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Dr. Neelam Gupta of AROH Foundation Elaborates on the Role of NGOs in the Development of India

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NGOs are very important in the social fabric of the country. Their reach at the grassroots level makes their activities very impactful aiding the effective development of a country. Dr Neelam Gupta, President and CEO of AROH Foundation, in an exclusive conversation with The CSR Journal, elaborates upon the role of the organization in the development of the country and that of NGOs in general.

1. Amid the approaching third wave of COVID-19, what role does the Foundation seek to play in containing the pandemic?

Just like how we worked during the first and the second wave! Yes, we were always there standing fast on the ground throughout the pandemic and again we are all set to venture in with our service and support.
We at AROH, are already in touch with our respective district authorities in about 90 districts at the pan India level and started off in all possible capacities to support the government machinery in dealing with the pandemic, helping people in need, and simultaneously being the constant support to the medical, law & order & district machinery. Through a strategic holistic approach, we plan to step in to support government, people and corona fighters through all possible means. The series of relief measures included the supply of food packets and water to the needy ones, Safety gears to medical professionals, patrolling support for lockdown implementation and online counselling sessions to the people in distress. At present, a lot of AROH’s volunteers are engaged in psychological counselling, offline community screening and education. We have been developing corona awareness collaterals and very responsibly sharing through our social media platforms.
We have also introduced a portal for online fundraising so that people who are bound by restrictions can also contribute. Outpourings of generosity during the coronavirus pandemic are part of a shift toward direct giving. These funds shall be transparently utilised for an uninterrupted supply of relief measures. Relief work is updated on regular basis on our corona dedicated page at www.arohforpeople.in

2. How can non-profits contribute towards resolving the issue of rising unemployment in the country after the pandemic?

Unemployment is not a new stumbling block of our nation’s progress. India’s unemployment rate reached a four-month high of 7.91% in December as compared to 7% and 7.75 per cent in November and October 2021, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) showed on Monday. Covid just aggravated the situation while shooting up the unemployment rate with an all-time high since 8.3% in August.
AROH has been working in income generation skill training activities for the past two decades now. in fact, we started off the journey of AROH in 2001, with the Government of India’s flagship DDU GKY skill development project only. And by far we have been successful in training more than 25000 youth, 22000 women and establishing them into small-medium entrepreneurs or placing them with leading employers of the nation. However, we agree with the paradigm shift, that we have seen in the employment and skill sector.
NGOs in India are hailed for their deep nexus in the remotest villages of the country. According to the Union Labour and Employment Ministry, over 1.14 crore inter-State migrant workers returned to their homes during the lockdown. And so the role of NGOs becomes very crucial in identifying, skilling and placing these candidates back as the workforce.  With the advent of yet another wave of COVID, this becomes far more important for NGOs need to design COVID – relevant skill sets to be trained in, more virtual training modules and identify the neediest candidates as beneficiaries. It is essential to put this large chunk of the population back as contributing force in the economy.

3. What are some of the key areas that AROH Foundation is working in?

AROH has been working closely with the Government of India, leading PSUs and Corporates in implementing vast projects in the domain of Health & Sanitation, Education & School Infra Development, Holistic Rural Development Programs, Water & Natural Resource Management, Skill Development & Livelihood Generation projects, with a special focus on Women Empowerment as cross-cutting agenda within all its interventions. AROH also specializes in establishing enterprise and entrepreneurs, micro-credit enterprises while creation of SHGs or restoring indigenous crafts etc.
By far AROH has positively touched the lives of more than 5 lakh people in 18 states of India. This included the most difficult & isolated locations including the Naxal affected Chhattisgarh, Red Corridors, Interiors of Meghalaya, UP, Bihar and Orissa too.
AROH is hailed for its transparent reporting mechanism through its robust MIS, expert manpower and highly ethical policy of working.

3. What does the AROH foundation do to ensure that the projects they initiate sustain even after they withdraw their presence from the region?

Sustainability is the core of all of AROH’s planning and processes. Within a project, AROH’s core sustainability policy relies on engaging existing resources and manpower in project implementation, which ensures that the implementing gear is set within the site only.
AROH ensures training and upgrading local manpower & resources towards maintenance and monitoring of interventions. The local manpower is later handed over the responsibility to maintain and sustain the asset and the interventions.
Close liaison between the manpower and local administration & political wings are established, which ensure seamless working and maintenance after exit.
Community contribution in terms of physical, financial and emotional content is also ensured, which instils a sense of responsibility and ownership within the community.
Apart from this extensive awareness and mobilization are placed as crucial tools to instil an understanding of the importance of an asset or the activity.

4. What role can CSR play in furthering the cause of women empowerment in rural areas?

India is aiming to be a 5 trillion dollar economy. It is also sitting on a goldmine of raw talent in the form of rural females, waiting to be nurtured, developed, and added to the growing human resource pool. A big economic opportunity for India lies in creating competent and trained female manpower.
CSR should prioritise rural women empowerment as the foundation of the development strategy of the nation. Especially as the pandemic continues to rage in the country, our economy has taken a massive hit, and many have been left without jobs and livelihoods, unemployment rates are at an all-time high and the most affected are those from the rural areas, especially the women and so empowering these female rural youth, who constitute a little more than 48% of the country’s total population as per Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC) shall be a stepping stone for India towards being the trillion-dollar economy. . The saying ‘the hand that rocks the cradle’ has enormous economic connotations for India’s ambitions towards an inclusive workforce.  The benefits of skilling and empowering Indian rural women amount to a staggering increase in GDP.
CSR should plan and place models that can develop villages into self-sustaining revenue models which focus on skills and empower women. Small enterprise or Self Help Groups set up in Agri or allied or village relevant business shall do the required. Old indigenous craft can be revived, branded and promoted within the proper framework. The opportunities are numerous, but the will and work are required.

5. What are some of the geographical regions and causes that require CSR attention in your experience?

We have witnessed that although a whole ministry, department and many individual agencies are set up to implement, monitor and assess the development within villages. The government also runs vast welfare schemes, a dedicated quota for villagers but the ones who are looked over often are the urban poor. Considering them as a part of developed metros, we often ignore the basic necessities of these slum dwellers, residing in large numbers in unauthorized colonies of metros. They often are seen struggling with basic needs of Water, Electricity, Safe Defecation, Drainage, Hygiene, Health or even Education.
In this deadly crisis of COVID, it becomes even more important to address the needs of these slum setups as they are often the ticking bomb of viruses in absence of maintenance of protocols.
AROH invoke CSR investors to design and dedicate their projects for the welfare of these urban poor too.

6. Education has taken a major hit amid the pandemic. What needs to be done to bridge this gap as we struggle to cope with the pandemic?

This is an ideal time to experiment and deploy new tools to make education delivery meaningful to students who can’t go to campuses. It’s a chance to be more efficient and productive while developing new and improved professional skills/knowledge through online learning and assessment. It is also a fact that the use of technology in education is resulting in different concepts in the system, for instance, the move from teacher-centric education to student-centric education.
The new methodology shall be serving mutual interests to both student and the teacher. Not only do the virtual classrooms reduce the exorbitant overhead of running a physical school, the recurring costs of buying stationaries, dresses, conveyance etc shall also be reduced for the ward and their parents. The planning to put the systems in place is taking shape slowly and the target to make the virtual classrooms and the engagement between the teacher and students as close to a real is implemented.  The solutions to the doubts shall be just a click away. Going forward, these tools can also make the teachers and parent meetings as well as staff/management meetings more time and cost-saving while providing the necessary interactivity. Pedagogy in digital education is an important link between course content, educationists, technology and course-takers. Going forward, the use of technology in teaching or recruitment will lead to a new era wherein the best of faculty will be available from across the globe to students.  Most importantly, once the mandatory infrastructure is ensured, especially at the rural set-up, the physical barrier of unavailability of a school, a trained teacher, opportunities to a bright future, transparent assessment, capacity building and cross-learning shall be mitigated immediately.
A key aspect of coping with Covid-19 is to ensure that the learning remains a continuous process virtually. Connecting students and teachers through digital platforms and necessary software through the use of laptops or phones is the latest transition in education trying to eradicate the physical need of teachers or classrooms. This is an ideal time to accept technology and its latest offerings in order to make education delivery to students more efficient and make it more productive through online learning and assessments. All these steps will help strengthen the country’s digital learning infrastructure in the long run. Covid-19 has only accelerated the adoption of technologies to deliver education.

7. What should be the focus of CSR initiatives to build a sustainable healthcare system in rural areas in India?

Our healthcare system suffers major inadequacies, especially in rural setups. The Indian rural health care system is a three-tier system comprising Sub-Centres, Primary Health Centres (PHC), and Community Health Centres (CHC). There is currently a shortfall in health facilities: 18% at the Sub-Centre level, 22% at the PHC level and 30% at the CHC level (as of March 2018). Although the number of facilities has increased over the years, the workforce availability is substantially below the recommended levels as suggested by the World Health Organization. Rural India has 3.2 government hospital beds per 10,000 people. Many states have a significantly lower number of rural beds than the national average. The health care services and systems in India are still developing and have challenges of workforce shortages, absenteeism, poor infrastructure and quality of care. Despite the National Health Mission and Government’s commitment, adequate and affordable healthcare is still a mirage.
The Pandemic indeed gave a wake-up call to CSR investors to prioritize investing in healthcare in India. However, it is a fact that out of the total of over Rs 52,533 crore, companies incurred a CSR expenditure of over Rs 9093 crores in healthcare in past 5 years. This shows a rightful spend of CSR funds in healthcare, which helped the nation to fight two deadly COVID waves in 2020 and 2021. Clearly, Health & Sanitation has been a CSR Priority.
Further investor needs to directly invest in building up PPP models for developing hospitals, infrastructure and trained professionals in rural setups. This is also the crux of ambitious PM Atma Nirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana, announced by PM in the 2021 budget.

8. How can rural India support the country in meeting its SDG targets? What kind of external support would enable them to achieve this?

Rural setups in India have the potential to change the complete development and sustainability game in India. In India, it’s the bottom-up development starting from rural to urban set-up that can create a sustainable model.
The rural population comprises about 70 and 60 per cent of the population of low and lower-middle-income countries, respectively, and about 80 per cent of people below the poverty line live in rural areas. The SDGs cannot be achieved without progress in rural development. Important changes in rural development strategies are also necessary for the protection of natural capital, located mostly in rural areas and subjected to serious depletion due to the current strategies of rural development.
The World Social Report 2021, titled “Rethinking Rural Development,” puts forward the radical idea of ending the rural-urban divide too. The localisation of SDGs is an agenda of central importance. In line with the principle of cooperative federalism and larger devolution of funds to the States, and then to the districts and lastly the villages, the villagers are the primary stakeholders in ensuring the success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in India.  It’s with the villages, that when they adopt SDGs locally, that the district, and the states
Rural setups are mines of potential, which, if provided with the right guidance, infrastructure and opportunities can accelerate the SDG targets with much ease.  They just need a small push and opportunity from outside. Be it the support from government schemes through easy convergence, administration and political will is certainly required to utilize complete potential of the villages.

9. Do you have any specific comments on the socio-economic development of India and the role of individuals or government in it?

Yes, I have a firm belief that India’s Socioeconomic development largely aligns with the framework of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals that form the blueprint for its prosperous and sustainable future.
As one of the world’s great geopolitical powers, India has played a leading role in the formation of these goals. Accordingly, there has been a renewed push by the Indian Government on socio-economic programmes aimed at reviving jobs, investments, exports, enhancing the delivery of healthcare, housing and water for all, infrastructure development and supporting the agricultural sector. Even at AROH, we very strategically align all our interventions with relevant SDGs.
And yes each individual needs to contribute to this, or otherwise, we cannot aim for bigger goals in future. Its starts with each of us as individuals, that we understand our role and responsibility in sustainable development, and that we start standing against the exploitation of nature, climate, manpower, resources, and then only we can start questioning the policymakers and the government about our rights. We cannot keep making our planet a junkyard and scream at the government that why haven’t they cleaned the junk? Right! So yes, each one can either be the Caitiff or the Contributor in SDG, so choose your role wisely.