Real change arrives in small steps for rural India

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This sepia-toned landscape could have been painted a century ago. A
lazy sunset tints bullock carts, women in bright red and turquoise saris
thresh rice by hand. Farmers swirl golden staves of corn in the fields.

But
for millions of Indians, it is no rural idyll. It is a picture of
poverty where farming techniques for many remain unchanged for decades,
and the millions of farmers who just have enough land to make a living
wouldn’t dare dream of a different future.

In Kushalpura village in Uttar Pradesh,
India’s most populous state, people have little hope for change in
their future. Cheap food and guaranteed temporary jobs that New Delhi
offers are little better than a bandage on a big wound. There isn’t any
electricity here and there are barely any toilets or latrines.

“What’s the point in talking about a future? It’s not going to
happen, so why think about it?” said Tinku Singh, a 20-year-old whose
family includes five brothers and three sisters. He’s about to set off
to look for work as a brickmaker for four months in neighbouring states
of Haryana or Punjab. He might bring back about 20,000 rupees ($320) if
things go well.

The government says things are improving. In 2011 and 2012, 26
percent of people living in the countryside were categorized as poor,
down from 42 percent in 2004 and 2005. That’s still 217 million people
who survive on less than 816 rupees ($14) a month each — and many are
only a handful of rupees better off.

Even for someone who’s working, average wages for a farm labourer are
still about 200 rupees a day. I pay about 120 rupees for one cappuccino
in New Delhi.

But
slowly, there are some changes happening in India’s countryside. On a
bright, sunny morning, just 300 metres away from Kushalpura in the
neighbouring village of Sarsaivan,
people are crowding around Rajesh Solanki. He’s holding what looks like
the kind of card swipe machines that waiters bring to your table in
restaurants.

For the first time, these villagers won’t have to walk two kilometres
to top up their mobile phone accounts. Solanki’s machine does it here.
It should save them a couple of rupees in charges, too, money that they
could easily spend elsewhere on staple goods.

Solanki is the brother of Rakesh Solanki, a businessman who returned
to his village after working on ecological waste management systems in
Mumbai and New Delhi. He’s moved back to his father’s house and is
renovating the building, which is arranged in the traditional village
style around a courtyard, with a flat roof where the family sleeps on
hot monsoon nights. One of the first changes he made was to put in a
western-style toilet.

The two brothers are changing other things in their village. They
received authorization from the State Bank of India for remote banking.
They open accounts for people in the village and take their funds to the
nearest physical branch of the bank. SBI provides a fingerprint sensor
machine to identify customers and maintain security.

So far, Rajesh said, there are only five accounts because of
technological problems. He expects about 1,000 accounts to open
eventually in the area.

There’s also the chance to use the computer and printer in their
house — the only one in this village of about 800 people. Rakesh Solanki
is thinking of charging about 5 rupees (8 cents) for half an hour of
Internet surfing.

In Sarsaivan, the electricity supply from the national grid is
limited to about eight hours a day — sometimes at night, sometimes
during the day. To cope with the interruptions, the Solankis are backing
up with their own power from tractor engines running on diesel.

There
is also a plan to bring solar power to the nearby villages that have no
electricity at all, where televisions and fridges given as wedding
gifts stand idle. Sarsaivan is more difficult to tackle, as its partial
connection to the grid means it doesn’t qualify for government subsidies
on solar.

“My aim is to provide more sustainable and sizable electricity in
these areas, which can cater for domestic needs like lighting, mobile
charging, fans, etc. plus street lights,” said Manik Jolly, who used to
work for the U.S.-based power company SunEdison, and created a start-up
to set up micro grids in rural and remote areas.

The costs for such projects are high in the beginning but the project
should turn a profit, excluding the initial infrastructure investment,
in the first year, said Jolly.

For the residents of Kushalpura, solar power could give their
children the chance to study later at night and help fulfil those dreams
of better jobs and a better life. Private enterprise can accomplish
many things in a way that moves more quickly than the bureaucracy of a
state or central government, but public support remains a necessity.

Here is a list of needs that Kushalpura, Sarsaivan and surrounding
villages say they need. It’s one that you might see repeated across many
more villages in India:

1. Roads.

2. Sewage and drainage systems.

3. Five public toilets and toilets in every house.

4. Water tanks and drinking water for every house.

5. One community hall in every village.

6. Fans in schools.

7. Street lights on roads for safety at night.

8. A health centre with a visiting doctor.

9. Skills training programs and help on setting up cottage industries.

10. Market support for farmers’ goods.

11. Cattle support programs (veterinary, etc.)

12. Trees to line roads.

13. A children’s park and three sports facilities.

14. A support system for elderly people.

“So the wish list goes on,” said Rakesh Solanki. “Whatever best we can do, we will be happy.”

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