This profile was prepared when Suman Sahai was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Suman is committed to building a new engine to start and support growth in rural India, especially in its most heavily populated and especially backwards and stuck region, the central and eastern part of the Gangetic Plain. (Her home state of Uttar Pradesh would be the world's fifth largest nation after the U.S. if it were independent.)She is attacking the problem with the hands-on, eyes and ears wide open, empirical methods of both the scientist and the entrepreneur. She is also enthusiastic and able to draw in actors and resources new to the long-standing rural development conundrum. If she wants to introduce poultry farming, she quickly pulls in, providing solid commercial incentives, one of the largest private poultry companies from the chicken-producing belt around Delhi. That is something most private voluntary organizations would not allow themselves to imagine, let alone know how to do. She is even more ready to spot technical opportunities and to reach out to whomever can help.Suman is engaged in a quick-moving experimental process. When she started work in 1989, she came up with a carefully worked-out project to upgrade the primitive state of goat breeding and management, as she felt this would provide quick help to people too poor to own cattle. However, after some months in the villages, she shelved this idea well into the future because she found so many other, more urgent priorities.Specifically, she found health conditions so needlessly appalling that she decided to deal with them first. (She cites, for example, children going blind because their parents did not know to wash an infected eye.) Therefore, over the last year, she has organized 19 health encampments, each bringing basic care directly to a cluster of villages. In addition to providing needed treatments and counseling, these encampments have enabled Suman to help in a number of other areas, such as family planning and family relations. These camps give her a systematic opportunity to listen to the needs as perceived of the area's people, especially the poor and the women who normally do not venture far from their village. They not only introduce her and her co-workers, but these camps are also and will probably remain a key entry point for Suman into the villagers' minds.As she has listened and experimented since her return, Suman increasingly has crystallized an approach that will have at its heart a comprehensive center. Serving her home district, Shahjahanpur and a 150-kilometer radius, she hopes it will quickly spawn copies that will extend similar stimuli and help widely.To be both sustainable and persuasive, her center will have to be economic. Both because she sees poultry farming as an especially promising opportunity for the region (and the center), and because it requires very little land, she plans a large model chicken farm to become the center's core activity. (She points out that U.P. now imports $17 million worth of chicken per year and that they can be raised both in small- and medium-scale community units and in a family's back yard.)She is arranging for Delhi's poultry giant, Keg Farms, to work with her. The center's own farm would not only model an approach that is quite unfamiliar in the area, but its professional staff would also be available to help others from the area needing advice, veterinary services, etc. They would be backed by specific extension workers, often village residents close enough to work with women who never even come to the area's small towns. The center would also experiment with ways of helping with marketing.In addition, the center would respond to other needs of the villagers, especially when it could work out potentially high-impact solutions. For example, the area is suffering from a growing shortage of the Patel grass used to make the thatch roofs that cover 80 percent of the area's homes. Suman is working to refine and demonstrate simple, low-cost treatment methods that promise to triple the life expectancy of such roofs. She is also at work in eight villages demonstrating a bio-environmental method of controlling malaria using fish and polystyrene beads.Given Suman's temperament and force, it is clear that her attack on rural stagnation will not want for new ideas.