July 1, 2009
Association for Serva Seva Farms (ASSEFA)-India. A holistic approach to local and community development aiming for self-sufficiency
Article published in the International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development, #60


1. Author of the form : information, functions _Writing date of the form _Yvon Poirier, July 27, 2010 _This form is written in light of a field visit in 2002 (invited by ASSEFA) and numerous documents received since then.

2. Identification of the experience :
Name of the organisation, network action programme
Association for Serva Seva Farms (ASSEFA)
Complete postal address
279, Avvai Shanmugam Road
Chennai -600014

3. Localisation _Country ; India _« Infra » (regional and/or local). Involved in 7 states of the Indian Union.

4. Activity area(s) : (tick one or 2 boxes)

X Agriculture, alimentation Xo Handicraft, enterprises o Marketing, distribution, consumption X Local services to the population (public or private) such as transports, health, education, sports… X Cultural life o Support or engineering X Maintenance of natural resources and environment X Finance o Tourism and associated economy X Citizen expressions , networking… o Other (specify)


Article published in the International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development, #60, July 1, 2009

Silent March of The Invisible Force ASSEFA : 40 years of community development in India

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Association for Serva Seva Farms (ASSEFA) of India published a collection of various articles about its activities in a book with a revealing title: Silent March of the Invisible Force.

In March 2008, this Gandhian inspired movement was composed of 9,766 villages in 8 different states of India. Altogether there are 803,000 families, over 3.5 million people, who benefit from the many activities of ASSEFA. By 2010, it is expected that over 1 million families will be involved in the movement.

In this article it is not possible to describe in detail all the activities ASSEFA. We are presenting a set of elements that give an idea of the work which has been accomplished since 2002, when Yvon Poirier first conducted a site visit. We wish to invite readers to consult Newsletters #4 and 12 to get a better idea what has been achieved in the past 7 years.

Vision: A Holistic Approach

At the beginning in 1968, the purpose was to help the landless to create villages on land obtained by the Gandhi movement. In the beginning, ASSEFA worked for the villagers. In the next step ASSEFA worked with everyone, including the poor. For the past 15 years, it is more appropriate to speak of development by the people, in which the association is involved with planning and support. This approach is holistic and aims to create self-sufficient and sustainable villages.

The concept of trustee is at the heart of the principles that prevail. « Everyone should live on this Mother Earth as a Trustee with all that he has and acquires for the benefit of the community in which he lives.” Therefore, ASSEFA puts its trust in the community and the villagers. They are free to organize themselves, manage money and material resources in order to obtain mutual benefit, and if possible to benefit the nearby villages.

Micro-finance: an empowerment tool for women

The organization of villages rests largely on women’s self-help groups (SHGs). In March 2008, there were 32,000 WSHGs bringing together 500,000 women in 113 Sarvodoya Mutual Benefit Trusts (SMBT). In 1996, SMBT became owners of Sarvodaya Nano Finance Limited, a financial institution recognized by the Bank of India. Therefore, micro-finance has been the property of women since 1998. It is managed by them, with the help from ASSEFA professionals. In 2008, there were 172,000 women who received loans. The repayment rate was 99.66%!

In this holistic approach, ASSEFA ensures that villages can meet their needs: health, education, housing, income-generating activities (such as milk production, small businesses, direct sales of agricultural products in markets, etc.).

Building social cohesion

A major emphasis is the building of peace in the communities. As we stated in 2005, ASSEFA with the contributions of organizations in Europe and the support of various Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Ireland and Aug San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, has obtained that the UN General Assembly declare “2001-2010 International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World." This training is integrated into the ASSEFA school curriculum.

Community weddings are another important activity that has been introduced in recent years. In India, marriage remains an important institution. Beyond the two people, it is a sacred rite that unites two families. However, most marriages are arranged. Although this is a festive event, for many poor families it is a financial disaster. Even if bringing a dowry has been illegal since 1961 in India, it remains the norm. Therefore community marriages, which simultaneously unite Hindu, Muslim and Christian couples do not just promote respect among religions but also strengthen the community and the fight against poverty. With the assistance of WSHGs organizing such marriages reduces the cost to concerned families by 50%. In January and February, 2006 in 7 villages of Tamil Nadu (a state in southern India), 340 couples were married and 49,000 people attended the celebrations. Involving the villagers puts in place the conditions to help the newlyweds, if needed. « In short, the community wedding becomes a potent tool to build social cohesion and self-help villages.”

Prospects for the next 40 years

The priority remains to achieve social and economic justice, and create prosperous villages. Even if the “empowerment of the most vulnerable is a «work in progress» in every society, while sustainability is no longer just a matter of the survival of projects and organisations but must be a global concern; and our ability to understand the implication of inter-dependence may be the key factor in determining whether humanity survives the next century”.

Globalization worsens the gap between rich and poor worldwide and within each country. “The post-petroleum economy opens new opportunities but will create dislocations and real pain for many people. Without effective means to manage the global economy and ensure that people’s basic needs are met, including adjusting to changes in our environment, a secure future for humanity is at risk.”

Author: Yvon Poirier¸
Silent March of The Invisible Force
Sarvodaya Action Research Centre, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, September 2008, 248 p

Addendum (July 2010)

ASSEFA announces the establishment of a new initiative. In collaboration with the University Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), the ASSEFA Community College has received accreditation to provide training (post secondary) for village youth. Various certificates for courses of 6 or 12 months, as appropriate, will be offered in various techniques such as dairy production management, integrated approach to farming (including organic farming), computer use, non-violence and peace, and training on empowerment of women and development ". The first cohorts begin its training in the coming weeks.

ANALYSES AND COMMENTS (general range of the initiative)

1. What economy does or can the action generate?

This is possibly the largest initiative of its kind in the world (at least 4 million people) that is built on a holistic approach aiming for self sufficiency of the villages.

2. How did the action increase the empowerment and responsibility in the solutions that have been implemented?

All decisions concerning the village level are taken by the village assembly. When a decision concerns many villages, delegates from each decide together. The association ASSEFA acts as support. It never decides in place of the population. In sum, it’s a self-managed development.

3. What articulations did the action use or produce to generate breakthroughs ? Recurrent obstacles/systems effects ?

Government policies, or the socio-political environment, are not always favourable. However, ASSEFA organizes activities and education to combat these problems. For example, activities to promote harmony in society between people of different cultures (Hindu, Muslim and Christian), the status of women through the promotion of education, etc..

4. What propositions of common right does it allow to elaborate?

As such, ASSEFA seeks autonomy. ASSEFA does not actively push for government policies and support. However, ASSEFA provides advocacy in many areas to be a structure that is valued and accepted throughout India. Not to mention the UN, since ASSEFA had obtained that UNESCO declared the decade 2001-2010, "decade to teach peace to the world’s children.