The Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship is an initiative of the Ministry of Rural Development that recruits young professionals to work with local governments for grassroots development in left-wing extremism affected areas. In this article, Varad Pande talks about the objectives, challenges and successes of the programme.
"It was an opportunity to take governance where it matters the most” says Ravi Dhanuka, working as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) Fellow in Munger district of Bihar. Thanks to his work with local communities, 500 children in a remote block no longer have to study under an open roof. The experience of Ravi is just one of several remarkable stories of change that PMRD Fellows are bringing about across the poorest, maoist-affected districts of India. 137 young professionals from diverse backgrounds – doctors, lawyers, engineers, Information Technology (IT) professionals, and economists - are today deployed in 82 districts through a government initiative – the PMRD Fellowship – silently creating transformative change1.
Through PMRDF, we tried to address two distinct objectives.
The first was to harness the energy of youth by connecting them to hands-on grassroots public service. In a country with a ‘career civil service’ system, the PMRDF opened a new channel for youth to engage directly with development through the government system.
The second was to augment the State’s human resource capabilities at the ‘last mile’ of service delivery. District Collectors – the critical pivot of all development work in India – often complain about the lack of professional support at the local level (especially in remote, maoist-affected districts). The PMRDF was an attempt to fill this gap by providing a pool of well-trained professionals at the sub-district level.
Setting up the PMRDF
How the PMRDF came about is an interesting story in itself, as it was an entirely new paradigm for addressing service delivery challenges in these remote areas. What started as a casual idea was soon formulated as a detailed proposal, which was blessed at the highest levels. Importantly, we got approval for a generous monthly stipend for the fellows (Rs. 75,000 or $1,220 approx. per month). This was considered too high by many in government, but we were clear that those working for the poor should not have to be paid poorly, especially given that the fellows would not enjoy usual government allowances and benefits.
We cast a wide net for applicants, reaching out through newspaper advertisements, and outreach on the internet and at leading universities. To ensure the credibility of the programme, it was important that the selection process was professional and transparent. Applicants were assessed on multiple criteria, including their statements of purpose and Curricula Vitae (CV). Shortlisted candidates went through rigorous interviews. Of more than 8,500 applicants, 150 were eventually selected.
Having identified a good pool, it was important to orient and train the fellows well so they could hit the ground running. So an intensive two-month ‘immersion’ and training programme was designed – in classroom and in the districts. Fellows were trained on a variety of subjects ranging from the basics of public administration to specific tools like micro-planning and social audits; as well as ‘soft skills’ like conflict resolution and negotiations. Handholding and mentoring support was institutionalised.
An important challenge was bringing the state governments on board. Some states initially saw the programme with skepticism, and even suspicion – was it an initiative to “monitor” their work from Delhi? Over formal consultations and informal conversations, the states’ concerns were addressed – it was made clear that the fellows would work under their command. Gradually, states began to own the programme, providing additional training, local incentives, and even contemplating their own programmes modelled on PMRDF.
There were other challenges too. Some fellows faced indifferent and uncooperative local administration to begin with. A common refrain heard from the fellows was that while they are successful in surfacing problems, they are less successful in helping address them. Individual issues were sorted out one by one.
Progress so far and future plans
Nevertheless, there are remarkable success stories of the Fellows’ work: setting up ultra-small bank branches, rural Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) units and livelihoods colleges; improving participatory planning and social audits of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA); organising farmers to improve their bargaining power vis-à-vis middlemen; training Gram Rozgar Sahayaks2 on technical skills, etc. In some of the most remote villages, the adventurous and energetic fellows are sometimes the first ‘government’ functionaries to visit in decades! The fellows seem to have fit well – the attrition rate has been remarkably low (less than 10%). The most successful fellows are those who have managed to establish good working rapport with the administration and create effective local networks.
A second phase of the programme is now planned to include more districts (including in the North-East). The Ministry is also facilitating a Master’s Degree Programme for interested fellows to further hone their skills. New guidelines for the programme have been drawn up that take on board the feedback from the fellows and the states so that the programme is fully institutionalised.
The PMRDF is emerging as a vehicle for qualified youth to look at rural development and public service as a genuine career option. With the rich training and tangible ground experience that they gain, the fellows are proving to be a valuable pool of human resources available not only for the government, but also for civil society and corporations to serve local communities in the future.
The PMRDF has shown that meaningful innovations in governance and service delivery are indeed possible even within our ‘rigid’ government system. The governmental system can, when appropriately primed, be open to and benefit from systemic innovations. It has also shown that there is a passionate cadre of young Indians who, with appropriate training and mentorship, can create a salutary impact in the implementation of government schemes where it matters most – the last mile. Most promisingly, the PMRDF experiment shows that it is possible to bring the passion, curiosity and creativity of India’s youth into the mainstream of India’s development challenge.
Varad Pande is Officer on Special Duty to India’s Minister for Rural Development and was part of the team that started the PMRD Fellowship.
- Stories of change can be accessed at http://pmrdfellows.wordpress.com/
- Gram Rozgar Sahayaks assist in the implementation and management of MNREGA at the Panchayat level.