Print edition : March 04, 2000

The National Network on Biovillages and Community Banking launched by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation is a major initiative to replicate successful examples of poverty alleviation and natural resource conservation across India.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR

"INDIA needs a new culture of working with the poor, one of providing them human dignity and not subsidies," according to Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, whose brainchild, the National Network on Biovillages and Community Banking, was inaugurated at a function hel d at the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on February 18.

The biovillage concept, introduced by the MSSRF a few years ago in 19 villages in the Union Territory of Pondicherry with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has been a big success. A biovillage not only provides livelihood sy stems that include technical knowledge and skills, a self-perpetuating system of micro-credit within the community and access to the market, but also makes the villages self-sufficient and human-centric. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who inaugurated the Network, put the new approach in the right perspective when he said that it is time we looked at people as solutions rather than as problems".

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan with two women being trained in mushroom cultivation at a demonstration project at one of the bio-centres set up and run by the MSSRF in Pondicherry as part of the biovillage project.-K. PICHUMANI

The Network should offer hope for the people of countries that have adopted the policy of liberalisation and the free market economy but where the ills of inequality have been accentuated, life support systems have been damaged and unemployment levels ha ve risen. It aims to reorient the development process.

Swaminathan said: " The development path pursued by India over the last 50 years has been proved wrong as all poverty- alleviation programmes focussed on the 'target groups' approach and did not spread the message of asset building or community and human development". The New Economic Policy, according to him, is not designed to protect small enterprises. Hence, there is a need to build the assets, knowledge and skills of rural entrepreneurs and also help them with off-farm - not just on-farm - activiti es for value addition.

Guy Sorman, Professor at the Institute of Political Sciences, Paris University, said that Indias poverty alleviation programmes failed primarily because since Independence it spent all its resources on developing a powerful state instead of making its d evelopment strategies people-centric.

Sorman, who participated in the programme as a resource person, said it was necessary to push the biovillage concept as it would revolutionise India the same way the Green Revolution did. The Network has an in-built mechanism of economic incentives capab le of solving the problem of politically-motivated poverty alleviation programmes.

Swaminathan said: " Biovillage denotes a village where human development occupies the pride of place. It is thus a term for human-centred development". In a biovillage, the people take decisions. Its activities are market-driven. The concept is sustainab le and replicable. He said: " For this concept to be successful, asset creation is important. Community banking is crucial, as is demonstrated by the MSSRF Pondicherry project".

Commercial banking entails very high costs, and it is not affordable to residents of the villages. Community banking is built on trust and builds peoples self-esteem. It revolves around an activity, has a user-controlled revolving fund, low transaction cost, high repayment record, timely and effective availability of credit and, most important, is accompanied by appropriate services to sustain small enterprises.

The Network is the first major non-governmental organisation (NGO) initiative to replicate successful examples of poverty alleviation and natural resource conservation across the country. Economically viable micro-enterprises would be supported by micro- credit as well as technical and marketing knowledge.

According to Swaminathan, "the aim of the Network is to address the twin challenges of poverty eradication and natural resource conservation." The MSSRF is the nodal agency, with the Madurai-based DHAN Foundation, the Pune-based Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation and the Delhi-based Society for the Promotion of Wasteland Development as initial alliance members. The programme will initially cover Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Karnataka, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Priority is to be given to villages on the f ringes of biosphere reserves and national parks as it would take care of the twin objectives of strengthening livelihood opportunities and conservation.

The biocentre is the hub and is responsible for providing various services needed for decentralised production and marketing. It is the headquarters of the biovillage society which facilitates training programmes for local leaders and entrepreneurs. It a lso has a computer with Internet facility. Only economically viable enterprises are taken up under the biovillage project.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who inaugurated the National Network on Biovillages and Community Banking at the MSSRF in Chennai.-N. BALAJI

The Network initiates a new management system for bioreserves. A trust has been formed with people depending on natural resources for their livelihood such as fishermen and the landless poor as its major stakeholders. The first such trust was formed in Tamil Nadus Gulf of Mannar area. The project, which has just begun, has received $30 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Government of India and the UNDP. The GEF has provided $8 million for the project.

Other livelihood generation projects that would be initiated are in the cyclone-affected areas of Orissa and the Similipal area (Project Tiger and Project Elephant) of that State; the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh; and some places in the drought- and hu nger-prone areas of Tamil Nadu.

Karnataka Minister for Agriculture T.B. Jayachandran praised the biovillage project as an excellent idea. During a panel discussion on " Fighting the Famine of Rural LivelihoodsS, conducted by The Hindu Media Resource Centre at the MSSRF, he said: " The farming community, which comprises over 70 per cent of IndiaUs population, has been sustaining the country and hence more opportunities should be created for them".

ACCORDING to Guy Sorman, the definition of development needs to change from the Western concept of income per capita. For this to happen, notions of poverty and development need to be redefined, he said. Sorman described poverty as deprivation of access to knowledge, opportunity and dignity. The Biovillage Network, it is hoped, would change the basic tenets of development; its emphasis is on a " bottom up" approach, rather than a " top-down" approach, to development.

Karnataka Agriculture Minister T.B. Jayachandran.-N. BALAJI

This new thinking is already happening. As Swaminathan said: " Even the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank, which have been pushing for globalisation and free market, have started talking about developing 'a human face of liberalisation '. The recently concluded UNCTAD meeting in Bangkok discussed the real issues, and the need for Tputting a social pillar to globalisation'."

Digvijay Singh said: " Until assets are made available to the community, livelihoods cannot be created". This is the basis of all developmental activity, such as watershed management, integrated crop management or sale of agricultural produce in Madhya P radesh. Keeping villages as the basic units of development, the State has formulated a micro-level planning programme for more than 370 hunger-prone villages. The gram sabhas manage the programmes. Tangible results have been visible in a short period wit h a more than four-fold increase in the incomes of the rural poor. This is precisely what the Biovillage Network hopes to achieve.

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