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Sreelatha Menon: Rural band-aid

Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation, which channels CSR funds, is silent on the reasons for rural distress

Sreelatha Menon 

Sreelatha Menon

After making policies that lead to exclusion of a large section of the population, the government comes up with schemes that seek to heal some of these wounds.

The Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation (BRLF) is an instance of such a band-aid approach. Apart from the government kitty of Rs 500 crore, the foundation has a licence to gather whatever it can of the funds spent by industry on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Mihir Shah, BRLF president, member of the Planning Commission and former civil society activist, says the new Companies Act makes donations to BRLF a permissible CSR activity. One of the first donors to BRLF was former Tata Sons chief Ratan Tata, who contributed Rs 10 crore.

Civil society members, however, aren't too convinced these efforts would resolve the problem of exclusion, especially among Scheduled Tribes that BRLF targets. Amita Joseph, lawyer and civil society activist, says the first premise of CSR is to do no harm. Therefore, in the case of BRLF, contributors, who are part of the problem, cannot be part of the solution, she says.

BRLF does not propose to ask these larger questions, as is evident from a concept note - it looks at livelihood creation in isolation. It seems it presumes money alone will solve all problems and, therefore, CSR funds, as well as funds from other sources, will help the cause of rural livelihoods. But seldom have funds alone been enough. No amount of funding, whether from British aid agencies, Danish ones or the World Bank, has been able to remove either poverty or illiteracy.

Vital questions remain. What caused eight million people to quit farming in the past decade, according to the census? What caused a large number of farmer suicides in the past two decades?

Before merely providing livelihoods, BRLF should first look at the causes of rural distress, says Joseph. If the policies support a real estate boom that depends on aggregating farm lands, how can rural agrarian distress be resolved by mere livelihood creation, she asks.

P V Rajagopal, who has been fighting for the cause of the displaced, is part of the BRLF general body. He says the foundation is looking purely at the creation of livelihoods, not about displacement or its causes. And, many BRLF members aren't sure of the future of the foundation, considering the Lok Sabha elections are just months away. A member said the foundation might either be wound up or see new members once a new government was in place.

As it stands now, BRLF is meant to "foster and facilitate civil society action in partnership with government for transforming the livelihoods and lives of people in areas such as the central Indian Adivasi belt". It aims to support grass root-level action towards empowering people and scaling up innovative approaches. It also seeks to leverage resources available for rural development initiatives such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

While a partnership between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and industry for the creation of livelihoods is a novel approach, the question is whether NGOs would be able to work in Naxal-hit areas at a time when these entities have been facing scrutiny and persecution over this.

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First Published: Sat, November 16 2013. 21:48 IST