets. Fadnavis said the government intended to begin work in at least 100 villages by 2 October, which marks Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. “This is a scale-able project and once we have developed a prototype, it could be used not only for other villages in Maharashtra but in the country too," Fadnavis said.

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