Need to work hard to bring rural India at par with urban India: Ronnie Screwvala, The Swades Foundation

‘This is not a corporation where we get to set goals and targets – we need to allow the village communities to set their’s and also own them.’

The Swades Foundation, Ronnie Screwvala, Swades Nashik, Dream Village
Ronnie Screwvala at The Swades Foundation

Ronnie Screwvala is a first-generation entrepreneur who started his journey by introducing India to multi-channel TV viewing by launching the first cable TV network in the country. He also co-founded upGrad with a dream of establishing India as the teaching capital of the World. Ronnie Screwvala is a known name in the entertainment industry. But today we are going to discuss with him about the Swades Foundation. He co-founded the Swades Foundation with his wife Zarina Screwvala, which focuses on rural India, and together, they adopted villages in Maharashtra to work on their self-sufficiency in water, health, education and livelihood. Through this foundation, he aims to impact one million rural lives every five years, with a clear exit/empowerment strategy from those villages and building a model for others to follow. Here are excerpts of an interaction with him:

Swades has been in rural Maharashtra for the last ten years and spread over 2200 villages – why have you singled out 75 of them as Dream Villages?

No village or hamlet is singled out. It’s really up to that village, its community, to set its own aspiration levels. By setting a high goal post for a Dream Village, we have acted as the catalyst & enabler for them to realize their own dreams. Also, setting high standards of village life as a base just uplifts how we see rural India, which is home to over 600 million fellow Indians. Our goal is to make every village we ever work in to be ‘their’ dream village, and so this is just the start of what should be a National Movement. However, we need to keep the benchmark very high – as this is where half of India resides, makes their livelihood, builds their families, and, in turn, contributes to nation-building. So all need to work hard to make rural India an equally or even better place to live than urban India. 

So, what is this high benchmark and how would you best describe your ‘Dream Village’?

Firstly, the community needs to dream high and own their dream and their village. We have seen that where the community, led by the Village Development Committee, takes charge and believes in what they want to do, magic happens. We set high goals for what becomes a dream village because our community sets them high. Our task was to prompt them on what would make them believe they live a life complete in basic infrastructure, filled with opportunities for them and their kids, giving them a sense of great pride and of being in control of their destiny. So for us, their change in spirit and self-discovery of living a much better life is at the starting point of a Swades Dream Village. 

Other than that, we set 40 strong parameters that include the basics that every household has drinking water with taps in their home 365 days of the year and an attached toilet that they use, to every child must be in their Angadwadi and School all the way to Std X11 and the schools have all the support basic solar power to faculty, library and other tools to keep students engaged, to the basics of each family having a bank account, Aadhar card & health insurance, strong health orientation and access to medical support at all times, government pension for all senior citizens – to the most important which is that every household has at least two diverse sources of income for total economic independence. A village that has aspiration, ownership of its community & their own conviction that they are now better off than migrating – is a village that can continue to dream even higher. 

We have heard of many doing ‘one’ dream village and that becomes a model but you have taken this to scale with 75 going to 750 villages – no one has been able to achieve this – so what have been your key challenges and also why do you have the right to succeed in this?

All good challenges, I will say – good problems to solve and we see this to have a lifelong impact on the community as their lives change forever & also allows them to set higher benchmarks for themselves. Their self-confidence in working and achieving to be a dream village has transformed large communities into believing that ‘they can make a difference and wait for no one vs the normal approach to wait for external support. The biggest challenges are changing mindsets, finding leaders in the Village Development Committees, and then ensuring they work on making all this happen and not looking to Swades for handouts. For us, we have been with this community for years and worked with them on tough projects they did not believe in when we started, but now we see those same eyes light up when they see change right in front of them. We also learned that ‘handouts’ do not work with any community anywhere, and so ensuring skin in the game for them from the word Go is really our experience to be the strong catalyst that we are for them to script their own change. 

So will every of your 2200 villages become dream villages & also as you expand into the Nashik block before you go all india with this model of holistic development will your benchmark for all new villages you enter be that need to be a dream village sooner than later?

We don’t see all villages becoming what we have described as Dream Villages and that is because its critical for us to have the community buy in – as after we make it a dream village, they need to keep it that way for the next 20-30 years and so accepting who is ready to make this goal post is very important. Having said that, yes, for future geographies we enter into – we would like to see a very high % of the villages we work with to have the thought of moving to a dream village within a time span. Our task and the task of everyone working in rural India – should be to ensure that rural is cool, that it’s not less aspirational than Urban India. After all, it’s where half of all of us reside, and if we respect and accept that – it will also add to nation-building and take everyone’s ambition levels up & the feeling of Can Do to come in. 

Swades has created an impact in a large area of Maharashtra and now you’re expanding that to newer clusters too with your entry to the large Nashik belt – so if your plan to go national?

This is not a corporation where we get to set goals and targets – we need to allow the village communities to set their’s and also own them. Yes, we will keep expanding but for us at Swades – others picking up this model in the geography they operate in is also a way of sharing and taking this pan India. 

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