Atmanirbhar Bharat! Swades Foundation creates over a thousand empowered VDCs for self-reliant villages

Roughly 200 km away from Mumbai is the Ambe Shivtar village in Raigad, Maharashtra. Five years ago, farmers and community members struggled with water scarcity and limited work opportunities; but today, every house in the village has access to clean drinking water through a tap in their home.

Every farmer in Ambe Shivtar is equipped with a drip irrigation system and can practice farming beyond the monsoons. Although the village was affected adversely during the Raigad floods last year, under the leadership of a Village Development Committee (VDC), the villagers rebuilt their bridge with support from the Gram Panchayat Funds. The VDC initiated the reconstruction of the bridge and got over INR 20 lac sanctioned for this work. Recently, every household contributed a small amount and the Ambi Shivtar village got its own Village Gate. The villagers also completed the construction of a boundary wall for both the village school and a drinking water scheme that the Swades Foundation supported. And the VDC secured E-Shram Cards for more than 135 agricultural laborers in the village.

 Like Ambi Shivtar, many more VDCs are leading their way to become Dream Village and empowering community members to take charge of their own prosperity and come out of poverty. 

What is a Village Development Committee?

Swades Foundation, a non-profit organization co-founded by Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala, is driven by the dream of “One India,” an India where the urban-rural divide doesn’t exist. Swades Foundation empowers rural communities to transform their own lives by implementing a holistic development model. With its roots in community empowerment, the model enables the community members to tackle their water crisis, access better health and education facilities and pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities under the leadership of a group of community volunteers called the Village Development Committee (VDC). 

Swades empowers community members to understand, voice and address their concerns through VDCs created at the hamlet level, ensuring that it works together. The VDC is composed of an equal number of men and women who volunteer their time to bring positive change to their village. Swades has created over 1,200 such Village Development Committees in Raigad, Maharashtra. 

The Swades Foundation strongly believes in its core 4E strategy – Engage, Empower, Execute & Exit. Being the most important, the Exit needs the community to be independent and empowered. Community members and VDCs are thoroughly trained and shown how to access all relevant government schemes. Slowly these community members develop a “Can-Do Attitude” and begin to make changes that were only dreams before. 

For instance, Siddheshwar Adiwasiwadi, a tribal hamlet in Raigad, suffered from water scarcity and poverty that forced villagers to migrate to cities for work. The villagers lost all their hope and thought that their circumstances would never change. First, the Swades Foundation supported the villagers with a Drinking Water Scheme and formed the Village Development Committee. Then through continuous engagement, empowering community members using participatory approaches, sharing existing government schemes and developing a village development plan, the community members were able to visualize a better life for themselves. From strengthening the School Management Committee (SMC) to making a library to help aspirants prepare for competitive exams, from ensuring regular cleaning of the common areas in the village to starting to segregate plastic waste and safe disposal, Siddheshwar Adiwasiwadi is working hard to make their village an “Adarsh Gaon.”  

Community Members in Vihule Kond come together for Shramdan for their village road

How does a Village Development Committee work? 

Once the community forms the VDC, its members work closely with the Gram Panchayat to leverage government schemes. They ensure every household should be a part of VDC and a plan is made for each family to understand the aspects of life that need external support for a better life. The annual VDC plans focus on making their village: 

·   Clean – The VDC’s work ensures that the village is free of open defecation and every house has access to safe water and an individual household toilet. There are no open drains and the community practices segregation and disposal of plastic waste. Few village representatives form a vigilance community and act as whistleblowers if these practices are not followed. For eg. In Kansal village in Raigad, after receiving training from Swades Foundation, the villagers installed eight bins for plastic waste management in their village. The youth took the ownership of collecting plastic waste and delivered it to the Gram Panchayat’s disposal point for further management.

·   Beautiful – The VDCs also ensure the beautification of their village by building and maintaining village roads, an entry gate or arch to the village and proper street lights to ensure every house is safe to live in. For instance, the empowered community members of Ambishetwar village, to demonstrate their togetherness and make their village unique, have colored every house in the village yellow. For very poor households, the other families contributed money to buy the paint. Many VDCs encouraged villagers to contribute, and through Shram Daan, many villagers built internal roads for their villages. 

New toilets and drinking water stations in Siddheshwar school is a demonstation of successul collaboration between SMC the Swades Foundation and Corporate Partners
New toilets and drinking water stations in Siddheshwar school is a demonstation of successul collaboration between SMC, the Swades Foundation and Corporate Partners

·   Healthy – VDCs prioritize villagers’ access to healthcare facilities, ensure women have safe institutional deliveries and adhere to vaccination schedules for all pregnant women and children. The Swades Mitra (Community Health Volunteer) plays an instrumental role in ensuring the community is free of nutritional diseases/ disorders and children with special needs and the elderly receive medical assistance. The VDC members support Swades Mitra in counselling, home visits, early identification of patients and ensuring every family is covered under health insurance – Ayushmaan Bharat or any other. During the COVID-19 pandemic, VDCs played a critical role in controlling the spread by ensuring the quarantine of travellers and visitors in their villages. In many communities and tribal hamlets where villagers were apprehensive of COVID-19 vaccination, the VDC members counselled villagers and took the vaccination first, to debunk the myths the community had regarding vaccination. Through the Swades Foundation, district administration, and continuous support of VDCs, over 1.5 lac rural community members in Raigad and Nashik have been inoculated successfully.

·   Self-Reliant: To ensure a continuous flow of income, every rural household needs assured multiple sources of income. As throughout the country, many rural families struggled to meet ends during the pandemic. The households with a minimum of two sources of income had a lesser impact on their expenditure and purchasing power. VDCs plan focuses on improving livelihoods for low-income families; every family has a bank account, access to credit, Aadhar card & ration card and all eligible senior citizens receive government pensions through social security schemes.  For example, in Bhavshet Thakurwadi, maximum homes relied on daily wage labour for their livelihood. While their work took a big hit during the pandemic, the VDC, with support from Swades Foundation, enrolled the villagers in a Masonry Course at a skilling institute. The VDC also encouraged community members to explore sustainable livelihoods within their villages and not migrate to cities without specialized training. Today, most households in the village practice animal husbandry and youth are taking up-skilling courses and today the village is almost self-reliant.  The VDC has also connected the villagers with many government schemes like Ration Card, Adhar Card, bank accounts, Kisan Credit Cards, Pan Cards, Pension schemes for elderly and the specially-abled, etc. 

 These instances fill us with the hope that when community members are empowered and have a can-do attitude, they can transform their lives and make their village a dream village. The Village Development Committees created by the Swades Foundation have demonstrated that the empowerment of the communities is central. When the community is involved in designing their own destiny, sharing common goals and taking actions that can make their life better, rural India can thrive! 

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