I spent the entire last week at various villages and towns in Bihar and Jharkhand. Passing through some of the remotest and most backward places in these 2 states, I saw poverty up close. However, I also saw hope and optimism. Having collaborated with IIT Bombay’s SoULS project office, the objective of the trip was to shoot stories of impact.
Solar Urja through Localization for Sustainability (SoULS) aims at distributing 70 Lakh solar lamps to children from disadvantaged sections of society by end of 2018.
In the short span of time I was there, I had the good fortune of meeting with and personally speaking to several women beneficiaries, school children, local government officials and project staff members. What they said was very insightful and provided me a grassroots perspective of what social impact should be.
Village children studying under solar lamp Gumla Jharkhand, IIT Bombay SoULS
In this article I present my opinions based on some of the observations I made on the trip.
Bring Women Into The Fold For Real Social Impact
Reaching out to women and offering them productive job is probably the best way to create sustainable social impact. There are strong sociological reasons for this especially in rural communities.
Historically women in rural areas have been denied education, opinion and work outside of home. This discrimination has led them to depend on the whims and fancies of their husbands and male family members. Many men in villages are addicted to liquor and squander their money on such pursuits. This is a pervasive social ill especially in rural UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Owing to this rural households suffer from lack of savings and in some cases huge debt.
When women earn money, the way they spend it is quite distinct from men. Women spend their money for the benefit of their households. They accord priority to their children’s education and health. If possible they even save money for contingencies. This results in a multiplier effect on the health, education and general well-being of a rural household.
Most women beneficiaries of SoULS I spoke to said they are now perceived in a new light by their neighbours and villagers. They have earned respect not only within their immediate families but also within their communities. This makes these women more aspirational and hopeful about giving a better life to their children.
Best Way To Alleviate Poverty Is Skill Development
In a paper titled, ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage’ Aneel Karnani of Stephen M. Ross School of Business at University of Michigan argues that
The best way for private firms to help eradicate poverty is to invest in upgrading the skills and productivity of the poor, and to help create more employment opportunities for them. This is the win-win solution; this is the real fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.
I saw this first hand during the course of my trip. Women beneficiaries of SoULS were hitherto living in poverty perpetuated not only by gender discrimination as pointed out earlier but also by lack of productive employment. SoULS has trained them in assembling, distribution, and repair and maintenance of solar lamps. They are now doing jobs that were once deemed to be of men and thus unimaginable for women.
Having developed productive skills, these women have discovered a better way out of poverty than government assistance or other handouts. Many of the women I spoke to told me that for the first time in their lives they feel confident of providing for their families. They want to continue doing their jobs and can take up allied professions after the project ends. They detest going back to old ways of remaining confined to their homes.
Leveraging Existing Governmental Organizations Is The Best Way To Scale Social Impact
SoULS is being supported by Ministry of New & Renewable Energy (MNRE) and collaborates with State Rural Livelihood Mission (SRLM) and other state-wise women self-help groups to actuate its operations at ground level.
Take for example the state of Bihar. Apart from its own project management staff, SoULS works with organizations like Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (BRLP) to reach out to women community institutions. I spoke to a Block Project Manager of BRLP and he explained the role of his organization. With about 90,000 women registered with BRLP in his block alone, he is bringing scale to SoULS.
There are several governmental as well as non-governmental organizations operating in our country. To achieve high scale and reach, it is imperative for private impact organizations to align with them and use their well established networks. They provide the scale of economies that is crucial for sustainable social impact.
Being recognized by the Prime Minister himself, IIT Bombay’s SoULS project is one of the most innovative and scalable social impact projects in the country. It offers valuable insights into poverty alleviation, women empowerment and social change through access to clean energy.