For development to be sustainable, it has to start from the roots: Jane Schukoske, CEO, Sehgal Foundation


Jane E. Schukoske photo 2014

-Nishtha  & Rukma Singh

The Sehgal foundation designs and promotes rural development interventions that create opportunities, build resilience and provide solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in India’s poorest communities.  With ample recognition of the need of good governance, the foundation is bound by values of integrity, professionalism, and optimism.

In an interview with Newsgram, Jane Schukoske, CEO, Sehgal foundation, tells us about the working of this organization and its future goals.

NG: Sehgal foundation was formed in 1999. What was the basic aim behind the establishment of an organization working for sustainable development?

JS: The Sehgals had made their mark in hybrid seeds. Their interest in rural India came from their agriculture background. Also, Dr Sehgal was from unified India. After partition, his family moved to India and he was raised here until he went to the United States for graduation.  Basically, from the beginning, they have wanted to support community led rural development. They understood that if development had to be sustainable, it needed to start from the roots, i.e. from the level of the community. The goal is to have social, economic and environmental positive change in the rural India.

NG: When you interact with the rural public during your various field visits, do you see an improper implementation of governmental policies?

JS: There is a pressing need for governance to work properly. We have a good governance programme which has two parts to it. One is working with Panchayats ; village nutrition and health committees, school management committees, etc. We help the members of these committees develop some of the required skills, design a proper layout for implementation and design a budget so as to effectively access funds from the government.

On the other side, we work with citizens. If citizens know how to constructively raise demands  and channel their demands to the right departments, it will help the government to work in a better manner because it will know that its activities are under spotlight.

NG: How was the initial response towards the projects that you started, both, in terms of public participation and administrative procedures?

JS: In the early years, the organization gave a lot of time into finding its feet and building its reputation in the community. One thing that it did was to allocate adequate money to the villages, so that people would understand the sincerity of the organization. We wanted them to look at us as a group that will work with them and not as just another organization looking for grants.

NG: Do you want the rural India to get empowered in such a fashion that they can further govern themselves and become self reliable?

JS: Yes. Empowerment and community leadership are an essential part of our vision. We need to encourage these to ensure future sustainability, because after the brief period of time that we work for in these areas, people should have the knowledge of how to take things on from where we leave.

NG: Do you plan to venture out somewhere in the apathetic conditions of government schools of these areas, especially when it comes to gender based health and sanitation problems?

JS: Yes. Our water management programme also focuses on providing access to clean water to school students in these areas. Rainwater harvesting systems for schools, when coupled with a bio-sand filtering procedure has been believed to be very helpful. In addition, there are other kinds of innovative systems that we are looking to employ, and that we already have begun with. Sea saw pumps are an example of the same. When children play on the sea saw, the pumping mechanism is triggered by their action and then the pumped water is used for the toilets.

What we found was that there were a lot of toilet blocks that had been made, but they weren’t functional because of the lack of water. We are responding to those kinds of needs. Some of our donors are interested in school infrastructure improvement and we have facilitated that. But our own focus has been to allocate as much money as possible to encourage the presence of adequate drinking water in schools as well as sanitation facilities.

NG: Many corporates indulge in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Do you think these organizations work for the greater good of mankind and not just the enhancement of their own image?

JS: I think it’s really important to have stakeholder partnerships to get anywhere. Fortunately, we work with corporations that are really serious about the kind of work they do.  It’s really wonderful to see the bright eyed employees feeling good about their contributions to the world.  So, our experience with corporate has been very good.  You get to deal with people in corporations who have values and who are not just processing papers, they want to make a difference.

NG: We are well aware of the kind of treatment meted out to women in the rural areas. Is that why women empowerment has been a strong part of each and every programme that your foundation has built?

JS: Yes. We actually have a gender policy that causes us to look at everything we do in terms of gender. It is so easy to interpret things written in neutral terms, as pertaining to men. Hence, this gender policy helps us understand how we can feature women, involve women, and bring their issues out in the open in a better manner.

NG: What’s next for the Sehgal Foundation?

JS: In  2011, we were in 17 villages. We methodically planned our expansion.  Through the good governance programme, we expanded to virtually all of Mewat, Haryana. Then, through agriculture and water, we entered Rajasthan. The newest addition is Samastipur, Bihar, where again the focus is on agriculture. We are in talks with our CSR partners about expansion by two means. One, by re-scoping areas to see what would be appropriate to work on, in terms of the interests and needs of people. We’ll be able to attract donors based on these, like in the case of Mewat.
Second, by having prospective donors express interest in a particular area and seeing if it’s feasible for us.

One thing that we have realized is that in areas where we don’t work, we can still train people. Swadesh foundation in Maharashtra, a huge team that works in a lot of areas, asked us to train their team about the governance activities that we do.  We sent some people to train them. For further help, we encouraged one of our employees who worked in Mewat, to go to Maharashtra. He went and stayed there for two months, and guided them along as they went ahead with the implementation of their governance schemes.

So, training and associations with other NGOs with the same perspectives are two things we’d always continue to do.