Under COVID-19 lockdown, Village Development Committees are now vital support systems for villagers
When I and Ronnie began our philanthropic journey, we agreed on one thing: we didn’t want to do charity and make communities dependent on us. We wanted to empower them to take charge of their own lives, to enable them to dream, and build a better present and future for themselves.
After intense deliberations and extensive studies of ground realities, we finally arrived at our 360-degree holistic model of development, enabling communities access to health, education, water, sanitation, and livelihood.
To execute this, we formulated our ‘4E Strategy’: Engage, Empower, Execute, and Exit. The idea was to create a self-sustainable model though which we, first, engage deeply with the community and all stakeholders, then empower the community by building village-level institutions, strengthen their link to the government and other stakeholders, and implement life-changing initiatives around our chosen verticals. That’s when, we believe, we would have laid the foundations for a gradual exit.
The real KEY is to EXIT - leaving behind an empowered community and sustainable programmes through the creation of Gram Vikas Samiti’s or Village Development Committees (VDC).
Well into our journey, we took a critical decision: we would not work with any village that does not form a VDC and does not fulfil the convening power tests we give them. Thus was a huge step for us.
We went door-to-door, explaining programmes, collecting line lists, and undertaking surveys. We did individual eye tests in each home before our eye care van came into the village, as well as collected small donations that households need to give for their toilets, etc.
But now everything needed to be done by the VDC. Could that really happen? And how to make sure it did? Was it ideal to expect this kind of independence and initiative from our village communities?
We decided we had to try, it was the only way we could empower our community enough to even think of exiting.
Formation of VDCs
The first step was to make the villagers believe in themselves and in the concept of a VDC for them to have a group of people (about five – 11 self-nominated people) from their village working together for the development of the village and its people.
It was difficult for the villagers to even understand the importance of creating an institution to ensure their sustainability. We came up with the idea to get the villagers to interact with each other by organising play activities, games, and video shows.
We were surprised to find that a simple activity like the Human knot – team building game – would be a game-changer. The villagers acknowledged and understood that the difficulties and problems of the villages can only be resolved by the villagers themselves.
Figure 1: A village development committee being trained
Figure 2: Self-reliant Village development Committee
We then decided to test the VDC’s commitment, convening power, and willingness to take the ownership of their village. The VDC needed to be capable of leading their community and learning to transform themselves socially and economically.
The VDC would be a strong vehicle to build awareness about agriculture, health, education, and economy within the community, and help them find solutions to their problems.
For example, one of the hamlets, Atone Adivasiwadi of Sudhagad in Raigad district, got together the villagers to build a “BORI BANDH”. The VDCs were successful in convincing the villagers to come together to place used bags filled with sand which would slow down the speed of flowing water of the stream in the area, because of which the farmers could have sufficient water to grow vegetables and other crops in their fields.
The Anganwadi women from the Kasarwadi, Sudhagad VDC were successful in bringing together adolescents and their parents to create awareness on the dietary behaviours of adolescents.
The positive responses have built a sense of solidarity, goodwill, and energy in the community.
As in some villages, VDCs could successfully bring together villagers to carry out cleanliness drives in their areas, while in other places, villagers got together to fill pot-holes on the roads.
It was important to empower VDCs through training and capacity building initiatives. The VDCs were asked to take up small pilot projects to solve community issues, which helped them gain confidence and trust of the villagers.
For example, among the many health care initiatives taken by Swades Foundation, one of them is Eye-Care. A few lead members from VDCs of Kasarwadi, Raigad were trained to carry out eye screenings. Once proficient, these trained volunteers then invited neighbouring villagers during the eye-testing camps and further trained them. Another aspect of empowerment was to equip these villagers with the ability to liaison with various government authorities.
VDCs of Bhavushet thakurwadi of Sudhagad, surveyed to enlist villagers without ration cards. These villagers were then guided to write appropriate applications, attach relevant documents, and submit the same to concerned authorities. This initiative not only helped these villagers secure their ration cards, but also developed their ability to reach out to the government authorities for any other requirements in the future.
Figure 3: Village development committee presenting development plan to the villagers.
Swades successfully created such Village Development Committees (VDC) in 1000+ villages to empower and make them self-reliant villages.
Over the years, VDCs have progressed massively by coming together and taking complete responsibility of the village from their basic needs to exploring better livelihood opportunities.
The advent of COVID19 has brought huge challenges. The situation in rural areas has become even more challenging due to fear, lack of awareness, low levels of nutrition, and various other factors. In such unprecedented times, our empowered VDCs with their fully proficient teams have turned out to be saviours in their respective communities.
Our team has been able to quickly assess the ground reality via the daily connect with the VDC on phone and WhatsApp, and guide them to help their community. We also were able to mobilise food and other needs to the community with their help.
During the nationwide lockdown, they began barricading entry and exits points to prevent visitors from coming in. They help villagers, especially, Adivasi, elderly people, and differently-abled people, to meet their daily requirements as they are the most impacted ones.
The COVID-19 lockdown has forced migrant workers to return home where they are no longer workers, and have no wages. So, it’s the VDC’s who have come to their aid and are making all efforts to mobilise food and daily essentials, and ensuring sustenance for them.
When we decided to distribute food and daily essentials to over 8,000 Adisavi communities, we took the help of 14 of our brave volunteers. The VDCs helped create proper preventive measures and social distancing as the work was done.
Among the worst-hit by the adverse financial consequences of the lockdown are the Adivasi community, Kasaishet Adviasiwadi village which is situated in the terrain of the mountain. In this area, villagers already live an isolated life. The lockdown has further shattered their fragile daily existence as what they ate at night often depended on their earnings during the day.
Figure 4: Distribution activity in Adivasiwadi with safety measures.
179 volunteers designated by the VDCs travelled out of the village twice in a week to buy groceries and medicines for the villagers. They have also adopted a creative way to create awareness in the community by painting streets with educative slogans about the importance of social distancing.
Figure 5: Supply of Food and vegetables in disciplined manner
Figure 6: Innovative way to spread awareness and bringing hope among the villagers.
Figure 7: Villagers with Masks and Sanitizers.
263 VDCs are working closely with the community health workers and monitoring public movement within the village. The committees, actively lookout for migrants returning to the village from various geographies, asking them to self-quarantine at their respective homes and taking all precautions. The VDCs have also been distributing masks and sanitisers in the villages to ensure the safety of villagers.
In this age of information, increasing ownership of smartphones and access to cellular internet data has also enabled community health workers and VDCs to connect remotely to share best practices, stay updated on policy changes, and inspiring, encouraging messages— something which is especially important at this time.
It is deeply gratifying for Ronnie and me to see how our initial thoughts of making a difference in community has generated such a massive impact in several communities. Despite the lockdown, these empowered Village Communities have enabled us to continue our work of reaching out to our most vulnerable communities in a smooth manner.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)