From Disaster to Development: Exploring Rural Livelihoods

A Development Management Expert discusses the need and significance of focussing on building rural livelihoods on the basis of local historical realities

LILA: While most urban areas are considered to have diverse opportunities of employment at large, how different is the idea of livelihood in rural areas? 

Liby Johnson: The idea and practice of livelihoods in rural communities is certainly different from that of their urban counterparts. In most cases, urban livelihoods are about earning cash incomes and using the cash for purchasing goods and services, including basic needs such as food, nutrition and healthcare.

In case of rural communities, these basic needs are met through a mix of sources, at least in the ideal situation. Tribal communities that practice subsistence farming produce cereals and pulses with a wide nutritional range. This production is often sufficient to meet the family’s food needs for six months in the year. For the remaining period they depend on cash incomes earned from selling labour in others’ farms, working on government-run employment programmes and collection and selling of minor [the official word to denote non-timber forest produce] forest produce. Poultry, goats and pigs are also raised that provide cash income at times of distress. 

A woman farmer harvesting Ragi (Finger Millet) from her farm in village Maligaon, Kalahandi district, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

In the recent past, the big challenge to livelihood security for rural communities has come from the traditional mix of subsistence farming and exchange within the immediate environment increasingly being replaced by the cash-based exchange system. There is, in a lot of quarters, a tendency to look down upon ‘subsistence’ production. ‘Modern’ development theories, practices and interventions aspire to move communities and households away from subsistence production and onto surplus production. While this is not bad in itself, the privileging of surplus over subsistence does harm to the overall food and livelihood security of rural communities, especially those living in areas with limited transport and communication connectivity.

The own-production and/or immediate exchange economics has built-in safety valves that a monetised one does not allow. The best example of this is how the public distribution system (PDS) has led to increased nutritional deficiency among adivasi communities. While the rice-wheat PDS dependence killed the diverse food basket offered by the traditional production system, it has also left people at the mercy of the patronising public policy of subsidised grains. The entire aspect of dignity of life has been taken away in this bargain.

Any perspective on rural livelihoods can only be built on this historical reality. Increased educational achievements and access to wider information have prompted greater aspirations among the new generation of the rural population, and rightly so. It is in this context, that the wide and further widening gap between rural and urban opportunities gets magnified. 

LILA: What kind of shift in aspirations have you observed in rural communities? Are there means for these aspirations to be realised at the moment?

Liby Johnson: The most important change has been the declining preference among younger generations to follow their family’s traditional occupation. This is true in case of farming families and those engaged in traditional artisanal occupations such as weaving or pottery. These activities are cumbersome and involve high levels of drudgery. Youngsters with school education and exposure to the opportunities that their urban counterparts enjoy, often find it beneath their station to engage in these activities.

The other aspect of change is with regards to the physical quality of life. While there have been many recent efforts to improve access to electricity and telephone connectivity in remote rural areas, these have not been satisfactory. The younger generation, given a chance, will want to move to locations where these facilities are easily available.

On real opportunities to realise these aspirations, the situation varies according to the location. For rural communities not far away from an urban centre or with easier connectivity to a larger market, there are more opportunities. In remote locations, it is not so. The opportunities also vary according to the social category of people. The higher and higher-middle castes have wider networks, providing options to climb up the aspirational ladder. For a dalit or an adivasi, such networks are limited.

In many parts of rural India, the younger generation believes that engaging in party politics is an easy way to achieve their aspirations. This is particularly true in those states where identity-based politics has gained an upper hand in the recent decades.

The increasing incidence of rural to urban migration should also be seen as a coping mechanism in this context. In case of unmarried, young men the choice to migrate is not always driven by distress at home. They see it as a potential escape route – from the traditional occupations and the limitations of rural life.

LILA: With programmes like Skill India entering villages, is the idea and possibility of self-dependence and sustenance changing? 

Liby Johnson: There is no evidence to suggest that skill training interventions (of the Skill India type) so far, have contributed substantially to creating secure livelihoods. Most of the opportunities are in the gig economy, where security is not guaranteed. For first-generation non-farm employment seekers, gig economy employment does not lead to substantial improvements in living conditions or dignity. Their families back in the villages continue to depend on their primary sector livelihoods, with its risks. Also, the return on investments – time for the trained, money for the society – made in from skill training does not seem to be commensurate.

Rama Majhi and his wife in their grocery shop set up using the savings from his income as a migrant labour in a fuel station in Kerala. In Thuamul Rampur, Kalahandi, Odisha by Gokul Govind.

Where I have seen any improvement in living conditions, and dignity of the workers are in cases of opportunistic migration. One example of this is from Thuamul Rampur block in Kalahandi district of Odisha. Our estimates suggest that 20% of the households in the block have at least one person working in southern Indian States, mostly Kerala. These young men work in hotels and restaurants, as fuel pump operators, security guards and the like. We estimate that about ₹ 30-40 crore is being repatriated by these workers to the Block from Kerala alone. 

These incomes are generated with no investment in any skill training.

These workers are coming back with incomes and contributing to improving the living conditions for their families. New houses are built, assets bought, more land bought or taken on lease – the range of investments are productive as well as contributing to overall well-being.

LILA: What about the possibility of upward mobility in both scenarios? While jobs like pump operators and security guards are able to sustain families, do you see initiatives, either government led or otherwise, aiding upward mobility for different sections of society? You mentioned earlier that certain social groups find it more difficult to access different kinds of jobs. Have you observed any interventions that have helped in this case?

Liby Johnson: Upward mobility has to be understood in relation to the reality of the daily lives of the rural poor. What are the manifestations of this that we see on a daily basis? It varies between having rice for every meal, living in a concrete-roofed house, owning a motorcycle or a mobile phone – these are real ways in which people define improvements in their living conditions. 

At Gram Vikas, when we were defining the meaning of our work way back in early 2000’s we spoke about a “threshold level of quality of life”. It included a mix of what people had expressed and what we perceived was necessary for sustaining gains in the quality of life. Thus, we defined it as food security and access to secured livelihood opportunities; assured access to basic education and adequate health services; sustainable use and management of natural resources; options for appropriate family and community infrastructure and sources of energy; strong self-governing people’s institutions with equal participation of men and women; conscientisation; self-reliance and self-esteem. Two decades later, I would add higher education, access to transport facilities and communication services including internet and access to financial services to the list. 

Upward mobility in the conventional sense (higher regular income and status of living that brings) can be achieved only if these communities are able to access better quality higher education. There is, of course, the easier way of improving one’s life by partaking of the fruits of political governance. Many youngsters do see this – working with political parties, local government roles and petty contracting – as a sure shot way of achieving economic progress.

LILA: While talking about migrant labourers contributing to the income of their home states and building homes etc., one of the features that one notices in such situations is the change of native landscape. The traditional forms of architecture, for instance, that incorporated a lot of understanding of the topography, climate etc and were more eco-friendly, are replaced by brick and mortar structures. In Kerala, such cement-based constructions have really changed the climate patterns in the last two decades. Focus on skill and livelihood often don’t take into consideration ‘native knowledge’ that was crucial for the sustainability of a community, and tends to interpret life and growth in mere economic terms. How do you see this? 

Liby Johnson: This is a ‘double-edged sword’ situation.

A ‘progressive’ urban educated person will see ‘sustainable’ options in say, native architecture that uses local materials like wood or mud. For their rural counterparts, who have lived all their lives in a mud-walled house, a brick-mortar, concrete-roofed house will always be the ‘better’ option.  As a rural development practitioner, this is a dilemma one faces and has to resolve on a regular basis. Does one ascribe greater value to the notion of sustainability and aesthetics that one feels to be right; or is it to be left to the aspirations of the actual users?

What about a family that lost their mud house in a cyclone and wants to build a safer house? How does one motivate them to build another mud house (however well-defined the safety features are)?

Newly constructed houses for families resettled after Cyclone Phailin in village New Narayanpur, Ganjam district, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

When urbanisation, in all senses – occupations, habitat, conveniences – is accepted by society at large as a desirable situation, it is not an easy dilemma to resolve. 

Having grown up in Kerala, during the period of the ‘Gulf-boom’, I think I am able to identify a few factors that makes Odisha different from Kerala.

One, the settlement pattern in Kerala of non-nucleated villages (no common hub for a group of houses) in the shape of ribbons meant that the notion of ‘community’ is less clearly defined. In Odisha, on the contrary, settlement patterns clearly delineate a community. To begin with, the physical boundary demarcating a group of households is clearly visible. Also, houses often share walls, so decisions on what material to use is not left entirely to one household.

Agricultural land is not a rare commodity in Odisha, as it was and is in Kerala. Lower density of population means that diversion of land from agriculture to housing will be much less in Odisha. Thus, the dangers of encroachment and forced reclamation of floodplains or drainage lines will happen to a lesser extent than in Kerala. We find that a lot of investment is being made from ‘migration income’ to improve the quality of cultivable land, including creating irrigation facilities. My sense is that as long as agriculture remains a priority for the villages, the Kerala type of degradation of land resources will not happen. This does not mean that sub-optimal or disastrous choices will not be made, but the adverse effects will vary according to how dense human population is in a given tract of land. Hence, I have fairly high levels of optimism in the people in southern and western Odisha, especially those from adivasi communities, to make ecologically sounder choices.

LILA: You work closely with communities that are struck by natural disasters, to help them rehabilitate their lives. Can you tell us a little bit about this process? 

Liby Johnson: The increasingly adverse impact of natural disasters is in direct proportion to the move away from the traditional farming practices. Drought-like conditions affect new varieties of crops more than the traditional ones. Additionally, the new varieties demand higher cash investment from the producers – most of which is borrowed – leading to a double whammy. 

There are no easy ways to restoring and rebuilding a livelihood opportunity lost to a natural disaster. Very often, the affected family grins and bears what comes their way. The traditional fatalistic view of life is often the most effective coping mechanism they have.

There have been systemic changes in the way disaster response programmes are carried out. The case of Odisha is a good example. The non-government sector, or civil society, has played a very important role in the disaster preparedness and response activities here. After the Cyclone of 1971 and the Super Cyclone of 1999, the largest contributions in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction were made by the Voluntary/NGO sector, using financial aid from international relief and development organisations. The government played facilitating roles at best, but it was nowhere in the picture in terms of real investments – financial or technical.

Women and men trained in masonry, as part of post-disaster livelihoods rehabilitation after Cyclone Fani, building a piped water supply tank in village Chudanga, Khordha district , Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

On the other hand, in all the recent natural disasters – be it Cyclone Phailin in 2013 or Cyclone Fani in 2019 – the government has been the dominant player in providing rehabilitation and reconstruction. But the cookie-cutter approach that the government often takes, also done in post-disaster cases, has led to sub-optimal results.

There is also deterioration in the ability of the community as a collective to withstand a natural hazard or overcome the effects of a disaster. There is greater dependence on public authorities and services and the expectation that the government will step in to help. Individual families in areas prone to such disasters on a regular basis, however, find ways to cope by themselves.

In the past few years, we have found that natural disasters cause much less loss of life compared to a decade ago, for reasons such as better preparedness, early warning systems and infrastructure. This has created a sense of complacency, especially in the government. Loss of life grabs media attention and raises many questions on the government, as does damage to public services, especially in urban areas. The damage caused by a cyclone to the remaining food stocks of a rural family or the standing maize crop does not attract attention or compensation. 

The overall disaster response situation needs to be seen in this context.

LILA: With a different system of economic exchange and transaction within these communities, what are the systems they employ to prepare, and later overcome the damage caused by such disasters? 

Liby Johnson: The natural disasters that most rural (especially tribal) communities face are not one-off events. These are creeping disasters, like the effects wrought by climate change. Change in monsoon pattern, for instance, has to be seen for the havoc it wreaks on the regular livelihoods of rural communities. Conventional definition of a natural disaster will not work here.

We are seeing how rural communities are adapting to the changing situation. In many villages, there is greater awareness about the precarity of the water resources situation and motivation to adopt changes. It is more so with communities that have a tradition of in-situ transactions. Villages that are socially less heterogeneous find it easier to make compromises and reach consensus on what needs to be done.

Where people feel more self-sufficient, withstanding shocks become easier. Where communities are at the mercy of diverse interests and have foregone their economic autonomy, it is much more difficult. The better-off among them have built financial assets – a decent enough amount in the bank account – and are able to cope better. Where asset holding is still in the form of crops or food stocks the effect of a sudden disaster can linger on for a long time.

LILA: What is the process of rebuilding one’s means of livelihood in such a scenario? To what extent do the different stakeholders — community members, the government and civil society — contribute to this process? 

Liby Johnson: The relief-rehabilitation-reconstruction phases post-disaster are part of an organic continuum. What is done (or not done) during the relief phase often tends to have an influence on work done much later. However, the actions on ground most often do not align with this understanding. There is little coordination between the different phases and very rarely are they taken up after proper needs assessment.

Where such efforts are primarily taken up by the government, as the case seems to be in the recent natural disasters in Odisha, fairness and equity in implementation is often diminished. Unless the village community as a whole decides to distribute benefits/ assistance in a fair and equitable manner, this may not happen at all. The last-mile distribution mechanisms of the government – which includes revenue administration (the revenue inspector and Tahsildar) and the development administration (the extension worker and BDO) – are not specially trained for relief operations. There is very little opportunity or incentives on these functionaries to behave differently from how they would in a normal situation. In fact, there are disincentives galore – the last minute arrival of scheme benefits and the rush to complete distribution within the time-frame specified from the top.

Civil society organisations seem to be better equipped to understand these issues. But, their efforts are often made less effective due to lack of coordination between agencies and the territoriality bug that affects even the best of them. There are often cases of non-specialised support providers (like social clubs) making the situation worse by dumping materials in villages without real needs assessment.

Rebuilding in post-disaster situations requires the field level actors to repose great faith in the community itself. It is my personal experience that if we leave the decisions on who should benefit, when and how much, the village as a whole will arrive at fairer and more equitable decisions for themselves, than when the decision parameters are defined by the donor. I have seen this happening even in socio-economically heterogenous villages that in normal circumstances would behave in a less fair manner. Where the donor gets the community together and explains the limits of the support being provided and puts as minimum number of conditions as possible, except those which are non-negotiable, the community in most cases would return with the most optimal solutions.

Chandaka village community with Gram Vikas team after the distribution of disaster relief food kits after Cyclone Fani in Khurda district, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

Rebuilding an individual family’s livelihoods after a natural disaster depends substantially on the pre-disaster assets and wealth. In many cases, it also depends on the influence on local administrative /governance institutions and personnel who manage them. The poorer sections, therefore, face serious limitations in these circumstances. It is natural that villages that are not easily accessible gets left-out from the plans made by agencies. In case of socially heterogeneous villages, local dynamics can lead to exclusion of specific groups. Even where exclusion based on social status is avoided, it is often difficult to include people with special needs – people with disabilities, aged people living alone et al.

LILA: Can this opportunity to ‘rebuild’ provide a means of subversion that addresses the systemic challenges of governing relief operations?

Liby Johnson: I have not come across any sure-shot way of ensuring equitable distribution of support except in cases where the supporting organisation had been active in the village for many years prior to the disaster and had an intimate understanding of the village and its households. 

A long-term rehabilitation/reconstruction intervention is nothing but a development intervention. As such, they need to be planned and executed in a manner that leads to better development outcomes, not simple rehabilitation. The phrase often used, ‘build back better’ does not apply only to physical rebuilding; it has to be about building a better village community.

LILA: As someone with a background in governance, how do you envisage the futures of communities vis-à-vis livelihood and lifestyle on the one side and cultural knowledge and creativity on the other?

Liby Johnson: I will limit my observations here to communities in the hilly, forest-fringe areas of southern and south-western Odisha. The population in these areas are largely adivasi, with Dalits and lower castes forming bulk of the remaining population. Another feature of this area is the continuing (for the foreseeable future too) dependence on natural resources for food and livelihood security.

A key issue in this regard is policies of the government. These are areas that have seen and continue to see large conflicts around exploitation of mineral resources. Displacement caused by large-scale mining and irrigation projects, in a few cases, is a continuing reality. Yet another cause of displacement is the widening network of national parks and animal sanctuaries.

Village Digribandh, in Kalahandi district, Odisha has families which  settled here after displacement due to the construction of Indravati dam. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

I reckon that at least half the population in these areas, that hitherto were unaffected by displacement inducing development, are at risk of being moved away from their current locations. This I see happening in the next three decades. If this actually happens, any discussion on long-term sustainable development is only applicable to the generations already born. 

Such uncertainties also affect the behaviours of people and communities. 

Another aspect to be considered here is how educational achievements lead to change. Youngsters who have obtained better levels of school, college or technical education than their previous generation will relate to what is ‘traditional’ in very different ways. For them many such practices will feel like out-dated or outright regressive. They will yearn to adopt what is ‘popular’.

There will always be islands where communities have managed to retain their traditional knowledge while improving physical conditions of life.  These will be limited and the result of work done by organisations or activists who have remained with the communities.

For any such change to be universal and not limited to pockets of excellence, society as a whole will have to change. Public policy – in letter, spirit and action – should value the right mix of traditional and modern wisdom; media should act in responsible ways and people of India will have to start behaving like people of Scandinavian countries with respect to ecological choices they make. I guess that is what Utopia will look like.

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015