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Jharkhand’s 'Didis': A Project to Help 1,200 'Ultra-Poor' Families Is Paying Off

A non-profit is trying to uplift families out of extreme poverty by empowering women, one step at a time.

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India
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Despite having lived for almost 28 years, for all practical purposes, Lalita Devi and her small family of four in the Lohardaga district, in the tribal belt of Jharkhand and around three hours from Ranchi, did not exist till July 2019.

Falling in the category of ultra-poor in India, the family was outside the net of whatever the state government was doing to improve similar lives. She and her family had no Aadhar card, no NREGA job card, no ration card, no particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) pension, and certainly no bank account. The last was largely a dream since they never had any savings in the bank.

If she didn’t really exist on paper, she and her family barely managed to exist in reality. With ten decimal of land (one-tenth of an acre) to their name, no livestock or any other source of earning and no assets barring a tiny, dark mud hut, eking out any kind of living was a daily challenge.

Yes, she had a toilet built at the insistence of local authorities who had some targets to meet, but managing three meals a day was close to impossible. The family made do with two daily meals, mostly local rice with salt, and had never tasted dal or most vegetables.

Snapshot
  • Bengaluru-headquartered Nudge Institute is working to uplift 1,200 'ultra-poor' families out of extreme poverty in three districts of Jharkhand’s tribal belt – Lohardaga, Latehar and Gumla.

  • Nudge is using the graduation approach pioneered by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), which has been implemented successfully in 50 countries, covering around 14 million households.

  • To begin with, it helps build an identity for the woman and the family. This includes an Aadhar card and a ration card, which establishes their existence. Then, a consumption grant or stipend is offered to ensure that they are not forced to migrate to find work.

  • Simultaneously, the first livelihood asset is introduced to the family, contextualised for individual countries and regions. Training is imparted, and then, after one asset begins to bear fruit, a second livelihood asset is introduced.

Milk, meat, eggs and chicken were luxuries they knew existed but never dreamt of consuming.

As and when the need arose, she and her husband were taken away by local strongmen who needed cheap labour for the “bhattas”, or brick kilns, and they carried their young children along, who remained out of school due to the migration. The back-breaking work at the brick kilns was their very last choice barring one: starvation.

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In July 2019 Lalita and her family passed Nudge Institute’s – an action institute headquartered out of Bengaluru that works with governments, markets and civil society to build resilient livelihoods for all – stringent criteria and qualified as ‘ultra-poor’, one of the 1,200 families picked to be lifted out of extreme poverty in three districts of Jharkhand’s tribal belt – Lohardaga, Latehar and Gumla. It was then that her life began to change in more ways than one.

A Day at Panchpadwa Tolla, Latehar District, April 2022

We are sitting in the Lohardaga district on a hot afternoon towards the end of April, approximately one kilometre from Lalita’s village and home, in a large circle surrounded by barren, stark ground with trees that appear as if they could do with a drink or two of water. A large, green Naxal-infested mountain – bauxite mining is a principal activity in these parts – looms at a short distance. The environment appears rugged and even hostile, yet achingly beautiful. It has been quite a feat for us city-bred types to reach this rather remote spot, over three hours from Ranchi, via patchy roads. And this has been possible only because Naxal activity in the state has ebbed to an extent. In the past, the same journey would have been quite treacherous, and even dangerous, as it is not uncommon for Naxals to blow up the bridges that connect this region to Ranchi.

But the excitement of both sides over meeting each other overshadows our exhaustion. Seven 'didis' (women) have gathered to meet us under a shade to offer us a peek into their lives, a kind of ‘before and after’ story. Nudge has organised the trip to apprise their funders and donors of the progress made and for them to see first-hand what difference their contributions have made.

Marginalised and dirt poor, most of these families worked in brick kilns, often at the behest of local strongmen who typically coerce such families to abandon their homes and go out to work as cheap labour in the kilns, leading to total displacement for the family. Food was meagre, children were out of school, and the work, typically, was unforgiving. As one of them put it, “it wasn’t really a life worth living”.

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Now, after three years of working with Nudge, in every Kharif and Rabi season, the didis manage to earn anywhere from Rs 12,000 to Rs 20,000 from the sale of their produce.

Most grow chillies, tomatoes, bitter gourd and a few other vegetables. Some additional money every year is earned through the sale of pigs (full-grown pigs sell for anywhere from Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000) or goats (Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000, depending on size) that they rear. Meticulous accounts are kept in registers that we get to delve into. Since this cohort is now in its third year, many of the didis have some money saved up in their bank accounts.

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The 'Graduation' Approach and How It Works

Nudge is using the graduation approach pioneered by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), which has been implemented successfully in 50 countries, covering around 14 million households.

The approach works on four main pillars: social protection, social empowerment, financial inclusion and livelihood promotion. It is based on intense hand-holding of the woman of the family by a trained field worker.

To begin with, the worker helps build an identity for the woman and the family. This includes an Aadhar card and a ration card, which establishes their existence. Then, a consumption grant or stipend is offered to the family to ensure that they are not forced to migrate to find work.

“This provides some breathing space to the unit,” says John, Nudge’s director. Typically, this consumption grant ranges from Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 depending on the number of family members.

Simultaneously, the first livelihood asset is introduced to the family, contextualised for individual countries and regions. In India, this could be agriculture- and farming-related, livestock (pigs, chickens and goats are most common), or, in some instances, it could be helping the family start a small enterprise, say, a retail outlet or sewing/tailoring machines. The first asset is usually based on the skills of the lady of the house and what she feels she can best cope with. Training is imparted to the family members, and then, after one asset begins to bear fruit, a second livelihood asset is introduced. This could be some land to begin the farming of crops or livestock. The two assets ensure that if the crops fail or the livestock dies, the family does not slip back into the precarious position it began from.

A non-profit is trying to uplift families out of extreme poverty by empowering women, one step at a time.

Livelihood stock at a family's hut.

(Photo: Anjuli Bhargava)

In India, too, evidence of the success of this approach has been proved through the JEEVIKA programme in Bihar, where, since 2018, a total of 1.36 lakh ultra-poor households have been helped. Similar but smaller attempts by organisations such as Bandhan and Trickle Up have also proved the efficacy of this approach.

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Tackling the Identity Crisis

To begin with – and perhaps this is the most significant development – Lalita finally has an identity. She exists. When I meet her, she introduces herself more thoroughly than what I can muster for myself – and at top speed, so I don’t catch most of it. “Mera naam Lalita Devi, tolla Ambapawa, gaon Ambapawa, panchayat Siram, block Peshrar, Jilla Lohardaga, rajya Jharkhand”. To our small group, she is known as Lalita didi.

“As far as the authorities are concerned, families like these fail to be counted. They simply didn’t exist as per government records,” says Srikant Routa, who heads Nudge’s Jharkhand ultra-poor initiative. For apathetic government officials, it’s easier to let this lot fall out of the net than to spread their tentacles this far and wide.

This to me explains why reports written from the confines of plush, air-conditioned offices in the capital can make claims of extreme poverty having been eradicated in India. If government records fail to capture the very existence of people, how can they be ‘ultra-poor’? Moreover, what you cannot directly see when you look out of your comfy city office probably doesn’t exist. Most estimates place the number of extreme or ultra-poor in India at around 100 million, out of the 400-odd million people who fall below the poverty line (BPL).

After establishing their identities, the field workers painstakingly train the family in farming, managing livestock, selling their produce in the local market, managing their earnings, opening bank accounts, etc. But perhaps the most important aspect of the knowledge and training they impart is explaining what the family needs to consume. “We encourage them to think of the Indian flag colours: tri-colour food (orange/red for meat, white for milk and dairy, and green for vegetables) every time they plan a meal to ensure that the nutritional needs of all their family members are met,” says Ashok Shoundik, 28, from Latehar, who leads the Lohardaga project and is in charge of forty didis and their families in this area.

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A Princely Sum of Rs 15,000

After the preliminary chat with the didis is over, I break away from our small group and corner Lalita Devi, who I find the most candid, vocal and charming with her easy, mischievous smile, despite her attention being constantly diverted by her cantankerous one-and-a-half-year-old son. I give him a pen to engage him, which he chucks back at me after musing over it for a bit.

Even before we really get talking, she wins my heart in an instant by urgently confiding in me in a slightly lower voice that she currently has Rs 15,000 in her savings account. Two big firsts for her: a bank account and actual money in it. There’s a glint in her eyes and a joy in her tone that is unmatched. It thrills me, too.

Lalita grows tomatoes and bitter gourd and manages to earn anywhere from Rs 15,000 to Rs 24,000 a season from the sale of the produce. In addition, she makes some money from the sale of her pigs, which she rears. Over three years, she has managed to feed her family far better and save Rs 15,000. She tells me delightedly that she has at least half a kilo of milk currently at home and that the family has been able to eat chicken (around Rs 200 a kg) at least twice or even thrice a week sometimes for the very first time in their lives.

At some point in her chat, when I question her about her own family, she breaks down. Lalita and her husband have two children, but they lost a child recently. In September 2021, her eight-year-old son fell into the local well while playing. She’s still struggling to cope with the loss.

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Seeing Is Believing

Since her own hut is a kilometre away and I, in my bedraggled state, seem visibly incapable of reaching it, Lalita offers to take me to visit the nearest didi’s hut so I can see for myself how her life, too, has changed for the better. Their huts and assets don’t differ dramatically, she assures me with a smile.

Ramkumari Devi’s hut is a haphazard two-room mud structure. Even a quick look around tells you that she and her family are accustomed to making do with the bare minimum. She is a bit embarrassed by the intrusion, but hesitatingly lets me in. The first L-shaped room is where the family sleeps, she tells me. It has a raised mud structure, which I assume acts like a bed, although I don’t spot any bedding. To the left is a long rod at some height. The few clothes they own hang from it in full display. In a corner, I spot a few utensils and a chullah. On one of the walls, lending colour to the room are posters of Shiva, Kali, Hanuman and a deity I don’t recognise, with a lightbulb above them. I take a couple of photos as she poses awkwardly, with her young son clinging to her legs.

A non-profit is trying to uplift families out of extreme poverty by empowering women, one step at a time.

Ramkumari Devi outside her hut. 

(Photo: Anjuli Bhargava)

There’s an ante-room that has a bed, but it is so dark that I can’t spot much else. She tells me she has only two lightbulbs, a norm in these parts. Outside the hut is a covered shed where she has two large pigs lolling about and a couple of piglets. This is her second livelihood asset. In addition to this, she grows tomatoes and sells them in the market, as they have been doing since the Nudge programme began. There’s a toilet as well, but nobody in the house uses it, she says. Old habits die hard.

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Hope And Despair, Ifs and Buts

As we begin our car journey back to Ranchi, my mind oscillates between hope and despair. I am excited: we have been let into the lives of these people in a manner that would otherwise have been impossible. It’s humbling to see how happy they are with the smallest things in life, a sharp contrast to many around me who complain despite having literally everything, and then some more. Yet, I know the odds remain stacked against them.

The good news is that soon, Lalita will replace Ashok as the mentor for her group and will, in turn, be responsible for helping other didis and their families make the transition out of extreme poverty. The bad news is that several hundred Lalitas are needed to effect any serious change.

The good news is that the graduation approach, which has worked in other parts of the world, is being attempted in a structured manner through this initiative. But the bad news is that like many well-intentioned initiatives, it remains unclear whether the families will be able to sustain what they have achieved once the hand-holding from Nudge ends. Will the didis who have “graduated” be able to withstand pressure from local strongmen or the vagaries of nature and continue to stand on their own feet?

The good news is that the Jharkhand government – not known for its proactiveness – has bought into Nudge’s programme and is actually working closely with the institute to lift another 4,000 families out of extreme poverty in a few more districts. The programme has also caught national attention and Nudge has set up a programme management unit within the Ministry of Rural Development to scale it nationally. The bad news is that this might take years, and even then, it will probably still end up leaving many districts uncovered.

As with so many things in this vast country of ours, so many ifs and buts pepper the landscape. As we reach the comfort of our plush hotel in Ranchi, I resolve to retrace my steps to Latehar to meet Lalita and Co three years hence to see whether her ‘princely sum’ would have doubled or disappeared.

(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)

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Topics:  Poverty   Jharkhand 

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