Integrating the Brahmaputra’s innumerable ferries into Assam’s wider transport network
Anyone who has visited Assam cannot help but being struck by the mighty Brahmaputra. The river straddles the state like a colossus, coursing through its heart, and severing it into two - the northern and southern banks. During the monsoon, so vast is the river’s expanse - almost 20 km in parts - that you cannot see the other side. And so fearsome can be its waters that the Brahmaputra is India’s only river to have a masculine name; all the others have feminine appellations. Yet, just four bridges, including India’s longest bridge that was recently inaugurated on its tributary the Lohit - and one more under construction - span the state’s entire 900 km stretch of river.
Given this formidable natural barrier, most of Assam’s towns have developed on the river’s southern flank, where the plains are wider. With little connectivity, the northern side remains cut off from the mainstream, and is largely underdeveloped.
What’s more, small communities who live on the river’s hundred or so inhabited islands, remain isolated. It can be quite frustrating to see a school or a medical center on the other side and not be able to get to it! Only Majuli, the world’s largest riverine island and an administrative district by itself, supports schools and some form of medical facilities for its more than 100,000 residents.
Integrating the Brahmaputra’s innumerable ferries into Assam’s wider transport network
People not only have to deal with the physical and biological impacts of an illness, but also with the social and cultural stigma that accompanies it.
This was what Bhoomi and his family went through before they benefited from the Tamil Nadu government’s Mental Health Program (TNMHP).
What happens when infected needles, syringes, plasters, surgical gloves and intravenous sets are disposed of carelessly? Well, for a start, they spread hepatitis and HIV, not only among the poor rag-pickers who unsuspectingly handle them, but also infect all the waste around, multiplying the hazard manifold. Then, when the waste is not properly incinerated, it causes further damage, polluting the very air we breathe. Liquids wastes are particularly harmful; they can leach into the soil and contaminate the water supply, with often devastating consequences.
Yet it is heartening to see how a few dedicated individuals can make a difference.
Let’s look at the case of India where 500,000 km of rural roads have so far been built by the country’s flagship rural roads program (PMGSY). These roads, connecting some 120,000 settlements, have already started transforming the rural areas of the country.
These roads form part of a core network of 1.1 million that India is seeking to build through its ongoing $35 billion PMGSY program to provide about 179,000 rural settlements with road access. The project has been designed to deliver high-quality, sustainable roads in a timely and cost-effective manner. PMGSY’s main source of funding is a special tax on diesel. Since the PMGSY began, the World Bank has been working closely with the Indian government through a series of projects and knowledge initiatives, with funding of about US$1.8 billion.
As we entered the small hut of rammed earth thatched with coconut leaves, the sounds we heard belonged to a different world. Amidst the whir of industrial sewing machines, nine young women were busy stitching bolts of fabric into men’s shirts, destined for India’s vast domestic market for low-cost garments.
This was Inam Koilpatti village in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. Even though many villages in the state were rapidly urbanising, this village still had many huts, and prosperity was yet to arrive.
Two young women, Indhurani and Gurupakkiam, ran this tiny unit. Born with an entrepreneurial spirit, these women have unwittingly given a much-needed boost to the idea of ‘Start Up India’ in this poor region.
“We were both working at a company in Thalavaipuram,” they began. (Thalavaipuram is an emerging garments hub nearby.) “But, with family responsibilities it was getting hard for us to travel 20 km to work. Three years ago we approached our employer with a proposition. We would set up a unit in our village, if he would give us orders,” they narrated.
A little over six years ago, Neelam Kushwaha’s first daughter was born weighing 900 gm at birth, severely underweight. Neelam went into labor while working at the local construction site in Jori village, Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, India. Many people work at such local construction sites in rural areas for daily wages ranging from INR 150-280 (about $2- 4$) per day. Her daughter Manvi, was preterm, and Neelam spent months recovering from child birth complications.
Three years later, when Neelam was pregnant with her younger daughter, Sakshi, she quit wage labor and sought employment at an incense manufacturing unit established by World Bank’s Madhya Pradesh District Poverty Intervention Project (MPDPIP) in 2011. At her new role, she earned more and did not engage in labor intensive work during the final months of her pregnancy. Sakshi was born a healthy 3 kilos.
In the course of my field work supported by South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI) in 2015, I came across several similar stories.
MPDPIP’s livelihood based approach offered several opportunities towards income supplementation for women self-help groups (SHGs) and rural households through agriculture, dairy/poultry farming and local enterprises, among others.
As evident by Neelam’s experience, MPDPIP’s benefits went beyond income and spilled over into health improvement as well.
I learnt that prior to MPDPIP, childbirth in hospitals was difficult due to prohibitively high costs of travel and hospital stay. Pre-existing government schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) offer about INR 1,400 ($20) to rural women who opt for hospital deliveries. However, this payment occurs post-partum, and pre-delivery costs have to be borne upfront by pregnant women.
Post MPDPIP, women were able to opt for hospital deliveries with greater ease due to access to credit from their SHGs. This is particularly relevant for Madhya Pradesh as it has consistently fared poorly with respect to institutional deliveries.
Kuraisa lives in the Majhaulia village in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, India. As an artisan, she and her family create traditional lac bangles – colorful bracelets made of resinous materials and usually molded in hot kilns – in their small home production unit.
In early 2016, Kuraisa joined a self-help group made up of other lac bangle producers and supported through the World Bank’s Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP), also known locally as JEEViKA.
The self-help group taught Kuraisa new design techniques and loaned her $2,300 to start her own business. One year later , Kuraisa has added two more production units to her home, which provide full time jobs to her relatives and to as many as 6 additional workers during peak season.
Kuraisa’s annual business income has now tripled to $10,000. The self-help group has expanded and nearly 50 artisan families in the village have joined, giving rise to a village enterprise cluster with an annual revenue of $450,000.
I have always believed that communities are like musical instruments. You need to tune them properly to hear their divine music. I actually heard this music from rural communities in India. And their song, which still resonates within me, is something I will now take back to my own country.
In May 2017, my colleagues and I from the World Bank’s Azerbaijan Rural Investment Project were on an exposure visit to India to see firsthand how self help groups and cooperatives were impacting the lives of rural people.
In my years of work in rural development, I have found that the unique feature we as human beings have is the ability to share skills, values and experiences. As we travelled across six states, this proved to be true in all the people we met, be it in large commercial companies or in remote rural communities.
The people told us that transparency and honesty were an essential factor in their success. I also found that the spirit of cooperation was clearly present. Cooperatives belong to all members, they said, and the managers were there to serve the members. The leaders of self help groups, producer organizations, cooperatives, and micro enterprise groups also told us that they must be party to the risk taken by the group, and should lead by example in order to motivate others.
In Brazil, where I come from, we are crazy about football, so I grew up listening to football matches. At the end of a match, the reporters would interview the main scorer of the day, who would often say that he was just lucky to receive the ball at the right place.
The commentator would then say that “good luck is a combination of ability and opportunity”. This story comes to mind when thinking of India’s economy over the past two years.
India has been lucky indeed. In the fiscal year ending March 2016 (FY16), the sharp decline in oil prices generated what economists call a positive “terms-of-trade” shock, which lifted growth.
A terms-of-trade shock means that the things you buy suddenly become cheaper relative to the things you sell, allowing you to buy more things.
In the fiscal year that just ended, CSO data that was released recently shows that the good monsoons helped agriculture propel growth. Notwithstanding disruption from demonetization, agricultural wages have continued to grow, along with their purchasing power as rural inflation declined.
But India has also implemented good policies, which allowed it to take advantage of the external shocks. The government took advantage of declining oil prices to eliminate fuel subsidies and hike taxes on carbon-emitting petroleum products, a win for the environment and a win for the exchequer.
The World Bank is releasing its flagship report highlighting the state of the Indian economy, its future growth prospects, the impact of the recent currency exchange on the economy, and the benefits that the progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) will have moving forward.