Mouthing platitudes like “India lives in its villages” comes easy but understanding rural development is an altogether different ball game. The Kerala Government, through its channel DD Kerala decided to market rural development stories at prime time and thus was born Green Kerala Express. GKE, in a span of 100+ episodes, took us through an expedition through several villages in Kerala to understand the work being carried out in rural/semi-urban Kerala and appreciate the work done by local bodies. Palakkad, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Trivandrum came out well on top among the various villages while Kottayam, Idukki and Kasargod were probably the least impressive.
A few thoughts that I had as a viewer of this experience:
Agriculture needs support to survive – Governmental apathy and bad governance is pushing the farming community to ruin. Corporate takeovers of prime agricultural land at subsidized rates (helped by ready-to-bend governments) is being marketed to people as life savers for people but see what Vedanta has done in Orissa and Coca-Cola in Palakkad and you understand who benefits from such tacit support. Obviously, waiting for the rains and doling out subsidies is not the solution – there has to be a larger concerted end-to-end solution to promoting agriculture. Villages like Palamel, Puthussery and Perambra have linked NREGS and Kudumbasee to reclaim land and make them fit for paddy cultivation. Aryanadu Grama Panchayat launched an innovative programme called Vitthu Mudal Vipani Vere (from seeds to sales) which ensured that the farmer receives seeds, financial aid, inputs on agriculture from experts and finally has a means to sell his produce at a fair price. Small farmlands are not sustainable because of the high cost of labour – one way as demonstrated in Trivandrum is group farming where a set of farmers come together and till all their lands together and make an earning, in proportion to their area.
Women Empowerment in development – The way a society treats its women indicates its level of progress. For all the impressive social indicators clocked by the state, the conspicuous absence of women in the public domain remains as a paradox of the Kerala model of development. Kudumbasree is a woman oriented, community based poverty eradication project launched by the Government of Kerala with the active support of the Centre and NABARD. The programme has 37 lakh members and covers more than 50% of the households in Kerala. Built around three critical components, micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment, the Kudumbashree initiative has today succeeded in addressing the basic needs of the less privileged women, thus providing them a more dignified life and a better future. The mission aims at the empowerment of women, through forming self help groups and encouraging their entrepreneurial or other wide range of activities. Kudumbashree, when combined with NREGS is working wonders for its women folk - for the first time equal wages are really paid and this has boosted the earnings of women and their status in the family.
Illusion of Rural development = Agriculture – While agriculture is the backbone of the rural economy, it is not the only sustainable activity. Many villages in Kerala, with the help of Kudumbashree, have created entrepreneurs who focus on dairy farms, fisheries and small scale units. Most of the activities have mostly acted as supplementary sources of income but there is recognition that such jobs generate money and people with no agricultural land can actually be helped by Kudumbashree and other Governmental agencies to run their own units. In Elappully, dairy farmers are now supplying milk to households, hotels and various other establishments in the panchayat and have branded it “Elappully Farm Fresh Milk.” Despite selling only the remaining milk to Milma, they have been able to earn a turnover of Rs.7.5 crore. They have also launched various value-added products under their own brand name. The presence of a large number of water bodies has brought marine farming (fish, shrimps) in several areas, with an active support of the panchayats.
Organic farming is Viable – Some time back, I had a talk with an uncle of mine who is a farmer; he grows the produce required for his own consumption and the rest is sold in the market. While he uses organic means to take care of the crop that he consumes, he sprays fertilizers on the rest. He says that no farms can survive only on bio-fertilizers and that the produce is affected adversely, without chemical usage. This is a rather common mindset and many farmers follow this style, however, GKE has shown that this is could be a misconception. Adat grama panchayat home to about 3,000 acres of kole paddy fields, has successfully launched itself on the organic path to farming and set a model for panchayats elsewhere in the State. The panchayat commandeered Kudumbasree units to process its organic only paddy and began marketing the rice under the brand name Adat and followed it up with Kerasree organic coconut oil. Mararikulam, Kudappanakkunu and Sreekryam have started their own selling outlets for organic vegetables.
Efficient Labour Utilization –NREGS has played a critical role in ensuring a minimum wages programme for workers who register with it. But it may not be always possible to provide employment on demand through works of productive nature at all times of the year. Also, to ensure requirement of labour for crops in agriculture season, it may be better to follow a system of running rural works only during the slack season, as demonstrated by Elappully Panchayat which has drawn its own NREGS calendar. A few villages like Kannadi and Sooranadu North have implemented the concept of labour banks to tide over the shortage of skilled labour. Kozhikode Municipal Corporation has a Swabhimaan Multi-Purpose scheme to provide service for works like plumbing, wiring, plucking coconuts, etc. for which there is a scarcity of labour now. It boasts that to call for help, one has to log on to their website and place his/her request and a person would be dispatched within an hour to resolve the problem.
Greater Decentralization – Most organizations in the country work like the Congress Party where workers have no say and everything is decided by the Central High Command. While this approach works fine for specific areas like defence and foreign affairs, day-to-day governance requires a more federal approach from Centre to State to Village to Gram Sabhas. Panchayats are better placed to understand local needs and will be more accountable than an outside person/entity. Bringing governance down to the local level would also help in better management of local resources. A few experiences in Kerala and Karnataka prove that a performing panchayat can not only improve the delivery of services to the locals, but also help in improving administration by improving revenue collections. Aryanad (in Trivandrum) now uses a concept called participatory budgeting where all the social minded individuals of the village come together in November and for a period of 4 months, they discuss, debate, budget and prioritize all projects for the forthcoming year. This has ensured a 100% completion of their projects and being in sync with the State’s budgetary plans.
Universal Education – Kerala’s biggest success story has been its success in primary education. But is 100% literacy a true figure or is it mere 100% enrolment; studies need to be carried out to estimate the student retention percentages in every school. Student attendance is a big challenge and with the RTE in place, more effort will be needed. The mid-day meal remains the main strategy of the panchayats but this has been streamlined with focus on nutrition (inclusion of vegetables and nuts, along with kanji), special classes for weaker students and starting tuition centres in SC/ST centres to encourage them to join schools. It is heartening to note that Malayalam medium schools have begun to devote attention to English, with special focus on speaking and reading skills (A government school in Elappully revealed that parents insisted that English be taught only as a language and not the medium!!!). Many panchayats have started initiating special neighbourhood classes, night classes and extra tuitions with greater focus on students from weaker sections to encourage them to integrate with the mainstream.
Environment-oriented growth –Environmental clearances are mere formalities that are provided in under- the- table meetings, rendering their certifications irrelevant. Since Kerala has limited public land, it has been decided to take up eco-restoration works in degraded forest lands. Palamel panchayat in Alappuzha, in its interactions with GKE, mentioned how the panchayat had to fight illegal occupations and mining in their village to stop the farms lands from going bare. Over a period of time, they have managed to reclaim private wastelands and converting them into fertile beds. Eloor (Ernakulam) has an energy sena of children who educate the neighborhood houses about energy planning by which they could lower the total electricity consumption by about 20% in each house. Akathethara in Palakkad launched an initiative of planting trees over roadsides by linking with NREGS to retain its sustainability. Over 1 lakh trees of different species have been planted so far and approximately 90,000 trees have been sustained in the effort. Bio-gas plants have been started in several villages to utilize the wastes generated in the villages. To make the environment movement more sustainable, people involvement is needed and they must be convinced of the utility of listening to Nature. Villages are now being encouraged growing fish in a large way because of its role in cleaning up water bodies, in addition to generating supplementary income to its people.
Infotainment is Marketable – When DD Thiruvanthapuram Kendra launched GKE, there were sceptics who dismissed it as another education programme, out of sync with audience tastes. But today when the programme has ended its successful run, it has gone into television history as a show that attempted to make a difference. The concept was innovative and so was the actual implementation – you had young, peppy anchors (who could actually speak Malayalam well), an intelligent and qualified jury, SMS campaigns to encourage viewers (SMS has a small weightage only unlike many other shows) and a prize money worth fighting for. As part of the branding, the sets were green and well-lit, the music was ethereal and the anchors travelled to villages only in cycles. The State Government spent close to 4 crore as prize money for the show and has been advertising heavily to promote sanitation as part of its Clean Kerala campaign (remember the days of family planning and immunization ads on TV, do you see any TV channels doing this now?).