STANFORD, Calif. — All women have a right to a sustainable livelihood, Ashok Khosla, founder of New Delhi-based Development Alternatives, stated here June 26, as he laid out his vision for self-sustaining rural mini-malls in India, which would allow women to simultaneously be producers and consumers.

Khosla, an environmentalist who founded Development Alternatives in 1983, gave a keynote afternoon speech at the third annual “Ideal Village” conference, organized by Science for Society. The day-long meet brought together Indians, Indian Americans and other social impactors working in India and elsewhere in the developing world.

“A fundamental need in the developing world is jobs,” Khosla later told India-West on the sidelines of the conference, noting that rural dwellers also have “aspirational needs” to be able to buy the goods they see on television but can’t get in the villages.

Development Alternatives is developing the malls in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar, through its “incubation engine” TARA – the Society for Technology & Action for Rural Advancement. Each mall will serve as a magnet catering to about 30-40,000 producers and consumers; developments are planned where population density is high, with approximately 6,000 households within an hour’s walking distance of five kilometers. At the hubs, consumers will be able to buy goods, access financial services including an ATM, micro-credit and crop insurance. Consumers and producers can also develop a credit rating at the hubs, which could allow access to higher levels of finance.

The hubs will also feature access to telemedicine, to assess five primary parameters of good health. Khosla said he hopes retired physicians and other health-care workers will heed his call to provide their services at the mini-malls, free of cost.

Each telemedicine facility — started with a capital cost of $3,000 and five days of training local health professionals — can allow rural dwellers to access the world’s best doctors, Khosla told India-West.

The hubs will attract businesses of all sorts, envisioned Khosla, giving rural dwellers access to a variety of consumer goods.

“It’s like Alice’s Restaurant: you can get anything you want,” said the social innovator, referring to a classic Arlo Guthrie folk song.

The malls will allow for collection of big data, which can be sold to the government. Income from the selling of big data could help the hubs to become self-sustainable, said Khosla.

Rural women will be trained at TARA Hubs to produce goods for local markets but also products that will be sold abroad through commercial boutiques in the developed world. TARA-developed products currently include textiles, high-quality garments, and bed and bath products, amongst other goods.

The benchmark for the initiative is to reach the minimum wage for each state, said Khosla, explaining that most manufacturers avoid paying women the minimum wage.

The hubs will feature vocational skilling, entrepreneurship development, and technology training for low-income women. Each hub will also feature a secure place for girls and women to read, chat, get on the internet, and buy hygiene products, such as sanitary pads.

All of the hubs will be powered by solar energy.

Khosla said he is aiming to secure funding of $4 million to get the initiative off the ground. “We are bootstrapping the village economy,” he told India-West.

In his speech onstage, Khosla spoke of a social experiment conducted at a TARA factory near Jhansi, where low-income women created products from recycled paper. The experiment began in 1988, comparing 25 women of childbearing age who were employed at the TARA factory, against a control group of women of the same age who were not employed by TARA.

Twenty years later, only two births had been recorded amongst the TARA-employed women; 23 births had been recorded in the control group not employed by TARA.

Khosla explained that earning a sustainable livelihood allowed women more control over their lives, via economic empowerment. His view was echoed by many of the speakers at the day-long “Ideal Village” conference. (See story in India-West here.)

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