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Published on: April 1, 2022, 4:55 p.m.
Empowering the rural economy
  • ABF’s flagship Rural Livelihoods Support Programme works in villages and states to boost rural economies, and promote skill development among rural youth

By Dhruvi Shah. The author is CEO, Axis Bank Foundation

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a valiant measure to push the frontiers of development. They represent an elaborate agenda that necessitates achieving progress across social, economic, and environmental pillars. Despite advancements in human development indices, only limited success has been achieved globally on most of the eight pillars of SDGs. Challenges such as improving access to financial services, increasing employment opportunities, especially for the young workforce, reducing informal employment, labour market inequalities, and gender discrimination persist globally.

India, with world’s 17 per cent population, is a key stakeholder towards achieving global SDGs. The country faces multiple challenges in several sectors, be it health, nutrition, education, sanitation, and infrastructure. These challenges also make India innovate and develop solutions to address them and offer a useful lens for solving similar problems in other countries.

Governments, civil society organisations, private sector, development organisations, academia and citizens must actively collaborate to accelerate efforts to achieve these goals. Businesses play a central role in advancing SDG-8 as they can invest in innovation, labour and capital to achieve strong, sustainable and equitable economic growth that provide overall well-being. 

As organisations move from ‘profit’ to ‘purpose’, investors, regulators, and civil society are rapidly adopting the principles of E, S, and G. Axis Bank is cognisant of its responsibility to actively participate and contribute to driving forward India’s equitable and sustainable economic transition. Pertinent business and non-business activities of the bank are aligned to the pertinent SDGs, as well as, to India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Taking a step in this direction, Axis Bank Foundation (ABF) has been closely working with NGOs across the country to address socio-economic and ecological challenges faced at the grassroots level. ABF’s flagship Rural Livelihoods Support Programme works in villages and states to boost rural economies, enhance livelihood opportunities, and promote skill development among rural youth. 

In the last decade, through research and consultations with experts, industry leaders and development sector partners, ABF has been able to map the challenges associated with rural livelihoods and provide an understanding of the different pathways available to enhance economic empowerment of societies, and decent work for all as prescribed under SDG-8.

Diversifying rural livelihoods: As per the Economic Survey 2020-21, agriculture contributed 20 per cent to India’s GDP. Role of agriculture and agro-allied sectors remains crucial as India aims to be a $5 trillion economy by 2025 along with its continued focus on Atmanirbhar Bharat. Over the years, rural communities in India have been affected by a multitude of life and livelihood threatening hurdles, such as lack of employment opportunities for unskilled labour, and the inability to access formal markets, affordable credit and extension services.

Rural livelihood initiatives need to look at farm-allied or non-farm capacity building that ensures risk minimisation by augmenting farm income or stepping-in in times of crop failure. Awareness and education on improved farming methods to boost crop yield, better seed management, inter- and multi-cropping practices, use of bio-pesticides and organic fertilisers needs to be strengthened. Alternative livelihood avenues such as horticulture, livestock rearing, fisheries; although seasonal, needs to be promoted by educating community members while simultaneously encouraging them to leverage existing government schemes.

The risk of high dependency on a single source of income will be significantly reduced by establishing a basket of income-generating activities for rural households. This holistic approach will also strengthen community-based and community-owned institutions while establishing a sense of ownership and ensuring the sustainability of outcomes.

Going big on small businesses: Micro-enterprises and local entrepreneurs are crucial players for economic development as they create local livelihood opportunities as well as indirect employment via channels for sourcing local raw materials. Creating an ecosystem for micro-enterprise and local entrepreneurship development requires building capacities, improving access to technical and business management knowledge, bridging gaps of inadequate financial resources through credit linkages and consistent handholding to ensure stability, sustainability, and long-term success. Additionally, strengthening interventions such as these, establish an alternate and additional source of local income while empowering the community at large and increasing community participation, especially of women.

Driving digital skill development: Skilling opens avenues for rural youth, who have limited access to education or local employment options, with an opportunity to earn a decent living. However, training programmes for youth in peri-urban and rural areas need to keep pace with the new demands of labour markets that are continually challenged by technological disruption, demographic change, and evolving nature of work. 

The World Economic Forum recently stated that 9 out of 10 jobs will need some form of digital literacy while 65 million digital jobs will be generated over the next 10 years. Rural youth in India need to be equipped to capitalise on this wave of digitalization. To bridge the digital divide, the entire ecosystem needs to work together and create an infrastructure that disseminates knowledge in a customised manner in respective local languages.

The government and civil society organisations need to act rapidly and collaborate with private sector to reform programmes aimed at skilling India’s workforce to be able to effect systemic change. Co-operation between the public and private sector is necessary to truly drive a skills revolution.

Championing farmer producer organisations: Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) have the potential to act as a catalyst of change and boost economic growth. At a macro level, FPOs help strengthen value chains, increase access to markets and generate more employment opportunities. It is important to make FPOs more cohesive entities so they can influence the future of farming. 

There are currently 10,000 FPOs in India but the country requires over 1 lakh FPOs to significantly improve farmer incomes. There is a need to create ecosystems and infrastructure that supports the creation and incubation of FPOs, helps them flourish so that they provide the right inputs to farmers, develop the farming ecosystem in the area, leverage technology to scale and strengthen their management systems and capital structure. Market and financial accessibility, credit affordability, efficient commodity pricing mechanism, etc. need to be managed by timely policy-level initiatives and private sector capital flow in a calibrated manner.

 

Creating inclusive systems: One of the key challenges in India has been the declining participation of female workers in the labour force. Women play an important role in boosting rural economy besides their responsibility towards the well-being of family members.

Promoting and ensuring gender equality and equity, besides empowering rural women through decent work and productive employment, not only contributes to inclusive and sustainable economic growth but also enhances the effectiveness of poverty reduction and food security initiatives. 

Information and access to various social schemes: India has several social welfare schemes such as MGNREGA, NRLM and food-based programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Anganwadis, mid-day meals, National Skill Development Mission, Deendayal Upadhyaya Antyodaya Yojana, and Atal Innovation Mission that are aimed at supporting people at large. CSR and private sector initiatives should be designed to complement these programmes rather than reinventing the wheel.

There is a need to ensure that a majority of households at the Bottom of the Pyramid – small and marginal farmers, and landless households – receive a fair share from growth in the economy. With the change in narrative and forward-looking approach across these six areas, there is a lot of potential to spur economic growth, create income-enhancing opportunities, and promote decent work across rural India if we are to achieve the UNSDGs.  

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