ASSEFA : 35 Years of Service to Rural Communities of India
A holistic approach to community development
Yvon Poirier, October 2004
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his disciple, Vinoba Bhave, the Association for Sarva Seva Farms (ASSEFA) has been working for 35 years to improve the condition of landless peasants. From lands obtained by Vinoba Bhave for peasants, ASSEFA supports the development of villages for these peasants.
In 2004, ASSEFA now serves 5 720 villages, throughout seven states of the Indian Union. The majority of the villages numbering 3439, are in Tamil Nadu state. Altogether, 321 500 families (about 4 persons per family) live in these villages.
According to the Gandhi’s philosophy of Sarvodaya which means well being for all, ASSEFA has given itself the following objectives:
Improving the economic, social and cultural status of the rural communities and enhance their skills and self-management capacity. ASSEFA also wants the rural communities to unite without any kind of discrimination and work for the up-liftment of the social, cultural and economic life of all and to establish self- sufficient, self- reliant and self managed communities based on the principles of freedom, economic equality and social justice’.
In order for the local communities to become self-reliant, ASSEFA has been adopting the twin strategies of Mobilising the local communities and Building of community-based institutions. In order to achieve this, the local community, through the Gram Sabha (village assembly) and Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHG), the villages pursue a five phase development process: Planning cum micro realisation, Pilot Project Implementation, Advanced Implementation, Shedding off, the final phase and Spiral Growth (launching similar programs in surrounding areas).
With 35 years of experience, ASSEFA is able to ascertain that the development cycle takes an average of 12 to 15 years. Once the local community achieves autonomy and becomes self-reliant, ASSEFA withdraws, but still remains available to provide support when needed.
ASSEFA has sustained the development of a great variety of activities and projects at the village level, groups (blocks) of villages, and federations of blocks. Here is an overview of some projects and activities:
Institutions for rural women
The Self-Help Groups (SHG) are the basic institutions in the villages. The SHGs, made up exclusively of women, have developed numerous tools such as micro-credit, community funds, life insurance and insurance for cattle. Each SHG has a maximum of 20 women. Today, in Tamil Nadu, there are 7634 SHGs, with a total membership of 124 451, who are registered with 51 Trusts. The Trusts, being legal entities, negotiate and have contracts with government departments, banks and other outside entities. These Trusts hold all the shares of Sarvodaya Nano Finance Limited, which is registered with the Reserve Bank of India. This is the first time in India that a micro-credit institution belongs entirely to women.
Dairy production for rural communities
ASSEFA mobilizes 19 000 rural women, in 600 dairy groups, so that the surplus milk production serves the villages. With the improvement in milk production due to better veterinary services, livestock insurance, better fodder, family farms produce excess milk. In order to avoid wasting this surplus, and to generate revenue, six cooperative dairy plants have been built and handle 70 000 litres daily.
For over 25 years, in order to improve education in rural communities, schools have been built in villages situated in areas with no government-funded public schools. The main objective is to improve the level of education for women (48% of students are girls). So far, this program has achieved great success. Altogether, there are 31 667 students, in 572 different schools (mostly primary schools) in ASSEFA villages. There are 1062 teachers, 1/3 are men and 2/3 women. In order to prevent the exodus of youth to large urban centres, technical schools have been created in order to teach skills and trades that are needed in the villages (repairing of motors, electricity, plumbing, textile workers, etc.). ASSEFA trains teachers to adhere to its values and philosophy.
ASSEFA has developed a great number of initiatives and projects which cannot be presented in this short text. Here is a short list:
Community marriages (Hindu, Muslim and Christian marriages) in order to improve Peace and Harmony. Last year, over 12 000 participated in this mega event (43 marriages).
Farmer’s market in cities for direct sale of produce.
Micro businesses for rural artisans.
Health promotion, namely for women and children.
Sarvodaya philosophy education (especially for the youth).
The ASSEFA experience among thousands of rural villages in India is very rich and its approach of relying on populations themselves to take charge of their development provides a wealth of information and is an inspiration for all.
The 2003-2004 Annual Report of ASSEFA
For more information, the 2003-2004 Annual Report is available (in English only). To obtain the document: ASSEFA, assefa AT md2.vsnl.net.in
The article is available on the blog: International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development