One of the joys of being a journalist is that you’re always meeting different kinds of people, and every day can be a day of discovery. I’m currently leading a journalism mentoring programme for the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF), in partnership with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). (I know, you thought I was only a film critic -- sorry and spoiler alert --but in my Other Life, I work in development issues). It is quite challenging to try and teach the basics of good journalism in just four lectures to a group of 60 Fellows of diverse backgrounds, from all over the country.
Children at a school in Simdega district. Pic/ PMRDF Scheme official facebook page
The PMRDF programme is an amazing exercise. The Indian state has been desperately trying to subdue Naxalite violence in several states for decades. The ministry of home affairs has recorded 12,399 fatalities in Left-wing extremist incidents from 1999-2014. The government strategy in addressing this problem is two-pronged -- on one hand, it deploys various security personnel to destroy Maoist cadres. On the other, its Integrated Action Plan has pumped Rs 30 crore per district with concentrated development plans in 60 ‘Left-wing extremist districts’ in nine states -- to bring drinking water, electricity, roads, schools, housing and primary health centres to the poorest, and wean them away from the Naxals. Since the violence, although abated, continues despite everything, Jairam Ramesh, former Union Rural Development minister, came up with the idea of involving the nation’s youth in helping find solutions. His ministry set up the PMRDF to encourage young Fellows, who were posted for three years in Left-wing extremism affected districts, to become "catalysts for transformative development". These youngsters were to find out why things are still going wrong, and try to improve the system in their own ways, boosting development delivery to the lowest rungs. Ramesh called it a "leap in the dark."
I salute the idea and the programme as an excellent, out-of-the-box approach to the problem. Imagine, they received nearly 10,000 applications, and only 140 Fellows were selected in 2012 -- graduates and post-graduates between 21-30 years. TISS equips them with knowledge and skills for transformative development. The Fellows have been posted for three years in 83 districts in nine states, including Maharashtra -- and paid handsomely, R75,000 per month.
The journalism mentoring programme was to guide the Fellows to write articles in which they share their unique insights, gained from grassroots experience in the far-flung districts. I’m editing these as a book that is to be published. This opportunity has allowed me to understand what today’s inspiring youth are willing to do for the nation.
The PMRDF youngsters -- many of them MBAs -- have chosen to commit themselves to three years in a rural, Left-wing extremist area posting, just as their careers are poised for take-off. One Fellow, a former research fellow at the University of Minnesota, US, gave up a well-paid job in Delhi to take on his rural posting-- his wife is also a PMRDF Fellow -- and they have a small baby. These choices tell me something wonderful about Youngistan, its idealism, sacrifices and commitment to India. Usually these terms are associated with those who participated in the freedom struggle. But they still ring true in 2015.
As ‘catalysts for transformative development’ they tried to make innovations and linkages, so that government benefits could reach the poorest. Apart from helping bring food, jobs and shelter to those who had fallen off the map, they got micro-ATMs in remote areas, so tribals could get pensions, they started sericulture and floriculture programmes, they organised Adivasi and Dalit traditional singers and dancers to create awareness of government schemes through their art, earning a livelihood from these dying arts.
Many districts they visited still did not exist in official records. They met families of whom Naxals have demanded, "give us one of your children."
In chapter after chapter, the Fellows plead with the government not to bombard people with more schemes and projects, but emphasise better implementation of existing schemes. One of them recommends that we put the beneficiaries in charge of the programme, instead of the babus. Officials usually assess development in number-crunching terms, but one of the Fellows wrote with acute insight, "Development is when a tribal walks unafraid to the District Collector’s office and demands his rights without fear."
The PMRDF intends to build a pool of skilled professionals who also have empathy for the poorest, to work towards a long-term solution to India’s persistent poverty. It has been very humbling getting to know these young Fellows, who have had the faith and determination to change, in their own ways, India’s shame and favourite excuse: "the system".
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.