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Updated: October 29, 2009 14:52 IST

A model for rural development

U. Subrahmanyam
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Traces the evolution of a sustainable rural development model for South Asia

This book traces the evolution of a sustainable rural development model for South Asian countries, based on Shoaib Sultan Khan’s personal field experiences in the subcontinent after setting out his roots in northern India during pre-Partition days. It takes the reader through the grassroots of development which culminated in a participatory development model ready for emulation by several NGOs and government agencies.

Khan served initially in the civil services of Pakistan and later moved to UNICEF and UNDP projects. Subsequently he worked for 12 years with the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. His work in the Mahaweli Ganga project (Sri Lanka), a multipurpose irrigation project, is a classic example of participatory development process started as early as in the 1970s where the villagers organised themselves to settle water disputes and increase the farm output.

Objective

The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) extended its activities in every single village in Pakistan. Under the existing local structure, there is no statutory body at the village level. The union council, which typically comprises 10 villages with one member from each village, was the only effective body for inter-village planning, and taxation. But it was inadequate for economic development of individual villages and the vacuum was filled by the Village Organisation (V.O). The AKRSP’s objective is to raise the farmer’s income above the subsistence level and help him emerge as a commercial farmer in the long run. The author is clear that AKRSP is an economic programme and not a political one.

The AKRSP, which promoted autonomous rural support programmes, limited its direct involvement to giving the necessary training and concentrated on the development of a viable model. In the process of localising the development, the question arose whether an elected functionary can be bypassed, and Khan’s answer was that a member of the union council, usually a part of the V.O., is not the sole arbiter in the village. Community pressure had a greater force than legal power. Even when formalised, the V.O. will not be a traditional cooperative because it is the general body, rather than the management body, that will rule. The interaction the author had with various V.Os. has been narrated in detail and this should serve as a guide to those engaged in social mobilisation for any development activity.

Principles

The principles of community development were well-defined by the AKRSP, but it needed tremendous effort and courage on the part of development workers to make a success of them in practice. The village organisation under the AKRSP is a truly democratic set up requiring the convening of all the members. In such a set-up where everyone is properly trained in taking up development programmes that served the overall interests of the village, there can be no place for bad or selfish leadership, including that of the political variety. In this context, it may not be out of place to make a comparison with the ‘gram sabhas’ functioning in India. It is doubtful whether, the way they are organised, the ‘gram sabhas’ are truly democratic. There is an imperative need for a major initiative for human resource development on a large-scale to revitalise the ‘gram sabhas’, if the various rural development programmes are to be meaningful.

The author is of the view that an NGO engaged in such a development process should be relatively independent of the political change. It should, preferably, not associate itself with any political formation. This is a wakeup call for the Self-Help Groups, which have emerged in large numbers in India. They need to be kept free from politics, if they are to enable the sustainable development of their villages.

Unparalleled

In the concluding chapter, where Khan speaks about his visits to the SHGs of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andhra Pradesh, he says the visits brought him closest to witnessing the phenomenon of government departments and functionaries imbibing and emulating a corporate culture like that of the NGOs. He feels Andhra Pradesh has demonstrated a poverty-reduction model unparalleled anywhere in South Asia. The SERP has not stopped with alleviating poverty, as most micro-credit programmes do; it has facilitated millions of poor and destitute families to come out of poverty.

There is also a word of caution from him. Khan is of the view that the Zilla Samakhyas of the SERP will survive and be effective only if the SHGs are viable along with the V.Os. To quote him: “Andhra achieved the most magnificent model of elimination of rural poverty that I know of in the world. The CRP initiative is a fully home grown and a powerful tool to take the programme to the scale.”

The book not only throws light on the socio-political and socio-economic conditions of contemporary rural communities in the subcontinent but provides insights into the Rural Support Programme — a successful and sustainable model initiated by Khan, thanks to his life-time experience in, and commitment to the cause of, rural development. The model needs to be replicated in other parts of South Asia. The publication will make an absorbing reading, particularly to those working in the field of rural development.

THE AGAKHAN RURAL SUPPORT PROGRAMME— A Journey Through Grassroots Development: Shoaib Sultan Khan; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 725.

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