Study visit to Gram Vikas in India

Part of an award received by Gram Vikas from the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) included a study visit to India. EcoSouth representatives from Nicaragua, Cuba and South were among the multinational group of participants who traveled to India in November 2004 to learn about the rural health and environment program and other activities of the 25-year-old grass-roots organization.

By Peter Dunckley

The Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) awarded its 2004 prize to Gram Vikas, a ‘best practice’ integrated rural development NGO in Orissa Province, India. The award included an international study visit to India in November 2004, whereby a multinational group of participants were able to learn from Gram Vikas practices and share mutual work experience.

EcoSouth representatives, Marcos Macanche from Grupo Sofonias Nicaragua, Pedro Seijo Perez from CIDEM in Cuba and Peter Dunckley an architect consultant from South Africa, participated along with a strong Latin American representation, NGO’s, foundations, institutes, universities, UN commissions and peoples movements.

We’re gathered in a meeting room on Gram Vikas’s campus … Jaya sets the scene and Liby Johnson takes us through Gram Vikas’s history, the evolution of its current programs, its scope of work, mission, principles and approach.

The organization is 25 years old and was born from the Young Students Movement for Development that emerged from student unrest in Madras in ’71 and mobilized volunteers to work in relief camps for refugees from the Bangladesh war of independence. An intense cyclone devastated Communities in the Province and Gram Vikas was constituted to co-ordinate ongoing development work.

Highlights from their work

- From ‘79 – ’81 Gram Vikas participated in organizing a tribal peoples movement across 60 villages against moneylenders and liquor merchants while diversifying to facilitate village Health Care networks, and train masons and barefoot technicians, implementing 54000 biogas plants fermenting cow dung to provide piped gas for cooking and light in households.

- ’83 – ’95 the evolving organisation expanded across the province adding Natural Resource management Programs that focused on watershed management, drought proofing, land and water conservation. 10 000 acres of Community forests were planted on waste common land.

- The last 10 years has seen further rationalization and expansion of Gram Vikas’s programs to create the powerful social and technical facilitation capacity and extensive body of work we encountered on our study visit.

Province of Orissa

In Orissa Province, people live in concentrated settlements that maximize agricultural land … a cruel cycle revolves … unmanaged human and animal excrement causes bacterial contamination of surface and subsoil water reserves which are consumed by people, causing cholera and a range of health problems.

Gram Vikas’s point of entry into rural Communities most often involves a water, sanitation and Healthcare project, addressing both ends of the problem.

The NGO adopts an intermediary role, engaging in negotiated partnerships with local Communities … bringing technical + social capacity, training and linkage to credit and state entitlements … on condition that the village participates as a whole and agrees to elect democratic organizational structures with equitable gender representation to manage, operate and maintain the projects alongside initiating a village savings scheme towards co-financing implementation and paying for ongoing operating and maintenance costs (avoiding the high interest rates and cycles of debt associated with private moneylenders).

Water towers

The Gram Vikas water towers, with Community meeting rooms underneath the tank become a familiar sight as we visit villages … they stand prominently as icons of the village’s new development initiative, delivering 3 taps to each household. Hurricane proof toilet blocks with flat concrete roofs stand behind each house, providing a toilet and washroom with excrement led to twin digestors and grey water to paw-paw trees and vegetables.

Community members, trained as health workers organize promotive, preventive and curative services and tap into traditional healthcare knowledge.

Building on the levels of organization raised to enact initial projects, members are encouraged to organize self help savings/credit groups around livelihoods generating projects like fish farming, craft, local manufacturing / agricultural production and processing activities – alongside taking greater responsibility for the broader natural environment through watershed management, social forestry, drought proofing, land and water conservation projects.


Villages address Education needs and target the construction of Community facilities like roads, drainage, Halls, grain banks, cattle sheds and household energy alternatives to counter deforestation (Biogas plants, hydro electric power or the ambitious Biomass Gasifier, a small electrical plant converting woodlots into electricity).

With this spiral of development activity gaining momentum, many Villages decide to replace traditional mud brick and thatch houses with hurricane proof permanent housing. Gram Vikas provides technical facilitation, artisan training and loan finance (around 65% of house cost ) repayable over 15 years to cover wages for skilled labour and key industrial materials like cement and steel. Families generate savings, gather local materials, make bricks, send members for training and contribute voluntary labour in mutual aid teams to construct the houses.

Theres a saying going around in Orissa that ‘it’s a lucky bride who marries into a Gram Vikas village.’

While initially many Communities took years to persuade themselves to meet Gram Vikas’s participation requirements, demands for partnerships are now flowing in. With 25 000 families in 400 Villages currently organized, Gram Vikas has set itself the target of organizing a ‘critical mass’ of 1% of the population of the Province by 2010 … networking with existing forums of NGO’s, organizations with a common vision and increasing collaboration with the Panchayat Raj institutions of local Governance to achieve this goal.

A critical mass of organized Communities generates synergies that drive the ongoing development spiral forward and form a powerful advocacy base for bargaining with the state and markets. Clearly a new spirit of self sufficient, conscious, democratic socio-economic development is waking in Orissa’s rural villages … a spirit we saw shining in the faces of empowered women and men who proudly explained their achievements to us in the many villages we visited.

Its Friday evening and Divali fireworks explode around us as we gather for our last supper and goodbyes before early morning departures. A world of information and experience has been shared in a short week, stimulating each of us to approach the work we return to with new eyes.

Gram Vikas can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or find out more about Gram Vikas at their website at

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Marcelino Castro
Civil Engineer (MSc)
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MCR tiles, instruction, quality control, experience in many cultures.


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