Deep in the Central Himalayas, a rather tortuous 10-hour drive from Delhi, you will find yourself in a maze of deep, verdant mountain valleys. The vistas are breathtaking in these parts, with mountain peaks reaching more than 2.5 kilometres into the sky. But as beautiful as it is, like much of India, life here is hard – harder than most of us could ever endure. Good paying jobs are scarce, infrastructure is poor, and the environment is under deep stress. The lot of most women is bleak at best.
The Central Himalayas are a microcosm of the issues facing India as a whole. Poverty continues to be widespread in the country. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, which here is just $1.25 per person per day – less in rural areas. Half the children under the age of five are underweight and malnourished. Twenty million children of school age do not attend classes, while 57 percent of girls who do eventually drop out before graduation. The list of heartbreaking indicators goes on.The sculpted hillsides of the Central Himalayas show the scars of intensive cultivation.
It’s easy to fall into despair but the good news is that there are countless efforts underway across the country to address the situation. International development agencies, the Indian government, social entrepreneurs and local citizens are each playing a role in tackling myriad issues.
Enter Chirag, an enterprising nonprofit that has been transforming the quality of life for thousands of families in nearly 200 villages for 25 years. According to VK Madhavan, the executive director, “Chirag takes an integrated approach to development. Rather than narrowly focus on one issue area, we work at the connection points between the key building blocks that contribute to dignity, justice and solidarity.”
Chirag’s mission is simple: to improve the quality of life of rural people – especially the poor and women – in the Central Himalayas. Of course, in practice, it’s much more challenging.
A foundational element of Chirag’s approach is education. In particular, they are working to improve the quality of education in dozens of primary schools in the area, benefiting more than 3,000 students. They also operate their own school, with a focus on learning that is fun and explorative.
Given the challenges faced by young women in the mountain villages, Chirag focuses on enhancing the employment prospects of girls from disadvantaged families by providing scholarships to 135 girls who might otherwise never enjoy school. More broadly, they are also supporting life and vocational skills development for local youth.Atul Shah (Livelihood program lead) and VK Madhavan (Executive Director) at Chirag’s offices in Simayal Village.
Beyond education, Chirag provides curative and preventative health services, in part through their own hospital and by helping health committees in 40 local villages to create annual health plans. Another key focus is supporting the conservation and management of common lands and water. From recharging local springs and reducing soil erosion to strengthening village level institutions for sustainable forest management, they use an integrated, ecosystems-based approach.
One of Chirag’s programs with the greatest reach is Livelihood Support, a sustainable agriculture and community-based animal husbandry initiative that puts poor women producers at the centre. With capacity building, skills development and more diversified livelihood choices, almost 3,000 women are gaining self-confidence, financial security and new opportunities. New social enterprises selling value-added food products have emerged from the program, and those epicurean delights are now gracing the tables of upscale homes and restaurants in Delhi and beyond.
Finally, Chirag is committed to sharing its expertise and technical support with other organizations in the state. A current project, in partnership with three other groups, is cultivating fodder on common and private lands. Simple idea, enormous community benefits.
All across India, people like the team at Chirag and the communities they work with are using innovative models of development and social entrepreneurship to transform lives. It’s complex work that requires incredible stamina and determination. Many challenges remain, but success in the Central Himalayas gives us the hope and inspiration we all need to continue to propel the social enterprise movement in India and beyond.
Peter ter Weeme is principal, sustainability lead, of Junxion Strategy an international consultancy with offices in Canada, the UK and India that works to catalyze social and environmental progress to build a better world. He can be reached at 604-644-5679, firstname.lastname@example.org.