Bridging the Gap of Opportunities in Rural India: IABT’s Margshala Pilot
India and Bharat Together, a young non-profit organization working in rural Uttarakhand, works towards a world where youth from rural areas, irrespective of gender, caste, or religion, have equal access to opportunities. Research shows that the aspirations of young people are often limited to what they see around them. External factors like access to finance, poor infrastructure, and societal norms also strongly affect young people’s aspirations.
The Margshala pilot, a 3-month transformation journey for young people to improve their awareness about livelihoods, was born out of this very idea that rural and small-town youth need exposure in terms of access to opportunities, information about opportunities as well as mentoring which could guide them in making well-informed decisions, pursue their aspirations, and secure their future. The program was initially designed to be a 6-week residential program where youth from various socio-economic backgrounds would have undergone the program. Along with mentoring, Margshala would also include career exposure and experiential learning through projects and tasks.
When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, however, the initial plan for Margshala, which was launched in the remote and rural district of Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand bordering China and Nepal, received a major setback.
Aftermath of the Pandemic
Before Covid, the initial idea was to make Margshala a very experiential program that would include exposure visits to different parts of the state, an internship to provide real-world experience to the young people along with outdoor learning, game-based learning, and art-based learning. After the pandemic, what followed was not only a methodological change in conducting the program but also a complete revision of all the processes for designing, implementing, and evaluating the program.
When it was decided that the program would continue online, the first step was promoting it to mobilize youth for the program. By partnering with local organizations of Pithoragarh and the use of Pithoragarh-based media groups, IABT raised awareness about the program at both the ground level as well as on social media platforms through a ‘local first approach’. Because of the change to an online format, Margshala suddenly became accessible even for students from distant border areas and young women who would not otherwise have been able to attend a residential program.
The team also realized through trial and research about online engagement that mobilizing young people remotely would need the application procedure to be shorter and easy-to-do. Hence, the selection of students for Margshala was done through telephone interviews, a shorter application, and a mini-task. Before starting the final program, two trial sessions were also held to figure out the technical logistics.
By the end of the selection procedure, 120 applications had been received and 49 youth were selected based on interviews assessing their levels of motivation. The program officially started on 15th July 2020 with 42 young people enrolled. Past research has shown that online and remote learning face high dropout rates. Most of the youth engaged in Margshala had network issues that hindered their participation levels. Mountains aggravate the digital divide and the hills of Uttarakhand are no different. Margshala, given this background, successfully had 35 youth actively engaged by the time the program ended in October. Students would walk 0.5–1 km away across hilly terrain to access better networks, while a couple even built temporary shelters in agricultural fields where the network was more consistent.
Prior to the pivot to online, the objectives of the program included building values like empathy and creating space for reflection. However, the online format made the task difficult. The focus of the program was narrowed to four outcomes — self-awareness, career awareness, self-efficacy, and decision-making. The young people were enabled to make informed career decisions, how to start their own businesses, how to take up leadership qualities, public speaking, etc. Along with the online sessions, Margshala also had several special guest speakers and external mentors who guided and inspired the young people. Mentoring was a constant part of the program, which became an even stronger element in an online program, with many local role models from Pithoragarh volunteering their time to mentor students through phone calls.
“Margshala meant a consistency in my life,” says Rudransh, one of the young people of Margshala, “Sometimes we get distracted from our motivation, Margshala helped me stay focussed.” During Margshala, Rudransh — who was on the brink of taking up a low-paying NGO job to support his family which had been impacted by lockdown — decided to start his own ecotourism venture to promote his village of Askot and create more local opportunities for people from his community.
“I am trying to speak confidently to people because of Margshala”, says Bhawana, another participant, “Earlier, I used to get nervous just talking to people. I would hesitate to express myself. I am becoming confident after attending Margshala.”
“I used to get nervous while speaking in front of people earlier, now I am more confident,” said Kishore, who is aiming to start his own business now, “Margshala exceeded all my expectations, there was something for everyone.”
While the youth of today already have many barriers to cross, the pandemic has made things even more difficult. Margshala is an attempt to support the youth, to provide them with guidance not only related to their livelihoods but also in helping them dealing with emotional constraints and providing them with a sense of consistency, especially at a time where the lockdown exacerbated stresses related to education and employment.
The Margshala pilot succeeded in its aim to inspire young people from Pithoragarh to hold onto their dreams. While the pandemic led to a decline in jobs and aggravated the inequalities in accessing opportunities, Margshala students found the program to be a consistent source of motivation as well as emotional support for them.
The role of mentors in supporting young people in making informed decisions needs to be highlighted. Mentoring has been shown to promote positive aspirations among even very marginalized youth. In a world of asymmetric information, it is important that young people get the right information from the right sources that would enhance their decision-making ability. While online learning is exclusionary, especially in rural and hilly regions, running Margshala online allowed the IABT team to connect with Pithoragarh youth living outside of Uttarakhand who would have otherwise been left out. The success of Margshala can also be understood as the sessions talked about livelihood in the concerned regions of Uttarakhand which not only inspired the young people but also helped them connect with one another.
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