Swades – Lifting Rural India out of Poverty Through Holistic Transformation

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Zarina Screwvala

Swades’ journey of empowering rural India began in 2000, with programmes on water harvesting, self-help groups and individual household toilets. In 2013, we decided to create a goal of lifting large populations of rural Indians out of poverty through our 360-degree development model covering drinking water, individual household toilets, health and education and livelihoods. We have always believed in bringing together the best global practices, corporate thinking, accountability and the highest standards of corporate governance to create a model of sustainable development, which is a benchmark in the industry and can be replicated at scale. Partnering rural India with corporates, young urban India, the Government and other foundations, Swades creates a permanent and irreversible change for good. 

Holistic Transformation – Implementing the 360-degree Model of Development 

Our 360-degree holistic model has today transformed the face of the geography that we work in. Over 23,500 household toilets have been constructed and our geography is declared open defecation-free. Over 34,000 households are connected with taps in homes for drinking water saving the drudgery that women went through for decades. We have built separate toilets for boys and girls in nearly 200 schools along with drinking water stations. These initiatives have shown a positive impact on attendance and enrolment (especially the girl child). We have created over 1,500 Swades Mitras (Community Health Workers) serving the population with primary healthcare needs and ensuring near 100 per cent institutional deliveries and adherence to vaccination cycles for any newborn. We worked closely with over 1,200 schools to make learning fun, joyful and holistic – introduced new ways of learning like ABL (Activity Based Learning), E-Learning, Abacus, set up science labs, computer labs, libraries and provided maths kits as well as conducted teacher/principal training. 

With our interventions across rural livelihoods, we aim to create self-sustaining communities as we build their capacities, strengthen inputs and market linkages ensuring that every household earns at least INR 2,00,000 per annum

All our efforts here can only be sustained if we ensure that households earn enough. We set ourselves a target to ensure that every household earns at least INR 2,00,000 per annum. With nearly 1/3rd of the households we work with earnings less than INR 50,000 per annum, it was indeed a steep target but we are determined, and a diverse source of income was the way forward to achieve this goal. 

As part of our sustainability strategy, we have created Village Development Committees (VDC), a group of people from the village who are trained and empowered to take responsibility for village development. They are the ones who will take forward our mandate. All our work in the community is implemented through these VDCs. We have created close to 1,100 VDCs so far and another 500 more will be created this financial year.  

We have built a dream for our communities, a dream village which is clean, beautiful, healthy and self-reliant. We are committed to creating one thousand such dream villages across Maharashtra, one hundred of which are in the making in our geography currently. 

Building Livelihoods

With our interventions across rural livelihoods, we aim to create self-sustaining communities as we build their capacities, strengthen inputs and market linkages ensuring that every household earns at least INR 2,00,000 per annum through a basket of programmes across three broad means.  

Firstly, through our on-farm programme which focuses on bringing more cultivable land under assured irrigation, thus enabling farmers to sow economically-viable crops like vegetables/fruits in the Rabi season and also engaging in orchard plantation of fruit-bearing trees (which, in a few years, will provide a steady income to the farmer for life). 

Our geography, the seven blocks of Raigad district that we work in, is dependent on rains for agriculture. The farmers earlier engaged only in paddy cultivation and most of which was for self-consumption; leaving them with nothing much from their parcel of land. Post the paddy season, the fields lay barren for want of water, and farmers hunt for odd daily wage jobs to make their ends meet.

We transformed this scenario. We built check dams and harvested rainwater, lifted water from sources far away and brought them to the farmlands through pipes. We have irrigated over 2,500 acres of land (mostly through drip irrigation) so far and ensured that the farmers do a second crop in vegetable/ fruits, and for some, even a third crop; augmenting their income by INR 60K – 80K per acre.  

With an 86 per cent placement rate and an average income of close to INR 100K, we see a big impact with the income of most households nearly double, whether it was through employment or self-employment of these youths

Our efforts have also so far helped farmers plant over nine lakh fruit saplings and at around 70 per cent survival. A huge income awaits our farmers (few farmers who planted these in 2014 -15 are in the first year of fruiting and are earning INR 600 – 800 per tree, this over the next year or two will be INR 1,500 – 2,000 per tree). 

The other possible means to livelihoods is through off-farm interventions or animal husbandry where households are engaged in dairy, goat rearing, fishing or poultry as an additional source of income. Of these interventions, goat rearing, poultry and fishing majorly support the poorest of poor households like the tribal and female-headed households as it requires fewer resources and generates adequate income. We support the households with inputs cost, training, continuous handholding (at least 1 to 1.5 years) to ensure that the household picks up the trade and able to expand and earn more.  

In the dairy programme, we link households to NABFINS for credit to buy animals. Our support is towards insurance, fodder, training and handholding. It was our efforts which brought NABFINS to the geography, and today, the people staying here have benefited much as they have access to credit.

Our 360-degree model is built around four pillars – Health & Nutrition, Education, Water & Sanitation and Economic Development – transforms the community holistically. However, it was soon realised that if the households are not empowered economically, the other pillars of the model won’t sustain. Thus, economic empowerment of the households is the key to transform the social landscape of rural India

Lastly, our non-farm intervention. We ensure skills training for youth and ensures placement formal employment, enterprise development or self-employment. With an 86 per cent placement rate and an average income of close to INR 100K, we see a big impact with the income of most households nearly double, whether it was through employment or self-employment of these youths. We have trained close to 3,000 youth in trades across F&B, IT, Electronics, Beauty & Wellness, Masonry, etc. We have brought in an NSDC (National Skills Development Corporation) accredited training partner, who set up their training centre and exclusively trains our youth.  

Another important aspect for all of our interventions is that nothing is free for the community. We ensure that the community pays at least 10 to 15 per cent of the cost to ensure their skin in the game. This has helped us immensely for successful outcomes. These contributions from the community are further subsidised for the poorest of the poor and women-headed households to as low as INR 500. 

The Raigad before we began no longer exists NOW

Our 360-degree model is built around four pillars – Health & Nutrition, Education, Water & Sanitation and Economic Development – transforms the community holistically. However, it was soon realised that if the households are not empowered economically, the other pillars of the model won’t sustain. Thus, economic empowerment of the households is the key to transform the social landscape of rural India.

But, when we stepped in Raigad, we soon realised that villagers were relying on the income generated from a single crop (mainly rice) for the entire year. People knew nothing beyond agriculture. Depending on a single seasonal crop made it difficult for villagers to vision a bright future in their roots. The area faced a serious water shortage. Women had to walk for miles daily to fetch drinking water and girls dropping out of school as they hit puberty since the schools had no toilets, or they had to accompany their mothers to fetch that extra pot of water. Health was never a priority. It is hard to imagine this sight just 140km away from Mumbai. 

Thus, the youth mostly dreamt of settling in cities like Mumbai or Pune. The migration to megacities was often a final solution to end these challenges. But these dreams fall apart soon when the villagers face the labour intensive, less paying jobs and high cost of living. They wanted to come back to their villages but the challenge of limited opportunities and no drinking water made them struggle in the cities.  

Doing the baseline was an important activity before we started

Before starting the interventions, we conducted a baseline survey with 456 households in 24 villages of Raigad. Only 53 per cent of households were engaged in agriculture, either as a cultivator or as a labourer. Of these, almost 90 per cent were marginal farmers holding land less than 2.5 acres. Further, almost all the plots were dependent on rain. The majority of cultivators grew paddy (95 per cent) in Kharif season, and almost no one grew anything during the Rabi season.  

Secondly, migration was very common in the region, as at least a family member of half of the households (47 per cent) had migrated. The majority of these migrants were males (52 per cent) and only a few (15 per cent) were seasonal migrants. Key reasons for migrating were lack of work (81 per cent), and to supplement income (40 per cent). Most of the migrants made decisions to move on their own (64 per cent), along with the consent from family members (57 per cent). The main sources of drinking and cooking water were stand-posts (36 per cent) and public wells (31 per cent). Only 15 per cent of households reported having a private tap in their households. On average, whatever source of water respondents used, the source was within one km from the households.  

Only 65 per cent of households had toilet facilities, and almost all households (85 per cent) that had no toilets reported that they use an open area to urinate or defecate. While 41 per cent of households reported of using a cloth to strain water, 33 per cent reported adding chlorine in the water. Only 19 per cent of households reported using a water filter. Only one in four households (27 per cent) reported that they boil water before drinking, while 20 per cent drink water as it is, regardless of the source of water. Less than one of three women (30 per cent) had an independent source of income, and only one in three women (34 per cent) was saving. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and return of migrants

The pandemic, and later Cyclone Nisarga that hit us in June, did impact many of our households but we are committed to our people and are working to rebuild their lives

The pandemic and its associated lockdown saw many migrants return to their villages. Nearly 18,000 families returned. Our team on grounds have been in constant touch with them to ensure our support should they intend to stay back and do something here. We believe nearly 10 – 15 per cent of these families will stay back. And our work with reverse migration is not new. We have been supporting this since a couple of years and have facilitated over 200 families successfully reverse migrate and nearly 400 of them are in various stages of migration.  

The pandemic, and later Cyclone Nisarga that hit us in June, did impact many of our households – orchards that they nurtured for many years and many that were fruit-bearing, were destroyed, cattle died, cattle sheds destroyed, poultry units wiped off. Not just on livelihoods, the cyclone had impacted our water schemes and on toilets as well. But we are committed to our people and are working to rebuild their lives.

Overall, our progress around livelihoods in the last few years has been good. We have engaged in nearly 35,000+ households. Our work is not done yet, but with 1000+ volunteers and a 270-member strong team, 90 per cent of whom work in the communities, our goal of creating self-sustaining communities is not far away. 

Zarina Screwvala is Founder Director of Swades Foundation. She is a member of the UN Women Business Sector Advisory Council (BSAC). She was also one of the Founder-Directors of UTV (now a part of the Walt Disney Company India), one of India’s foremost media and entertainment conglomerates, where she led the creation and launch of leading broadcast brands including UTV Bindass, UTV Stars, UTV Action and Hungama TV in India, and the children’s channel – Astro Ceria in Indonesia and Malaysia.