India: Empowering Indigenous Leadership in Villages

Denin David Chiriyankandath, CJMJ

Indigenous communities often face various socio-economic challenges and marginalization. To address these issues and promote inclusive development, the concept of Village Development Committees (VDCs) has emerged as an essential strategy for a significant number of indigenous people who inhabit the regions of Guntur, West Godavari, Thiruvallur districts of Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, India.

These districts are home to several indigenous communities with distinct cultures, traditions, and lifestyles deeply rooted in their natural surroundings. However, they face several challenges, including landlessness, lack of access to education and healthcare, and limited economic opportunities. Historically, these communities have been marginalized and often excluded from development.

The Congregation of Jesus Mary Joseph (CJMJ) has been working in these communities for the past seven years. As part of their development activities, the community members encourage Village Development Committees (VDCs) to form, representing various components of leadership, education, health, livelihood, household care, and cultural and ethical values. These committees play a crucial role in addressing the unique needs and involvement in the decision-making of indigenous communities.

The primary objective of Village Development Committees (VDCs) is to meet monthly to plan developmental activities through local governance, resource allocation, education, healthcare, livelihood opportunities, and cultural and ethical value preservation. Here is how VDCs contribute to the well-being of indigenous people in the 15 communities, reaching out to 1050 families in the areas:

  • VDCs serve as a platform for leadership, ensuring that the voices of indigenous people are heard in village matters. They make decisions related to infrastructure developments and demand basic social entitlements and rights from local, district, and state governments.
  • VDCs work towards increasing access to education by advocating against discrimination and promoting the importance of education within these communities.
  • VDCs play a role in ensuring indigenous people’s access to healthcare through regular visits of Asha workers, health camps, and advocacy for better healthcare services.
  • VDCs collaborate with government agencies and NGOs to create livelihood opportunities for indigenous communities. These include skills development programs that promote traditional handicrafts and connect them to markets.
  • VDCs aim to preserve and promote culture and ethical values unique to indigenous communities, including traditions, languages, and art forms, to pass on to future generations.

Despite challenges such as resource constraints, awareness, active participation, and landlessness hindering the implementation of development initiatives for the long-term well-being of indigenous communities, VDCs have made significant strides. Two Village Development Committees, particularly, have achieved remarkable success by collaborating with local governments. For example, they secured a land and housing scheme. They provided access to water through borewells for 30 families in January 2022 who had been living in unsafe conditions beside railway tracks for the past 20 years. The construction of houses is underway, with completion expected by January 2024, providing these families with safer living conditions.

The Congregation of Jesus Mary Joseph (CJMJ) is convinced that Village Development Committees (VDCs) are vital tools for promoting the development and well-being of indigenous communities. CJMJ and its collaborators are helping empower these marginalized communities through VDCs. However, addressing ongoing challenges and ensuring the sustainability of these efforts remain a collective responsibility involving government and non-governmental agencies, as well as the communities themselves, to create better living conditions sustainably.

Sr. Denin David Chiriyankandath, CJMJ