One of the criticisms against academic institutions is that they are far removed from every day realities and seldom contribute in solving real-life challenges.
The Jawaja project undertaken by IIM Ahmedabad in partnership with the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad is an early exception.
It was in 1975 that Ravi Mathai, IIM-A’s legendary first fulltime director, set out on a journey to see how corporate management principles could be used to solve the major problem facing India-poverty. Ravi had stepped down as Director and could now devote time to such a project.
The decision was taken to work in Jawaja, a drought-prone district of Rajasthan, consisting of about 200 villages and 80,000 population. There seemed very little scope for development there, given the arid landscape and lack of water and other physical resources. But Prof Ravi Matthai had a different perspective, because he saw people as the biggest resource.
As they understood the area better, they found that the area had a 300-year tradition of leather-craft. The communities there were also skilled at weaving. And so they decided to build on these skills to develop sustainable livelihoods for the communities there. Prof. Mathai roped in NID to join hands with IIM-A, to work on livelihoods and empowerment of the communities in Jawaja. He and Ashoke Chatterjee, his counterpart in NID, started the journey which involved many faculty from both institutes.
The idea was to connect artisans with contemporary disciplines of management and design, and knowledge institutions which had this knowhow. There were some important basic principles underpinning the effort. The first and foremost was that the relationship was one of mutual respect and learning—after all, even as the communities learnt new skills, the faculty of the institutions were learning how their knowledge could be put to use in solving social problems. Another important aspect was to see how much of the value chain could be controlled by the artisans and communities themselves, so that their incomes could be enhanced. The idea was to innovate and design new products which would have new markets, so that the traditional value chains could be broken and the craftspeople could play a greater role in more areas. The focus was also on working in groups, to give greater resilience and strength to the efforts.
The process was by design a gradual one, moving from basic products which did not need very high quality—e.g, leather school bags and woven floor mats, to higher value ones like office supplies, more trendy bags, and high-end furnishings.
The challenges were of course many. Apart from the need to design new products which would use the old skills, technologies and equipment, another major concern was quality control.
With regard to production of new designs, a train-the trainer model was envisaged, which did not work quite as planned. With regard to quality control, the idea was that it would initially be done by external experts, and would then be taken over by the crafts groups themselves. This again went slower than foreseen. Funds and resources for developing new products and for procurement of raw material were always a constraint.
But the enduring success of the bold experiment is seen even today at several levels.
The first was the creation of self-reliant institution of crafts people– the Artisans’ Alliance of Jawaja and its associations. These started to manage all links of the value chain in Jawaja, from raw material procurement, finances, bank dealings, design and technology know how, and marketing processes. These are still active today and continue to innovate, produce and market these products which are highly valued.
The second is the impact of the project on the larger development scene. It was the learning from running this grassroots education and empowerment project that the idea of setting up a specialized institution for education in rural management came up, and the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Anand, was born. This was given shape by Prof Ravi Mathai and two other professors who had been with IIM-A—Dr.Kamala Chowdhary and Dr.Michael Halse.
The Jawaja experiment widespread legacy is that it influenced development sector thinking on how to approach community-based livelihood interventions in a spirit of mutual respect and learning.
It is an initiative which needs to be much more widely known, understood and discussed.