Sustainable Development

Since its inception over 50 years ago, Seva Mandir has sought to achieve its twin aims of improving lives and strengthening communities by engaging all members of a village or peri-urban settlement in decisions relating to, and management of, their development. This has been inextricably linked to the aim of transforming social relationships, strengthening communities’ capacity for self-governance and reducing traditional social barriers based on caste, class, gender and age.

In the hilly, semi-arid area in which Seva Mandir works, where villages are widely scattered, there is much need of interventions to alleviate poverty, ill health, malnutrition, illiteracy and other facets of deprivation. However difficult life is in this area, it is always hardest for tribal people, who score lower than other community groups on most measures of development.

Many of these tribal communities are among the most deprived and backward in the country. For example, Kotra, the most remote area in which we work, and which has an entirely tribal population, is the 23rd most backward area in India, out of 6,000 studied.

Indian law provides for a three-tier system of governance, with the lowest body being the elected gram panchayat at village level. Although panchayats have legal autonomy, their provision of basic services is limited and inefficient, and, given their partisan political interests, many of them fail to build community solidarity and do not always succeed in delivering on the community’s expectations. Lack of awareness of entitlements among inhabitants and the alignment of the less powerful in society with more powerful patrons makes these governance systems inaccessible for many.

Another traditional, non-government body, the Caste (Jati) panchayat, has been in existence for hundreds of years. But their concerns are limited to socio-cultural and religious matters, and they do not function democratically as they are biased in terms of caste, gender and age.

Fragmentation within the community, and the growing trend towards the pursuit of individual self-interest at the expense of the common good, have paved the way for many development problems that face the local population, from the encroachment of the commons to the neglect of duties by government servants and elected representatives.

Seva Mandir believes that people have a better understanding of what their communities need and are better able to manage the implementation of development projects than external organisations. Seva Mandir and the panchayats can act as facilitators and enablers, but should not simply become givers of aid.

Therefore, instead of just delivering aid, Seva Mandir has worked painstakingly with local people to set up inclusive and accountable institutions which can take part in the development process, thus endeavouring to build sustainability into all its work.

Over the decades, Seva Mandir’s Community Institutions programme, which is at the heart of the organisation, has developed three major focuses in its work with the villages.

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