As a child when he used to visit his ancestral village Gadhiya in once dacoit-infested terrains of Panchanada (five rivers) – a 25-kmlong expanse of treacherous land between Chambal and Yamuna rivers, intersected by Pahuj, Sindhu and Kwari rivers – in the Chambal region, NIHAL SINGH CHAUHAN, social activist, founder of ‘Chalo Gaon Ki Aur’ initiative, and Akhil Bhartiya Kshatriya Mahasabha national general secretary, would be moved by the plight of dacoits on the run.

This propelled him to seek solutions to socio-economic problems of people living in remote rural areas through his ‘Chalo Gaon Ki Aur’ campaign. A business administrator by profession, he left his job in Mumbai in 2003 to take up development of self-sustaining business models in villages with local people as buyers and producers of goods.

He has been instrumental in setting up 1500 sanitary napkin pad making units in villages as part of a menses management campaign. He has been given President’s Award for leprosy eradication works in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

In an interview to DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, Chauhan, 46, says the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to strengthen the rural economic set-up.

Excerpts:

Q. What is the purpose of your threedecade- old campaign, ‘Chalo Gaon Ki Aur (Let’s go to the village)’, asking people to go back to their respective villages they once had left for urban areas in search of livelihood?

A. The purpose of this campaign is to enable people to lead a happy and sustainable life in their own villages. Over 70 per cent of the country’s population is based in villages.

People in villages have to often leave their homes for urban commercial and industrial locations in search of livelihood. The aim of ‘Chalo Gaon Ki Aur’ is to ensure a sustainable livelihood in villages through co-existence with nature in accordance with the Panchyati Raj norms and the principles of socio-economic and harmonious co-existence enshrined in the Constitution.

Q. Covid-19 pandemic has seen the workers leaving big cities after being retrenched from workplaces in large numbers.How do you explain this fallout of the pandemic in India?

A. Coronavirus is a recent phenomenon. We had gotten an inkling of the things to come way back in 2007. There was no legislative framework for allround socio-economic development of villages in place. The Panchayat Raj Bill was passed in 1993 but there was no concrete plan of action in place for turning villages into centres of economic activities.

In 2010, thanks to a concerted campaign and works of like-minded organisations in the field of rural socioeconomic development the Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas or PURA Act was passed by Parliament.

It came as a ray of hope for rural youth forced to leave their villages in search of job opportunities.

Q. So you are saying the government should start working on the unfinished work of job creation in rural India?

A. The government needs to help set up micro food processing units in villages. The essential raw material for these food processing factories can be supplied from the nearby farmlands.

From farmlands to processing units, supply chain, storage and to market outlets there are plenty of jobs. There is no need to worry. We have done the necessary spade work to ensure work, food, salt, water and self-respect for people, who have recently moved back to their villages and towns, through our timetested models of rural development.

Q. What are the factors responsible for the plight of migrant labourers in the wake of the countrywide lockdown?

A. You can’t clap with your one hand. The labourers are also required to change their mindset. The government has been formulating policies such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA from time to time for creating jobs for labourers and village folk.

MGNREGA ensures 100 days work to rural workforce in a year. But the fact of the matter is that neither the labourers are ready to work nor the local administration works strictly as per the provisions of the law. Ideally, the migrant workers should have stayed put where they were during lockdown.

Productions units cannot come up in villages overnight to give them work. But now that they have come back, the villagers should welcome them back and share work with them.

Q. In what manner can your development models help create job opportunities in rural India post-Covid?

A. We have been through our frontal unit ‘Anubhav’ working in clusters. We have employed our tried and tested TSD (Transfer services as per demand) technique for creating production hubs in selected villages. In a particular hub a maximum of one or two types of products specific to that area are taken up for commercial production.

Alongside, a smooth supply of these products to nearby markets is also ensured. Through ‘NAFL (National Agriculture Forestry Land and Livestock) Agro Project’ we have been extending technical and commercial expertise to rural clusters for employment generation. We are also working in tandem with various central government schemes for developing ‘Work Hubs’.

Q. Tell us about your women-centric projects.Where do these projects fit in your scheme of rural economic and social upliftment?

A. Today more than 200 sanitary napkin pad refill centres are operational in villages in various parts of the country including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Uttrakhand, Maharashtra, etc.

Then, we have created clusters of mushroom production units, trained people to make organic manure and handicraft using water hyacinth. We are helping to promote dairy units in villages. People are being trained to take up organic farming and sell their produce at their rural outlets.

These projects are not only helping in job creation but also addressing core issues of rural cleanliness, malnutrition and skill training. We have created 200 water hyacinth product centres in Pilibhit.

Q. Can you tell us about your sanitary napkin pad project in rural areas?

A. Indeed it is one project that has contributed immensely to the healthcare needs of women and adolescent girls in rural India. It has led to their social, economic and intellectual empowerment.

According to an estimate, today only 23 per cent of women in rural India use sanitary napkin pads. This leaves a large population out of the ambit of this modern means of ensuring hygiene, safety and overall health of women in the country.

We have set up quality and affordable sanitary napkin pads making units in remote villages. In future it will help deal with any health contingency. We are ensuring availability of these pads in remote village clusters even amid the ongoing Covid pandemic.

We offer free training to anyone seeking to set up pad manufacturing units and help them with necessary access to market to sell their products.

Q. Tell us about your over two-decadelong struggle to take the ideas of rural socio-economic empowerment to the masses.How successful have you been in doing so?

A. From 1995 to 2003, I devoted my entire time to understanding the problems of rural India. In 2003 I quit my job as a business administration professional in Mumbai.

I came back to Gwalior, went to my ancestral village in the Chambal-Yamuna river valley and set up experimental workshops in Gwalior and Etawah. I started with a goat farm and encouraged others to follow suit and ensured supply of the meat to CRPF and BSF units.

We worked in tandem with Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments to set up entrepreneurship models in villages. All these helped hundreds of rural boys and girls to become self-employed and contribute to rural economy.

We have created job specific training curriculum for youth in tune with state and Central government schemes to further expand the scope of employability for rural youths. I have so far visited about 4,000 villages spread across 22 states and created unique business modules exclusive to each village and region.

Q. How could the issue of urban joblessness be addressed?

A. To deal with urban unemployment we need to strengthen the supply chain system. The urban factories have to be remodeled with changing times. Storage system has to be overhauled. The food, garment, vegetable, milk-related industries should be set up in villages only.

This will bring down the cost of production. The urban people can be employed in the management of the supply chain, marketing, distribution and testing of products besides management of accounts. There is an urgent need to effectively implement the provisions of PURA Act.

The norms of training, selection and evaluation have to be changed. And most importantly the spirit of social coexistence has to be promoted.

Q. Do you foresee any problem for industrial and manufacturing units in the wake of mass migration of labourers from urban to rural areas?

A. We need to keep this important fact in mind that the workforce which has migrated back to rural areas is a trained workforce. He knows about the movement of goods in the market. Using his skill and experience, he can make products in villages and sell them in the urban markets.

It will help improve his economic condition. The corporates will have to ensure proper sharing of profit to attract workers to their production units. The underpinning fact is people will now have to learn to be frugal. We need to live our lives, not lifestyle.