Empowering Rural India

  • Surinder M. Sehgal (second from right), chairman of S M Sehgal Foundation, and his wife, Edda, monitor progress in a village. The foundation works in the area of sustainable development in 431 villages in Haryana’s Nuh district, earlier called Mewat. Photograph courtesy S M Sehgal Foundation
  • Sehgal (second from right) participates in a community meeting at a village in Haryana. Photograph courtesy S M Sehgal Foundation
  • Sehgal (center) visits a maize field in a village in Haryana. The S M Sehgal Foundation team works with rural communities to create sustainable programs for managing water resources and increasing agricultural productivity. Photograph courtesy S M Sehgal Foundation
  • The Sehgals meet the village council head of a village in Haryana. S M Sehgal Foundation works to strengthen rural governance in Indian villages. Photograph courtesy S M Sehgal Foundation

The S M Sehgal Foundation focuses on community-led initiatives to achieve social, economic and environmental development in rural India. 

Making change, no matter how small, is hard. But as Surinder M. Sehgal believes patience and persistence can help overcome every resistance. He is the chairman of S M Sehgal Foundation, a public, charitable trust registered in Haryana, since 1999, and Sehgal Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1998 in Des Moines, Iowa, where his family had lived for 24 years. The Sehgal Foundation works in the area of sustainable development—managing water resources, increasing agricultural productivity and strengthening rural governance in Gurugram and 431 villages in Haryana’s Nuh district, earlier called Mewat, a region with some of the lowest social indices in the country.

“We felt that if we could make a sustainable difference in Mewat, the successes could be scaled up to other regions to help more communities,” says Sehgal.

Sehgal came to the United States in 1959. He holds a Ph.D. in plant genetics from Harvard University, Massachusetts, and a diploma in business management from the Harvard Business School. He met his wife Edda, at Harvard, as well. But he never forgot to give back to his country of origin. After a long career in the seed business, and a sale of a group of companies that Edda and he owned, they felt the opportunity was right to promote development in India and empower the rural poor.


Water and more

The Foundation works in some of the most difficult areas to ensure development. “Of the 431 villages of Mewat, only 60 had fresh water,” says Sehgal. “The rest of the villagers had to buy water, or the women had to carry it from long distances. So, the lack of water was the most pressing need to begin with.” The region’s patriarchal culture kept women at home, working hard in the fields, and raising large families.

All three of the foundation’s primary programs-water management, agricultural development, and good rural governance-address social justice issues directly and indirectly; particularly, the critical issue of gender equality. “By empowering women, the community is empowered,” he says. “If girls are able to stay in school with access to drinking water and separate toilet facilities, they are more likely to postpone marriage and have more choices about their future.”


Transformation through education

The foundation runs multiple projects. For example, some of its earliest programs were designed to provide girls and boys with life skills education that built self-confidence and decision-making capabilities. This program has expanded and adapted over the years, and is integral to an initiative called Transform Lives one school at a time. The initiative was launched in 2016 to provide schoolchildren with life skills education, digital literacy training and governance training, as well as for restoring dilapidated government schools into safe and productive learning environments with drinking water, separate sanitation facilities, a clean kitchen for midday meals, a playground and a gathering area.

Another interesting project is Alfaz-e-Mewat (Rural Voices of Mewat), launched in 2012. This is a community radio station that broadcasts 13 hours every day, reaching 224 villages with useful information. Listeners can call in on topics that matter to the community like agriculture, government services, women’s issues, children’s programming and general entertainment. Programs produced at Alfaz-e-Mewat are shared with other community radio stations across India. 

Crop improvement is also an important part of the work done by the foundation. “Our crop scientists are working to develop high-yielding hybrids and varieties that are disease- and insect-tolerant, as well as adapted to the tough growing conditions of the arid and semi-arid areas,” says Sehgal.


Slow and steady

To ensure impact, the foundation’s team does extensive research before embarking on any project to determine if it is measurable, scalable and sustainable. “It requires great patience and persistence to work with individuals, communities, village-level institutions and local government bodies to promote good governance that leads to greater self-reliance and empowerment,” says Sehgal.

The programs run by the S M Sehgal Foundation are supported by several partners and donors. Sehgal Foundation in the United States supplements the deficits in the operating costs in India. Besides working in Haryana, the S M Sehgal Foundation’s programs are being implemented in Rajasthan, Bihar, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

“Our goal is to scale up our most successful programs,” says Sehgal. “This is ambitious, but we are committed to empowering rural India.”


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.