Helping turn around tribal economy in Vidarbha by putting natives in charge of levers of development

Tanveer Mirza 2
Tanveer Mirza

By Moin Qazi*

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

A highly welcome and discernible sign on the Indian development landscape is that many bright brains from the best of universities are foregoing high salaries to commit themselves to development issues such as alleviating poverty, improving education, and combating climate change. They believe it allows them to live their passion, embracing a career with meaning.

Inspired by this trend and responding to his own inner calling, Tanveer Mirza decided to give up a secure career. He spent the better part of his life cruising along a well-paying corporate career when he decided to change track and switch gears. He decided to focus on empowering rural communities and mentoring young entrepreneurs among them. Mirza qualified in agricultural technology and management from G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology.

Mirza is not an archetypal development entrepreneur. He combines a corporate vision with grassroots idealism. Having been brought up in an agricultural family in deep Maharashtra, academically groomed in a technical university and having witnessed the ugly side of globalization, Mirza decided to furrow his own path. He is using the lessons of corporate agriculture to energize the moribund rural economy in tribal belts. He founded Yashodhara Bahuddeshiya Sangh, a nonprofit dedicated to providing sustainable, inclusive and innovative livelihood solutions to enable the marginalised communities inidia’s suicide belt to build resilience and live with dignity. Mirza is the key man behind the social track of Global Nagpur Summit, a global partnership platform for social entrepreneurship. It has helped in creating a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurial NGOs for driving change.

From his own understanding of the development sector both as native villager and as a corporate observer, Mirza believes that engagement with the field requires nuanced grasp of the local culture and context. He has helped turn around the tribal economy in Vidarbha by putting natives in charge of the levers of development. He helps them lead change in their communities through sustainable decentralised livelihoods.

In Yavatmal’s cotton farming community, he is helping farmers to garner profits from organic farming in a way that is financially sustainable and scalable while keeping the farmers’ interest in mind.He brings both passion and knowledge to the search for answers to socialand ecological problems .His ideas have found traction because they resonate with the development community .the government has also been quite eager to draw on his ideas.

Rural areas typically face several developmental impediments: small land holdings; low savings and capital formation; stagnant factor productivity; limited market access; low levels of human development; paucity of resources like skilled labour, reliable power supply, connectivity, transport and a young population alienated from farming and other rural occupations. They need solutions tailored to their needs and problems. The causes of rural distress are manifold; as a consequence, the youth is migrating to cities. Short-term palliatives like cash transfers and loan waivers cannot cure or address the pathology of poverty or fix the deep fault lines in the rural economy. The root cause is about lack of skills and economic opportunity. Instead of welfare funding, investment should be directed at removing these roadblocks in the path of sustainable rural development.

Yashodhara uses participatory techniques to deepen the civic engagement of communities. Training and support is provided for building village level capabilities for stronger self-governance by communities. “When underrepresented and marginalized people lack access to and engagement with public decision-making, policies fail to address their needs, favouring instead those who already have power and resources. This is a fundamental driver of inequality”, explains Mirza.

Mirza has been able to build women’s perspectives in the context of development and decentralized planning, enabling women to claim space in the political, economic, societal and cultural systems. They are now able to influence government policy from inside the system, creating a “micro-macro” balance. This promotes equity and inclusion, making the government responsive and transparent. The women are reframing crucial questions about their experiences, issues and needs and developing a different narrative.

The last few years have witnessed shrinking of employment and wealth generation opportunities in rural India .Jobs are extremely hard to come by. Mirza believes that the only way to stop this migration of youth to cities was by empowering villagers through skill development and entrepreneurial ventures. Skills development holds the key to India’s ability to leverage its demographic dividend of a young population for inclusive growth.

There is an urgent need to empower more youngsters to create a robust workforce. This will not only help meet the needs of the country’s industries but also enable more people to become financially independent. Mirza has set up a well equipped entrepreneurial training centre on a 12 acre campus close to Nagpur, to help youth in rural areas become part of the entrepreneurial revolution and get better access to the job market. Yashodhara boasts of a portfolio of livelihoods interventions. It has provided skills to about 22500 youths in various trades, and created more than 700 Solar Energy Technicians & Entrepreneurs. It has built more than 800 low cost houses for tribal and poor rural farmers in Nagpur, Wardha and Chandrapur districts.

Yashodhara combines foundational and workforce readiness skills with industry-specific skills in the skilling programmes. Villagers are being trained as para-veterinarians, health workers, solar engineers, water drillers and testers, hand pump mechanics, artisans, designers, masons, accountants, technicians and computer programmers who support their fellow-villagers in building and sustaining collective livelihood projects and increasing their economic and social resilience..

The poor continue to remain on the brink of subsistence due to lack of access to resources, information, services, markets, finance and entitlements. Yashodhara builds their capacities to deal with input suppliers, buyers, bankers, technical service providers, development promoting agencies as also with the government (for their entitlements), among others.

Yasodhara is also supporting small producers to hone their skills, understand the marketplace dynamic, and to adapt their products forurban markets.It encourages and promotes environment friendly products and processes, helps in branding, packaging solutions. It is also committed to supporting primary producers in transitioning their subsistence livelihoods to reach sustainable levels. It is also creating access to clean energy products that improve lives of rural households.

With expertise and focused solutions, water conservation techniques are becoming more precise and targeted and therefore more impactful. For long time just boring whole and putting water back into the ground was regarded as enough. Not anymore. How rainwater is to be collected and reused will depend on a host of factors — not least among them being the rainfall available, topography and usage patterns. Mirza believes that irrigation engineers can complement traditional wisdom to restore healthy hydrological cycles .Mirza has organized villagers to build bundhs and taught them how to prevent soil erosion. Farmers were made aware of the government schemes which provided soft loans and subsidies for digging wells or getting access to pumps and undertaken soil and water conservation covering more than 2500 acres across Vidarbha.

Similarly, ponds and tanks serve to raise groundwater levels in their own way and further create a microclimate conducive to vegetation. Expertise is emerging in water harvesting and leading to entrepreneurship with small companies and orgnisations being formed to offer professional services. Through extension services, Yashodhara is trying to bridge the knowledge gap between farmers and crop scientists, training farmers on micro-irrigation, micropropagation, modern farming technology, smart fertilizer application, better crop rotation etc. It is also nurturing participative, business-oriented, vibrant community based institutions.

Yashodhara is also working on raising awareness about the importance of birds, and how to revive its population. They have designed environment –friendly nests, and distributed to local families. When people register themselves for a nest, the NGO representative go to their house to install it for them. Over three years, they have installed 1600 bird houses at various houses. The nests are built by students from schools and colleges during training sessions and workshops conducted by the NGO.

Yashodhara also ran a series of workshops for training unemployed youths in defensive driving.

One of the trainees said, “More than a good driver, we are being trained to become good citizens on the streets. We are taught that a driver is not just someone who knows how to drive. He is someone responsible for his and the passenger’s life.” In the 20-day course the youths were provided residential and food facility, all for free. More than 1600 youths from Madhye Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh were trained, and more than 50% have received placement in private companies as well as government offices.

Mirza has capped several awards for his efforts –the significant ones being the Yeshu Mitra award 2015 from National Council of Churches in India and Pardhi Mitra award 2012 from All India Pardhi Parishad.

The lessons we need to draw from experiences of entrepreneurs like Mirza are clear. If we want to bring about a genuine transformation in the lives of marginalised communities we will have to change the direction of our policy discourses. We need to reassess our current systems of education, governance, administration and design and ponder how we can make them meaningful and relevant to growing complexities and challenges of the economic, social and political order.

*Development expert

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