Swanirvar Movement a 'basic need' centred approach to rural upliftment and community development which attempted to include various groups within the village structure. The swanirvar (self-reliance) movement constitutes a milestone in the history of rural development in Bangladesh. Pioneered by a high public official and social worker Mahbub Alam Chashi, the movement was formally launched on 24 September 1975 under the patronage of the Bangladesh government. The main thrust of its activities was geared towards increasing food production and income generation. The need and importance of moral and ethical values and qualities were also emphasised. The idea and visions of the movement drew substantially from a number of earlier rural development initiatives. In 1967, similar ideas were explored in a participatory project at Gumai in Rangunia, Chittagong.
In August 1974, during the aftermath of the devastating flood and the resultant famine, bangladesh academy for rural development (BARD) launched an experimental project called the Action Programme for Flood Recovery Operation (APFRO) to search for a suitable organisational model for bringing together varied social classes and forces in order to face natural calamities and encourage collective activities. The experimental activities of AFPRO spread over as many as thirteen districts within a short time. The institutional structure of the movement consisted of six tiers at the village, union, thana, sub-division, district and national levels. The village assembly or Gram Parishad was made the basic unit. The Gram Parishad was headed by an elected Gram Sarathi (village pilot) and had four specialised (elected) committees responsible for such activities as law and order, agriculture, education, health and family planning. At the union level, the Union Training and Development Centres acted as a platform for meeting and coordinating various development partners including farmers, extension agents, public service providers, volunteers and social workers. The national committee of Swanirvar Bangladesh was the central apex body to coordinate and maintain the network of its institutions at the sub-national levels.
The major achievements of the Swanirvar Movement include establishment of a substantial number of rural institutions and infrastructure especially in the fields of communications, informal education and healthcare, hybrid agricultural crops, voluntary labour, employment opportunities especially through infrastructure projects and micro credit, collective action and group mobilisation. One of the most talked about schemes, carried out under the banner of the movement was known as the Ulashi-Jadunathpur Canal Digging Project implemented during 1976-77. The project, which mobilised considerable voluntary labour, provided drainage and irrigation facilities to 18000 acres of water logged area by excavating a 4.26 km long canal. The project covered up 138 thanas in 40 districts and until 1989 disbursed taka 82,96,11,951 as loan to 49,19,137 beneficiaries. The institution of Swanirvar Gram Sarkar or self-reliant village government conceptualised and propagated by the government of Ziaur Rahman was modeled on the image of the Movement. Notwithstanding the state patronage and support, the movement only partially succeeded in augmenting food production, people's participation, and voluntary labour.
Its performance, on many occasions, was constrained or frustrated by factors such as the sharp and rigid social stratification in rural Bangladesh, sabotage by local elites, bureaucratic formalities and dominance in decision making, limited capacity of the rural institutions, limited incentive for popular participation, and scarcity of fund and logistic services. Despite the above limitations, the movement left a lasting impression on the principles and practices of rural development in Bangladesh in the sense that subsequent reforms and development activities gave emphasis on village level organisations, basic needs of common people, idealistic orientation and populist values, integrated approach to rural reconstruction, and involvement of all sections of the villagers in development activities. [Niaz Ahmed Khan]