The summer months are months of internships and fellowships. Around this time of the year, many young women and men from premier institutions across the country are descending on rural India to have a firsthand exposure to village life in India’s heartland. The trend started a few years ago when everybody’s attention was drawn to the bottom of the pyramid by a management guru. It seems that corporate India rediscovered rural India, a market that was waiting to be understood and tapped.
That many bright minds are now prepared to engage with the rural reality in India during their studies is indeed a welcome sign. Thanks to generous contributions to various fellowships from the government, corporates and philanthropies, many youngsters spend time in rural areas ranging from a few months to two to three years. However, what is worrying is the fact that at the end of such fellowships, there are not many mentors who will help these youngsters to sustain their energies. We are thus likely to lose valuable human capital that otherwise could have been an asset in the grand project of transforming rural India.
My first exposure to the rural reality was 40 years ago when after completing my board examination, my mentor late V. V. Pendse of Jnana Prabodhini in Pune encouraged me to travel to rural Tamil Nadu to participate in the work of installing hand pumps. That experience of one month in parched villages of Ramanathpuram and Madurai has stayed in my mind. Much later as a professional, at Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), I got the opportunity of experiencing the reality of rural India through the eyes and ears of a dairy farmer. Those two fellowship experiences nurtured my sensitivity about and understanding of rural India.
At one count, there are at least 20-30 national fellowship initiatives. The notable among these are the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows (PMRDF) that was launched by the previous government. The minister who conceived of the scheme was quoted to have defined the role of the PMRDFs as Sherpas to the District Collector. The fate of the PMRDF scheme after the first two batches is not known.
The Teach for India fellowships saw a large number of volunteer fellows offering their time to educate those less fortunate. In Maharashtra, a renowned NGO launched a NIRMAN fellowship program (Nirman meaning new creation) with a mix of academic and field curriculum. I have also come across Gandhi fellowship and Buddha fellowship offered in recent times by philanthropies.
These fellowships are providing a new entry point for youngsters willing to engage with rural realties. This is indeed a positive and welcome sign. Such fellowships offer options to youngsters who want to do something but are not clear of what. They have not enrolled into standard social work and rural development courses. But there is a strong desire to explore alternative career options that are more meaningful to them. So, if an engineer employed in a software company or an analyst trained for corporate finance wants to take risk, such fellowships offer that person to test his or her inclination.
The fellowships, be it within the government administration or placement with the NGOs, can potentially open new possibilities for the host organization. Fellows often come up with new ideas, challenging the status quo, bringing in alternative technologies and or processes. The young entrants are coming with fresh perspectives and are not constrained by circumstances, hierarchy and past baggage that sometime can be limiting factor. Many of them are data and tech-savvy.
The fellows can also deliver concrete results if their projects and task boundaries are clearly defined and they are given a specific and doable terms of reference that can be accomplished in the fellowship period. I am aware of a student project during 1990s that tested the feasibility of an ice-cream product line for a dairy cooperative federation. The host organization went ahead with this feedback and subsequently launched a new product line that became a huge contributor to the business activities. The seed was sown in the fellowship study.
It is also foreseeable that many of the fellows while being tentative at the entry level might find their true calling at the end of the fellowship period. Some of them might commit to choose development sector as a serious long-term career option. Thus, in addition to the postgraduate courses in social work, the fellowship route is another potential route for lateral entry of talent to address the challenges of rural India and its myriad problems.
But no ships to anchor
However, experience of many fellowships suggests that the development sector is probably not fully utilizing the potential this route offers. In fact, the worry is that in the absence of many ships to anchor, we might end up in losing a valuable resource and entry point for building the human potential of the developmental sector. The need for anchors and mentors rises from the fact that the fellows are high on enthusiasm and but might lack domain knowledge. They need handholding and active coaching in the initial months.
One of the main challenges and the cause for worries is lack of competent mentors and anchors to guide and coach the fellows. It is easier said than done. The fellows are left to fend for themselves, with no clear guidance and advice on what and how to accomplish the tasks expected of them in the fellowships. The host organizations tend to use their skill sets for menial tasks such as tabulating data in excel sheets or translating annual report of the organization from vernacular to English or at best preparing a power point presentation for the CEO.
In some situations, the immediate supervising authority is not even aware of the role and expectations of such fellows who are dumped on them as a result of some top-down scheme. It was reported that some fellows in the PMRDF did not have a table space for quite some time to begin with because the district administration was not aware that there are fellows assigned to their office. This author encountered a situation in a PMRDF training program (where he was a faculty) that more than half of the batch bunked the training sessions for which they were paid. It was told that they were preparing for the impending civil services test.
Critical function of mentoring
Mentoring and coaching has become a cliché. It is an intensive process that demands time and energy, not just from the mentee but also from the mentor. Unfortunately, very few seniors in the government or in the developmental sector organizations have that kind of time or are ready to invest such energy. The senior leadership is too preoccupied in running and managing the daily chores and has little time left for such a critical task. As a result, many fellows have gone through times of anxiety, being confused in the maze and eventually losing their drive and motivation to contribute.
Unfortunately, organizations hosting fellowships are also busy in the event management of fellowship programs. More attention is given to the visibility of such programs rather than the soul of the program. Soft dimensions such as mentoring and coaching are relegated to background.
Fellowships are a valuable opportunity for a large number of organizations to attract new talent. There is an urgent need to pause and reflect on what can be best done to get the maximum out of such fellowships. We need a large number of ships to help fellows anchor first and then sail for long voyages.
Ajit Kanitkar is a Consultant for Tata Education and Development Trust and a Member of the research team at Centre for Development and Research in Pune. Prior to this, he was Program Officer at Ford Foundation, India office, and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, both in New Delhi. He taught at Institute of Rural Management, Anand, during 1992-1995.