Real change arrives in small steps for rural India
By Jo Winterbottom
This sepia-toned landscape could have been painted a century ago. A lazy sunset tints bullock carts, women in bright red and turquoise saris thresh rice by hand. Farmers swirl golden staves of corn in the fields.
But for millions of Indians, it is no rural idyll. It is a picture of poverty where farming techniques for many remain unchanged for decades, and the millions of farmers who just have enough land to make a living wouldn’t dare dream of a different future.
In Kushalpura village in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, people have little hope for change in their future. Cheap food and guaranteed temporary jobs that New Delhi offers are little better than a bandage on a big wound. There isn’t any electricity here and there are barely any toilets or latrines.
“What’s the point in talking about a future? It’s not going to happen, so why think about it?” said Tinku Singh, a 20-year-old whose family includes five brothers and three sisters. He’s about to set off to look for work as a brickmaker for four months in neighbouring states of Haryana or Punjab. He might bring back about 20,000 rupees ($320) if things go well.
The government says things are improving. In 2011 and 2012, 26 percent of people living in the countryside were categorized as poor, down from 42 percent in 2004 and 2005. That’s still 217 million people who survive on less than 816 rupees ($14) a month each — and many are only a handful of rupees better off.
Even for someone who’s working, average wages for a farm labourer are still about 200 rupees a day. I pay about 120 rupees for one cappuccino in New Delhi.
But slowly, there are some changes happening in India’s countryside. On a bright, sunny morning, just 300 metres away from Kushalpura in the neighbouring village of Sarsaivan, people are crowding around Rajesh Solanki. He’s holding what looks like the kind of card swipe machines that waiters bring to your table in restaurants.
For the first time, these villagers won’t have to walk two kilometres to top up their mobile phone accounts. Solanki’s machine does it here. It should save them a couple of rupees in charges, too, money that they could easily spend elsewhere on staple goods.
Solanki is the brother of Rakesh Solanki, a businessman who returned to his village after working on ecological waste management systems in Mumbai and New Delhi. He’s moved back to his father’s house and is renovating the building, which is arranged in the traditional village style around a courtyard, with a flat roof where the family sleeps on hot monsoon nights. One of the first changes he made was to put in a western-style toilet.
The two brothers are changing other things in their village. They received authorization from the State Bank of India for remote banking. They open accounts for people in the village and take their funds to the nearest physical branch of the bank. SBI provides a fingerprint sensor machine to identify customers and maintain security.
So far, Rajesh said, there are only five accounts because of technological problems. He expects about 1,000 accounts to open eventually in the area.
There’s also the chance to use the computer and printer in their house — the only one in this village of about 800 people. Rakesh Solanki is thinking of charging about 5 rupees (8 cents) for half an hour of Internet surfing.
In Sarsaivan, the electricity supply from the national grid is limited to about eight hours a day — sometimes at night, sometimes during the day. To cope with the interruptions, the Solankis are backing up with their own power from tractor engines running on diesel.
There is also a plan to bring solar power to the nearby villages that have no electricity at all, where televisions and fridges given as wedding gifts stand idle. Sarsaivan is more difficult to tackle, as its partial connection to the grid means it doesn’t qualify for government subsidies on solar.
“My aim is to provide more sustainable and sizable electricity in these areas, which can cater for domestic needs like lighting, mobile charging, fans, etc. plus street lights,” said Manik Jolly, who used to work for the U.S.-based power company SunEdison, and created a start-up to set up micro grids in rural and remote areas.
The costs for such projects are high in the beginning but the project should turn a profit, excluding the initial infrastructure investment, in the first year, said Jolly.
For the residents of Kushalpura, solar power could give their children the chance to study later at night and help fulfil those dreams of better jobs and a better life. Private enterprise can accomplish many things in a way that moves more quickly than the bureaucracy of a state or central government, but public support remains a necessity.
Here is a list of needs that Kushalpura, Sarsaivan and surrounding villages say they need. It’s one that you might see repeated across many more villages in India:
2. Sewage and drainage systems.
3. Five public toilets and toilets in every house.
4. Water tanks and drinking water for every house.
5. One community hall in every village.
6. Fans in schools.
8. A health centre with a visiting doctor.
9. Skills training programs and help on setting up cottage industries.
10. Market support for farmers’ goods.
11. Cattle support programs (veterinary, etc.)
12. Trees to line roads.
13. A children’s park and three sports facilities.
14. A support system for elderly people.
“So the wish list goes on,” said Rakesh Solanki. “Whatever best we can do, we will be happy.”
(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)