We need more change agents

First posted here: https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/perspective/we-need-more-change-agents-681702.html

By Ashok Sircar

Poverty in India has at least three fundamental features. Some aspects of poverty, like acute hunger and severe malnutrition are found in pockets. These pockets are specific geographical locations, which could be as small as a couple of villages in a district, or relatively a larger area within a block or two. Occasionally, one may find a location as large an area as a subdivision or even a district.

There are other aspects of poverty that can be found in large areas across many districts, small and medium-sized towns, big cities, and so on. These are lack of basic services like safe drinking water, sanitation, general malnutrition, anaemia, stunting, etc. There is a third feature, we have to take notice of. Certain communities suffer from deep deprivations from absolutely basic requirements of a dignified human existence. These are migrant labourer families, domestic workers, safaikarmacharis, etc.

How do we address these situations? I argue that human resource creation has a critical role to play here. This can happen by imparting appropriate knowledge, skills and conscience, through higher education.

Take the first scenario. People in such pockets are in acute poverty, not because development bureaucracy, development programmes and development finance are absent, they are in acute poverty despite all these. What is lacking here is the social and political mobilisation of local people to access and make good use of the State’s welfare measures. Experience shows that such social-political mobilisation requires an external actor — often in the form of a team of social workers who work among such communities and develop their collective bargaining strength vis-à-vis the development bureaucracy of the State.

There are many such examples in India. Throughout the last three decades, graduates from mainstream educational institutions, including even technical institutions, have spent their energy and education to mobilise people in many such pockets. There are examples of graduates of Institute of Rural Management-Anand and Tata Institute of Social Sciences graduates going and working in such poverty pockets with adivasis, Dalits, women and others. Organisations like PRADAN have had for more than 30 years technical graduates working in some of the most remote corners of the country. In recent times, various fellowship programmes as well as many graduates of new universities like Ashoka or Azim Premji University are doing the same. They can be found in such locations in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, etc.

The second poverty scenario needs a different strategy — qualified human resources to work in state and non-state organisations to design, implement, monitor and evaluate programmes specifically meant for segments of population spread over large areas. One needs people with good understanding of domain knowledge, knowledge of state programmes on relevant themes, having project design and monitoring skills, etc, as well as strong skills to work with many kinds of stakeholders over a large area. Of course, one also needs good supervision and administrative skills, too.

Not all social change education programmes prepare students on all these aspects of knowledge and skills. Some are strong in providing domain knowledge and perspectives, some are strong in providing managerial capabilities.

The third scenario requires even more focused attention. Typically, the people who, irrespective of their geographical location such as a large city, a medium city, or in large number of villages, continue to suffer from deprivation from basic requirements of a dignified life are those who remain in the margins of mainstream society of those places. These could be safai karmacharis, domestic workers, pavement dwellers in big cities, migrant labourers in construction sites, or specific castes in a large number of villages. Here, again, similar to the first scenario, socio-political mobilisation of these people is the starting point of the long journey towards dignity.

Education for social change or development education, as its popularly called, has much to contribute in the third scenario as well. Incidentally, for many such communities, there exist State welfare and protection policies. But policies remain good intentions on paper unless dedicated human resources translate those into reality through time-bound action. Where do these human resources come from? They come from the academic programmes of development and social change.

The number of people in India living in undignified and sub-human existence is in the hundreds of millions. To address the challenges of such scale, the country needs a large number of educational organisations. However, only a handful of higher educational institutions presently are engaged in developing such human resources. All of them together perhaps are producing just about 1,500 young professionals every year. This has to grow at least by three times. The country has long worked on the paradigm that social and human development can happen only with budgetary allocations. It’s time we start seriously thinking about bridging the human resource gap

The writer is Director, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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