Home Essay/Articles ARTICLE : The Ordinary Extraordinaire...an incredible story of empowerment!!
ARTICLE : The Ordinary Extraordinaire...an incredible story of empowerment!!
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 04:42




“Women must be put in a position to solve their problems in their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them. Our Indian women are capable of doing it as any in the world.

-       Swami Vivekananda

On 6 February 2013, IFAD held a panel discussion on "Scaling up from the perspective of our partners" at IFAD headquarters in Rome. This event brought together representatives from India, Argentina and Sao Tome who shared their respective models of scaling up. One of the most impressive presentations was of Ratnamma (President of a federation of 10000 women in Orvakkal Mandal of Kurnool District in Andhra Pradesh).

Not long ago, Ratnamma’s life was a case of discrimination, injustice, insults and poverty. Born into a poor untouchable family, she had to feed her five children with the meager income she could earn by fetching firewood from the nearby hillocks. Since her husband was a bonded-laborer, tied to a rich farmer for the debt owed by his father and grandfather, his contribution to the livelihood of the family was nil. Ratnamma had to work from dawn to dusk, fetching the firewood to sell to the villagers in weekly fair. Though she would get Rs. 20 for a stack of firewood, this was hardly adequate to get a decent meal to her and the children. Her husband, who was working for the landlord to clear the debt, rarely he would show up at home. She had no answer when the kids asked about the absence of their father in the house. The loneliness used to haunt her and she endured all this in silence.

Having four daughters was seen as curse among the relatives who always talked ill of her.“It was this humiliation that hurt me more rather than the poverty I was in,” was her refrain.“None of the children was in school. In those days my eldest daughter was 12 year old. She used to work in the cotton farms. She would go in morning and return in the evening. She often fell sick because of the chemical fumes she inhaled in the cotton farm,” Ratnamma recalls. The evil of untouchability was rampant in the village. Poor were barred from passing through the village with footwear. This was the plight of all the people from the poor families. But the entry of volunteers of ‘South Asia Poverty Alleviation Program’raised the hopes for a change. Ratnamma was spotted by the group which encouraged her to join the Self-help Groups (SHGs). But the big question before Ratnamma was - what she could do in a thrift group when her entire earning was not enough to have square meals a day. Encouraged by the volunteers, she finally decided to join an SHG.

The SHGs conducted four meetings in a month in which the members discussed the day-to-day problems of their families and try to find solutions together. In one of the meetings, Ratnamma’s struggle becamethe topic for discussion and it was decided that freeing of her husband from the slavery would help her family immensely. The Group decided to give her a loan enough to repay the debt of the landlord and free her husband. The freedom of her husband heralded a new phase in her life. Both husband and wife joined hands to earn more money, the income level rose and gradually Group’s loan was also cleared with their thrift amount.The coming together of these women also led to a realization that banishing the bonded labor and child-labor from the village would pave the way for the welfare of the Girl child. So, a school was set up by the SHG federation for those children who worked in farms and Ratnamma’s eldest daughter was the first to get enrolled as a student. The hamlet reverberated with the recital of alphabet of first generation students from the unlettered families.

Ratnamma recalls “I was married off at a tender age of 13. Had I not joined the Group that enlightened me, my daughter also would have fallen victim to the age-old practice of child-marriage.” It took great courage for Ratnamma to resist the pressure from the members of caste and relatives who opposed the enrollment of her eldest daughter in the school. She was a pioneer in promoting girl child education in that village. Latter on fifty poor families in that village followed her and send their children to the child labour camp. “Change is never welcomed with open arms. You need to summon a lot of courage to face the resistance. My experience has proven that resistance could be won over as a collective. First everybody was hesitant to join the Group. Once I took the lead, many had followed me. I began as member of the group then became leader of the village organization also worked as the president of the federation. Sometimes the fact that I had taken as much as Rs 9.5 lakh from the Group reminds the long road I travelled. Now I am owner of a two-acre farm and cozy house. My husband is land-owning farmer. Nobody would have thought that three daughters of a poor once-untouchable woman have completed general nursing and the fourth is in an undergraduate and my son is doing B.Tech. My daughters are working in the hospitals as general nurses.

My joy knew no bound when my eldest daughter had given me nice saree as a gift from the first salary she received as staff nurse. You know, what I got from the second daughter- a sparkling gold chain while third daughter presented beautiful anklets, says Ratnamma.This is not the story of one Ratnamma but many Ratnamma’swho have come out of poverty by becoming members of SHGs for a period of more than 5 years.

For most of these rural poor women, the SHGs have now become effective vehicles of transformation. It helps them galvanize their energies for productive purposes, increases their social &political visibility. Through SHGs, poor women are able to reclaim their space for self-help, mutual cooperation and collective action for social and economic development.

SHGs: effective vehicles of transformation

Throughout the country, SHGs have created significant impact on the empowerment status of women, both at the individual as well as the community level. The innumerable success stories (like Ratnamma)have concluded that if properly nurtured and developed, the SHGs of poor women could become effective vehicles of transformation. A large number of Central and State government programs, as well as programs funded by multilateral agencies have attempted to mainstream the SHG-centered approach in their poverty eradication programs.

The cornerstone of the Swarnjayanti Gram SwarozgarYojana(SGSY) strategy was that the poor need to be organized into Self Help Groups (SHGs) and their capacities built up systematically so that they can access self-employment opportunities and establish effective linkages between the various components of the programme such as availability of credit, technology transfer/up-gradation, marketing and infrastructure.Performance of SGSY was assessed through concurrent evaluations, various studies and reports. Prof. Radhakrishna Committee on Credit Related Issues Related to SGSY, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development in April, 2008 reported the shortcomings in the implementation of SGSY like uneven mobilisation of rural poor and formation of SHGs across the States, insufficient capacity building of beneficiaries, low credit mobilization and lack of professionals to implement the programme. Based on the findings of the report, SGSY was restructured as National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), subsequently renamed as “Aajeevika”, to implement it in a mission mode across the country.

Aajeevika- National Rural Livelihoods Mission

NRLM is a programme implemented ‘by the poor’. NRLM’s unique proposition is that this process is best managed and owned by ‘transformed and empowered’ women and not by ‘external entities’ such as the State missions or even N.G.O s. The external entities, no matter how good they are, cannot replace these internal women champions. The main role of these external entities is to catalyze this process and enable community champions to emerge from among the poor and to take over the process. The Mission therefore plays the role of a ‘facilitator’ and not an ‘implementer’.

The real torchbearers of the program are the ‘Community champions’ - dedicated women leaders of the groups, community service providers and community best practitioners or community resource persons (CRPs). They make this program for the poor into a program of the poor and by the poor.The programme has adopted a strategy which is community driven, community managed and community owned. The CRPs are the lynchpins of this strategy. Among these the prime place goes to Resource C.R.Ps, who are S.H.G members  who have substantially come out of poverty by being members of the S.H.G s for a period of more than 5 years and are willing to share their experiences in other States.  The belief is only those whose lives are transformed by this process can bring about change in others. ‘Be the change that you want to see’. This model was used very successfully in A.P, T.N, Bihar and Odisha. At present, S.H.G women from A.P and Bihar are in the forefront of taking the lessons of NRLM to the rest of the country.

Text Box: The National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) – Aajeevika, a programme of the Ministry of Rural Development, was launched on 3rd June 2011 to reach out to 8-10 Crore rural poor households, organize them into women Self Help Groups (SHGs), and their federations and nurture them into functionally efficient, self-reliant and sustainable institutions. These institutions, led by women, will promote the socio-economic and political empowerment of women in general, and the most marginalized among them in particular.  For NRLM, empowerment is both a process and an outcome. As a process, it enables womento gain control over their lives by helping them to access the means and resources to shape their own destinies. It is a continuum of several interrelated and mutually reinforcing activities such as individual and collective awareness building, organization, capacity and skill building and creating a right environment. Empowerment is a long process requiring changes to the institutions, legal framework and social norms.  NRLM’s mandate is to cover all the poor and vulnerable households through formation and strengthening of 70–90 lakh SHGs, close to 600,000 village level federations and around 24,000 cluster level federations, covering all the 640,000 villages, 238,000 Gram panchayats, 5852 blocks and 649 districts in 29 States and 5 UTs of the country. As of now, NRLM has supported (formed/strengthened) 20 lakh SHGs in 180,145 villages spread across 2472 blocks.

Social capital-led ‘Resource Block Strategy’

As part of this strategy, the capacities of the implementers and the CRPs are adequately built up before actual implementation starts. Intensive implementation starts with 10% select blocks (Resource Blocks- RBs) in the state. The Social capital from the 1st phase RBs enable organic scaling, through local CRPs and other community cadres to the rest of the blocks in a phased manner. Each RB produces local ‘community heroes’ for 20 blocks in 5 years and after 2 ½  years itself, 5 new blocks get seeded.

At present, around 1200 CRPs, community heroes of A.P and Bihar are spearheading the process in the RBs of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, M.P, Rajasthan, U.P, Haryana, Nagaland, Mizoram, West Bengal, Gujarat and Karnataka. Rest of the states will commence the implementation of this strategy in this year. Thus, as per the Resource Block Strategy, all the blocks and villages will be covered in 8-10 years wherein every poor family in a block will be supported to enable them to come out of poverty.

NRLM’s core belief is that the poor have innate capabilities to graduate out of poverty. The challenge is to unleash their energies. This can only be done by organizing and capacitating them through their institutions. This is done very effectively by targeting women. Towards this, NRLM has put in place a dedicated, sensitive structure to help the poor build their institutions. These institutions provide services to their members –savings, credit, livelihoods support, etc. – and serve as platforms for collective action based on self-help and mutual cooperation.

Key Features of NRLM

Universal Social Inclusion: NRLM has adopted a strategy of universal social mobilization of all poor households into the fold of SHG network. The SHGs are federated at the village level and beyond. Later, as the institutions of poor mature, livelihoods collectives would be encouraged.  The institutions are supported with adequate capacity building and training on managing the groups, bookkeeping, etc.

Financial Inclusion: NRLM facilitates universal access to the affordable cost-effective reliable financial services to the poor. These include financial literacy, bank account, savings, credit, insurance, remittance, pension and counselling on financial services. NRLM provides two Resources in Perpetuity the Revolving Fund and Community Investment Fund (CIF) as a means of capitalizing the institutions. These funds are used to meet the credit needs of the members and also build their corpus.

Livelihoods:NRLM firmly believes that the poor households know what they want and will prioritize their efforts based on their felt needs, knowledge and resources available to them. The livelihoods strategy of NRLM rests on three pillars – a) stabilizing and enhancing the existing livelihoods and subsequently diversifying their livelihoods; b) Skills and Placement Projects;  c) Self-employed entrepreneurship.

The mission will work on 2 – 3 ‘universal’ livelihoods – which impact 70 – 80% households. NRLM has identified agriculture livelihoods as the critical intervention area. Toward this objective, a sub-programme called Mahila kisan sashakti karan pariyojana under NRLM has been designed to demonstrate viable livelihoods under agriculture for S.H.G members.

Convergence and Partnerships: NRLM works in convergence with other programs of Central and State Governments. It has also entered into partnerships with NGOs and other CSOs for more effective reach-out. NRLM encourages linkages with PRIs or traditional local village institutions for creating local synergies.

Sensitive support: NRLM’s long-term dedicated sensitive support would be with the poor and extend facilitation support in all their efforts to get out of poverty and achieve increased access to their rights, entitlements and public services, diversified risk and better social indicators of empowerment.As the institutionsof poor grow and mature, they become the internal sensitive support structures and institutions for the poor. This gives sustainability to the efforts under NRLM, unlike in the past where support was sporadic.

Text Box: Expected outcomes at the household level. Each household, organized into an S.H.G attains a sustainable income of Rs. 60000 per annum ( at current prices), from 3 – 4 livelihoods, after being supported for 6 – 8  years, and accessing repeat loans of Rs.2.00 to Rs.2.50 lakhs from the rotation of their own savings, from the ‘seed capital’ and from institutional sources. The household incomes, as a result of the programme should be at least 50% above the ‘current’ poverty levels.  Expected outcomes in a typical intensive block which is supported for 10 years.  Ø	13,500 poor families (90% of NRLM target group) in the block mobilised into 1200 SHGs. Ø	Federations of S.H.Gs at village level - 120 VLFs, Cluster level federations - 4 CLFs and 1 Block level federation formed/ strengthened.  Ø	Each household would have borrowed at least Rs 1 Lakh as loan in multiple doses, and another Rs.1 – Rs.2 lakhs from their own savings and community funds (provided by the project). Ø	Around 10,800 households (80%) pursuing at least two sustainable livelihoods, initiated by the project. Ø	4500 most vulnerable households, benefited from special food security and vulnerability reduction intervention.

NRLM, with its women centric and women-led approach and posited on the four key pillars of universal social mobilization, financial inclusion economic inclusion and convergence provides a strong foundation for greater empowerment of poor, especially women.

*With inputs for Department of Rural Development, Ministry of Rural Development