Development in Rural Areas
When it was established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1984, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in India (AKRSP) started field operations in the state of Gujarat. Since then, AKRSP has reached over 500,000 beneficiaries in over 1100 villages in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Over 4,000 village organisations have been created.
AKRSP first began working in three areas of Gujarat: the “tribal” areas in the south where some of the poorest communities live and where natural resources have been poorly managed; the coastal region and the area surrounding the Gir Forest, which now suffers from increasing groundwater salinity due to over-pumping; and Surendranagar District, which is one of the most drought-prone regions in Gujarat.
In 2004, AKRSP expanded to the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, which had a high degree of food insecurity.
In 2008, AKRSP was asked to contribute to rural development in Bihar. Today, AKRSP’s programmes in India have four main components:
Improved Food Security and Increased Incomes
The major goal of AKRSP’s agricultural programmes has been to ensure food security, increase net incomes and reduce risk for farmers. AKRSP achieves these goals by working to improve the quality of land, increase the availability of water for irrigation and introduce new inputs or technologies that improve agricultural productivity. Focusing on landless farmers, families with small holdings and farmers with three acres or less, it has introduced a range of options from systems to improve rice and wheat yields to small scale vegetable farming. In 2010, for example, farmers adopting intensification techniques proposed by AKRSP reported a 30 percent rise in yields. Landless farmers have planted creeper vegetables such as gourds and beans. Composting and fertiliser production have also been demonstrated. Drip and sprinkler irrigation techniques have been piloted and scaled up. In Gujarat, the rising demand for vegetables and dairy has spurred farmers to change crops; in other areas, AKRSP has helped farmers to begin growing fruit trees including papaya, sapota, mango and lemon to meet shifting demand. It has promoted village organisations to take up collective agri-input supply and marketing to ensure that poor farmers are not exploited by local traders and have access to timely and quality seeds and other inputs and are linked to market. Animal husbandry and care are also important parts of the programme.
Soil and Water Conservation
Undertaken with support from government agencies, AKRSP has operated a number of programmes dedicated to the sustainable management of soil and water, the main natural resources available to India’s rural populations. Its soil and water conservation measures have improved over 40,000 hectares of land. Interventions encompass the formation of watershed groups and participatory irrigation management in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh; dozens of irrigation and ground water recharge systems; promotion of micro-irrigation devices like drips and sprinklers; river basin management, including the construction of over 1000 check dams and irrigation tanks; and other watershed management measures.
AKRSP was selected as Project Implementation Agency for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in Madhya Pradesh, which ensures that employment generation schemes lead to productive assets. Distress migration has been reduced by 70-90 percent for farmers and by 30-50 percent for agricultural labourers, according to the research study carried out by the international water management institute titled “Agrarian Transformation Among Tribals: From Migrants to Farmer Irrigators”. AKRSP was the first NGO to implement Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) in Gujarat. Today, there is a PIM Act in Gujarat. Even AKRSP’s watershed approach has been recognised by Government through a citation of AKRSP in the revised national watershed guidelines.
Forest Conservation and Management
Activities have included motivating communities to raise and protect common land (forest land and village commons), tree planting campaigns and watershed-related reforestation. Based on its pilots, it collaborated with other NGOs to draft a Joint Forest Management policy, which was eventually adopted by 19 states of the country and benefited thousands of forest users in the country. AKRSP has planted over 12 million trees in the past 25 years. Over the years it has also introduced a range of alternatives to biomass consumption, including biogas plants and solar lanterns. Its agricultural and farm forestry measures have covered over 11,000 hectares.
In areas impacted by drought, agriculture pests or salinity ingress due to climate change and other factors, AKRSP has worked to introduce alternative crops that are more resilient in the face of these changes. Alternative crops have also helped farmers raise incomes. In saline areas, it has introduced saline-resistant crops, such as sapota. AKRSP has also helped farmers raise incomes through other sources of incomes, including organic fertiliser production, handicrafts, bamboo furniture, honey production and other non-farm sources of income.
Even before global warming became a concern worldwide, climatic conditions in AKRSP programme areas had forced it to explore alternative energies, first through biogas projects and more recently through windmills and solar energy. Seeking a solution to the drudgery of rural women who spend two to three hours daily collecting fuel wood, AKRSP first piloted biogas plants in Gujarat. AKRSP has constructed over 10,000 household biogas units, many of these attached to household toilets. In Bihar, where the electricity supply is usually not available (despite electric lines being in place), AKRSP piloted solar lanterns that can be charged at a central charging station run by an entrepreneur. To address the destruction of the Gir Forest because of fire-wood collection, AKRSP has also piloted biogas plants, solar cookers and windmills, including a low-cost windmill for water pumping. As of 2010, AKRSP had supported the installation of nearly 14,000 biogas, solar or wind systems. The ultimate aim of the programme is to reduce the consumption of biomass and non-renewable sources such as kerosene and reduce the drudgery and indoor pollution affecting rural women.
Potable Water and Sanitation
Potable drinking water programmes have been a priority, whether in saline areas of Gujarat or in flood-prone Bihar, where bacterial contamination has been very high. In Gujarat, AKRSP partners with the government and the village panchayat to scale up interventions which provide potable water through household and village drinking water schemes. AKRSP has built or rejuvenated 125 drinking water schemes, 200 percolation wells and over 10,000 roof rainwater harvesting structures. As a result of these efforts, over 40,000 women have access to potable drinking water. Where practicable, water is piped to the home; in other locations, water harvesting systems for the home have been introduced. One of the most important impacts of these systems has been the reduction of drudgery for women and girls. The Nirmala water testing lab in Surendranagar in Gujarat, set up by AKRSP, tests water samples and trains villagers in ways of improving water quality. AKRSP has promoted a Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell which partners with the government to provide drinking water access to over 250 coastal villages. In Bihar, AKRSP tests water quality and supports low cost interventions which reduce bacterial content substantially.
One of the characteristics of ultra-poor communities has been a lack of organisation. In response, AKRSP has worked to mobilise communities in its programme areas so that they can plan for and implement their own development plans. Over 4,000 village organisations have been established. With AKRSP’s assistance, these organisations support the construction of infrastructure, improve productivity, create awareness about an issue (e.g., water conservation or natural resource management) and liaise with the government over development concerns. The aim of these programmes is for the committee level organisations to become entirely self-reliant, with the skills to federate and form linkages with government programmes. Women’s federations in south Gujarat, for example, already have their own office buildings and access funds from the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development.
AKRSP (India) was the first NGO to implement Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) in Gujarat. Today, there is a PIM Act in Gujarat. Even the watershed approach of AKRSP (India) has been recognised by Government and it has been mentioned as one of the key NGOs in the revised watershed guideline of the Central Government.
Savings and Credit
To smooth out the shocks of sudden costs, such as healthcare bills or the purchase of seeds or tools, AKRSP has supported the creation of self-managed community-based savings groups for many years. Typically, groups of 15-20 women are supported through basic financial literacy training. Savings groups have saved over Rupees 35 million. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, these groups are linked to banks and access credit for their members.
AKRSP also has worked on a variety of education initiatives ranging from adult literacy to computer training to early childhood development. One of its largest programmes is training rural youth in computer basics; 25,000 youth have been trained in all three states. AKRSP created 30 Community-based Technology Learning Centres. In Bihar, it supports 42 Learning Support Centres, which focus on children ages 6-11, as well as 42 early childhood development centres that train mother-teachers to impart education to 3-6 year olds.
Sharing Lessons Learnt
In a large country like India, there is a limitation to the reach of NGOs. AKRSP believes that it needs to share its learning with many more villagers and stakeholders through the following strategies: