I applied for the PMRD Fellowship while pursuing Masters in Social Work at Pondicherry Central University. I considered it to be an opportunity akin to several rural internships and practicum that I had undertaken as a part of my course. However, the experience on the field has been an eye opener for me. Usually as a student whenever I went out for rural development studies, I got a picture perfect feedback about the implementation of the government programs. However, during my PMRDF field immersion itself, I was shocked to note that despite the best efforts of the government to improve the living conditions of the people, there were still areas in India where people faced a daily struggle even for the basic necessities of life like clean drinking water, adequate nutritious food, and safe shelter, which we usually take for granted. In addition to the remote location of some of the habitations, inadequate communication facilities and lack of health, education and administration facilities exacerbate the suffering of the people. To compound the problem, South Odisha is in the grip of an often violent left wing extremist movement, which although it arose as a struggle for land rights and development, has now degenerated into an ethnic conflict with violent overtones as the different communities struggle for supremacy over the areas they control. These inter community ethnic and communal strife is evident even in the most remote villages and severely impedes development.
As a part of the village immersion program, I got a chance to interact closely with villagers and administration at all levels. Under the dynamic guidance and encouragement of the district collector and the willing cooperation of other officers and staff of the district administration, I was able to interact with communities closely. This in turn helped me to comprehend the problems in implementing the various rural development programs despite the efforts of the administration. Living with the villagers, I was accepted as a part of their community and although initially people were rather dismissive of the efforts of the government to improve their condition, later I found that most people had fairly modest expectations, which can be fulfilled even under the existing projects of the government. I found a lot of enthusiasm among the educated youth, who are getting more assertive of their rights and legitimate expectations from the administration.
I am really appreciative of the initiative of the government in designing the PMRDF the way it has. It gives the fellow an exposure to the realities on the field, which are quite different from theoretical perspectives gained in academic studies. After an exposure to the realities on ground, I feel that some theories take a rather anachronistic view of the fast changing realities and need critical re-engagement and reassessment. I have been directed by the district collector to undertake minor roles in the rural development sector such as, to identify leakages in program delivery, identify expectations of target community and to contribute ideas towards more effective implementation of schemes like MGNREGS and IAY among others. Experiences as a PMRD Fellow have been professionally enriching that enabled me to understand nuances and practical aspects of rural development better.
Sudhir Kumar Halba is based at Rayagada, a district in South Odisha. He is an MA in Social Work from Pondicherry Central University.