Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Poverty and the Village Economy: Design Strategies for India

Image: Models prepared by systems design students from Product and Graphic Design after their recent visit to Jawaja in Rajasthan.

Poverty and the Village Economy: Design Strategies for India
This year the Design Concepts and Concerns course offered to the Foundation batch at the NID is looking at how design can help address some pressing needs of our villages, particularly in dealing with the problems associated with systemic poverty and how design thinking and action can help the people help themselves. The theme of this year’s course is water and its numerous manifestations and applications and the students have explored this space through mapping out design opportunities while trying to understand the needs of the five selected regions that have been assigned to the groups for their study and action. The Government of India has all but admitted that they have failed to deal with the huge problem of rural indebtedness and failure of agriculture and the only thing that they could think of was to give sops (as usual) in the form of a Rs 60,000 crore farm-loan-waiver scheme which addresses the symptoms and not the cause. I wonder what would happen if such funds were applied to the creation of imaginative solutions that are specific to each location through the use of design and through local participation? The massive and repeated occurrence of farmer suicides that have been reported from many parts of our country are the symptoms for a deep seated malaise that Government with all its massive investments in science and technology programmes on the one hand and in numerous financial and management schemes on the other, all of which have come to no real solution to this endemic problem.

This magnanimous gesture on the part of Government was further compounded by another show of opulent entertainment through a lavish indulgence that was exhibited by a group of corporate leaders and their wealthy and loaded counterparts from the entertainment world in a weekend bash at Jamnagar, all in a land of farmer suicides and abject poverty that is a real concern across thousands of villages that make up much of India. Mukesh Ambani is reported to have spent upwards of Rs 400 crores for this three day bash and I wonder if other rich farmers and our feudal zamindari system in rural India will try to emulate this act in the days ahead, some leadership, great role model!! Not that designers are far behind if one examined the luxury based projects that they carry out regularly with great aplomb and an uncanny disdain for any form of poverty that surrounds us in India, all while working for their corporate masters in the form of opulent trade shows, glamour events and branded experience merchandise and lifestyle products for the very very rich. Design itself is unfortunately seen as an activity aimed at the very rich and rarely as a process and an activity that can address the pressing needs of our country and its needy poor, which is a whole world apart.

Dr. Verghese Kurian, the great Anand milkman and founder to the Dairy Cooperative movement in India, has been calling repeatedly for the creation of rural support systems and educational institutes such as the IRMA, the Indian Institute of Rural Management, across several geographies in India but the Government continues to bash on with the setting up of more IIM’s, the Indian Institute of Management, that address the needs of corporate India when these particular entities are quite capable of looking after themselves, or should be doing so by all the means available to them. Some of us have been calling for an increased allocation of Government funds into the design education sector as well since we believe that this would help solve many of our human resource imbalances that are due to the excessive leaning towards science and technology on the one side and on corporate kind of management on the other hand, particularly at the higher education levels. This year the national budget has earmarked funds for yet more IIT’s and IIM’s while continuing to ignore the dire need for design schools as well as rural management schools that Dr Kurian has been talking about. The late Prof. Ravi Matthai, the founder Director of the IIM Ahmedabad had initiated a visionary programme for experimenting with rural education called “The Rural University Project” in the early 70’s and through this initiative he had inspired faculty and students of the IIMA and the NID Ahmedabad to cooperate in the field and build solutions for the rural poor. The Jawaja Project, as we called it at NID, had many initiatives that took design teachers and students to the villages of Rajasthan and Nilam Iyer through her Diploma Project had developed strategies as well as products using the skills and materials of the leather workers of the Jawaja village cooperative. The NID-IIMA involvement continued for many years and the stated objective of the Jawaja team led by Prof Matthai was to make the interveners dispensible completely through the building of the self reliance of the village people. This was indeed a very wise piece of advice when we look back at Jawaja after a period of 25 years. Ashoke Chatterjee in his 1997 interview with Carolyn Jongeward talks about the design journey with conviction and satisfaction. The interview was later published in Seminar magazine and can be seen at this link.

Image; Model and metaphor of the Raigar system of product based entrepreneurial venture prepared by the student team to understand the system.
The Raigar community, the Dalits of the region, were the poorest of the lot, and today they have gained the self confidence and the means to make their own living from the craft of making leather products which the are able to market in India as well as to many locations overseas. It is a confirmation that design support and local entrepreneurship can transform a communityt from being dejected and helpless to become confident and self reliant through a process of hand holding and encouragement which could induce local sustained action. It seems that the strategies that were developed and embedded into the design offerings for the Jawaja community has worked at many levels of complexity and today when a team of senior Product Design students from NID make a presentation of their field visit and findings from the Jawaja region, the message is very clear, that the design interventions have worked so well that the Raigars are the most financially secure community in the region today. These field studies were done as part of their systems design class at NID in their search for meaningful occupations for design in India today. It shows that design works and should indeed be used locally in each and every development situation to get the “Jawaja effect” to spread all over the country. Is the Government of India listening? I do hope so.

This strategy has been tried time and again by the NID faculty and students across numerous crafts communities all over India with a great deal of success. Paul Polak in his book “Out of Poverty: What works when traditional approaches fails”, tells us that his own experience with dealing with poverty in agriculture has used entrepreneurship and design strategy at the grassroots level to help eradicate poverty in many places across the world. His work and that of his organization, the International Development Enterprises, can be seen at their website link here.

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