India no longer a walking, crawling elephant, but a roaring tiger

If rural India is to have a renaissance the high aspirations of rural Indians must be heard, says Venkat Ramachandran, former CEO of Tata Trusts. He reinforces the importance of collaboration for achieving optimum, inclusive development

Today’s rural India is a very different world. Unlike before when there was a huge gap in the ambitions and aspirations of an urban and rural India, today – thanks all types of media, including social media – the aspirations of rural Indians are no less grand or ambitious than their city cousins.

Today India generates massive respect abroad today – it’s no longer a walking, crawling elephant, but a roaring tiger. But unless we tap into those aspirations of rural Indians, we won’t get there.

And unless we – providers of help, the development community, government and business – tap into those aspirations there’s little we can do to help rural India progress to the next level.

Some years ago, a few colleagues of mine and I met a village woman who had benefited from a livelihood scheme and we asked her what else she wanted. She said, “I want my children to be like you. I have a mobile phone. I have the basics. But if you’re not finding a way of helping me generate Rs 50,000 a month, I’m not bothered in talking with you.”

That mindset has only grown.

This is a multifaceted challenge – it’s a policy, and a political and an implementing challenge. And the days of the giver-taker-donor mindset are gone.

Rural Indians think, “I know what I need and if you can’t help stay out of the way.”

Historically all interventions have been based on specific expertise. It can be health and sanitation, livelihood, education and so on. In our quest for hyper-specialisation we often forget what is in it for the person who we want to “transform.”

In Tamil Nadu a lot of schools were built since independence to improve literacy rates, however the enrolment rates were still not great. During the 19770s MG Ramachandran, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, introduced the mid-day meals scheme to take care of children’s food and nutrition requirements. This enabled more enrolment. To solve the problem of education, especially of a girl child, you had to do two things – build necessary infrastructure and introduce food in schools. Later bicycle distribution further boosted the enrolment efforts.

Recently we have seen many states distribute laptops to the students to improve digital literacy. So, we see that in the domain of education alone, four-five different interventions have to come together to achieve a desired goal.

That is why we need a multifaceted approach to address poverty. Sometimes in our quest for individual silos we end up missing the bigger picture. Take for example the Swachh Bharat Mission, led by our PM Modi. He relentlessly, personally drilled its need and benefits. This has led to cleaner railway stations, trains, and airports.

Even if you look at large and successful corporations, their approach is always multidimensional. The teams are task oriented, not hierarchy oriented. In politics too we have seen many cracks this approach.

To transform India, we have to learn from successful models of other industries.

We should remember people figure out many things on their own. They may sometimes need nudges on a few things that they are struggling with. So, we only have to act as facilitators.

Rather than approaching the problem as an expert and as someone who knows the solution, we need to understand the local knowledge and practices and merely assist the people with reaching solutions. India is far too diverse to come up with one single approach or solution for any sector. The need of the hour is hyper collaboration.

Ideas are dime-a-dozen, it’s execution which is the real challenge.

We don’t have to always reinvent the wheel. Sometimes not being egotistical really goes a long way. Even our epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, teach us how far collaboration can take us.

Development is a necessity and an imperative for companies’ profitability and sustainability.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of vested interests this is not realised. Improving trust and transparency is key, which in my view is a work in progress. It is not going to be easy.


The author is a former Managing Trustee of Tata Trusts and Founder and CEO of oncology care company, Karkinos, and recently spoke at Transform Rural India’s ‘India Rural Colloquy’ in Delhi




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