Monday, 19 February 2018

Interview by Auroville Today

Auroville Today, a monthly publication on Aurovilles development, recently did an interview with SLI's director, Ramasubramanian. The interview includes a brief introduction to the institute's work and what sets this training institution apart from others. It later focusses on challenges like corruption and caste discrimination as many development schemes in India face and how SLI handles these. By giving many examples of the institute's work, Ram makes clear that the Sustainable Livelihood Institute has had - and continues too have - great impact on both government officials and members of rural comunities that participate in one the programmes.

This interview is not the first time Auroville Today published an article on the Sustainable Livelihood Institute. In February 2016 the publication introduced it in Issue No. 319.
If you are a subscriber of Auroville Today you can read the full interview here or the article from February 2016 here.

The full transcript of the interview below...

The Sustainable Livelihood Institute

The  Sustainable Livelihood Institute (SLI) initiative is a joint project of the Government of Tamil Nadu and Auroville to promote rural development based on the principles of sustainable development (see Auroville Today 319, Feb. 2016)

The SLI began running programmes three years ago. We talked to the Director, Ramasubramanian (Ram), for an update on its activities and its impact.

Auroville Today: The name suggests that the Sustainable Livelihood Institute represents a very different concept of development from the conventional one. What is that concept?
Ram: Our concept of development draws primarily on two sources. One is traditional models, the other is Auroville’s experience. I think Auroville has created a new form of economy where certain values are not compromised. You do not deplete resources, you replenish them, and you are trying to minimise the impact of inequality. So our idea of development could be articulated as not only being ecologically-sensitive but also ecologically-proactive, socially-responsible and, at the same time, economically-viable. This is what we are trying to bring together in our programmes here.
What we are doing here is continually transmitting alternatives into the mainstream but it will take a while before it changes. However, the driver of these changes is something that, increasingly, we cannot ignore.

What is this?
Climate change is already a huge reality if you live in Tamil Nadu. For the past three years we have experienced extreme weather conditions. In 2015 there were terrible floods in Chennai, in 2016 we experienced the worst drought in 140 years. Last year the state government released a report of the consequences of climate change. The signs are not good. If we continue on the present trajectory, most parts of the state will see an increase of 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050. The consequences of this have not sunk in yet. A soil biologist told me that just a 1° rise means the end of staple food as we know it today as paddy will not grow.
Then again, 82% of our groundwater is in a critical state, the forests are depleting, and much of the coastline will be inundated by sea rises in the future.
In this situation, centralised planning is an oxymoron: policy and planning has to happen at a bioregional level in alignment with the larger reality of climate change. Today, for most parts of this state, we have the data to design a solution for each bioregion, but the effort has to be to do it through the people themselves, by empowering them with the required skills and knowledge. At the same time, in SLI we are raising the awareness levels of government rural development officials on the impact of climate change and showing them some of the responses from Auroville. As a consequence, government agencies in some parts are moving from looking at rural development primarily as ‘poverty alleviation’ to ‘sustainable growth’.

So in SLI you are working with both government officials and those who live in rural communities?
Yes, we work at all levels. Every head of the Rural Development Department of Tamil Nadu’s 32 districts has visited us for an orientation programme. The middle level managers, those who design local rural area initiatives, come more frequently for regular capacity-building programmes. We also train government rural community facilitators as well as community leaders, farmers, etc.
In contrast to Auroville Village Action, we work with the whole state and we are very closely linked to the state government. We do not make interventions but are primarily purveyors of knowledge.

What kinds of programmes do you run?
We tailor the programmes to the people with which we are working. The highest level – the heads of government departments – don’t need to acquire skills, they just need to know how to think differently: we call these ‘perspective building programmes’. For the middle level managers, we have ‘management programmes’ and at the village level the programmes are mainly about imparting skills and knowledge.
We have designed 24 different types of training programmes. During the first year, our programmes were aligned with the programmes of the government rural development departments. However, we introduced certain unique features. For example, in SLI the trainers are the practitioners, the ones who, like Krishna of Solitude Farm and Bernard at Pebble Garden, are doing the work.  This already challenges one of the underlying assumptions in conventional training institutions which is that theoretical knowledge is more important than practical knowledge.
Secondly, we are emphasizing action-oriented learning, which means less classroom teaching and more hands-on experiential training. The other thing we insist upon with government officials is repeat training. One-time exposure is often not sufficient to motivate them to make changes, so they come back for a more advanced course. Also, we do follow-up visits to check which community initiatives are succeeding and which are not.
Another thing we do is we digitalise everything: from the moment a trainee arrives till the feedback, follow-up and impact stories, everything we do is entered online and is accessible. We maintain a very high level of transparency and this has given us a lot of credibility within the government.
By the second year, the villagers were calling us to say we have learned this from you and have implemented this and now we have this problem. Can we come to learn how to solve it? So now the community programmes are driven more by their needs. When somebody comes with a request, we look at the situation, we design a training for them and we send it to the authorities for approval because all these trainings are sponsored by the government.
In other words, we and the government have become facilitating agencies, linking an empowered rural community with the knowledge and skills that they need.

There are many components of sustainability, including sustainable construction, governance, economy. When you impart skills to the villages, are you trying to cover the whole range?
Yes. Our faculty consists of more than 42 Auroville units, including the Earth Institute, Sunlit Future, Village Action, Botanical Gardens, Pitchandikulam, and tailoring and food-processing units.
We have also been able to host as guest faculty thought leaders in their respective fields, from all over the state. When they come, they share this knowledge with government officials and community members. But obviously they also want to interact with Aurovilians, and this enables a cross-pollination of inspiration and ideas.

This is all very hopeful. But two big challenges that development schemes in India face are corruption and caste discrimination. How do you deal with this?
It cannot be denied that this state is probably one of the worst in respect of white-collar corruption: the rural people are exposed to a lot of corrupt practices by government officials and have to deal with it because they have no choice. However, while corruption is deeply embedded in the system, a government official has a choice to be a part of it or not.
One thing we do when officials come here is to create a space where they can honestly discuss all issues, including corruption. One participant said he resented the corruption when he joined his department fifteen years ago but he realised that he had succumbed to the system and he had become what he hated. When he left our programme, he said he realised he had a choice.
One thing that works well in getting them to reflect is we ask them to talk to a camera every day as if they were talking to themselves 20 years from now. We also ask them to write letters to themselves about the legacy they would like to leave behind.
These exercises are very powerful; for some of them it is the first time they have reflected upon themselves.
So we push them into situations that break down barriers. They do drumming circles, forest work, bodywork, clowning work and cycling. These are people who have not got out of their jeeps and cars in a long time; one of the things that we emphasise is that, “slowing down is the beginning of sustainability”.
Once, after a cycling session, a government official said, “Now that we are always travelling in jeeps and on motorbikes, we are completely isolated from the community which we are meant to be serving. What has become of us? The first thing I will do when I go back is buy a cycle for myself and start to cycle again.”

What about the influence of caste discrimination?
This is definitely an issue. For example, a government official, a community facilitator, came here for a training programme in food-processing. She was so impressed she went back to a Dalit community in her area and convinced some women to set-up a food processing enterprise.  However, they could not sell the products even in their own village because food from their community was not acceptable to other communities, castes, in the same village.
But that was not as as shocking as facing a similar response when they went to a government office to sell their products. This was humiliating for them.
We heard about this story when we went to that district for a follow-up visit. We went to the village and spoke to those women and you could see the anger and humiliation in their eyes as they described their experience of this caste-based discrimination. We told them we would ensure that the blockages would be removed and their products sold, but would they be willing first to attend a training programme with us to ensure that they make products of a quality that cannot be easily rejected in the market?
They agreed and received training. When they returned to their village, they were accompanied by two graduate students in rural development who were interning with us (we receive interns from six universities across India). The students market researched their products and presented their findings to the district authorities, who granted one lakh capital to set up the enterprise. The students then stayed on until the first cycle of production was completed and did test marketing.
The district authorities were very happy about the way we had handled this and they launched this project at a district level function.
So, through our continuous support (we continue to monitor this enterprise), we made the local problem of caste no longer economically relevant for the women because now they could sell their products elsewhere and so negotiate their space better.
But there is also a balancing act for us as facilitators of these interventions because while caste discrimination is terrible, caste is also an aspect of local identity and, as such, a means of preserving local values against the global economic onslaught on local identities.

The story demonstrates that caste discrimination is also prevalent in government officials. Can you address this when they come here or is it too sensitive?
It is very much prevalent but we cannot address it directly. What we do is we put them in a very different environment. They soon realise that this is a place where there is no caste discrimination, a place where they are given care and respect by people, like youth from the local villages, who are complete strangers. This affects even high-ranking government officials.
In the government bureaucracy there is this huge hierarchy, so if you come from a background where you are already socially discriminated against because of your caste and you are confronted by this huge government hierarchy, it only reinforces the sense of inequality. We break this sometimes without even realizing. Often, we have Joss taking officers for a morning walk in his community to show them the afforestation work. They are very impressed. But they are even more awestruck when he serves them tea afterwards, because in terms of their hierarchy, Joss would be many levels above them and he should not be “serving” them. This breaks down a conventional barrier and they begin to understand there are other ways of interacting, knowing and learning. Higher officials often complain about the lack of honest feedback, but the lower officials in the department are rote taught into practicing hierarchy out of deference. Hence, they do not share their experience honestly.

What happens when they go back to their usual work environment?
Both in local communities as well as in government, the younger ones, in particular, want to change things in their work environment, but they also express frustration at not being able to make a difference. But we tell them it is possible, you have a choice, you do not have to perpetuate this. We provide them with examples of alternatives, so they know they can challenge it, and they know that there are people here who will support them in challenging it. Often they call us and tell us they have challenged or changed something.
Each one of them is personally impacted. When we go to state government offices, people come and telling us how in their personal choices they have changed because of coming here. A very senior officer came for a programme and made his own farm organic. In one village we went to, an official took us to his house because he wanted to show us how he was composting his garbage now.
Radical change is possible in individuals but in systems like the government it cannot be radical; it has to be gentle, like a whiff of fresh air. I think we are slowly working towards building a critical mass of people in the system who talk a different language, who hold certain values as important. When ten of them sit in a room to discuss rural development and at least eight of them are using terms, values, processes, practices, they have learned here, that for me is serious impact.

So you are optimistic about the impact of SLI?
There is one village, Chinnarampatti, in Vellore district where almost 65 people have come to us for different types of training. If you go to that village, you see evidence of Auroville knowledge everywhere. There is a beautiful tree nursery created and managed by about 20 women that is supplying saplings to the Forestry Department where the plants come from Auroville nurseries. There is organic farming, a cattle camp using ethno-veterinary practices, women creating herbal cosmetics, while another group is thinking of setting up a food-processing unit. And all this happened because one man, the panchayat secretary, came here for a training, saw the value of what we were doing in Auroville and convinced his people.
For me, the most promising thing is that new initiatives are coming up all over the state based upon ideas of sustainability. One of our faculty mentioned that there are 400 dedicated organic food shops in Chennai alone. Organic farm-related shops and millet bakeries are appearing in all parts of Tamil Nadu, farmers are exchanging seeds etc. When SLI organized a seed exchange programme among local farmers, more than 600 farmers from the area visited us that day and more than 350 varieties of traditional seeds were showcased and exchanged.
At every level you see these changes happening and SLI is being seen more and more as a facilitator for such changes. There are five other government training institutes in rural development across this state and now many of the practices we use in SLI, like practitioners being trainers, have been adopted by them.
Recently, a hundred million dollar government programme was launched by the Tamil Nadu Rural Development Department. The government is recruiting 600 officials for this project from all over Tamil Nadu, and we have been asked to provide orientation and induction for all of these newly-recruited staff. This is a very significant recognition of our work.  In fact, this new government ‘rural transformation’ project and how Auroville ideas and practices of ‘’transformation’ are providing inputs into it is another interesting story in itself.
Another recognition is the number of civil society players who have heard about us and want to see what is going on here. Many of them have visited us and now there are requests to do programmes for NGOs as well. I am often asked to share our ideas with governments in other states as well. For example, a few months ago we met the Chief Minister’s team in Maharashtra and gave a presentation about SLI because they were considering doing something similar in Nagpur.
So even without broadcasting what we do and just concentrating on doing it well, people are starting to recognise us. In the larger rural development space we are still very small in terms of the numbers that we are able to process, but our impact is already quite large.

From an interview by Alan

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