Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) Scheme: Daring to take Sides with the People caught in Conflict
Ms. Sreelatha Menon’s piece on “Fellowship of Apathy” [http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/sreelatha-menon-fellowship-of-apathy-113100500651_1.html] based on inputs from the Executive Council (EC) members of CAPART and knowledgeable persons is a revelation to us and we attempt to place the Prime Minister Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) in perspective.
The PMRDF Scheme is an attempt to find ways to facilitate convergence of and improving access to welfare and development programmes to people in conflict-affected areas of the country. This requires rigorous efforts to understand the community and its socio-cultural and political structure, local economy and its linkages, relationship of the political and executive machinery with the community and, above all, weaving relationships among all the important actors in a way that the disaffection and discontent are addressed effectively. Creating a deep sense of empathy in the administration for the poorer and marginalised sections is a basic requirement for democratic governance in areas under conflict. Moreover, the district administration needs strong support in improving the planning process, refurbishing the implementation machinery and monitoring results and influencing government decisions for quick redressal when necessary.
Since its inception in 1936, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has been creating human service professionals to facilitate people to overcome poverty and deprivation. In this perspective, TISS took on the challenge to recruit, train, motivate and prepare the Fellows for placements as knowledge partners after which the state governments and the central government took the process forward. For TISS, PMRDF is an extension of the belief system to mobilise, motivate and deploy young people to work with people caught up in conflict situations. The endeavour of recruiting 149 Fellows from a pool of over 10,000 applicants, build capacity to work with people, and guide the Fellows in their work is time-consuming and costs money. But the outcome of the work of the Fellows to the nation is invaluable. Nearly 18 months after deployment, the nation has 136 highly motivated and conscientised Fellows working in 83 districts.
The PMRDF is an experiment to infuse a new cadre of young professionals to work with people in the troubled regions of our country — most of the Fellows would have taken the job even if the programme paid subsistence allowance. But the government wanted to provide some comfort as many left well paid jobs to accept the fellowship and the risks involved were far greater than any form of compensation. Can this money have been better used for training and empowering local youth? That is exactly what the Fellows do – facilitate creation of hunger-free mandals in Andhra Pradesh to mobilising people to access institutional support for enhancing productivity and quality of resources, and linking their produces with the market. Fellows in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are working with people on several models of social entrepreneurship to strengthen livelihoods and secure a dignified existence. The Government of India (GoI) chose to deploy motivated professionals from various disciplines to demonstrate models of change with the profound promise of transforming peoples’ lives with very strong spread value.
The idea of motivating Fellows to document the process: Out of 149 PMRDFs trained and placed in early 2012, 138 continue to work in 83 districts of Eastern, Northern and Western Indian States. Each of the Fellows constantly interface with people and the administration at the panchayat, block, district and state levels dealing with welfare, development and security issues. All the Fellows have been documenting their work on an ongoing basis.
The extension of the Fellowship to end with a degree is to encourage the Fellows to document their work in a focused manner under the guidance of a Faculty guide and write a thesis for a minimum of 6 months. In order to qualify for admission to Master’s degree program (for those with under-graduate degree) and M. Phil. program (those with master’s degree), each will be subjected to assessment of work they have done, and a mandatory entrance test. Once the PMRDFs formally gain admission to an M.A. or M.Phil. in Development Practice, they will go through further course work, and continuous dialogue with the research guide assigned to each of the fellows. So, those candidates successfully completing 66 credit points (which includes dissertation accounting to 12 credits) shall become eligible for a degree from TISS. TISS will also facilitate publishing the dissertations through tie-ups with publishing houses.
Once the CAPART EC members review the budget it would be clear that much of the money is meant to reach out the fellows to provide guidance; contact classes to impart knowledge for critical analysis of the context and process of intervention, and support system to handhold the fellows. It is our conviction that adding a degree program is one clear way to systematise intervention of the fellows in the field and critical reflection, and also an instrument of motivation to the fellows. As a university, TISS would implement this program with or without the support of the government because it values peoples’ knowledge – documentation of peoples’ struggles to secure a dignified life. Of course, the efforts to find money to support the process will delay its implementation.
TISS is a centrally funded institution known for its commitment to offering quality and socially relevant higher education affordable to all (Tuition Fee for a General Candidate for 4 semesters is about Rs. 40,000). For 49.5% of the students successful in getting admitted to the TISS, all forms of expenses are paid by the government; and another 10% of the general candidates from disadvantaged homes get scholarships. TISS does not engage in research work and field action initiatives for profit — the University Grants Commission gives annual Maintenance Grant after deducting all incomes. The PMRDF Scheme has actually been a financial strain for TISS as we continue to run the programme, despite the inordinate delays in releasing the programme-specific budgeted money. This is a very challenging position for the State-funded University with very scarce resources. TISS is engaged in the PMRDF Scheme for the positive benefit the Fellows can make to the people in difficult situation irrespective of difficulties in receiving funds.
TISS is willing to invest its intellectual resources in this project to give the nation a better understanding on what it means to make development and welfare programmes work for people living in areas witnessing intense armed conflict.
We believe that the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), GoI, has initiated an independent review of the programme. The fellows are under no obligation to work with the government. In fact, upon completion of the fellowship duration, the design foresees the young people become change makers working with government, non-governmental and peoples’ institutions.
The Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) has been one of the most important peoples’ institutions that enabled creation of a generation of young professionals many of whom are current leaders in the civil society. The MoRD launched PMRDF motivating CAPART to invest in reinventing the potential of young people in the country, and the good work of the fellows in the field stands testimony to this faith. The resolve is to increase the strength of this cadre of professionals to hasten social and economic transformation in conflict affected districts in the country.
October 8, 2013