December 2004 | Saloni Meghani

Silver lining in a rural cloud

Tata Steel's social development initiatives have made a significant difference to the lives of some of Jharkhand's poorest communities

Tribal communities living in the hinterlands of Jharkhand have no great affinity for strangers. A long history of exploitation by 'outsiders' has made them wary of unfamiliar faces that find a way to their hamlets and villages. But the guard drops, and reticence gives way to a warm welcome, when a particular group of outsiders — volunteers from Tata Steel — comes visiting.

The reason for the hearty reception is simple: the Tata Steel people have no smash-and-grab agenda; in fact, their interactions with Jharkhand's tribal communities are all about giving rather than taking. Through its Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS) and Tribal Cultural Society, the company has been providing ideas and resources that can help the people here help themselves.

Says Shakti Sharma, who heads Tata Steel's social services and family initiatives wing, "The objective of our rural development initiatives is to create economic and social equality in the areas where the company operates. Skewed social structures can lead to unrest and instability, and that does have an impact on business."

Instead of relying on ad-hoc welfare activity, Tata Steel uses a web of income generation, empowerment, and health and hygiene schemes. This integrated programme employs the company's best practices while drawing on the experience and expertise of independent development agencies. It also takes management learning and skills to the grassroots.

A shining example of the success of these initiatives is the village of Betakocha, home to 103 families of the Bhumji Munda and other backward castes. For years the people here leased out their land at low prices to brick-kiln owners. Now, with the assistance of TSRDS, the villagers have compelled the kiln owners to leave and have reclaimed control of their future.

TSRDS has helped Betakocha's residents organise their funds and energy to plan and executive a comprehensive development scheme. The village landscape has been transformed from one ravaged by brick kilns to that of a recovering agricultural community. A particularly heartening part of the progress is the success of a drive for sanitation and, consequently, a decline in health problems.

TSRDS operates not only in these rural pockets around Jamshedpur, but also in the captive mines and collieries of West Bokaro, Noamundi and Jamadoba. In the state of Orissa it caters to the rural communities of Joda, Sukinda and Bamnipal, and Gopalpur.

The Society has strived to reinforce the villagers with newer means of livelihood. The villagers now practice alternatives to farming, such as floriculture, pisciculture, poultry farming, animal husbandry and forestry. In West Bokaro TSRDS has enabled the previously marginalised Birhore tribal community to utilise their rope-making skills in converting discarded plastic bags to rope that can be used in Tata Steel's collieries.

TSRDS has also brought more reliability into the agricultural practices of Jharkhand's tribal communities. It has done this by supporting programmes to implement lift-irrigation, deepen ponds and build check dams that improve the use of existing water bodies. Additionally, the Society has given farmers access to high-yield paddy seeds and agricultural technology and know-how.

Mission Hariyali (or greenery), an ambitious effort to convert 1,000 acres of land from mono to multi cropping, has caught the imagination of the 12 villages in TSRDS's target cluster. The project, started in 2002-03, has already lifted more than 300 families above the poverty line. Before the project started these families irrigated only a fraction of their land and the food they produced lasted less than six months. Not any more.

Tata Steel's initiatives in the areas of health and hygiene have had just as significant an impact. Clean drinking water and better sanitation lie at the heart of these efforts. The company has collaborated with Unicef to take these basic necessities to many villages. TSRDS complements these programmes by delivering basic medical help for mothers and children.

As an adjunct to its healthcare project, TSRDS has brightened the smiles of many rural children through corrective surgeries for cleft lips. Called Operation Muskaan (or smile), this initiative, conducted with the help of the Tata Hospital in Jamshedpur and Impact India, has enriched the lives of some 200 kids.

TSRDS encourages the formation of self-help groups among the rural women it works with. These groups have functioned particularly well in empowering women and in developing links between them and banks. At Joda and Noamundi, for instance, 11 illiterate and poor women received a loan of Rs 40,000 to run a goat farm. They returned more than half the money in the first year of operation itself.

The significance of Tata Steel's rural development work lies, in the words of the company's managing director, B. Muthuraman, in "changing the mindset of rural India, weaving into its fabric motivated women and youth". The intention is to provide the blueprint and the means that can enable the rural poor to be masters of their own destiny.

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