Tara McCartney talks about Smart Villages and Sustainable Communities in Indian Villages.

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Tara McCartney is a joint Irish–UK citizen holding an OCI Card and living permanently in India. Tara, after working with Microsoft, left her corporate career and has been working in North Indian villages. She is a motivator, social entrepreneur, trainer, and a women leader. Tara along with Julia Hollaender co-founded United for Hope, a non-profit organization, which is working for village transformation and smart village programmes.

The aim of United for Hope is to create sustainable programmes and enterprises that bring sustainable changes in village communities and also improve the lives of rural populations.

Tara, a conversationalist, in an exclusive interview with Delhi Post, talks passionately about Indian villages, village women, social enterprises, menstrual hygiene, clean water, smart village, social tourism, etc.

Tara holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Queen’s University Belfast and a Master’s degree in Linguistics from the University of Freiburg.

She dedicates her life and experiences to build sustainable village communities in India.

Delhi Post: Please tell us about yourself and your activities in Indian villages?

Tara McCartney with village women

Tara: United for Hope is having a legal entity in Germany, US and India. We pursue a smart village strategy; this is a holistic approach to development because we believe that the social challenges these people have in rural communities cannot be put aside. For example, if you provide education to an underprivileged child, especially a girl child, but that child comes home and drinks dirty water, defecate in the field and be married off at 16 or likewise, then you are never going to have a transformational, sustainable change in these village communities. We look upon the economic viability of this development work … to have the possibility to access job. One of the key pillars is the social enterprise, where we create small businesses within these communities. Some of the businesses are around different basic products and services that these communities need such as clean water, solar energy, menstrual hygiene products and so on. These businesses do not bring a great deal of revenue but they do bring jobs as local people are providing these products and services within their community. However, we look for additional revenue generation possibilities which bring higher profits to cross-subsidize other types of social enterprises.

The second pillar is Education. Education is the cornerstone of development; so if we can educate the new generation of India to take their own families out of poverty, then we can truly transform a community. The third pillar that we work upon is kind of a mixed bag, named Community Services. Here, we work with the government to get our community access to government programmes. We work upon cleanliness, waste disposal and so on. Our aim is to create communities across these multiple pillars, where people are happy to stay in, preventing them to move to urban areas.

Delhi Post: After a decade in the corporate world, what motivated you to move to India and set up United for Hope?

Tara: The process of leaving my corporate career and doing development work in North India’s challenging district was not obviously something that happened over the night. After working for ten years in some major companies such as Microsoft, I realized that this was not my calling in this lifetime. I was dissatisfied with the work and it did not feel meaningful to me. Although, it was hard to walk away from that financial security, perks and advantages that you get in such a financially stable environment. I took lower-level corporate job for a while and did some small projects in India with the aim that if I would be successful after a year in doing these smaller projects, I could make a permanent switch. Our projects came further as we hoped and, at that stage, it was impossible for me to work in the corporate environment.

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Delhi Post: What challenges did you face while initiating this NGO in a village like Khushinagar?

Tara: Initiating the work is not a problem, maintaining the work in a village is a problem. Honestly, I have never come across such discussions with village leaders, where they would say that we don’t want development. However, when you go out with the details of the development there are many challenges that surface like the challenge of changing the mindset, accessing good local staff and getting panchayat leaders, the government on board so that we can work in a collaborative way with a good pace of progress.

Delhi Post: India is facing a serious crisis of urban growth in the present time which is leading to serious socio-economic problems. How would your plan of creating smart villages prevent urbanization in India?

Tara: Smart villages can offer a solution to the threats of urbanization and represent a cost-effective, self-sustainable and scalable model for rural development. If a rural community offer education and job prospects to its inhabitants, then eventually fewer people will be pushed to move towards the urban centres. This would help India to maintain the balance of a number of population and infrastructure available to maintain those people.

Delhi Post: As you plan on implementing social tourism, how do you plan to generate revenue out of it?

Tara: Tourism is growing very quickly in India as it leaves the Westerners overwhelmed with its culture and warmth of the people. Social tourism is a kind of tourism where the community is benefitted by the inflow of tourist dollars. We already have several social tourism projects in the Khushinagar district, eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is the death and burial place of the Buddhists. Many Buddhist tourists visiting India come from countries like Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Burma and so on, expressing their interest to see the authentic village life. It is difficult to experience authenticity in the villages as there are no facilities to stay or eat, besides cultural differences and language problems; and that is such a shame. So, we provide a place for accommodation (onsite guest house) and catering possibilities for foreigners and fulfil other requirements within the village environment. They are happy to observe an NGO in action. They love to see the classes, social enterprises that we have created possibilities for a local villager to earn money and we also organize trips on an ox cart within the village. This type of social tourism that we are doing is possible throughout India which will help enable the tourist to visit remote areas just for that particular experience which is really important.

Delhi Post: Considering the high dropout rates from rural schools in India. How do you manage to ensure the maximum participation of the students?

Tara: We work in collaboration with several government schools and send our teachers to these schools with the permission of the local government. We primarily offer English classes to students of Classes 5–8 and are able to see the challenges faced by the government at first-hand. In my experience, there are a few reasons for these children to drop out of schools; one of them being the family background. They are pulled out to family work as their parents do not understand the importance of education. And then there are always other reasons at home. The level of education is so low that beyond a certain age the children are not progressing; therefore, the kids in the remote areas are barely literate. The turnout level is so low that the teachers are not willing or are unable to teach beyond a certain point. So I often ask myself if I were a parent and if it was my child literally sitting in the schools and getting free mid-day meal and not studying, there is no point in sending them to schools. The reason kids are falling out is due to a lack of awareness or lack of attention from their family’s side, but the main reason is the lack of education.

Delhi Post: The target to make India an open defecation free country by 2 October 2019. Please share your views on it?

Tara: Sanitation is one of the first projects we undertook in India. This goes back to 2014 when major campaigns were held around sanitation and it was difficult to get people to sign for having a toilet. Thankfully, that has changed dramatically in the last five years, thanks to the government and other campaigns, people are aware of the importance of toilets and wish to have one for them. Our community is now defecation free and we see high usage of toilets among women and children. However, the problem in terms of sustainability remains. When new houses get built or a son or a daughter gets married and enters into a new family by themselves, they are not willing to build a toilet in the new house but wait for the government to build it for them which is not sustainable. The government cannot build toilets endlessly for the Indian population. So, I am really concerned about open defecation and sanitation programmes as the funds for these programmes dry up. I wish that in the second phase, the government formulates a policy whereby the commission on the houses will not be given unless a toilet is built in that house. And of course, there can be ongoing subsidies for the poorer section of the society but they have to find a way where the people are both motivated or forced in a way that they begin to take care of their own sanitation. But right now, I don’t see a plan in place or maybe there is, but I don’t see these programmes heavily invested, where people are willing to build a toilet for themselves in future.

Delhi Post: Since United for Hope conducts workshops to improve Menstrual Hygiene Management for girls and women, starting from schools. Did you face any societal resistance in the process due to the existing stigma?

Tara: When we meet the headmasters or headmistress of the schools usually headmasters of course, they are a little embarrassed and unsure of what is to be taught at first. But, because menstruation is related to women, they hand it over to a female teacher. So as such, we do not face a lot of challenges in schools but, of course, we see an enormous level of stigma in the society when young women tell us their personal stories. The stories of how they have no access to hygienic methods to manage their periods and stories of them not being allowed inside the temples or to cook during their periods. They face deep embarrassment not just talking about menstruation but any part of their body. Many of these women shower with their clothes because they are ashamed about any discussions or acceptance of their own bodies, where they can hardly bear to look at themselves. They don’t have access to money in their family and men don’t place an emphasis on getting access to sanitary pads, so they resort to unhygienic methods of managing their periods, which usually lead to dangerous diseases. So, of course, there is an enormous stigma that exists and when we hold these workshops there is an incredible relief, as the women have been holding in so long that when they start speaking they see solidarity between one another, and when you get this solidarity you get a sense of courage. There have been cases when the girls go back and ask their mothers why can’t I go to the temple? And they begin to raise questions not only to female members but also to male members. I hope this will make society more open-minded. I think it is very important to make males a part of this process. Therefore, simultaneously, we hold classes for boys called ‘Boys for Change’, where we not only talk to them about the anatomy of boys and girls but also about gender disparities, domestic and sexual violence in India and how as men they can bring a change for women in their families.

Delhi Post: What are the challenges in accessing government schemes and policies?

Tara: The places we are working at are challenging communities or districts. Although government programmes and schemes exist nationwide, sometimes they reach into these rural and underdeveloped areasvery slowly. So, we are in dialogue with the local government to get access to the schemes and have been successful in many cases, especially those around sanitation and education. However, the efforts and the amount of discussion that we have often don’t lead to anything substantial. Sometimes, where we have to start discussions again with a new spokesperson of the government, it takes a huge amount of our time. We as an NGO wish that there was quicker and more transparent access to the government so that the NGOs can access the schemes and work in a more efficient and respectful way, so that we can help the government to execute these programmes and bring them into the community. It works, but it requires a lot of effort, which we wish we could use elsewhere.

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Delhi Post: Do you plan to expand the NGO to other villages of the country?

 Tara: Yes, we are very excited that we have a new project in Haryana. It’s in Sonipat district in a village called Manoli. We are in the early stages of building a smart village, but this time, it has a little different base. Our projects in Uttar Pradesh have education and social enterprise as their base set within a modern community centre. Haryana is the hot land of agriculture and, therefore, we should not ignore the various challenges of agriculture. So, in order to implement additional income schemes, we have become a part of the existing cooperatives of farmers and are bringing in elements of tourism as well as becoming farmers ourselves and growing our crops to create new market opportunities for the farmers. So if you imagine there are four edges of the land, half of them will be allotted to tourism and will also welcome paying guest, have modern huts or restaurants, where tourists can live and get access to the village. This will not only generate the revenue for the model but, at the same time, will also get to live on the farms that are working with innovative techniques. We will be looking towards low water usage and food processing so that the tourists can also see this as a part of tourism. We will use agriculture and tourism as the economic base to develop the community around us. Therefore, our project is in its early stages, yet to be given a concrete structure. By 2020, we will be able to achieve both our agriculture and tourism model. We are really excited and looking forward to our new project.