Kameshwar Upadhyaya


Kulandei Francis: Building Institutions Through People Participation

Kameshwar Upadhyaya

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Helping hands are better than praying lips. Kulandei Francis, who has professionally practiced both, will support this notion. This is perhaps the reason he renounced priesthood and made it his life mission to strive for the betterment of the marginalized, irrespective of caste, creed, colour or religion. Therefore, in order to undertake successfully a work of such magnitude and persist with it for over four decades he sought support, confidence and commitment of the people whose lives he wished to reform. He was aware that only through active engagement and constructive dialogue with the locals could he fulfill his vision of “transforming the life standard of the poor by drastically reducing their suffering.”

Early Years: Plight of the Masses

Profile_Kulandei FrancisBorn into a family of agricultural labourers, Kulandei Francis was the fourth of six siblings. The vitriolic taste of poverty during childhood stirred him to transform the lives of people like his former self in the rural hinterland.  “I am the only person from my family to enter college and it was my mother’s desire. But to complete my B.Com degree she had to dispose of the little bit of dry land to pay for the moneylenders,” Francis recounts.  Almost forty years later, his community based initiatives have empowered women in the districts of Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri and Vellore by helping them find some semblance of purpose in their otherwise oblivious existence. Through his ceaseless contribution to irrigation in the relatively dry area he has also furthered the cause of sustainable agriculture.

Once he became a graduate, Francis wasn’t too keen on looking for a full time job. It was perhaps the helplessness, starvation and urban migration forced by lack of basic human necessities which he had witnessed throughout his life that kindled in him a desire to work towards eradicating the same. To augment his dream he decided to join the Holy Cross Society, a holy order, in 1971 which would allow him to fulfill his dream of serving the downtrodden. In the mean time he also completed his higher education from Pune. Joining the holy order gave his life a sense of direction and through the order he was involved in grass root level social work. While in the order he worked with the Bangladeshi refugees, observing them from close quarters. Also, working with the villagers in the remote parts of Maharashtra, where existence itself was a challenge, left a lasting impression on the mind of a young Francis.

Transition into Social Work

All these activities were forcing him to rethink the path he had chosen. However, to be completely sure, there needed to be a tipping point. Surely this happened in 1975 when after completing his seminarian studies he was sent to Sesurajapuram, a remote village, in Tamil Nadu for about a year to try and lessen the misery in the lives of its residents. The village was in the middle of a forest because its residents, who were tribal, had been ‘rehabilitated’ from their former lands to their current abode due to the construction of a dam.

There was hardly any sign of agriculture because the people were largely dependent on rainwater. They collected forest foliage in the form of roots and shrubs for sustenance. Formal education, health and sanitation were concepts unknown. They had to walk almost twenty kilometers in each direction and through the forest if they were in any need. Redressing this human indignity is what Kulandei Francis would dedicate the next four decades of his life towards. Therefore, after spending the mandatory period of one year and after much deliberation Francis decided not to become a priest. “I cannot work only for one religion. So I left the Holy Order. I wanted to be more secular. After all, humanity is more important than religion,” says Francis. During the next year he gained practical experience and exposure in social work and in 1977 went back to the same village, which for all practical purposes was his alma mater, to begin his journey as a social worker.

For about one year after he returned to the village, he had no support whatsoever. A few friends helped him out with food, clothes and money but that was it. He lived in complete anonymity for that one year helping the villagers with their daily chores, education and physical health. Subsequently Oxfam, an organisation dealing with poverty and injustice globally, found out about Francis and his struggle. It was with their help and some other aid that Francis was able to establish the Integrated Village Development Project (IVDP) in 1979. The local people in the area were also instrumental in lending their support to this idea. They continue to do so even today.

IVDP: A Redressal Mechanism

Kulandei Francis with SHG members.

Kulandei Francis with SHG members.

IVDP’s goal is simple in letter but daunting in spirit; to alleviate poor people of their suffering. In this sense IVDP’s plan was to help the people of that area reach a very nominal standard of living by addressing their most fundamental difficulties. Since the villages where he worked fell in the rain shadow area of the Eastern Ghats, there was perpetual scarcity of water for all purposes. There were no irrigation facilities as a result of which people were forced to abandon their lands and look for survival elsewhere. The villagers had an idea how to go about harvesting water but did not have the finances or the technicalities to do the same. This is where IVDP stepped in.

Kulandei Francis initiated watershed programmes in these villages and facilitated the building of check dams which would collect free flowing water for the purposes of agriculture et al. This increased both the quantity and the frequency of the crops. This in turn arrested the migration which was taking place due to unemployment and also provided for a steady stream of revenue. As per the latest available statistics over 230 minor and 90 major check dams have been constructed along with 50 bore wells. However, to finance such dams serious money was needed and in the beginning it was foreign aid that was helpful to carry out these objectives.

Early on Francis understood that it was essential for him to work alongside those whose lives he wished to better rather than working for them. Therefore, IVDP works on a participatory model whereby it enables and facilitates the locals instead of handing things over to them on a platter. This in turn instills in the people a sense of belonging and responsibility which accomplishes two things. Firstly, it provides for a model which works on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. People are trained to become self sufficient thereby creating an institution which over time will be able to operate without the need for any outside support. Secondly, any aid which is availed of is directly accessible to those in need instead of going through a conduit. In order to achieve this IVDP established ‘Self Help Groups’ (SHGs). And it was a far-reaching strategically important decision Francis took. It is easier to get loan from a bank as a group than it is to get a loan individually. Also since it is IVDP who facilitates the entire process of credit finance the interest rates are relatively lower.

In the beginning these SHGs consisted primarily of men. The foreign aid which was coming in was disbursed to these groups to build such dams and for other purposes. Many times money was taken but there was no progress to show for or it was spent on some other activity. Other times money was lent but never repaid. To counter these difficulties Francis decided to do away with the idea of foreign funding and engage the local banks to provide for credit. But Francis soon learnt that these groups comprising men came up short on qualities such as honesty and accountability which in turn was hurting the credibility of IVDP. Therefore, in 1985 IVDP decided to substitute them with women. According to Francis, working through women groups is a more effective strategy because it provides for better accountability and the integration is more organic as women focus on both the standard and quality of life.

Empowering Women through Groups

As of today there are over 9,060 SHGs spread across three districts of Tamil Nadu covering 2,000 villages and have almost 1,65,000 women as members. Each group consists of 20 members and the credibility of IVDP and the SHGs is such that with minimum hassle one group at a time can avail a loan of Rs five lakhs. This amount is then disbursed within the group based on the requirement of the members at an interest fixed by the bank for purposes all and sundry. These SHGs generally further the three main causes of agriculture, education and sanitation amongst others. Once these basic needs are covered, women then indulge in micro enterprises and some form of craft to augment their income. It also helped that in 1989 the state of Tamil Nadu through the Tamil Nadu Women Development Corporation tried to bring about a change and improve the living conditions of women. IVDP partnered with the government which made it easier to access state funds. But there were other incidental problems and IVDP “had to make certain compromises while working with the government,” says Francis. Therefore, from 2002 onwards IVDP has been working solo.

A new generation of independent women at IVDP.

A new generation of independent women at IVDP.

In terms of vision this is probably the pinnacle of the SHG programme. The idea behind the SHGs was to make sure that economic independence may be achieved along with long term sustainability. Each group has its own leader who serves as role models for the group members and other women in the area. They also function as a medium for the group to connect with the management and other institutions. IVDP’s only interaction with these SHGs is limited to training, monitoring and supervising. Francis proudly states that “all decision making is done by the people. Even interaction of banks etc is directly with the people. Nothing comes on our accounts. All the funds are owned by the people, managed by the people and it is for the people”.

The result of this cooperative effort is that as of 2014 the program has become financially disciplined, self-reliant, member-owned, and member-managed. Almost Rs 4,062 crores have been mobilized and disbursed by banks and SHGs till date. In the larger scheme of things, “women who were always considered to be an object in the family can now function as an independent individual in the family. With the help of this initiative they can now take part in decision making. This in turn changes the male attitude towards women and reduces violence. They can now earn on their own and can live with pride and honour in society,” says Francis.

Gaining Trust & Consequent Achievements

Although, according to Francis, initially it was extremely difficult to win the confidence of the people of these villages and gain their commitment. “They thought I will convert them. It took a long time for the people to believe me,” reminisces Francis. In order to win their trust he had to live with them, understand their needs and work accordingly. His willingness to learn also helped him build a rapport with the villagers. It was also his approach of walking side by side rather than leading from the front which helped him assimilate quickly with the common folk. “Once I demonstrated certain good things to the people then they believed me,” explains Francis. The programmes that IVDP facilitates till date have all been the brainchild of the villagers. They provide the idea and IVDP helps in its execution. “Today whatever I am it is all because of the people,” Francis says humbly. He also agrees that now days it is difficult to change the attitude of people because they are extremely wary and circumspect due to a plethora of reasons. “But make them understand, persist and let them do things on their own. Then they understand,” he says.

 Despite all he has done, he genuinely believes that it is the people who dug themselves out of the hole of poverty and hopelessness and his contribution is limited only to facilitation. “People have the potential to come up on their own,” he says. “Don’t restrict them. Give them equal opportunity. They may not be educated but they are highly intelligent.”

Kulandei Francis Way

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