Political society

India’s ‘big society’ model lays the foundation for inclusive and resurgent rural growth

Recent years, and more specifically the 2022 budget, have marked a decisive shift towards the role of government in development. The role of local communities and governance structures has been central to this. This is clearly visible in the villages with greater decentralization of Panchayat responsibilities, resources and explicit recognition of Women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs) in addressing the gendered and multidimensional nature of rural poverty.

“Big Society” first used by David Cameron in 2010 to refer to “social action” aims to help deliver public services, which also resonates well with the national call of Sabka Prayas Sabka Saath. It strengthens the spirit of making a difference for ourselves, and in doing so, we make a difference for everyone else.

In the Indian context, “organized development” where the state plays big started just after independence. However, the “development supply” over the years has accumulated more expenses and less results. Declining marginal returns to state action are often prone to the persistence of corruption and clientelism, weak frontline capacity, the disconnect between demand and delivery, and the accumulation of power politico-administrative. Sabka Prayas intends to disrupt this low yield balance and complies with Hon. PM’s vision for India @100. This effort has much stronger foundations, not just as a mere techno-managerial fix, but as a socio-behavioural evolution and boost. The most important tailwind of this effort is the mobilization of women in their collectives, in particular the federations at the cluster level.

Sabka ka Prayas was made possible through continued budget support to women’s collectives and Panchayats. As a result, there are now more than 80 million women mobilized in self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM), and there are 3.1 million elected panchayat representatives. . For Sabka Prayas to really work, we need to leverage the strength of these two institutions through a symbiosis between SHGs and elected panchayat leaders.

Women’s collectives seem to have engaged with entrenched interests of caste, patriarchy and wealth – all the issues that Dr Ambedkar feared were at the heart of the Indian village. They challenged entrenched norms, unequal social relations and engaged with local leaders, creating the conditions for social equality on the way to Gram Swaraj. The emergent and mutually reinforcing social capital that exists in women’s collectives, together with the local autonomy of the Panchayati Raj system, is at the heart of rural transformation.

The 2022 budget reinforces this pact and focuses on building rural economic enablers such as roads and houses in villages, digital connectivity, digitization of land records, and assured tap water supply with improved sanitation. Furthermore, interventions such as MGNREGS and DAY-NRLM will complement these efforts to train the Gram Panchayats in public welfare and achieve the goal of an “India without poverty”. However, so far most conversations about social capital have focused on social justice. It is not said enough that social capital is also a solid foundation of economic activity. The “comprehensive rural development approach” to rural livelihood intensification aims to leverage social capital in the economic arena. The universal saturation of women’s self-help groups over the years has brought governance closer to the people, creating political structures that are more transparent and accountable to poor and marginalized groups in society.

This new SHG-PRI (Self-help Group – Panchayat Raj Institutions) compact brings together these social connections to trust service delivery through critical channels such as frontline workers, primary school teachers and others local stakeholders. The new paradigm therefore seeks to shift from what we can give to the poor to what will enable poor households to leverage systems or institutions to progress much faster. Essentially, these women’s collectives constitute a significant advance towards the concept of the “big society” and provide a social backbone with a sense of agency, solidarity, collective bargaining, reduction of transaction costs and development of local human capital.

Many cluster federations have successfully played both normative and transactional function, for example, the DAY-NRLM is the largest micro-finance provider with a credit flow of over Rs.4.5 lakh crore. These groups not only refined gender interrelationships within and outside families, but also actively mediated the transitional member-citizen-government and member-consumer-market interaction.

Self-help groups are therefore a unique Indian institutional innovation, providing essential leadership through collective action, bridging the gap between the poor and the government, and the poor and the market. They have succeeded in addressing the fragmented nature of economic agents in poor communities, as has been the case in access to financial markets, and have also demonstrated a capacity for governance of transactions with a very low default rate. The emerging breadth and depth of the “big society” through Sabka Prayas-Sabka Sath in our villages is going to have a transformative impact on how state-community engagement and relations take shape; and will be the most important pivot of the “New Rural”.



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The opinions expressed above are those of the author.



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