Inspite of the economic growth that India has witnessed, Eastern India still has more than 30% of its population below a poverty line which is starkly defined as sufficient expenditure for the basic required calorie intake ! The grim picture was first brought to light by the National Rural Household Survey of 2005 (RHS), which nationally exposed the depth of food insecurity in rural areas. Over 70% of the population of Eastern India lives in its rural areas which is largely dependant on mono-cropped rainfed agriculture. Its backward districts are also home to a large proportion of minorities including tribal groups and ethnic minorities whose eroding culture was once a resource to combat marginalisation and food insecurity.
In India, the government has recognised food security as one of the most urgent items on the national agenda. Recent trends have focussed on palliatives such as the Food Security Act to address the alarming situation of absolute hunger among the poorest, apart from the more widespread food and nutritional insecurity. However, Ahead Initiatives firmly believes in the old adage that it is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish.
Addressing Hunger Empowerment And Development
The mainstay of Ahead Initiatives' field activities is addressing hunger. However, our strategy advocates a Local Self Governance Approach to sustainable and decentralized Natural Resource Management as the principal means of addressing hunger and thereby food, nutrition and livelihood insecurity
Over the two to three decades that many at Ahead have been involved with rural development in West Bengal, it has become apparent that the education provided in rural schools, which include the children of the poorest families, is urban-centric, highly inappropriate to the educational needs of the children and far removed from the local socio-cultural setting of their communities. The other more insidious problem is the attitudinal change which the present educational system inculcates, where a multitude of, diverse cultures are fast eroding and being replaced by a 'better' urban culture and consumer driven economy the sustainability of which intellectuals worldwide are now beginning to question
It could be argued that local indigenous knowledge, values and 'agri' - culture are the very obstacles to 'development' that education aims to replace so as to provide an opportunity to the poor to benefit from the higher standards of living afforded by urbanised modern industrial society. However, even if that were true, the present stark reality is that of a growing number of frustrated youth, including the very poor, who neither have the vocation skills to address their livelihood issues in the rural context nor life skills such as participative democratic processes, which are so necessary to combat marginalisation, impoverishment and poverty for improved health, nutrition, etc.
This leads to the unusual development paradox that 'capacity building' on local self governance, health, nutrition, sanitation and natural resource management is still seen as the critical need for even those who have been through compulsory education till Class 8. Many of these necessary life skills need to be part of their education. This includes local indigenous knowledge because of a breakdown in its traditional transmission mechanisms.
A Local Self Governance Approach to supplementing rural education with contextual appropriate localised input
One of the principal causes of the above situation is the cultural divide between Urban and Rural segments, including the fact that the uniform content of education is determined by the Central and State Governments primarily for an urban setting. Local Self Government, in spite of constitutional amendments, are yet to play a role in even managing the education sector, let alone determine part of its content. This prevents content shaped by an understanding of local conditions and perceived local needs, supplemented with local indigenous knowledge which thereby helps to preserve the latter.
The National Curriculum Framework (2005) and even the National Knowledge Commission report on School Education (2008) has recognised the mismatch and advocated change, including the use of community resource persons and the proactive role of local government. However, much of it will remain just lip service without exemplary initiatives with mainstream rural schools to demonstrate how changes may be wrought through a Local Self Governance Approach to supplementing rural education with contextual appropriate localised input.
It is with this in mind that Ahead Initiatives has floated a platform for rural teachers which includes a vernacular newsletter 'Nabodisha' and a web portal (www.nabodisha.in) of the same name for sharing experiences and to promote peer learning in this regard. It has also in partnership with 25 Gram Panchayats (LSGIs) launched a practical grassroot field initiative with schools of their area to learn what is pragmatically possible in contextualising rural education with localised input
Culture and Development
Culture has been said to be an indivisible part of development when understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means of achieving a satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence. Culture is thus acknowledged as intrinsic to sustainable human development because it is our cultural values which determine our goals and our sense of fulfilment
It is no doubt true that it is through culture that we build identity, that essential component of humanity and community and whereby we communicate our ideas, feelings and insights. Culture allows us to learn and develop as people. Its role is so fundamental that it is inevitably the starting point in a more broad based sustainable development paradigm which has been defined as that set of capacities that allows groups, communities and nations to define their futures in an integrated manner. Development processes which fail to recognise this, struggle to produce lasting improvements in people's lives
Culture is thus far more than entertainment & the performing arts. It represents a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview
To engender a debate on the cultural basis of the development paradigm we have both translated into Bengali and reproduced in english a short exposition on Cultures, Spirituality and Development which we have felt raises many important issues which have not received sufficient attention in mainstream development processes
School Engagement Programme
In spite of Cultural Activities being one of the 29 subjects entrusted to local self government by the Constitution in its Eleventh Schedule, most local government institutions are unaware of their responsibilities in this regard. Thus Ahead Initiatives hopes to work with Gram Panchayats and Panchayat Samitis (Local Self Government Institutions) so as to engage schools to fill the vacuum that exists in this regard in formal education.
This focus is the outcome of our understanding that the collective creative capacity of our children holds the key to how humanity's future unfolds. It is thus important to focus on the young in our efforts to examine anew the cultural basis of our development paradigm and explore development pathways which are not only sustainable but also include those non tangible elements of development and progress which are normative in nature. Children's attitudes and lifestyles, their responsiveness to educational programmes, their growing sense of ownership of the drive to preserve a decent future for ensuing generations, are all intimately linked to their own cultural identities and values, and no worldwide commitment to sustainable development will get anywhere without that recognition.
'Srijangan' an Open Creative Learning Space for All
Ahead Initiatives strives to support communities and in particular the marginalized of the rural milieu to build on their capacity to use their cultural heritage and local and indigenous knowledge as a key resource for empowering themselves. This will not only help them to combat marginalization, poverty and impoverishment but also help them to pursue sustainable development pathways and strengthen their own cultural identities and values through renewal and innovation.
Towards this end there is a need to promote and nurture creative initiatives of people of all ages through lifelong learning and education not only to better their lives materially and otherwise, but foster well being and 'happiness'. Given eroding traditional structures and mechanisms there is a strong need for easy accessible skilling & learning opportunities, including creative pursuits in artistic expression and the performing arts. The latter being acknowledged as the medium of communication whereby we understand our experiences, ideas, feelings and insights and build identity, that essential component of humanity and community which allows us to learn and develop as people
In this context Ahead Initiatives has launched a 'SRIJANGAN' initiative to transform the neighbourhood primary school after school hours into a creative learning space for lifelong learning for all ages. Its distinguishing features are its easy accessibility and short term modular late afternoon approach which endears it to the home bound poor's continuous struggle with their multipronged livelihood strategy apart from being pre-occupied as they often are during the day providing wage labour