Transfer of power to rural communities : Initiative by Sambhav Trust

This article is about an experiment taken up by Sambhaav Trust with communities in Barmer (district of Rajasthan), which tells us about the development of the rural area and how to bring about self sustainability to rural society. Readers may kindly write in with their feedback in the comments or to Comments & emails will be forwarded to Sambhaav Trust by the India Water Portal.


The word rural is synonymous with backwardness in the eyes of the upper urban community. A general impression that has been created is that people living in rural areas are economically poor, uneducated, do not have any sense of business, are not hardworking and hence they are much below those who live in urban areas who are monetarily rich. This perception is a biased one. We have never asked ourselves - what are the indicators that make a man backward or advanced? We have measured everything in terms of monetary advancement. In our experience there are a number of indicators one can associate with development like social, political, value system etc. It is therefore important that we check our perception before we talk of rural development. We are not debating on the urban-rural divide. However, from our experience in the rural field we believe that if we are interested in national development and not just sectoral development, then it is essential to assess the potentiality of the rural sector to move forward. Our contention is that this potentiality has not been probed into. On the contrary, a policy to downgrade this sector continues year after year. We have to broaden our perception if we truly want a just state.

The concept of voluntary work has gone through a number of changes since the nineties. Voluntary groups were supposed to have experimented and to have set up models for the government to replicate for the community concerned to move ahead. This means that the voluntary agency, first and foremost, understands the rural mindset and then uses its abilities to create ideas for advancing social, economic and political growth. They must along with the rural community build up models of development so as to promote ‘self-sustaining development’ in the country. Non-Government Organisation is a negative connotation. All firms are NGOs – is this not true? So profit in a disguised manner is what they aim at. Lack of capital and growth management are not the only causes for economic development not taking a fast hold in rural areas. A country’s standing in world forums depends not only on its per capita income, but also on its social and cultural behavior at large. Politically the power in the end must be in the hands of the people. How this can take place is a highly debatable subject. The Communist ideology has not fully responded to this need. The capitalist democratic system has been successful only partially. The political power has been with the elite group which naturally cares for itself. One major fault in our thinking is that we now seem to believe that things are only black or white. Where are the shades of grey? Not every aspect is right or wrong – our education system’s gift – hence dependency to a certain extent is experienced by all human beings.

When we talk of the “Dependency syndrome” we refer to the manner in which the minority (rich) has been able to convince the majority (poor); this is how life is – God’s gift. When community members lack attitudes of self-reliance what needs to be changed? The ‘dependency syndrome’ is an attitude and belief that a group cannot solve its own problems without outside help. It is a weakness that is made worse by charity. Why do we fight against dependency? If an outside agency, be it central Government, an international NGO, a mission, comes to a community and constructs a human settlements facility (e.g. water supply), it is natural for the community members to see it as belonging to the outside agency. When that outside agency goes away or runs out of funds, the community members will have no motivation to repair and maintain the facility, or to sustain the service in order for a facility to be used, and used effectively, by the community members. In order for the facility to be maintained and sustained, the community members must have a sense of ‘responsibility’ for the facility. That sense of responsibility is sometimes described as ‘ownership’ by the community.

Unless the community as a whole has been involved in the decision-making about the facility (planning and management) and has willingly contributed to the costs of its construction, the sense of responsibility or ownership will be missing. It will not be effectively used, maintained or sustained. It is impossible to build a human settlements facility or service and not expect that it has to be repaired and maintained. That is like trying to eat once and for all. As their populations grow, governments are getting access to fewer and fewer resources per capita every year. It is simply no longer feasible for communities to be dependent upon central governments for human settlement facilities and services. The same with international donors: rich countries' governments, the UN, World Bank, international NGOs, simply do not have enough resources to give to every poor community, no matter how worthwhile the cause, around the world. Whereas it was once thought that community self-reliance in itself was a good thing, it promoted grass roots democracy, human rights, self-development and human dignity, now it has gone much further than that.

If communities cannot become more and more self-reliant and empowered, they simply will not develop and so poverty and apathy will eventually destroy them. Counteracting dependency is the prime goal. Dependency in the community must be reduced by every action one takes. When training a community organization how to obtain resources, the animator must keep that prime goal in mind and act accordingly. A donor agency should try to avoid giving the community anything for nothing. This encourages dependency. Always encourage community members by stating that they can carry out the project themselves and an animator is here to offer them some skills and tips, but they must do the work. Applying this to financing a community project, one must never offer to obtain project inputs for them.

These methods are called the Community Empowerment Methodology: specifically designed to fight dependency. To quote, Nelson Mandela.........“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of ‘Charity’; it is an act of ‘Justice’. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.” As an animator, one can give guidelines as to how to raise money and other resources, how to ensure that accounts are kept transparent and simple, and how to translate non-monetary donations into financial inputs, but one must always emphasize that the actual obtaining of the resources must be done by the community or its community-based organization (e.g. executive committee) working on its behalf and not by the animator. An equitable society is what a development agency must strive towards in a peaceful way but with firm determination and action. The role of a voluntary agency should neither be anti-government nor is it to take on its head the development function which is the duty of the government. Its main aim is to preserve the dignity of the entire nation by not allowing one sector to exploit the other sector - rural.

Development is a Constant Struggle between Conscience and Ego.

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