The Great Indian Livelihood Tamasha

Open Letter to Mr. Jairam Ramesh on National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM)

Dear Minister Jairam Ramesh

Over the last 67 years independent India has seen several avatars of poverty alleviation programmes in rural areas. These have ranged from independent and disconnected income-generation programmes aimed at the poor (defined by a “line”) and marginal communities to more “broad spectrum” employment generation programmes, with MGNREGS being the most recent. Individual Ministries and Departments have also ostensibly pursued the same goals albeit in a compartmentalised, fragmented manner. The design of these programmes and the measure of effectiveness for all these programmes have been defined by “outsiders1”. What has been missing and continues to be missing are the experiences and articulations of the people whose poverty is to be alleviated.

The diversity of culture, ways of life, ecology, knowledge, experiences etc., in India, where settled agricultural and animal herding communities go back several thousand years,have led rural communities to adapt to the vagaries of nature and circumstance and shape distinct and unique livelihood strategies. Shouldn’t all these programmes at “alleviating” poverty from the outside at least recognise this diversity by accessing this experience and contextualising the issue(s) before action that is relevant follows? Extending the question asked by the poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan “Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?” let us begin to ask – isn’t it time to develop the Indian way of livelihoods?2

In focusing on imported solutions and approaches and by adopting “one size fits all” solutions we have become obsessed with words such as “models”, “scale up”, “beneficiary”, “intervention”, “imparting skills” etc. All of this stems from a complete lack of understanding of rural reality, the complexities of livelihoods and the interdependencies which are implicitly given in livelihood practitioners. The failure to acknowledge indigenous knowledge base has led to two tragic realities (i) rural communities have lost their sense of ownership and understanding of their surroundings and resources and (ii) lost their traditional democratic spaces where decision making on resource sharing and management used to be done. A more dangerous development has been a hijacking of these traditional spaces by political interests.

With the announcement of the NRLM, “livelihoods” has entered Government developmentspeak. Let us for a moment assume that the recognition of “livelihoods” by Government through a formal programme is a welcome change in itself from fragmented – income, employment, poverty line based – approaches. What is one to expect from this programme?

A review of the mission of the NRLM shows presence of the same old vocabulary. E.g. enabling the states to formulate their own livelihoods-based poverty reduction action plans” where are the people in this? Shouldn’t the task be to provide an enabling environment so people can practice their livelihoods which will help them adapt to the changing ecological environment? The mission statement also states “imparting requisite skills and creating linkages with livelihoods opportunities for the poor”. Shouldn’t the aim be to revive skills or provide conditions that will let the livelihood skills emerge? Who is imparting what skills and to who?

If we want this programme to truly transform the lives of several generations of rural Indians (and by extension urban Indians as well) the design and approach of the programme needs to be reviewed.

The design of the NRLM programme must be based on the lessons learnt from the green, blue and white revolution which addressed specific needs of the time but had serious long-term problems. One of the main reasons for the long-term damage was the complete lack of understanding of the importance of diversity in rural livelihoods leading to a systematic erosion of diversity in livestock breeds, crop diversity, marine diversity, traditional medical knowledge and destruction of common property resources.

Unlike programmes like MGNREGA and other employment wage oriented programmes NRLM’s focus is livelihoods and their sustainability. This necessarily means reaching out to successive generations, which in turn requires that rural ecosystems are made resilient. To realise this vision, NRLM must ensure not just conservation but rejuvenation of diversity.

  • Livelihoods are location specific. Diversity (ecological, cultural, economic and social), which accords resilience to these communities, must be conserved and rejuvenated at all costs in the design and implementation of this programme;
  • Rural households earn their living through multiple and diverse ways – a portfolio of livelihood strategies. The programme must therefore focus on providing an enabling environment so that the decision on, which portfolio of strategies to use when, is made by the communities in question. E.g., conservation and regeneration of CPRs will need to be the focus of the programme in dryland areas since that is the basis of livelihoods there. The focus in the forest areas will need to be to ensure that the ROFR, 2006 is effectively implemented;
  • Recognise the strength of traditional democratic spaces and let them form the basis of the village level institutions and wherever these spaces have been completely lost, revive them in a manner relevant to current circumstances.

Effective implementation rests on assessing whether livelihoods have truly been impacted. This can be effected only with robust and relevant metrics which are a critical element of programme design. The primary developers of the metrics and criteria for measuring impact and effectiveness of actions must be the rural community that is being impacted. Civil Society (including academia, NGOs, research institutions) may serve as facilitators in helping to articulate and documenting these metrics.

In terms of its approach, the NRLM programme must be such that it “stitches together” various disparate, programmes and policies that are underway in the rural environment. It must aim to be the grand unifier that stimulates the inherent diversity of rural livelihoods. This will require convergence of Government programmes particularly those that are engaged in the management of natural resources notably, IWMP, livestock, agriculture, water resources, land and forest management. Convergence must be supported with a reorientation and transformation of some of these programmes particularly the IWMP3 so that they can support the NRLM in bringing about “appreciable improvement in (their) livelihoods on a sustainable basis.4

The heart of the programme must be the rural community, particularly the youth. As mentioned earlier “outsiders” must serve as facilitators who learn from the people on the ground and simultaneously build up a knowledgebase of resources for the future. What they should facilitate must be articulated from the grassroots. Decision making on livelihood strategies is and must be the prerogative of the rural communities.

Capacity building of rural communities must be left to institutions like Barefoot College, Thulir, Gandhigram and several others who can play a transformative role. Design for rural education must be drawn from the efforts and examples of people like M.G. Jackson and others who have developed and implemented effectively in Uttarakhand so that we have a new generation of youth who understand livelihoods and rural reality.

I would like to conclude by emphasizing that urgent action needs to be taken to build the NRLM from the bottom up by listening to, understanding, learning from and working with rural communities. For the first time in the history of independent India, let us all be accountable to rural communities and let them assess whether their livelihoods have truly been made sustainable. Let us work towards bringing back democracy to grassroots institutions.

1“Outsiders” include NGOs, academics, Government and others who are not from these rural communities.

2Ramanujan, A.K. 1989. Is there an Indian Way of thinking? An Informal Essay. Downloadable at:

3Detailed and relevant recommendations from Hanumantha Rao (2000) and the Parthasarthy Committee (2006), if used to reorient the IWMP will go a long way in bringing the much needed connection to livelihoods.

4Quoting from the NRLM’s articulated mission and objectives.


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