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Postcards from rural India

Postcards from rural India

Author: Anuradha Mascarenhas
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: July 10, 2011
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/postcards-from-rural-india/815310/0

Introduction: For the past 17 years, Praeep Lokhande has been posting questionnaires to village. The result: a mine of information on rural India

Seventeen years ago when he set out to understand rural India, all he had was a bunch of 15-paise postcards. He mailed them to people in various villages-sarpanchs, school teachers and postmasters-asking them a host of questions like when the weekly haats were held, how many children attended schools etc. When he didn't get too many responses, he took to touring villagers and collecting information. After receiving 6,00,000 postcards from villagers and students from 28,000 villages of ten states, Pradeep Lokhande's office in Pune today is a mine of information on rural India.

"We have helped build a belief in them," says Lokhande, who calls himself a 'facilitator and catalyst' and mixes ideology with business to generate employment for the village youth and help stop migration to cities.

"It is a brand new way to connect with rural India," says Lokhande who set up his firm, Rural Relations, in Pune in 1996. And who does he connect with? "It is the secondary school students who I feel are the opinion leaders. Initially, we would write to the sarpanch of the village, headmaster, postmaster, to try and understand the mindset, traits and preferences of villagers. Now, I prefer to write to school students," he says.

Over the years, Lokhande has helped build one-to-one contact programmes and launched rural initiatives across ten states-Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Rural Relations is the resource partner of corporates like Reliance Money, HLL, Telco, P&G, Tata Tea and Marico. "Our immense data helps them connect to village youth, it's useful for their marketing strategies and it also generates job opportunities," says Lokhande.

Many of the postcards sent to Lokhande contain job queries. In a postcard sent on June 18, G Ramulu from Sedam taluka in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka, writes: "I am searching for a job. Can you help me?" In another postcard, Mahesh Kamble from Shirala taluka, Sangli district, Maharashtra, asks, "Can I get the job for Colgate firm planning their marketing strategy here?"

Lokhande has also begun a non-resident villager (NRV) movement that has helped install 3,600 computers in villages in the ten states that he works in. Lokhande has also launched 'Gyan Key', a campaign to get every village school in Maharashtra a library.
"I am a facilitator and my organisation's USP is the extensive data and knowledge we have on each village. If a non-resident Indian who has his roots in some village wants to donate and provide a computer to his village, we help provide the logistical support and ensure that it is installed in the school," says Lokhande.

His efforts may soon result in every village secondary school in Maharashtra getting a 'Gyan Key' library. This model of public-private participation has in fact, even caught the attention of Stanford University. Lokhande got village children to participate in a global story writing competition organised by Stanford University last year that saw as many as 3,900 children from 200 schools from Maharashtra's villages competing for the best 1001 stories. Now all these children have Stanford University certificates with three girls from interior Maharashtra even bagging the top three positions in the competition.

The library project that aims at putting 170 books in each library (nearly 400 schools in Maharashtra have already started the project), has become hugely popular with the students, who have now begun mailing their feedback on their school libraries to Lokhande.

Ramesh Rohokule, a class VIII student at the Gandhi Vidyalaya in Amravati district of Maharashtra, along with Shweta Bhavara, a student of class IX at Guhagar in Ratnagiri district, cannot stop praising the books they have been reading-be it about NASA atronaut Sunita Williams taking along samosas on a Space Mission or reading about Sudha Murty and her life. And to express their gratitude, they have sent postcards of thanks to Lokhande.

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