The Platform

People's Archive of Rural India

It is almost redundant to say that every sector of the Indian economy suffered a massive blow when the pandemic was declared in 2020. Cracks in the system widened and new ones emerged. From access to healthcare and education to everyday commercial activities, all of it had come to a screeching halt. The priority has been to deal with the mess but also to prevent a future collapse. A speech delivered by Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s finance minister, in February 2021, articulates ways to bring India out of the downturn.

The lockdowns and suspension of economic activities had the greatest impact on the livelihoods of low-income families. The natural course of action would be to introduce new and reinforce existing welfare schemes.

India’s budget for the year ahead aims to revive various sectors of the economy, the most pressing one being healthcare, and several leaders in the social sector have responded to the announcement. The government presented the health budget in an inter-sectoral manner announcing an ambitious 137% increase. This would address the complex needs for housing, sanitation, nutrition, safe drinking water, and energy, as well as funding vaccination efforts. Farmers’ relief has also been prioritized with the proposal to increase the agricultural budget, which would play a vital role in the infrastructural development of the agricultural sector.

“Digital India” will come to play a pivotal role in these times of distance learning. The need and benefits of leveraging technology have been recognized and efforts are being made to increase its accessibility.

“It is great to see the emphasis in the [b]udget on using technology as an enabler for social impact and inclusion in critical areas like education, urban governance, and provision of benefits to migrant workers,” says Roopa Kudva, Managing Director at Omidyar Network India, a social change initiative to build more equitable societies. The Jal Jeevan Mission is yet another initiative by the government. It aims to bring water to every household in rural as well as urban areas and to tackle the country’s water crisis.

A change of plans

The gaps in health, employment, and education have expanded since the pandemic. Priorities in urban poor populations have regressed to availability of food and water, payment of rent and other bills, and employment. Before the pandemic, Mahila Housing Trust’s growth plan for 2016-2021 had prioritized, firstly, forming partnerships with smaller organizations and building their capacity to work in urban and habitat development. The second was to increase housing finance and microfinance strength. The third was to reach a million people through their strategic programs on climate resilience, habitat development, and participatory governance.

The ambitions laid out in the plan had to take a backseat when the pandemic hit. However, they did still manage to reach a million people in the past year, with the focus being instead on survival. Immediate efforts towards COVID relief, rehabilitation, and awareness, rather than development or empowerment, took center stage.

Key initiatives post-pandemic

Reaching a million people was made possible through the contribution of donors, the private sector, and government partners. Another stakeholder that played a crucial role were community action groups. These are locally sustainable collectives of women who have proven to be a vital source of social capital that could be leveraged during the pandemic without the need for physical interaction. These groups have been set up over the years in slums across North India through efforts by the Mahila Housing Trust. The women are trained and empowered to take up responsibility for the needs of their communities.

Another key initiative is the Jagruti mobile app developed in collaboration with the HCL Foundation. It leverages the advantages of technology during the era of social distancing, enabling contactless, widespread, and rapid disbursement of COVID and nutritional awareness. The app has over 100 videos and quizzes uploaded in two languages and has been instrumental in tackling misinformation as well.

New developments and the road ahead

The pandemic has indeed shifted priorities for both the government as well as the social sector. During this time, Mahila Housing Trust acted as a channel between the already established community leaders on the ground, and private sector partners. Bijal Brahmbhatt, the Director of Mahila Housing Trust, strongly believes in community action groups, which have proven to be a sustainable way forward. The focus is and has been on women’s empowerment.

This existing social capital needs to be further trained and developed to deal with the pandemic and its repercussions. It also needs to increase in scale. Community leaders’ collaboration with Mahila Housing Trust begins with solving issues of their own settlements like water and sanitation.

They then progress from there to housing, finance, and legal rights. Finally, they go even further to thinking on an administrative level, about their ward, and the broader issues coming out of urbanization – what the city needs.

The road ahead for Mahila Housing Trust is a movement towards creating a domino effect through every woman they empower, brought about by the consistent feeding into the system of the vast connection of stakeholders. The next steps involve developing these community action groups in the programmatic areas of climate change resilience, urban habitat development, and participatory governance. The key to development is collaboration, and these efforts are at the epicenter.

Shweta Philip is a writer and teacher from Bangalore, India. Shweta holds a Bachelor's degree in English, Journalism and Psychology from St. Joseph's College. Shweta has been working as a teacher with an NGO called Teach for India for the past year.