By Kalinga Seneviratne
NAMOKANDA, West Bengal, India (IDN) – Six years ago this remote village of 130 households about 80 km from Santiniketan – the hometown of famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore – was a small picturesque village community surrounded by paddy fields, but without a sustainable development concept.
Today it is a confident community with most households having access to water and sanitation, and most of its children in school aspiring to go to university. One of the community leaders is even doing research in development communication at the famous Visva-Bharati University, India’s first ‘institute of national importance’, set up by Tagore.
The remarkable transformation of the village community has taken place thanks to a concept of ‘Developing Community From Within’ (DCFW) introduced by the Centre for Journalism and Mass Communication (CJMC) at Visva-Bharati University in 2011, led by its project director Professor Biplab Loho Chowdhury and assisted by the Delhi-based Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation (GRTF).
“Communication for development needs to have certain values which are often absent in mass media-based communication strategy and action,” argues Chowdhury, who developed the concept of ‘community communication spectrum’. “We need to use the communities’ own communication strategies to motivate them to act.”
He believes that development communication has largely failed in India because Indian scholars have mainly borrowed from the western Aristotelian model to support target-driven capital-intensive outside-driven development.
According to Chowdhury, it is now time to look closely at the trans-generational communication systems developed starting from the Vedic period that has filtered down through the centuries and is still practised at village level.
Thus, localism need to be considered “as a value in communication to ensure that the local development process utilises local mores, folkways, folk talents and practices as channels and part of the message”, thus ensuring spontaneous village participation and cost-minimising. This is the strategy that CJMC has adopted in working with the community here.
In 2011, Chowdhury and a group of his students spent many days in the community, meeting members to find out their needs and perception about own resources. They found three main problems – lack of knowledge on health issues, lack of community organisation and apathy of government agencies in assisting the community.
However, when a doctor was asked to come in and check on the health conditions of the community, he found its members to be in good health. Thus, the community was encouraged to maintain its good health standards and a workshop was organised on good parenting for better progeny.
In order to improve the developmental organisation structure of the village and take forward educational programmes, ‘Namokanda Prochesta’ (NP) – meaning Namokanda Effort – was formed, made up of members of the community who were mainly teachers working in schools in the area.
“From grade1 to 12 every student needs to be under the ambit of the NP programme,” explains Chowdhury. “(Thus) every student gets training in proper social and family behaviour” and the clean, healthy and confident community to be found here is a result of this project.
NP has been giving free tuition for students and offering annual scholarships. The ‘helping from within’ concept has encouraged villagers to share each other’s vegetable harvests and special food preparations.
“Here the youth groups with the help of community elders undertake village development projects,” explains community coordinator Srimantha Mandal, who is a CJMC graduate and a primary school teacher by own choice. “With the help of Visva-Bharati and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation, we are learning to make progress from within ourselves utilising local resources”.
The community has also set up a ‘Shishu Panchayat’ (SP) consisting of school-going children with its own chief minister and a Cabinet of ministers to promote the ethos of active citizenship in them.
The DCFW concept has a strong cultural component, where the community’s traditional culture and artistic expressions are encouraged. This is in line with Tagore’s philosophy of a strong community having a strong indigenous traditional culture.
With the help of students from CJMC, the young members of SP have just produced their own newspaper with articles, poetry, cartoons and other cultural expressions. Their chief minister Rituparna Mandal is an accomplished singer.
“My role is to solve problems for our youth,” she told IDN. “I look after the information, culture and ecology of the village,” added the confident 14 year old. She related a novel way of overcoming a gender barrier in the community through acting within the ambit of the SP. “We had a problem with our community because our families don’t want us to play with the boys, (so) we found a land outside the village where girls play together”.
“We girls can play a lot of sports now,” added Pooja Mandal, sports minister of SP. “If any child wants to play and doesn’t know how to, we guide her (be it) football, volleyball, badminton, gymnastic, (and even) yoga.”
The SP meets about once a month when there is no academic pressure on them. “They take on ideas for the community to move. They are the eye keepers of the community – the alert leaders,” says Srimantha Mandal.
Chowdhury says that this community does not accept any fund from outside to implement community-initiated development programmes because that model is not sustainable. What it obtains is ideas and guidance.
One example he pointed out to IDN is how the community had to spend over 30,000 rupees (470 dollars) every year to repair the road to the village after the rainy season. Now they have learned how to carry out studies and prepare documents for advocacy to the government for projects which require huge funding. They have prepared a document to ask for government funds to bank the adjoining Dwarka river so that the houses and lands by the riverside can be saved from erosion during the next rainy season.
“Social media is not much liked (by these communities) because the human touch is not there,” explains Chowdhury. “The human touch is very basic to them and they have strong group communication traditions (that are utilised) … it is mouth-to-mouth”. Through these communication strategies (armed with knowledge) they are now able to communicate confidently with government agencies and the outside media.
“The efforts of the people of Namokanda portrays that changes can be effected with immense dedication and the belief of ‘oneness’,” noted Bakul Chandra Roy, a student from Bangladesh at CJMC, who was part of the team visiting the community. He was one of the first four interns to stay in the village last summer, and the villagers gave them the best hospitality.
This is not the first of its kind in India. Chowdhury introduced his concept to three other villages in Assam in north-east India in 1998 to test the strength of DCFW for advancing communities into the path of sustainable development.
“The communication process must make communities realise their relevance, interdependence and interaction with the macro society. The communicator provides the frame of reference for the people. His or her personality gives the process a personality advantage. This is the stabilising value of communication,” argues Chowdhury. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 January 2018]
Photo: The children of Namokanda community in West Bengal who have formed the ‘Shishu Panchayat’ consisting of school-going children. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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