Communicating with Rural India

Rural India is now seen as the market of the future with rural residents outpacing urban counterparts in consumer spending in 2011-2012. With more than two-thirds of its population living in more than 600,000 villages, India has always been seen as a rural country, and rural audiences are considered the “bottom of the pyramid.” But consumption per person in rural India was two percentage points higher than urban Indians in 2011. According to a report in the newspaper The Hindu (2012), the Indian rural market pegged at $572 billion is now purchasing things other than consumer and agricultural products. Different sources of data reveal that close to 70% of households have televisions and mobile phones.


Rural India, today, is also a bundle of contradictions. About 70% do not have toilets. Ownership of televisions and mobile phones seem to be skewed with lower caste and tribal groups owning disproportionately less. Despite increased buying power rural India continues to lag on various social and development issues ranging from lack of sanitation, electricity, higher school dropout among girls.


People are also leaving rural areas. According to the Indian Census of 2011, the proportion of rural population declined from 72.19% to 68.84%. Furthermore, even among these in villages, over seven million people quit farming between 1991 and 2001; for these people whom cultivation was the main livelihood. And of 300 million people in India (28.5%) who were documented as migrants, according to a 2008 report, majority was from rural areas. They traveled to urban areas because jobs in urban areas paid higher than rural jobs. A proposed Food Security Bill seeks to provide food security to 75 per cent people in rural India as compared to 50 per cent of people in urban areas. Is it because the Government feels rural people need more social welfare (despite tom-tomming the greater purchasing power of rural audiences)?


How does one make sense of these contradictions – especially if one wants to work on social development and improved public health in rural India?


In order to decipher some of these issues and understand the rural situation in India, we met Mr.Raj Jha, National Creative Director of Ogilvy-Outreach, Ogilvy-India’s rural marketing division catering to the low-income groups in media dark markets – the so-called “bottom of the pyramid”. One reason for seeking Mr Jha was his three decades of experience in working with rural communication on both sides – private sector companies and social sector projects. He has designed and implemented rural-audience directed communication for various fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands including Unilever, Vodafone, ICICI True Life, Lifebuoy and Dabur.




He has also spearheaded various national health and social development projects such as the polio eradication program, National AIDS Control Organization, National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Uttar Pradesh Government; and worked with social-development sector organizations including World Health Program, Naandi Foundation, JHUCCP-India, and Futures Group. Furthermore, in 2003, Mr. Jha set up an NGO ‘Aadarshvikalp’ (Ideal-Alternatives) and initiated innovative projects in areas of Education, Health, Environment, and Agriculture for rural communities in Madhubani (Bihar).


Raj Jha was interviewed by “The Essayist”


TE = The Essayist; RJ = Raj Jha


TE: Both the private sector and social development sector in India seem to be interested in rural markets and audiences? You have worked on both sides. What is unique about rural audiences?


 RJ: There is a myth that all rural people are poor and cannot afford to buy things. Rural audiences are not a homogeneous group. Not all rural folk are poor; some of them may seem poorly dressed (to us city-folk) but that does not mean they are poor. They can buy things. Many of them have an increased purchasing power and they want to buy the things that city people have. They aspire for the good things in life just like urban audiences. They are buying things. And that explains the interest of the private sector in rural audiences.



 From: Hindustan Times. Rural India buys brands. 12 May 2013.


However, what is striking about rural audiences is that they definitely like things cheaper, and at the same time they do not want to get cheated. However, they have a greater fear of getting cheated. Therefore, when we communicate with rural or bottom of pyramid audiences we have to ensure that we are not cheating them.


Cheap does not mean poor quality. That is why smaller sachets of relatively expensive shampoos and soaps work well in the rural market. The rural audience gets the same high-quality shampoo or soap but they get it at a lower price. They do not mind buying in smaller quantities. In fact they are used to buying small quantities of oil and food grains – buying just as much as they need to get through the day. Also, rural audiences seem to favor direct communication.


The private sector seems get it better than public health and social development sector. The sale of products is going up in rural areas at a much faster rate than change in social norms especially with respect to girl child, continued education and age of marriage of girls. The social sector is perhaps not getting something right.


TE: What seems to be the problem with social change communication for rural audiences?


RJ: The social development sector tends to complicate its own thinking a lot. In mainstream advertising we try to get a crystal-clear understanding of the communication problem. This is the brief given to us. The brief clearly tells us: This is what you are supposed to communicate and that there will be no unnecessary items added in top; no complications. If you are doing a communication piece for a chocolate you are not bothered about the sugar industry, gender discrimination, educational and taxation aspects. Often, in social sector communication, the main message is lost and the communicator seems more worried about all these other stakeholders, and how these stakeholders will perceive the message rather than the actual audience.


According to me, the social-development (public health) sector makes three important mistakes when dealing with rural audiences:


Mistake One: The social sector makes the assumption that all rural people are poor; and cannot afford to buy things or will not pay money for helpful products or services. The social sector is blinded about the poverty of their audiences. They give away free handouts or set up free services; and these free services shut down after the end of the funded project. Thus social sector ends up creating projects and pilots that are unsustainable.


Mistake Two: Social sector communication does not talk to people directly in a simple manner. They take general knowledge about an issue and then just play it back to the audience; be it organic farming, newer concepts of agriculture, or health problems. People have the unique ability to differentiate and understand when someone is giving very general and generic knowledge about a topic, and when someone is customizing or tailoring knowledge to meet their needs. Broad, general knowledge sounds like advice – sounds like preaching. Most people do not like general advice. If they want to be preached to, they will go to their religious leader.


Knowledge has to be adapted to each setting. There is no universal solution that can be just taken from a textbook and applied to any and every setting. We must learn about the local. We should directly go and ask people what they need and how they can work things out. We have to pay attention to the particular and not get caught up in generalities. We have to adapt our knowledge and actions to the local context.


Giving information is not enough. What is required is communication.


Nothing can be taken from a textbook and directly applied to a rural village or even one household. Try doing it for your household; try taking a recipe from the Internet and cooking a food item for your family members. You will see that for them to accept that recipe, it has to be adapted to their tastes.


Mistake Three: Social sector does not like to use a trial-and-error type of learning method. In life we learn through trial-and-error. A child never walks the first time she tries to; she falls, gets up, tries again and finally walks properly. In life we are constantly trying, failing, experimenting and then succeeding. The organized social sector and development sector is afraid of failing. They do not want to report failures. And this fear of failure leads to failure of implementation and also failure to establish the best solution for the problems of the community.



TE: So, what is communication, according to you, from a rural marketing perspective?


RJ: To me communication is as simple as something that answers a question in way that it solves a person’s problem. Communication solves personal problems. It does not create new problems. For example, we were conducting a rural marketing campaign for hand-washing soap in which we connected use of soap to better health. During rural-school events, we would tell the kids that ‘saabun lagaoge to haath ke kitaano mar jaayenge’ (if you apply soap then it will kill the germs on your hand). One of the kids raised his hand and asked: “Ye zehar hai kya?” (Is this a poison – because you said this kills germs?)


Our campaign had just talked about soap to this boy who did not know the product. And we communicated with dramatic phrases such as “kills germs.” It raised more questions in the boy’s mind. The boy thought: ‘If this thing called “soap” can kill germs, then it must be a poison.’ Now this boy with doubts and questions inside his head goes back to his village and talks to his friends and families, what do you think he might say about soap? Our communication may create more problems than real answers to existing problems. Therefore, effective communication should answer his questions. The boy essentially wanted to know how soap works. Can we demonstrate? Can we use different methods to answer his queries? We must and we should. That’s communication.


Communication must solve a person’s problems.


TE: Can you give us an example of any other public health project you have worked on?


RJ: There was an interesting project on Kala Azar (Visceral leishmaniasis). “Kala-Azar” is not a very commonly known disease, but is endemic in some states in India (Bihar, Jharkhand, West-Bengal and parts of Uttar-Pradesh). It is a vector-borne disease transmitted by the sand-fly. Initial community assessments showed that people did not know much about “kala-azar;” what causes it, how it is transmitted. They mistook it to as a variant or stage of typhoid. People said: “Jab typhoid kharab ho jaata to kala azar hota hain” (When typhoid goes bad it becomes kala-azar).


Our challenge was to educate people about transmission and the disease. So we went into the village square every night with cut-outs of the sand fly, and hung them on the trees. We put an audio system on the tree which kept playing information about the disease and transmission: ‘Mein balu-makhi hoon, mein kala-azar failata hoon.’ (I am the sand-fly. I spread kala-azar.)


The villagers woke up to this information every morning. And in a few days, the message spread across the village – transmission, symptoms, treatment. And what was the cost of communication? Not even ten paisa per person. (100 paise = 1 Indian Rupee and 1 Indian Rupee = 2 US cents). Even though we were not glitzy or funny or sensational; we communicated. The village understood kala-azar.


A communicator has to always ask oneself the question: Is this the best way to say it (what I want to say)?


After years of working in rural areas, one thing is very clear to me: Communication should simplify. It should answer specific questions and answer them clearly. It should tell people that things are do-able. For instance, I wanted to make vermi-compost in my house (in a rural area). I referred to the usual sources of information, and they told me to buy a wooden box of 30 feet by 30 feet, a net of a certain specifications, plastic ropes, and iron rods and so on. I got confused. So I turned to this elderly man from the village and he said, “Ek matka lena, usme teen chhed karna, (take an earthen pot, make 3 holes in it) and then put some straw, gobar (cow dung) and some earthworms in it. This will work for you.” He made it so simple for me. And it seemed doable.


We can communicate without being unnecessarily dramatic and make people understand what we want them to understand – in simple terms and make them feel it can be done.


The old man in the village did just that.



TE: Is there something unique about the rural audience that strikes you and that differentiates them from urban audiences?


RJ: We belong to the city, we feel we are more educated; we are modern, we are developed, and we want to develop others less fortunate than us. We assume people in villages do not have any knowledge and that we educated, urban people will teach them how to live. But that is utter nonsense.


People in rural areas have knowledge – what they need to live in their surroundings. Rural people have a wonderful SENSE of life and living. They have a clear SENSE of direction. This also comes from their acute sense of the weather. For example, it is very hot in Delhi now and someone says we are waiting for western disturbances to cool the city. Now most Delhi residents may not know what western disturbances are and why it will reduce the temperature. Forget western weather disturbances, majority of Delhi will also not be able to point you in the direction of the west. Try this experiment with college students in Delhi – ask them to tell you how to go to the west from where they are standing. They will act confused; they will tell you it’s to the right, sorry left, and then change their minds again. They may not have GPS (global positioning system), but when they get up in the morning the rural residents know whether they are facing east, west, north or south.


There are common signs that rural-folk look for; they see wasps hovering around their heads, and they know it’s the time for sowing seeds. They have this knowledge – they have accumulated it over the years. They know that the wasp is moving around, trying to collect the humid soil to make a nest out of it and that is the time when the humidity is right and the land is prepared for sowing. They have connected these things. They have retained their senses. We urban folk on the other hand seem to be losing our primitive and even our physiological senses.


TE: It’s almost like there is a connect between this rural person and the environment. They seem to know their environment? 


RJ: We (urban folks) can read newspapers and books but the rural person can read the environment. In order to read the environment, we need our senses. Talk to most city-folk, and you will find that most of us have lost the sense of smell. I don’t know why? But we have! However, when I am in the village for 10-15 days at a stretch I regain my sense of smell. The different times of the day have their distinct smells. The morning has a certain smell, the evening has a scent. You understand the smell of firewood. Insects have a smell.


Raj Jha 1


As we become more educated, more developed, more urban we are losing our sense of smell, our sense of direction. I sometimes think we are losing our physiological senses. We want to make a right turn, we look at our GPS. Our children want to know if it will rain and instead of looking outside their window they check the weather on their computers or TV.


I have a house in a village in Bihar. It is in an area that is part of a seismic zone. I wanted to build a small pond. I had dug up part of the land, when an elderly villager came up to me and remarked I was doing it all wrong. I asked, how will that make a difference? It is my land and I find it more convenient like this. The old man said: You have to leave the opening towards the north so that when rains come in the water will fill the pond, and the top water will flow down and the pond will have circulation and cleanse itself. If you build it your way the water will stagnate.


Even water bodies have to cleanse themselves. I did not know that?


Local knowledge and practices are connected to a reading of the environment. For example, I purchased a lot of cows for my farm from the best possible places. The villagers told me these cows won’t survive because of the high iron content in the water in our village; but I did not believe them. I went ahead and purchased, what according to the textbook were the best cows. In the end what happened was that most of the cows died. The villagers were right. They had knowledge of their local environment.


TE: Are you saying that local solutions are the answer; that available knowledge has to be adapted to meet the needs of the local area? What does this mean with respect to development in India?


RJ: One cannot think of pan-India kind of solutions. We need to find local solutions to any problem. I strongly believe that if the solution is not based on a district or local model, it will be a disaster. They have to be district-specific models; planned by people from that district, and implemented by them. We can guide them with science and with our general knowledge, but they know their local areas; they can adapt it best.


If plans are not made with local inputs, it will end up like the toilets and sanitation situation in a state like Bihar. Possibly the targets have been delivered; 4,75,000 toilets have been built. But the big question is: Are people using them? Are they even able to use them?


My hypothesis is that we defecated in the open for a reason. It is not that rural Indians could not build toilets or did not want toilets. I think toilets have been identified in the ancient ruins of various Indian kingdoms. But we never had toilets because we never had water. Toilets need water to flush; and one wants a clean toilet, especially if they are inside the house. Every time we use a toilet and we flush, it consumes 5 liters of water. Now this guy in the village, who defecates in the open, carries a small ‘lota’ (vessel) or a plastic bottle; he uses less than a liter of water to wash and flush. He saves water, which is a scarce commodity for him. Now we have built him a toilet and he is not using it. We blame this behavior on his bad habits and traditions; we want to change his behaviors and his culture. Nobody framed it as a problem of water. Where is the water? You need piped water; you need substantial amount of water to use those toilets. So we plan things without knowledge of local circumstances – without talking to local people – without understanding them.


And we are still not sure of how we want to sell toilets to the people. Our messages say: ‘I will not allow my daughter to marry into a house where there is no toilet’. So is the use of toilets a prestige issue? Or, of stigma and shame? Or is it a health issue? What do we want to sell? We can’t sell everything.


The complexities are in our own minds, because we are not clear. That rural guy is very clear about what he wants. I think he does not want to waste his water.


TE: You have started some non-profit work in the rural areas of Bihar – a non-profit. And you spend a considerable amount of time in a month there?


RJ: Madhubani is a predominantly rural district in Bihar. It is very close to the Nepal border. Madhubani   is rich in art, culture and food. We have started a non-profit agency there. It is called Aadarsh Vikalp (Ideal Alternatives). We have a web-page:




When I first went back to Madhubani, I thought of doing something that is rural such as farming. I thought farming was easy, dairy was easy. Believe me, it is not. It needs a lot of local knowledge, knowledge of the context, of the surroundings, of the local conditions, circumstances, the environment. I made a mess of farming and incurred huge losses. However, I did not give up. I asked myself the ancient management question: What am I good at? What is my core competence? I know communication. I may not be the best at it but I have been working in this field. Then I asked myself – what is that the folks in the village need? They needed information – good solid information that was customized to their needs and they needed some support. Someone to tell them it was okay to try and experiment. And I decided to combine the two.


What our NGO mainly does is teach computers to the kids and people of the villages. We procure computers from companies, individuals. We have even done some crowd-sourcing using Facebook and social media. For example, there is an electricity shortage in the village and so desktops are unusable. Did you know that online business can only be done at certain hours in rural areas of Bihar because the communication towers don’t work all 24 hours? It seems it does not have power and runs on diesel generators. There is no seamless connection. Online in rural area means limited hours of connection.



So, we put in a request for laptops on social media. There was an overwhelming response. Now the children charge their laptops during the day – we use some solar energy – and the kids have computer access all day. We also have a telemedicine center in the village. Urban-folk cannot imagine this, but rural people have to go miles away for simple tests like blood pressure and sugar assessment. This affects their work and earnings. So we try to get it done locally for Indian Rupees 20 or 30 (which is less than 50 cents).


We are mainly trying to solve education problems in rural areas. We are trying to understand the immediate problems. And education is not just schooling. It is about helping a student get his 10th grade certificate though National Open School, or helping a person understand his health better, or helping farmers with agriculture. We are trying to solve the problems that people in the village face through customized information, education and communication.


We are now planning to publish a fortnightly audio magazine on agriculture. We will conduct telephonic interviews with local experts and farmers for an audio magazine. People in the villages said that if they think the program is useful, then they will pay for dial-up time. So we are creating a pay-as-you-go type of audio magazine for 10-15 minutes. It provides relevant information, and the user can buy as much time as he requires. This will cost about Indian Rupees 5 (less than 10 cents). The villagers seem to be okay with that. I am okay with that too.


In fact, it feels really good to be in Madhubani and do all this. I feel useful.


TE: So, where do you feel at home – Delhi where you were born and schooled, grew up OR Madhubani where you spent summers?


RJ: No doubt, Madhubani is home. Whenever I am traveling to Madhubani and someone asks me: Where are you going? I say: “Ghar jaa rahe hain.” (I am going home). Ghar means home in Hindi. Why do I say that? Why does it come out of my mouth like that – spontaneously?




In Hindi there is a saying, “Ghoom liya maine jag saara, apna ghar hain sabse pyaara.” (I have travelled the world, but my home is the dearest place). I feel that way when I am in Madhubani, in the village. I have a lot of things going on in Delhi – children, family, friends, job and so on. But peace of mind – it’s there (in Madhubani).


TE: What is “home”? What does home mean to you? In today’s world, more than a third or maybe even half of families are living apart because one person in the family has migrated for work. And by migrant, we do not mean a construction worker or taxi-driver, there are many white-collar migrants. And this is not just in India but globally. Home seems to have become a weird concept – a mental construct rather than a real thing. Home seems to be the ultimate virtual reality today.


RJ: Home is very much real. Home is a place where you live in your own surroundings the way you want to. Home is a place where you can blend into the surroundings and be part of the ecosystem, naturally. Everybody is the same; you are speaking the same language as others. You have the same kind of food, you understand seasonality, and you feel like you belong to that Jungle. That jungle is your home. If it doesn’t feel like that then it is not home.


There is a smell about home; home has a feeling.


A home is a much deeper concept, ‘bahut apnapan hota hain usme’ (there is a lot of familiarity and acceptance).  Home, to me, is beyond immediate family actually. It has more to do with others around me and how we relate to each other. It has to do with selfless-ness. That’s how it becomes home. Maybe I am confusing home with community. But if living in a community makes me feel like I belong then that’s the kind of home I want. I want a community – an ecosystem. I want to call that a home.


Why don’t animals and birds have this kind of a problem? Because they are living in their own ecosystem, they are eating their own food; they are travelling in their own directions. They are not doing anything in excess. They understand their ecosystem and they feel at home within it.


But we humans, especially in cities, we go overboard; we are excessive, we go to extremes to work overtime, to do what others want us to do, to buy happiness for our children, and we think it will be good for my home – my family. In the process we push ourselves to the edge; and we expect others to reciprocate. When they don’t; we feel bitter about our sacrifices. We are not happy anymore (in our own place). And then the home does not remain a home, it becomes a shelter.


TE: With the knowledge that more than 30 to 40% of families in India have one migrant earning member, what is happening in India right now? How is India looking at home and family?


RJ: The Art of Split-Living – that is what is happening in India. We have mastered, what I call, the Art of Split-Living. Our country has split our families, but in the process we have also split ourselves.


We live in TWO zones or spaces – the EARNING zone and the ENJOYMENT zone.


The earning zone or space is where we make money. However, the enjoyment zone is still with the family. The earning zone can shift from one town to another or even from village to town and back to village. The migrant worker lives in an 8 feet X 8 feet room in the city sharing it with 4 to 6 people; and he does this because he believes he can bring comforts for his family back in the village. That is his home. He does not see the city as home. Why do I say this? Because I always ask where people go during festival time? Where do they enjoy their festivals? If you go back to your village for festivals, then that village is what you consider home. During Chatt Puja, Eid, Holi and Diwali you can’t even step into a railway station because every migrant worker is going back home.


Nobody migrates because of happiness, migration is always troublesome, it is always painful – be it animals, birds, human beings. Migration dislodges you from your own territory and that can never bring pleasure and can never bring happiness. Happiness will always come from your own place – what you consider home. I think most rural people know that, intuitively.


India is rapidly urbanizing without any thought to the realities of people’s lives – leave alone their happiness. Today people in cities spend all their salaries paying out – for rent, monthly installments, electricity, and transportation among other things. They pay for everything. In rural areas they do not need to pay out so much money for just living life.  They eat the food they can grow, they don’t buy most things, and so then the money which is saved is reinvested. That’s saving.


We are happy to split people from their land, from their families, from their homes. And we are teaching our children to master the art of split-living? What kind of sensibility are we creating in our children when we are teaching them that it is okay to split up our lives? If we are splitting everything up, are we creating a happy world for ourselves, can we have a happy India? We never question it actually.



TE: Are rural areas in India changing? How would you characterize this change?


RJ: Change is a process; but it is not a linear process. Just because we have passed through one stage and gone to the next, it does not mean we cannot return. Sometimes we may have to come back to a previous stage. It is iterative. And one should not be afraid to go back.


We live in a culture which sees development as moving forward in linear fashion. When the frame of reference for progress is linear, then any return or going back on that line seems like a bad thing. I will give you an example: If you go to any village during a wedding today, you will find plastic plates and glasses floating around the road sides. It is like a sea of plastic in that village. In the past, just a couple of decades ago, these same villagers used to serve food in leaves and earthen pots. Why did they start using plastic plates in the first place? We blame the villagers for being dirty. Have the villagers really developed by using plastic?


But we never asked: Who brought the plastic here; who got the plastic to the villages? We sell them plastic and then we blame them or spend millions on changing their behavior. Why not change the behavior of those who manufacture plastics in the first place? If it requires a total ban on the manufacture of plastic, then so be it. Let us return to the days of eating out of leaves. Let’s go back to it then. What is wrong with going back?


We are giving all these gadgets and cars to the people and then we are making films or creating campaigns against e-waste and global warming. We need not have so many cars; some of us can give up our cars and walk or cycle to work.


Change is constant, but there is no universal law of change. Change has to be adapted to our circumstances and needs. It has to be seen in the spirit of the law of change and not in the letter of the law. We must be able to visualize change in its local context. Let us not confuse linear development with change.


TE: Thank you.




© The Essayist. July, 2013.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are properly cited. To view a copy of this license, visit



About Rural India


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