Small is beautiful: the UK charity believing in India’s rural poor

Recent figures from the World Bank indicate that India may finally be climbing out of poverty, yet, what they don’t show is India’s growing inequality. 63 million people in rural communities still do not have access to clean water. Less than 50% of women and low-caste people own land. India’s position on the Human Development Index remains low. And, as a new report published this week reveals, India is failing to realise the earning potential of a large section of society: women. One UK charity, Jeevika Trust, believes it can help solve the problem by improving rural women’s livelihoods. Their projects have so far reached 100,000 people in 90 villages in Odisha and Tamil Nadu, two of India’s poorest states. .

A key cause of rural India’s poverty is the social hierarchy of the villages themselves. Women face not only prejudice, but also rape, child marriage and domestic violence all of which limit their income-generating potential. To tackle this, Jeevika Trust developed its own village livelihood model, identifying six crucial factors: social standing, education, water, nutrition, income, and human rights, that empower women and improve their potential to earn. Their work centres around preserving, promoting, and delivering this model, for example, by training Dalit women farmers in new technologies to help increase their income.

All Jeevika’s work is based on the idea that if women’s lives improve, everyone prospers. Their highly successful Rural Women’s Livelihood Programme (RWLP) supports Dalit and tribal women in generating an income through a variety of different methods, including beekeeping and fish cultivation. Evaluation of the programme shows that the income generated is three times the money originally invested. And, the projects have lasting impact on the whole village, as women become decision-makers, able to influence change.  “I have become self-dependent and sufficient,” commented one participant, “We are free from the four walls of the house.”

Jeevika Trust’s Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project

The fact that Jeevika operates at grassroots level is no coincidence. One of the charity’s founders was German economist E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, a well-known critique of conventional economics. Ahead of his time in arguing for sustainable development, he advocated finding solutions to poverty through local knowledge and human connections. The title of his book became a catchphrase, at a time when people were questioning the ethics of globalization.  It was Schumacher’s “compassion and common sense which strike one” says Jeevika director Andrew Redpath in an interview, “and how he clearly saw that the problem of India’s huge rural population was one of truly global significance, which would come to haunt India unless tackled systemically at village level.”

Schumacher’s influence can clearly be seen in the solutions Jeevika provides: practical, people-centred ideas to create sustainable futures, such as providing rooftop water harvesting for a school in Odisha.  Their work with Jeevan Rekha Parishad to conserve the Chilika Lagoon is another example of a project with sustainability at its heart. The two-year initiative helped local women to cultivate crabs in the lagoon, generating funds which then supported other projects in the area like sanitation facilities. The group worked to improve the lagoon’s eco-system, ensuring the project had lasting potential.

Beekeeper from one of Jeevika Trust’s honey-production projects


Jeevika’s work has the potential to create prosperous rural communities; places residents actually want to live in. The ultimate hope is that villagers will choose to stay rather than migrate to the cities. “My 2020 vision” says Andrew, “is that we will have meaningfully touched a million lives in rural India and made a small but valued contribution to the reversal of urban drift. Every young person who looks at his or her life in the village – its facilities, its opportunities, and its values – and decides not to migrate to a city is a mark on India’s most important social score-board.”

Stories of India’s economic growth are hitting the headlines, but should we be focusing on the other reality, that 50% of the population shares just 2.1% of the wealth? Against a rising tide of opinion in support of migration and urbanisation, Jeevika Trust has demonstrated that there can be such a thing as a sustainable Indian village. The government may be leaving its rural communities behind, but this tiny charity is not.

There are plenty of ways to get involved with Jeevika. You can fundraise for them, connect on social media, or e-mail them about volunteering.

This post is part of a series profiling the work of small independent NGOs and charities in the UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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