Empowering individuals can bridge income and social inequality gaps: Kalpana Sankar

Interview with Dr Kalpana Sankar, Chairperson and Managing Trustee, Hand in Hand India

Q. What led to the pivot from Nuclear Physics to the development sector and poverty eradication?

I am basically a scientist with a doctorate in Nuclear Physics. I did my coursework in MatScience, a prestigious institute in India where we had professors from Stanford and Berkeley teach us. I defended my thesis at Presidency College and took up my first job at Cancer Institute, Chennai under Dr. Shantha. As much as I wanted to work with people who were ailing, I knew just after the first day that I was not cut out for a job in radiation therapy. This journey bolstered my commitment to serve others and fuelled my determination to create positive change. I joined the Women's Development Corporation of Tamil Nadu Government as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer and worked on the initial proposal for the TN World Bank Poverty Eradication Project. Later, I was given an opportunity to work with Hand in Hand at the grassroots level. It gave me a lens to the other side of poverty and there has been no looking back.

Q. How does Hand In Hand approach poverty alleviation and income generation activities?

Hand in Hand India employs a multidimensional approach to poverty eradication, focusing on child labour elimination, self-help groups, enterprise development, health, skill development, training, and environmental sustainability. Today, poverty alleviation strategies are built on promoting economic growth and implementing targeted anti-poverty programs and integrates existing approaches such as community organization-based micro-financing, capability and social security enhancement, market-based initiatives, and good governance practices.

Hand in Hand recognizes the complementary nature of these approaches and implements them simultaneously for a comprehensive poverty alleviation drive. In particular, Hand In Hand India's poverty eradication strategy centers on empowering women through self-help groups (SHGs) and entrepreneurship. By forming SHGs comprised of women from similar socio-economic backgrounds, providing training in various skills, and facilitating access to financial institutions, the organisation fosters a culture of self-reliance and economic empowerment. Their approach includes a credit plus model, focusing not only on lending but also on activities such as savings, health, and capacity building.

Q. What contributes to its successful scaling up and replication across countries and continents?

It's very important to have a systematic approach to scale any project. We start with assessment, proof of concept and discussion with the local team and local stakeholders. Stakeholder interaction - the community, corporates and the Government has been a significant part of our implementation strategy. We then have a measurable research-based approach with baseline, midline and endline surveys proving the strength of our monitoring and evaluation team and execution capabilities. These are all built over a period of time. We also like to do pilots to test proof of concept and then scale the projects.

We have replicated our job creation model globally in South Africa, Afghanistan, Brazil, Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka aside from 18 states in India. To state an example, they observed that while people had access to facilities and security, they lacked awareness of their rights and entitlements, leading to a sense of oppression. Through initiatives like the SHG model, Hand in Hand empowered individuals, giving them a voice in their communities and fostering economic independence. With emphasis on sustainability and growth in South Africa and recognizing the need for sustained job creation and enterprise development, a dedicated micro-finance organisation was set-up. By replicating successful models like BRAC Tanzania, they facilitated the growth of income-generating projects into profitable micro and small enterprises.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index data which states that 415 million people exited poverty between 2005 to 2021? What key factors would have really contributed to this?

At Hand in Hand, we started our 5 pillar programme in 2004-05 based on the global multidimensional poverty index data as we knew it had to be a concerted effort to fight poverty. During this period over close to 2 decades, financial inclusion, skill training, the CSR mandate and thrust on education have all played a pivotal role in bringing people out of poverty. The Government’s schemes like social security, financial inclusion, education of girl child, digital financial inclusion and literacy, farmer programmes and high standards of skill training set by NSDC have been key to see these tangible results.

Q. While the country is gearing up to become a trillion dollar economy and 'Viksit Bharat', what needs to be done in your experience to bring poor people up to speed to be able to contribute their bit to these goals and enjoy the fruits of these major policy pushes?

Empowering individuals through entrepreneurship opportunities, vocational training, and social welfare programs can foster economic participation and bridge the income and social inequality gaps. Our country is already moving towards an entrepreneurial culture and this should be further fostered. Women should be part of our economic growth story. Youth are equally important as we need to provide world class skill training so we can create a competitive environment for Indian made products. Government infrastructure is rapidly improving but there is a mismatch with jobs available. This should be bridged. We should give a further thrust on quality education with measurable learning outcomes and technical education so we can become on par with global players

Q. Tell us about the evolution of Hand In Hand India from a small NGO which started with eradication of child labour in Kancheepuram to now multi location income generating and poverty eradicating impactful organisation?

The evolution of Hand in Hand from a small NGO focused on eradicating child labour in Kancheepuram to a multi-location organization dedicated to generating income and eradicating poverty has been a journey of adaptation and expansion. Initially, Hand in Hand India's efforts centered on initiatives like the Child Labour Elimination Program, Self Help Groups providing microcredit to women, and the Citizens’ Centre project for information dissemination and good governance. Recognizing the critical link between health and poverty, Hand in Hand India expanded its focus to include health initiatives, inspired by experiences in the field where individuals struggled due to poor access to medical facilities. This led to the establishment of medical clinics and the upgrading of childcare centres to provide healthcare services across remote villages.

Hand in Hand India ventured into solid waste management in 2008, starting with initiatives in Mudichur, Tamil Nadu. By appointing "green friends" primarily composed of women and providing them with training and equipment, Hand in Hand not only tackled waste management but also empowered marginalised individuals, instilling dignity and pride in their work. The environment pillar expanded to include water and soil conservation projects with support from organisations like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). However, strategic decisions were made to ensure that the organisation's expansion did not compromise its core principles of serving the poor with integrity and professionalism.

Q. What kind of support do you get from your family when juggling multiple responsibilities?

Being an entrepreneur is not easy. You are faced with unique challenges every day. Sometimes there are unreasonable demands, there are new government laws that we need to comply with and as in all sectors there are human resource challenges. We as leaders need trusted people so we can discuss matters in confidence. My family plays that role. They are my bouncing board and my biggest strength and support system. They are the key players that help me in building resilience as an entrepreneur!

Q. What keeps you and your team at Hand In Hand motivated?
Basically, we enjoy the work! There is some inner calling in all of us to choose this sector and to help people. Right from inception, we have made it a point to keep the salary competitive and have ensured that all staff are given training and exposure to global institutions and sector experts. We have had the opportunity to work on some challenging long-term projects that keeps the team on their toes and motivated to make a difference.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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