The poverty reduction model launched by Shoaib Sultan Khan, a pioneer of rural development in Pakistan, has been replicated on a huge scale over the decades in India. Khan’s expertise has always been available to India, no matter how adversarial relations between the two states were. Khan is the honorary chairperson of the board of directors of Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) comprising 11 RSPs, including Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) and Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP). His “magical power” to mobilise communities for their development has led to numerous awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award 1992 and Pakistan’s Sitara-e-Eisaar and Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2006. He was elected as Senior Ashoka Fellow and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. He recently visited India at the invitation of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which has adopted and implemented the rural support programme model. Back in Pakistan, he spoke to Aman Ki Asha on the need for the two countries to cooperate in reducing poverty and benefit from each other’s experiences. Excerpts:
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Aman Ki Asha: When did India replicate the RSP model for the first time? How did you feel when you went there to execute the plan during PM Narasimha Rao’s tenure? What was it like being a Pakistani in India, delivering to the Indian poor?
Shoaib Sultan Khan: It was in late 1994 that United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched their regional programme, South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme (SAPAP) and asked me to be the Senior Adviser to SAPAP. The origin of SAPAP was in the recommendations of the independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA), set up by SAARC heads of state in 1991. The Pakistan Prime Minister nominated me on the commission, which deliberated for over a year, visiting all the South Asian countries except Bhutan. Venugopal, the Secretary to the Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, was also a member of the Commission.
The Commission’s overarching recommendation was that social mobilisation should be the centrepiece of all poverty alleviation strategies of the governments of South Asia because experience has shown that especially programmes based on social mobilization strategies had the greatest success in alleviating poverty. The Commission’s report quoted the AKRSP and NRSP, both executed in Pakistan, as examples of poverty alleviation through social mobilisation.
When UNDP proposed my name to implement SAPAP, Venugopal told me that the proposal went up to the Indian PM for a decision. PM Rao opined since I was coming as a UN official on a Laissez-Passer (a travel document which does not mention nationality of the official), I would be wearing a UN hat, not that of any country, hence India should have no objection. He also wanted the SAPAP to be initiated from his home state, Andhra Pradesh (AP). Obviously, Venugopal, who had become very friendly with me during Commission’s membership, played an important role in getting me to India.
I was received in AP with utmost courtesy and kindness. The rural poor welcomed me with open arms. I never felt that I was in an alien country. From the Chief Minister to Deputy Commissioners of the districts, all support and cooperation were extended to me. Initially, I had some difficulties in recruiting a national project coordinator of SAPAP but with Venugopal’s help, the AP Chief Secretary placed at my disposal the best Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, K Raju, to help me implement the programme from 1996 onwards.
I brought Raju and his team to Pakistan, and they spent a month in Gilgit-Baltisan and other areas studying the rural support programme model. With the help of this team, the achievements of SAPAP were so impressive by the year 2002 that the World Bank offered assistance to expand the programme statewide. Today the programme covers 10 million rural households comprising nearly 50 million people out of AP’s 80 million total population. The women who would earn no more than five rupees a day in 1994, weeding the fields of the zamindars, now access 100 billion Indian rupees (approximately 200 billion Pakistani rupees) from commercial banks and the AP government reimburses 100 percent interest charged by the banks to the organized 10 million women, on timely return of the loans to the banks.
These women who are now organized in Self Help Groups (SHGs) of 15-20 women each, have federated in Village Organisations (VOs), that in turn have formed Mandal Samakhya (a bit bigger than our Union Councils). And in many districts, have now District Samakhays (organisations). These are Institutions of the People.
The successor to SAPAP set up by the AP State government along the lines of the Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) is called Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP). SERP acts as an Institution for the People supporting people’s institutions and strengthening them.
Government departments and other agencies, especially commercial banks, are now increasingly using these institutions of the people (SHG, VOs, government programmes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, Social Protection and Below Poverty Line Beneficiaries Programme, and Public Sector Distribution Programmes) as channels to reach the rural poor.
These community organisations are also very active in adopting innovative and environment friendly ideas, such as Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA), which aims to cover the entire State making it pesticide free. Most of the government’s procurements like grains etc., are largely being entrusted to these Institutions of the People, community organisations have effectively and successfully checked bonded labour and ensured enrolment of child labour in schools. In the field of health, specially attacking malnutrition, the community organizations with government support have launched sustainable nutrition programmes. They have also played an active role in securing housing for the poor implemented through Panchayat (Local Councils). In brief these Institutions of the People such as SHGS, VOs, MMS have given a voice to the rural poor and enabled them to get their rights and assets provided under different Union and State Programmes.
AKA: The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in India has also launched a rural support programme based on the model you introduced? How did it happen?
SSK: Rahul Gandhi, MP (Member of Indian Lok Sabha) had initiated a women development programme called Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) in the State of UP in 2003, as a project of Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Charitable Trust. In 2007 after a visit to AP, Rahul Gandhi decided to revamp RGMVP on the lines of the AP programme. Rahul Gandhi invited me and the RGMVP CEO Sampath Kumar to a Vision Workshop in 2008, that he also participated in. Since then RGMVP is being implemented on the same development principles as the RSPs and the AP programme. Currently RGMVP is operating in 110 out of 800 blocks (sub-district) of UP and there are plans to cover 200 blocks next three years.
AKA: What is your take on the normalisation of relations between Pakistan and India? How essential is peace for social development and poverty reduction in both countries?
SSK: Both India and Pakistan can benefit immensely from each other’s experience in reducing and ultimately eliminating poverty from the two countries. Especially exposure visits between the members of the rural institutions, will have a tremendous impact on learning from each other. Initially, India learnt a great deal from Pakistan’s RSP experience specially AKRSP, but Pakistan too can adopt many of the steps India has taken in the coverage of the programme to scale and linking community organizations with commercial banks instead of depending only on the micro finance institutions (MFIs).
The most important lesson coming out of Indian experience is the critical and lead role that State and Central Governments have played in reaching the maximum number of rural poor. After benefiting more than 10 million households comprising fifty million rural poor in AP, the Central Government has now launched a National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) to reach 315 million rural poor of India in the next five years. If in Pakistan, the federal and provincial governments both adopt the same lead roles in implementing RSPs countrywide, like in India, in five years more than 75 per cent of the rural poor can be helped to rise above the poverty line.
The writer works with The News on Sunday.
B. Sandman; Shoaib Sultan Khan: “I never felt that I was in an alien country”