Saturday, April 03, 2010

Women Up and Rising in Bihar

Bodh-Gaya, Bihar:

“Self-respect” – that’s her most important earning in two years, quips Sanju Devi Jadhab, 33, after a studied pause, standing in the middle of her two-bigha wheat farm. “We now have an identity.”

Holding her two-year-old daughter Sneha in her arms, the marginal farm woman basks in her new-found confidence that dwarfs the odds confronting poor villagers like her: poverty is just one among plenty.

A lower caste poor, whose husband works as a daily wager, Sanju Devi is member of a village self-help-group (SHG) and resource person (VRP) in Jeevika, a popular name for the World Bank-aided Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP) that is steering a slow but certain change in eight impoverished districts. It’ll be a while before her village Navadih, she says, realized that the change was there to stay. By the time her daughter grows up, she believes, her village would have a future. Her optimism, itself, is the change.

“Jeevika is generating self respecting and confident women from the villages,” Budhabhatti Kartikeya, an IAS probationer and assistant collector of Gaya district, said. “The project is creating space for the poor.’

Implemented through an autonomous society – Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, Jeevika had by February 2010 formed 17,044 SHGs with 196,000 members spanned across the eight pilot districts of Muzaffarpur, Madhubani, Supaul, Madhepura, Purnia, Khagaria, Nalanda and Gaya. By 2012, when it is over, the project would have reached 600,000 poorest of poor families living in 4000 villages through a range of livelihood interventions. The Rs 306 crore-project, first to be funded in Bihar by the World Bank after a gap of 20 years, would eventually be scaled up to 18 districts, the officials of the Society say.

The 2009-12 strategy document of the Bank says it would devote more resources – primarily low-interest International Development Association (IDA) credits among other things -- for low-income states including Bihar, with focus on poverty reduction.

The aim is to enhance the income standards and livelihood options for the poor. Bihar’s average annual per capita income is about Rs 7500, or a fourth of the national average. Eighty-nine per cent of its 83 million people live in rural areas with poor service delivery, rigid caste hierarchy and limited economic opportunities. Of the 36 million poor marginal farming households, nearly 2.3 million have large debts.

Two years ago, Sanju Devi learnt about Jeevika being implemented in Sekhwara village, a few km from her own, and decided to volunteer for it. “I sensed an opportunity,” she says, “to come out of poverty.” All she needed was to take initiative with some courage, the short but hard-working woman says. In a feudal and rabidly male-dominated society, she says, it wasn’t easy to break free from the veil.

More than 500 VRCs like Sanju Devi, Jeevika officials in Patna say, are today steering the project that aims on the one hand to augment farm productivity in this rain-fed area through a roots intensification system, and on the other create SHGs (or micro-enterprises) that get access to institutional finance.

Sanju Devi is both, user and expert trainer, a job that fetches her monthly honorarium of Rs 1000. All that you need is a drive and initiative to become a village resource person, Jeevika officials say.

“It’s effective when villagers talk to other villagers about the project benefits,” says Mukesh Chandra Sharan, Jeevika state project manager (Micro Finance). “It removes any doubts villagers may have.”

After the initial skepticism among the targeted villagers faded (like what if you fled with our money or how can we spare ten rupees when we don’t have anything to eat), Jeevika took roots.

“The project is about to take off, now that the institutional structures are really solid,” says the World Bank consultant on the project Vinay Kumar. “The next level is about economic integration.”

Navadih adopted the system of rice and wheat intensification – called as SRI and SWI – in 2008 and the marginal farmers have got an enhanced yield – and income -- even in this year’s drought, officials say.

The roots intensification technique, adopted from Madagascar in Mexico, focuses on better root growth as it feeds the plant, according to Jeevika’s Debaraj Behera. He boasts of dramatic rise in the yields with this technique on the 22,000-plus paddy and wheat farmers in the pilot districts across the state.

Farmers, according to Jeevika officials, have clocked an average yield of 7-10 tons per hectare over two years – that’s roughly twice the yield before the introduction of this technology.

“If we take care of the roots,” Behera says, “the roots take care of the plant.”

The pitfall is that the system though not input-intensive requires more labour than in traditional way. It needs farmers to rinse the seeds in warm water before treating it with vermin-compost, cow urine and jaggery in a bucket. The germinated seeds are then transplanted maintaining the specified space.

“Though the technique is giving excellent results on the small holdings in Bihar, we will need to evaluate and assess the technique before scaling it up,” says Biswajit Sen, Senior Rural Development Specialist at the World Bank. The WB, he says, would in few months be doing a mid-term assessment of Jeevika.

Jeevika’s soul is the women’s groups. Ten to 15 individuals form a self help group; around 8-15 SHGs form a village organization; around 25-35 VOs form a Block Level Federation. There are currently a hundred such federations in eight districts. Alongside, the SHG members form a producers group as first step of building institutional capacity for an economic activity. A critical number of producer groups form a cluster; clusters join hands for producers’ organization that are then integrated with commercial sector, cooperatives, banks and service sector. The principle is that the community takes decisions and prioritizes its needs for lending and borrowing. The pyramid structure forges unity and individual skills.

Baijayanti Devi, a vocal resource person, and others burst into giggles and a sense of pride when they recount how their unity forced a local muscleman-cum-contractor to build a village road as per the locals’ instruction – a road that had been sanctioned seven years ago but remained un-constructed.

Jeevika is steering other interventions too; such as a play-school for the children of the lower caste Musahars in Marha village, about 20 km from the sacred city of Bodh Gaya. Languishing at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, the landless Musahar community had no access to education. This is the first time that the 40-odd children attend a pre-school under the drum-stick tree around one corner of the village.

Others, like Bank Mitra Rinki Kumar, 20, helps the Sahdeokhap villagers do banking – she fills out forms to withdraw or deposit money, apply for loans or explain the various schemes the bank runs.

“She’s an important interface between the illiterate villagers and the bank,” says Sunil Narain, the manager of the Sahdeokhap branch of the Bank of India. All praise for the project, he says, Jeevika made a major difference in the lives of poor villagers. “Its major achievement,” he says, “has been that people now have access to institutional finance which has in turn broken the stranglehold of moneylenders.”

Jeevika members echo his sentiment. Kunti Devi of Sekhwara village, for instance, managed to pay the mortgage money to an upper-caste money lender to free her one-acre land after coming into the formal credit net. In the first two years, says Vinay Kumar, much of the lending borrowing business within the SHGs has been to free the mortgaged lands and pay the health bills; two very pressing urgencies.

Typically, private loans come at a monthly 10 percent interest, while the bank loans at nine percent per annum with no collateral. Narain says SHGs’ repayments are very good and timely. The SHGs are using the money to buy livestock, agricultural inputs or setting up small shops, all income generating.

An increased access to bank has seen a decline in the number of money-lenders, says Baijayanti Devi. “The Sahukars are now a dying breed,” she says, as her SHG colleagues sing the Jeevika song. One of the women, Ramrati Devi, butts in to say with a chuckle: “We have now learnt to speak for ourselves.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

We would like you to send this as an entry to The Laadli Media Awards 2010-11. Please contact me urgently.
Bhairav Desai