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‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’​ doodle by Mavis D’Silva for Arre — www.arre.co.in

Can public policy serve everyone or should it?

There are points in history, where all of us, even those not explicitly interested in issues of ‘social justice’ are forced to think of those. India today is in such a time.

On 12 December 2019, the Parliament enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) into law. The CAA paves the way to fast-track citizenship for six undocumented minority groups — Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis — from neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. CAA explicitly leaves out muslims even if they are persecuted minorities from these countries.

Protests broke out across the country, from early December, signalling the citizenry dissent against the legislation’s divisive agenda and attack on the principles embodied in the Indian Constitution.

The past decade have seen a rise in citizen movements limited to within States and also across the country — the India Anti-Corruption Movement 2011, the Nirbhaya protest in 2012, the Indian General Strike 2016 by public sector workers; the 2018 Dalit Protest in Bhima Koregaon and Women’s Temple Entry (Sabarimala) Agitation, and the most recent and ongoing, the Anti-CAA Protests to name a few. While there are specific issues addressed by each of these protests, all of them also signify a fight for equality and justice, asking the state to deliver on those demands.

But should the hard work for equality and justice, whether it is in citizenship or employment or access to government services or the practice of faith or corporate responsibility, happen only when there are crises?

Laws, government actions, regulations, guidelines, contracts are some things that come to mind when you think of public policy. Public policy education also tries hard to not romanticise the discipline by making equality and justice as priorities. Free market arguments rule, marginal benefits over costs is the holy grail and incentives are the bedrock.

Maybe, the Indian state should not be or is not a welfare state. Maybe, it makes no economic sense for the State to provide for the last mile. Perhaps, it is an unfair expectation of the State itself. It should be left to the communities or the private sector players should be incentivised to ensure service delivery to the last mile.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that in a country like India, the government still does not understand well enough the people it governs and their lived realities. This despite being the only single institutional entity with a presence even in the remotest corners of the country.

There are many constraints for the government to be an entity with supreme and in-depth knowledge about the varying contexts in a country like India, which looks and lives different within every mile. But, the fact is, it does not have to. What it does have to do is to acknowledge that there is a large and active civil society space, committed to solving problems for the poor in their contexts. And they mean well, they do well and they are committed to shifting the needle towards lesser inequality.

So, what can happen when the government listens and partners well?

What can happen is that policies are designed for users and not just the rural majority but also the rural minority. Equity considerations become a reality in practice, where the design and delivery reaches the often scattered, minority disadvantaged groups.

This is a story from the east India, of a nonprofit that learned from the world, designed for the context, and successfully advocated with the government by demonstrating success and scale potential. This eventually led to the nationwide adoption of a technology first designed by a nonprofit for the minority, tribal communities that they worked with.

In 1981, the Government of India established the National Project on Biogas Development in 1981 to promote biogas plants in India. Gram Vikas, a nonprofit working with the rural poor and remote tribal communities in Odisha state of India, started setting up its own community biogas plants. This was a solution to arrest the rapid deforestation due to firewood dependence of the tribal communities it worked with.

The first plant was built, successfully, for a small, inaccessible tribal village called Toda, located on a hilltop in the Kerandimals region in Odisha, India. This small pilot led to one of the few successful community biogas programmes in the country, with plants being set up in nine other hamlets in the region.

Towards the end of 1982, Gram Vikas decided to participate in the National Biogas Extension Programme. The Khadi and Village Industries Corporation’s biogas plant model with a metal dome was per se a good model but heavy and huge. This meant that it was next to impossible to take it up to the top of the hills, to remote tribal community settlements, mostly areas with no road access then. It was possible to carry cement and bricks up there but not heavy, pre constructed metal domes.

Gram Vikas had chosen to work in the most backward blocks with large tribal populations. And they had to make the solution work for those communities. The team began to research on their own and found that in China, there were gas holders made of cement, brick, and mortar.

The team learned from that model and came up with what they ultimately named the Deenbandhu (‘friend of the poor’) Biogas Plants — a model that was finally scaled up across the country. Once approved, Gram Vikas went on to build 54,000 biogas plants across the state of Odisha and building skills and livelihoods for thousands of rural poor as masons and technicians.

“Initially, they tried to oppose it but when they saw the advantage, they took to it. A large majority of all the biogas plants in the country today are Deenbandhu. This is why we did not name it Gram Vikas Biogas Plants but Deenbandhu, so that there is much more acceptance for it across the country and within the government.” - Joe Madiath, Founder Chairman, Gram Vikas

It took Gram Vikas two years from the time of building the model to the government approving it for national scaling up — several government committee visits, countless meetings with the bureaucrats and ministers at all levels like the Renewable Energy Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary, the Minister and even the Prime Minister’s Office.

By the time, the final National Committee visited Odisha, Gram Vikas had 300 working models to show in villages where access itself was considered too difficult for a programme. The Committee liked what they saw.

When asked, why they embarked on it and stuck on despite the challenges, Joe Madiath, the Founder Chairman of Gram Vikas said,

“We wanted the solution to work for the poor. We wanted the government subsidies to be used for what it was meant for rather than going unspent or being used for fancy aeroplanes and such. There are a few people even in the government who are reasonable. We approached them.”

There is something important to note in the Gram Vikas endeavour. For the organisation, the effort was not just to plug the energy access gap. Renewable Energy was an entry point activity into villages they wanted to partner with for development.

Ultimately, at the heart of every endeavour are equity and dignity goals. It informed practice and eventually, the policy. And keeping those ideals alive is a relentless, everyday effort.

Even today, this 40 year old institution only works with a village if every single family in the village comes together to be a part of the village institution and community owns the equity principle. Its not all charity either, the community contributes. They have pioneered the entire village participation and designing-with-the-community model. Biogas is just one of the programmes where they demonstrated the clever marriage of design with practice and policy. They have done it successively in many more.

Almost two decades before Swachh Bharat Abhiyan became the great sanitation idea, every single household in Gram Vikas villages had three taps with 24x7 piped water supply and separate toilets and bathing rooms. Open defecation is not the new fashion trend in these communities, its passé.

None of it was easy. No one believed getting communities together in a country so divided along caste, class and gender lines was possible or easy.

Thinking about the struggle, Joe says, “We have never compromised on principles. This made the journey very difficult but then we succeeded at least to the extent that we survived and carried forward. But the costs are very high and it can often kill organisations.”

There are many lessons to learn from the Gram Vikas model — of what can be and cannot be; what works and does not work; of heartwarming successes and equally epic mistakes.

But a singular lesson to take away would be that when you design for the marginal, you design for everyone.

It is possible to design for the marginal. It is possible to design for equity. It is possible to sustain social change. It requires continuous, ongoing efforts and it makes eminent sense to invest in that change. The State is not going to be able to do it on its own.

Goals like equity and dignity may sound lofty and often too hard a problem to crack but it is possible.

Can policies work to achieve those? Definitely, yes. Should they? That’s a matter of opinion and your expectation of your government.

No one’s established that inequality is good for business or the economy or well-being of a country’s population, rather the contrary.

We should keep the ideals and the romanticism alive and let those guide us.

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Learning and writing on public policy.

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