Taking stock of women empowerment initiatives in Madhya Pradesh

Rohan Kochhar, Director, Skoch Group

Madhya Pradesh has taken a number of initiatives in the recent years for social and economic empowerment of women. A Skoch team visited tribal dominated backward districts of the state to take stock of the ground realities. Some programmes have delivered impressive results, while a lot needs to be done to make others better, says Rohan Kochhar

A chain, they say, is only as strong as its weakest link. How then are societies and economies grow successfully without safeguarding and strengthening their weakest members?

Violence against women is one of the most critical challenges, which have badly affected the socio-economic structure of the country. Numerous laws have been enacted the world over for protecting the rights of and ensuring a safe and secure environment for women. However it is a problem, which cannot be undone effectively unless we combat the issue of poverty within society simultaneously. There is an ever-increasing and irrefutable amount of evidence that indicates a significant increase in the incidence of violence against women in relatively poorer socio-economic surroundings.

The reasons for this range from a marked lack of education to failing to break away from oppressive social structures stemming from historically patriarchal power equations within societies, which were in turn derivatives of entrenched gender roles.

Violence against women is increasingly being seen as an issue that is deeply rooted in societal norms and economic dependence. The only way for us to ensure that these social malpractices are eliminated and the outlook changes and evolves is to invest in the pursuit of a sustainable model of economic empowerment for women to eradicate their financial dependence, on the one hand and sensitisation of communities by spreading awareness on the other.

Madhya Pradesh is a prime example of the above being tried, tested and proven. And it is to capture this that we decided to explore Madhya Pradesh.

We travelled extensively to the tribal-dominated backward regions of the state. Our journey began in Bhopal and we visited the districts like Mandla and Dindori to take a firsthand experience of the challenges being faced by the people.

After ten-hour long drive from Bhopal, we reached Mandla late in the evening traversing through dense jungles. The next morning, we set out to achieve what we had come all the way from New Delhi to. Our first stop was Mohgaon, a small village inhabited by around 100 families with a population of 540. Members of various Women’s SHGs greeted us as we congregated in one of their houses for a discussion.

The atmosphere initially was one of reticence. The women looked at us—with our voice recorders and cameras—quizzically yet we were welcomed as esteemed guests. We asked them questions about the benefits they accrued from forming SHGs and they replied with shy smiles and blank stares. They did not, it seemed, understand why the ordinary happenings of their day-to-day lives would be of any interest to these outsiders who had just arrived at their village.

After a mutual round of introductions and some cajoling Pushpabai led the front and started to tell us about the happenings in Mohgaon. A chorus of voices soon joined her.

And it was then that we realised that nothing about these women was ordinary at all. Owing to the fact that most farmers in the area are small landowners there had always been a limit to how much they could produce. Farming at such a small scale was not feasible. They had now come together to form SHGs and lease 72 acres of land at a cost of Rs 150,000 for the first year and Rs 125,000 for each successive year, from the local village Patel who had moved to the city.

This land pooling exercise has allowed them to farm collectively rather than individually which reaped them benefits in terms of reduced manpower, affordable expenditure on fertilisers and manure, farming implements and even huge gains in terms of productivity.

Jyotibai told us that earlier the expected output from two sacks of seeds was about ten sacks of produce whereas now it ranges between 20 and 30 sacks of agricultural produce.
That’s a 100 to 200 per cent increase in productivity.

Not only this, each woman was able to earn a net profit of around Rs 50,000 from farming related activities. Some of them also had Kisan Credit Cards, which facilitated financial transactions and savings for credit related activities. Rashmibai told us that while almost everyone in the village had a bank account, very few of them had a job card under MGNREGA. And, although accounts under the Jan Dhan scheme had been opened recently, most of them were not operational.

Besides farming rice, wheat and corn, which were the primary crops here, the SHG members also partook in non-farming activities such as goat and pig rearing and operating Kirana store to supplement the incomes of their respective households.

They also told us about the Mukhya Mantri Kanya Vivaah Yojana, which has gone a long way in helping them meet the financial obligations that marriage ceremonies demand in rural communities and the Ladli Laxmi Yojana which has ensured that the girl child not only goes to school but also stays in school with its progressive incentive structure and stipulated demands that the beneficiaries must meet as per the programme.

They did however complain of a lack of MSP acquisition of their crops, which meant they were left to the mercy of market forces. Lack of water for irrigation was another significant problem in this area. Pushpabai described it as ‘Nalka Laga Hai, Lekin Paani Nahi Aata’.

But regardless of these problems, which are systemic in nature and would possibly take some more time to address, I was quite impressed by the inroads that had been made in this one village alone. As we travelled to our next destination on PMGSY roads, I sat and wondered what made all this possible? How did a great spirit of entrepreneurship thrive so deep into the grassroots? What made it possible for these women to get up one fine day and decide to achieve economic empowerment and financial independence in an environment clearly not in their favour.

Project Tejaswini

Tejaswini is a programme covering six rural districts of Madhya Pradesh with a total programme cost of $37.2 million (approximately Rs 1,616 million) based on the Report by the International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD). This programme is funded by IFAD’s loan assistance of $13 million and the balance is covered by the Government of Madhya Pradesh, along with assistance from NABARD, SHGs and Banks.

M K Chaturvedi, Deputy Project Commissioner, Project Tejaswini, who accompanied us during our visit, told us that the programme covers six major districts—Panna, Chhatrapur, Tikamgarh, Balaghat, Mandla and Dindori. These districts have been specifically chosen as they have a predominant tribal population and the socio-economic dynamics here render the condition of women extremely poor.

The women in the districts of Panna, Chattarpur, Tikamgarh are deprived of a respectable social status as the community there is highly patriarchal, whereas for the districts like Mandla, Dindori and Balghat it is the economic conditions of the tribes that require nurturing.

Hence the overall aim of Project Tejaswini as defined by the Department of Women & Child Development, “is to enable poor women to make use of choices, spaces and opportunities in economic, social and political spheres for their improved wellbeing”.

The programme’s design intends to organise women from poor households into SHGs and to use this platform to manage thrift, credit, livelihoods and address issues of gender and society.

The advancement of the project is showcased by the Village Level Committees (VLCs), which have started taking up issues such as gender discrimination, child malnutrition, child illiteracy, ensuring access to entitlements and fighting social evils such as alcohol and drug addiction to help improve the living conditions of women as well as the overall prosperity of the village.

The initial objective of the project was capacity building by grouping women into Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Four-five SHGs combine to form a VLC and consecutively a twelve-member team from various VLCs and SHGs formed a Federation. Officers of the Directorate of Women’s Empowerment helped in registering these federations, preparing business-plans and introducing them to cost coverage and other important concepts of financial literacy. As time progressed, so did the achievement of Project Tejaswini.

In village Ramgarhi, several women said SHGs and the initiatives under the project Tejaswini have helped in their social and economic empowerment. Project Tejaswini has assisted women by ensuring that fertiliser and seeds are in constant supply, along with providing timely advice and assistance, which the women were very thankful for.

On being asked about the total savings of the SHGs, Roopvatibai informed us that the Nari Shakti Samuh—one of the six SHGs—had a total savings of Rs 12,000 and similar savings could be seen for the other groups.

The women beneficiaries in general were content with the variety of seeds and supply of irrigation facilities that had been provided to them under the Project Tejaswini and they all had bank accounts at Allahabad Bank branch located at Charai Dongri, the lead bank in the area.

We then travelled on more, well built, PMGSY roads to Kaamta village. There we met members of Banjari SHG. They all belonged to the few families that were located outside the main village on the riverbank. Out of necessity these women due to a lack of proper cultivable land around them worked as labour on the farms in the village. But with the formation of the SHG they now have a combined saving of about Rs 3,000 and have gone from being borrowers, owing to their poor economic conditions, to becoming lenders who lend to others at an interest of 5 per cent per annum.

We visited several other villages in Mandla district and everywhere women had fascinating stories to tell. While in the district town, we came across Rashmi Mishra who narrated a story about how she helped a hapless woman reunite with her family.

Not only this, she informed us that she along with her team is fighting human trafficking, the incidence of drug addiction in children who are compelled to work as rag-pickers and even demands for dowry during marriage.

Intrigued by what compelled her and her compatriots to go beyond the call of duty, I asked her what made her go out of her way and do so much more than what was expected?
Her answer – “I am a member of my village’s Shaurya Dal.

Shaurya Dal

In the wake of the Nirbhaya tragedy in New Delhi, the central government had urged the states to take necessary measures and deploy safeguards to ensure women’s security.

Most crimes against girls and women take place in private spaces and it is difficult to report and register these cases with the police due to a lack of support. In order to curb violence against women, an innovative approach of constituting “Shaurya Dal” has been initiated. The formation of Shaurya Dal was based on the philosophy that the solution for every problem laid within the community. It has evolved from the old, traditional principle of Panchayats where the community raised problems and found solutions.

The Shaurya Dal comprises of five women and five pro-active male members sensitised towards women’s issues. The Dal functions on the principle of community partnerships for curbing violence against women and for the expeditious resolution of such cases.

In Dindori district, we visited a block named Mehndhwani that comprises of 41 villages. There we met representatives of Nari Chetna Mahila Sangh, who gave us a warm and affectionate welcome.

In the block Tejaswini Rural Women’s Empowerment Programme has been able to develop 9 federations (one federation covers around 200 Women’s SHGs comprising of around 3,000 women). The programme is now taking up the issue of creating livelihood linkages for the economic sustenance of their members. This is based on the resources at each federation’s disposal and the skill set that their members possess.

It was in 2012, that the Nari Chetana Mahila Sangh (NCMS) formed in Mehandwani block, had introduced a unique initiative—the scaling of Kodo-Kutaki, a millet for which Dindori’s topography was ideal.

The federation, with the help of the government has also created a seed reserve and made arrangements for rainwater harvesting and promote other produce.

Arvind Singh Bhal, Manager, MPVVN, who was a part of the government team accompanying us, informed that the government has taken a number of steps to encourage the production of minor millet. He said the Department of Agriculture provides support to the farmers in the form of machinery and financial assistance.

Kodo-Kutaki

What is so unique about the Kodo-Kutaki story? What makes this crop special? There exists a great demand for it not just in the cities and metros but also globally for the following reasons:

  1. It is extremely high in dietary fibre, higher than traditional millets, such as bajra, which was conventionally seen as a super food and a healthier alternative to wheat.
  2. It is sugar-free which further strengthens its position in the health-foods market.
  3. The production is largely organic. This ensures that very few harmful chemicals go into the produce.
  4. A wide variety of snacks can be prepared from it
  5. It can be stored for an indefinite period of time provided the peel remains intact.

There is a huge unexplored market for this crop. One major issue we encountered is that the farmers are not getting adequate price for their produce. Farmers get around Rs 15 per kg for Kodo and Rs 22 for Kutaki. If it is marketed properly the potential is huge.

Before we departed for our next and final destination, our hosts asked us for a favour. They asked us to write a few words of encouragement in their federation’s book-keeping log, which they would keep for posterity and show to their members. It was a heart-warming request.

Gyanendra Keshri, Resident Editor, INCLUSION and an integral part of the Skoch Team to Madhya Pradesh, wrote the following and I think, it sums up the Kodo-Kutaki experience rather well. He said:

“The work your federation is doing is really inspiring. Efforts should be made to take more and more people on board. There is a need to widely use modern technology to augment production. Good storage and processing facilities are equally important. Members must strive to set up processing units with the help of the government so that real value of the produce is realised. Promotion of the product is also of key importance. Most of you seem to be aware of the numerous benefits of Kodo and Kutaki. However, it is hardly known even in other parts of Madhya Pradesh, not to mention other parts of the country. It needs to popularised nationally”.

With this, we bid them adieu and headed back to New Delhi, to share the Madhya Pradesh story.

I do not know if it were the mammoth tasks were being undertaken or if the people themselves that we met were extraordinary. Rarely do you ever get to see backward integration to such a degree, in such a short period of time and that too in places where none existed. But I do know this–none of this would have been possible without Project Tejaswini, the Shaurya Dal and the indomitable spirit of the brave, juggernaut women in the districts like Mandla and Dindori.

(Rohan Kochhar can be reached at rohan@skoch.in)

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