Discovering design for equity in eastern India

Photo Essay

By Priya Pillai

Photographs by Ajaya Behera

In Gram Vikas villages, insistence on participation by all households, irrespective of gender, class or caste, has meant that outcomes sustain years after the organisation’s exit.

In a nonprofit career spanning slightly more than a decade, I never got a chance to work in eastern India. What I read either romanticised the tribal lives or painted a picture of abject poverty and failing public systems. At the end of May 2018, a month into my break from a full-time career, I got a call from Gram Vikas. The new Executive Director, Liby T.Johnson wrote me an email that said, “Good to connect and know that you are a free-bird…There are several stories waiting to be told.” Well, the promise of freedom and stories got me to Odisha a week later.

I knew broadly about Gram Vikas’ work in water and sanitation and its founder, Joe Madiath. My seniors and batchmates from college had worked there. But the slow discovery of their core approach, MANTRA, and seeing its on-the-ground impact left me in quiet awe.

A steadfast commitment to equity

‘Equity’ is a word that is much bandied about in the development sector.  Approaches to equity often tackle or focus on one aspect of discrimination. The most common appropriation is that of gender; livelihood interventions claim to address the class barriers and caste is still not fought against enough.

In Gram Vikas, outcomes seem to have sustained decades after the organisation exited from villages. There are communities where they still have not had a breakthrough because of divisions being compulsively stubborn. But Gram Vikas continues to try because they will only work with the entire village and not selected households as is often the case in time-bound projects.  

With their steadfast commitment to equity, the organisation’s work approach mandate inclusion of every single household in the village. But when they started work in communities divided by class, caste and gender, the incentive for unity had to be strong enough. Soon enough Gram Vikas found that the possibility of getting uninterrupted, clean water was a strong enough incentive for people to come together.  

Water as an incentive for unity

From water source sustainability to household water provision through three taps, Gram Vikas’ work in water directly impacts livelihoods and health outcomes, and indirectly, the education of girls. They are working to protect, recharge and sustain spring-sheds and aquifers. Through the application of hydrogeology principles, the organisation is aiming to prevent the rapid groundwater depletion.

Piped water supply at home means that girls and women no longer carry the uneven burden of water work. Girls get more time for school, study and play, and women to rest and for leisure. Today, more than 63,000 households have benefited from piped water supply at home. This has resulted in an 85% reduction in water borne diseases.

Land, technology and livelihoods

Gram Vikas works mostly with tribal communities, who are dependent on land for their livelihoods. From converting barren lands into farmlands, smart technologies to measure water, and horticulture; pisciculture in village ponds that generate income while regenerating water sources, or training village youth in masonry or renewable energy technologies, the solutions are varied. More than 10,000 hectares of land have improved from productivity measures, opening up land and agriculture based livelihood opportunities for isolated tribal communities. Farming families have seen a definite improvement in their quality of lives and many are today recognised as model farmers by the government.

Villages in rural Odisha have seen, for the first time, women entrepreneurs who build houses, toilets, and repair solar energy units.

Women trained in masonry as part of livelihoods programme in Puruna Adhapada village in Jharsuguda district, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

A sustainable sanitation model 

Gram Vikas’ model of toilets and bathing rooms (TBR) is a conscious shift away from the common sanitation model of building just a toilet. The TBR model acknowledges that safe, private, bathing rooms, like toilets, is a matter of dignity and respect for women. The separate units ensure that members of a family do not have to wait long to use either of the rooms and sustains behaviour change in using a toilet.

Open defecation free villages mean that water sources are not contaminated, the environment is clean and the overall health of the community improves significantly. The approach ensures that piped water supply is integrated with the TBR, thus obviating the need for women to carry water for domestic uses.

Building secure homes 

In its early years of work in Odisha, Gram Vikas started with building disaster-resistant houses to increase the resilience of village communities vulnerable to being ravaged by cyclones in Odisha. Today, they have expanded work in Habitat & Technologies to skill rural women and men to provide masonry services outside their villages, identify and deploy technology solutions such as solar water pumps or solar lights for off-the-grid villages, and bring the world of computers and the web to schools for tribal children thereby expanding their knowledge, perspective and aspirations. Today, 54,000 families use a renewable energy source, biogas, for cooking.

Supporting first-generation learners to thrive

There were hardly any girls in schools in the early 1980s when Gram Vikas Residential Schools started in remote tribal areas in Odisha. Today, the four schools across the state educate 1500 plus children from tribal communities. More than one-third of the students are girls. An achievement that they are particularly proud of as often these children are first generation learners.

The organisation sees its efforts in educating the younger generation as an investment in ensuring that changes initiated sustain into the future. And that there is a wider acceptance of new thinking and ways of living that are healthier and inclusive, and a slow changing of social norms, perhaps.

This change has been slow but they remain committed to it. The schools now have old students teaching the new batch of girls and boys. For girls, specifically, it’s overcoming generations of inequality to learn, dream and chart their life paths. More significantly, they inspire other families to educate their daughters and girls to attend school.

Unity and shared solutions as the biggest wins

The focus on sustainability has meant that Gram Vikas’ solutions are designed with a communities-first approach. For instance, when a central village water tank is planned, the location is determined such that the water reaches up till the boundaries of a village, typically where the lower caste communities live. Village institutions are integral to all activities taken up by Gram Vikas. The activities and results are owned and managed by the village community.

Decisions are never made independent of the community. The wait for unity is a signature feature of their pre-work phase. Perhaps, their biggest win is bringing all the households in a village together, overcoming boundaries of caste, class and gender, for a shared solution.


A community meeting in Langaleswar village, in Ganjam district, Odisha. Photograph from Gram Vikas archives.


Remembering, with gratitude, Surdaimazi from Kalahandi and many others like her, who I met through nine months of learning about Gram Vikas' work.


Priya Pillai is a Strategic Communications Specialist for not-for-profit organisations. Ajaya Behera is a social documentary photographer and works with Gram Vikas.


“It is because we want to learn new things”

Roohi Patel tells her story of supporting self-help groups of tribal women in soap production and marketing.

Our 40th year celebration with community, partners and wellwishers

More than 1000 people joined us to celebrate the 40th Foundation Day of Gram Vikas.

Vegetable cluster development increases farmer competitiveness

Vegetable Cluster Development harnesses holistic agronomic practices for sustainable higher agricultural production.

Hide picture