S M Sehgal Foundation: Together we empower rural India

Jane Ellen Schukoske, CEO of S M Sehgal Foundation, India, in conversation with Achal R. Chauhan, Director CSR Times

Please describe your organization’s Vision, Mission, and Objectives and the organization’s legacy so far.

Sehgal Foundation is working together with people in many of the poorest villages in India to strengthen community-led development initiatives to achieve positive social, economic, and environmental change.

Our vision is that every person across rural India be empowered to lead a more secure, prosperous, and dignified life.

With the support of a wide range of donors and partners, the foundation team works alongside people in rural communities to create sustainable programs for managing water resources, increasing agricultural productivity, and strengthening rural governance. Sehgal Foundation continues to design and promote rural development interventions that create opportunities, build resilience, and provide solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in India’s poorest communities.

Our tagline “Together we empower rural India” underscores the essential collaborations between communities, NGOs, businesses, government, and academic institutions, all of which contribute to developing every person’s potential.

S M Sehgal Foundation is a public, charitable trust registered in India in 1999

What should be the social trends in India, and what are the most urgent ethical issues in the India community?

Sehgal Foundation’s focus is on rural India. For every person to have a chance for a secure, prosperous and dignified life, it is urgent that laws providing public service delivery of basic needs (food, water and sanitation, housing, education, and health) be properly implemented.

Everyone, at every level in society, business, and government, should be concerned about the fact that so many rural people lack the basic necessities of life. Recent discussions about Corporate Social Responsibility have brought more attention to the role of corporate India in expanding the reach of basic services and products across rural India, and in promoting skills development.

To achieve positive change across India, it is urgent to empower rural communities to actively participate in and lead in their own development. Citizen participation is strengthened when people know their rights and responsibilities, and are aware of the procedures for communicating their claims to line departments and other responsible officials. In many states, there is still a need for the devolution of power to reach the panchayats (village councils) so they can play their valuable role in this process, as envisioned by the Constitution. Community ownership of development is essential for changes to be sustainable.

Describe the major social projects being run under the flagship of your organization.

Each project initiated depends on the priorities of the community and typically integrates elements of GOOD RURAL GOVERNANCE and the empowerment of the community members along with their local village institutions.

To combat poor conditions and inadequate delivery of services that afflict many rural areas, the Sehgal Foundation team provides individual citizens and the leaders of village-level institutions with knowledge, skills, and confidence to become informed active advocates for the development of their communities.

Sushasan Abhi (Good Governance Now!) is an initiative designed to enable villagers to understand their rights, learn how to access public services, and participate with government officials in addressing and solving local problems.

Strengthening Village-Level Institutions is a complementary initiative designed to enhance the responsiveness, accountability, and transparency of the village councils and committees by providing leadership skills, trainings, and interventions for facilitating the effective delivery of key government services.

These efforts are critical to assure sustainable development.

WATER MANAGEMENT is an ongoing program due to the profound need and widespread scarcity in much of rural India. Water affects every aspect of village life, health, education, and agriculture. Sehgal Foundation works with communities to secure adequate local water supplies, improve sanitation, and manage wastewater in schools, homes, and throughout the community.

To create water security in the villages, our team designs and contructs rooftop rainwater harvesting systems, storage tanks, bio-sand filters, and stand posts with water taps in schools and homes to provide water for drinking and sanitation. These simple technologies allow children to stay in school, especially girls who, without water at home, spend many hours of their day fetching water for their families. Groundwater levels are augmented with check dams, contour trenches, dug well recharging, pressurized recharge wells, and pond development. Community soak wells and soak pits help to ensure safe wastewater disposal.

Development committees are formed in each community to train villagers how to effectively manage water resources. Water literacy sessions are designed to motivate villagers to utilize the available technologies and conserve water.

Sehgal Foundation’s AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT promotes sustainable farming practices to increase productivity. The team works with the farmers who depend on agriculture for their livelihood, to help them identify and follow more effective agriculture practices to meet the increasing demand for food. Training is provided on integrated nutrient management practices to sustain soil fertility, pest management, vegetable production, sapling nursery management, how to use water efficiently for irrigation, and the mechanisms for utilizing government subsidy programs. Specific programs to actively engage women farmers more in agriculture-related decision making result in more productive rural farms.

Since the most essential participants in grassroots development work are the local people, Sehgal Foundation established community radio Alfaz-e-Mewat (“Rural Voices of Mewat”) FM 107.8 to provide a COMMUNITY MEDIA platform for local community voices in Mewat district, Haryana. The station broadcasts in the local language in a listener-friendly format. Special programming is designed to promote gender equality and empower women. Villagers, school children, and local artists take active part in the radio programs. The station interviews local officials and holds call-in sessions. This platform is helpful in making villagers aware of projects, initiatives, and government programs for their benefit.

Please share a motivational or inspiring story in context with the projects being run under your organization. Also share if there are any remarkable Social Impact cases you have experienced, which you suggest for other organizations to practice.

Looking back over the last 15 years, community results have reaffirmed that there truly is power in empowerment. Villagers with whom we started our journey are in leadership roles in their communities, bringing about further social change.

Hundreds of farmers have witnessed the significant difference in the results from comparing Sehgal Foundation’s sustainable agricultural practices to traditional farming methods (carried out side by side in their fields) and were readily willing to adopt new sustainable farming practices. One example is Kaasam, who shared in one a meeting, “The farm demonstrations helped me understand the benefit of balanced fertilizers. I applied this knowledge in my field, and my millet and mustard yields increased by 35% and 25%, respectively. This increased my annual income from 1.25 lakh to 2 lakh rupees from my four acres of land.”

Azad, a former sarpanch of Shehzadpur village, Mewat district, Haryana, commented about the foundation’s water management program, saying, “The village condition was pitiable and often characterized by dirt and slippage due to stagnation of wastewater on village streets. This further led to frequent bouts of waterborne diseases. In this backdrop, Sehgal Foundation, with support of Coca-Cola India Foundation, took the challenge of making the village wastewater free. It built inroads and constructed several soak pits in the street. The streets, which earlier posed high risks of falling in dirty puddles, turned clean. The demonstration led to the adoption of other interventions in the village, resulting in a clean village.”

The Good Rural Governance program has helped women break through barriers in the patriarchal community. A sarpanch named Vimla, of Sarai village in Mewat district, set an example for other women of her village with her own empowerment. She said, “I used to be a little apprehensive talking to government officials, as I did not know how to read or write. But as I started meeting officials more regularly, my confidence slowly grew. I have never sent my husband or son to execute my panchayat-related work. I always talk to the concerned authorities on my own.”

The continuing endorsements of these types of sustained achievements make us joyful and reinforce our commitment to this important work.

Describe the kind of challenges you have faced during the implementation of social projects and what recommendation you want to give to improve the implementation process and also the quality of Social Service practices.

Sehgal Foundation started its work in a challenging area that lags far behind other districts on almost every socio-economic parameter. Mewat district of Haryana, which has 54.1% literacy level, as compared to 76.8% literacy overall for Haryana. Female literacy in Mewat is as low as 36.6%, in contrast to 67.6% for Haryana. Citizens face many challenges, at various levels, in knowing about and securing basic services at the village and block- level. Their challenges become our challenges as we work together.

When government officers are present for acceptance and resolution of complaints, problems can be resolved; but citizens face difficulty when officials are not accountable. In such scenarios, agents/middlemen dominate social welfare benefits and exploit the entitled people. Similarly, government schools often lack sufficient number of teachers, and teachers are frequently absent. All these issues can be resolved by increasing citizen participation in local governance. However, one of the barriers of ignorance is that villagers often feel that it is the government’s duty to improve services in the village. They do not readily understand the important roles of citizens in claiming their rights and entitlements.

In many villages we work, there was initially little understanding of the role of the sarpanch (village council head) and panchayat (village council). Citizens often lacked the confidence to complain to government officials and they feared repercussions. A sad reality is that very poor people often fear for their physical safety when confronting local power structures.

Challenges arise due to non-responsiveness of officials at other levels as well. When Public Distribution System (food grains and more) items are not sent on time, or Integrated Child Development Scheme supplies are not provided for prolonged periods, the aaganwadi (child care center) workers or food grain/ration booth holders must manage the center.

Every recommendation we have is predicated on the knowledge that community leadership and ownership, with the active participation of women, is absolutely necessary for sustainability of social change and maintenance of physical improvements in villages. Women should be decision makers in planning, implementation, and evaluation of village projects. Though this is not an easy task in that work toward gender equality and women’s empowerment faces pervasive challenges in the patriarchal society. Women in villages have chores to do from morning to night just to meet basic family needs, including fetching water. They lack time to receive training or attend sessions on capacity building. Further, some cultural norms limit women from appearing in public, and rural women have limited access to resources. Adding to their woes is domestic violence, frequently hidden within families.

To achieve community leadership and ownership, we recommend training to build a group of about 20 people in each village who understand poverty alleviation programs and who know how to challenge poor delivery of government programs. Sehgal Foundation conducts Village Leadership Schools on governance to convey knowledge and monitoring skills, and encourages villagers to apply the learning within their own villages.

Active citizen participation prompts government officials to better deliver public services. Citizen leaders complement the role of village-level institutions, which must function well to plan and tap government resources for the community. Networking with responsive government departments is key to bringing about public service delivery. For patterns of problems, citizens need to know how to approach state headquarters to solve issues.

How do you rate Indian Business on the CSR Scale and what recommendations you provide to combat the basic challenges of Indian society and CSR practices?

Sehgal Foundation has established excellent working partnerships with Coca-Cola India and The Mosaic Company India, each of which serves as ideal examples of Corporate Social Responsibility. We look forward to building more of these types of effective partnerships to further empower rural India.

As Sehgal Foundation engages with more communities, we see that many people still do not have basic necessities—water, sanitation, or proper nutrition. People lack educational opportunity, health services, and employment opportunities.

To address these basic challenges of Indian society, we urge all businesses, government, and other nonprofits to work together in partnerships with communities and with NGOs with strong community outreach. Through collaboration with a wide range of partners with a shared vision, we can find and deliver solutions to bring about positive social, economic, and environmental change to rural India.

About Jane Schukoske

Jane Schukoske, CEO, S M Sehgal Foundation, holds a JD from Vanderbilt University and LLM from Georgetown University. She serves on the Advisory Committee, Tata Institute of Social Sciences School of Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance and on the Governing Body of O.P. Jindal Global University. Previously, Jane directed US Educational Foundation in India. She was a tenured professor at University Of Baltimore School Of Law, and a Fulbright researcher at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. J.schukoske@smsfoundation.org

For more information about S M Sehgal Foundation, visit www.smsfoundation.org

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