Working at the grassroots often provides the necessary so called ‘kick’ to continue to work with even more enthusiasm and energy. The feeling is quite understandable as it becomes much more easier to empathize and experience ‘their’ pain and the subsequent change our work brings to the life of the community as a whole. Though the pace of change remains slow. It is this same feeling/expectation which excites people to undergo grassroots level programs but majority of fellows complete such programs with a lot of disappointment. Major reasons behind this dissatisfaction is the level of impact/change that has been brought their by work.
Some blame the inefficiency of the organisations, others blame the reckless communities. Few start to have apprehensions regarding their own ability to perform. This situation is uniform across all the fellows I have interacted from various programs. In my view, the problem is no where close to the above mentioned reasons. Firstly, a year (in my case) is way too less to bring an impact that satisfies an individual. If it does, some serious deliberations is needed on the goals set. I was also one of them but it changed in the second half of my journey. The main reason behind not able to bring substantial/sustainable impact, the answer lies in this question – Is such an impact actually needed?
In grassroots work, impact becomes sizable and sustainable only when the link bridge has a 2-way traffic – Govt/Civil Society as well as community from the other side. For this to happen, mobilization and community engagement exercises have limited effect. It might be good to build initial buzz or bring bouts of energy from time to time when things might be slower than usual. These can keep community motivated for a certain period only. They need to be convinced and make them realize the need of proposed intervention. This should be done before presenting them the solution and rolling out the project in the field. Treating this parallel to mobilization will be another flaw in the approach.
I remember during my stay in the organization, a bio filter project was started which was basically that the water filters were made available at subsidized rates to members of SHGs with the goal of providing access to safe drinking water. The success of the project was measured in terms of number of filters installed in the households. In my field area, the numbers remained low right from the start. A major reason behind the failure as analysed was poor mobilization and inefficient marketing and sales techniques. In every review meeting, the team was asked to rework on the above strategies. Though, while making the pitch to members, the ‘why’ was discussed by the team but it didn’t work. A total of 12-14 filters were setup out of 100 filters despite having contaminated ground water due to the presence of an industrial area nearby. When I started analyzing the reasons, I went on to interact with the members.
My initial assumption while starting this study was that members must be having reservations regarding the quality/price of the filter. But both the assumptions turned out to be false. While interacting, I was explaining the efficiency of the filter when one member stood up and said, “We believe in you and trust the product but the water we drink from our hand-pump is clean and fresh, so why to waste Rs. 1500/- in this.” This summed up the whole story for me. What the community’s perception of clean water is, cannot match ours (which clearly in a filter; while theirs was the hand pump water). The conclusion drawn from above case study made more sense when I came to know that the other field area sold 90% of the filters but 2-3 months down the line, 80% of the filters were no more used by the families. This led me to the understanding mentioned above in the passage that mobilization and engagement exercises have limited impact.
Similar thing was noticed in case of the farmers. Here, we train and mobilize the farmers and try to shift them from their traditional style of farming which includes chemicals to maximize the yield to the chemical free zero budget farming. In this, the challenging task is of convincing the farmer to adopt the new style. For this, regular meetings are held with farmers to provide technical assistance. The general perception is because of lack of knowledge around the methods to do such farming, less number of farmers adopt this. But despite continued engagement, retention rate remains low. Nature farming requires more physical work and hence remains economically viable. Farmers find it more exhausting resulting in not adopting it. Another issue is that the success of agriculture has always revolved around the yield parameter and not on the quality.
On interacting with various farmers, I deduced that there is no discussion around the ill effects of the toxic food produced and is only limited to yield. In my opinion, till the time farmers start realizing the effect this food causes, the conversion will remain low. Once the mindset changes upon realization, then the question of technical knowledge needs to be tackled.
Another example narrated by one of the field staff of a similar project but had solar panels instead. That time, the same was able to sell most of the units with same techniques. The reason was that the problem of power cuts was high and hence the realization part was executed. Even after two years, a good number of them are still being used by the families. We often raise the issue of sustainability while discussing change/impact. How things cripple down when organizations exit from the community or the project completes. The reason is the lack of realization in the community.