Women in Bihar Are Changing Their Lives, With a Little Help
Amola Devi had never been to school, had never seen the inside of a bank and is a musahar, or rat-catcher, a Dalit caste so low and marginalised that the Bihar government puts it in a special category known as ‘mahadalit.’
Ten years ago at her home in the village of Zindapur in this southern district of Bihar, two of her eight children fell ill and died because she could not afford medical care. On a good day, her husband, a rickshaw puller, earned Rs 200, of which Rs 100 went to the rickshaw owner. She had to feed and clothe her family with the rest. None of her kids went to school. When she went to the village well to draw water, she had to wait for the others to go first, lest her bucket polluted theirs through contact.
In 2016, Amola Devi managed financial transactions to the tune of Rs 1 crore.
The programme today involves over 8.2 million rural women in self-help groups (SHGs). Setting aside Rs 10 each every week, these women have collectively saved Rs 418.5 crore and got loans of Rs 3,270 crore from banks. The programme has, so far, launched 600,000 women farmers, dairy and poultry producers and entrepreneurs in small businesses. These women are also emerging as a political and social force across the state.
It was at a meeting of Jeevika SHG women members that these didis, as they are called, said that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar recklessly promised a ban on alcohol if voted to power, a promise he has kept, much to their delight.
In 2012, when the police dragged their feet in a murder case, a group of Jeevika didis, including Saroj Devi, gheraoed (picketed) the police station, broke down its gates and insisted that arrests be made. In 2016, she contested local panchayat elections and won by 288 votes.
Nowhere to Go but Up
The emergence of Bihar’s most marginalised women in a state that has consistently remained at the bottom of the statistics sweepstakes is significant. Despite the data, women are visible everywhere –asserting themselves on the streets, in the field, cycling to school or running small stalls at bazaars and haats.
But on other parameters there is a clear movement upwards over the past decade. Bihar has not caught up with the rest of the country, but over a decade, literacy is up by over 10 percentage points, the proportion of women who marry before the age of 18 has fallen, and more women have a bank account that they themselves use.
It would be far-fetched to credit Jeevika with these gains, but they do coincide with the launch of the project in 2007.
In the 2015 state elections, 60.5 percent of Bihar’s female voters voted; 54.9 percent of men did. To woo this constituency, Nitish has a basket of schemes: cycles for girls to go to school; increased representation for women in panchayats and municipal elections, from 33 percent to 50 percent; a promise to reserve 35 percent of all state government jobs for women, in addition to the 35 percent reserved for them in the police.
Targeting women from rural households in six of Bihar’s poorest districts, Jeevika began in 2007 with three objectives. Chief of these was the social empowerment of the poorest rural households, followed by economic empowerment and poverty reduction. The programme now runs across Bihar’s 38 districts and 534 blocks.
Jeevika’s structure is a bottom up approach: 10-15 women organise a SHG to take loans on interest and obtain credit from banks. They also form producer organisations centred around an economic activity, such as honey production or making low-cost solar lamps for students.
When the women repay loans, the interest is distributed to all levels, so that village and cluster groupings receive a share. Weekly meetings are mandatory, and records must be maintained. It is here that women meet to discuss social issues, from child marriage to sanitation. On 2 October 2017, they pledged to end dowry, a practice entrenched in Bihar.
But starting off wasn’t easy.
After Initial Resistance From Families, Women Stepped Out
“Bihar has had a culture of restricting the movement of women. Even in the villages, women were confined to their homes and its periphery. So, the men were suspicious; they wanted to know what we were teaching the women,” said Archana Tiwari, Jeevika’s state project manager, social development.
Many who joined in the early days didn’t tell their husbands, or else braved their resistance. When Phulwa Devi joined in 2009, her mother-in-law taunted her and asked if she was going to ‘spend her time roaming around in the gallis (bylanes) of the village’. But when Phulwa Devi took a loan of Rs 100,000 to set up a hardware shop for her husband, he began to recognise what she had done. “He said to me, ‘You have done for me what even my own parents couldn’t do’,” she said.
“For the first 15 days that I was in Jharkhand, I couldn’t figure out what the women were saying to me, whether they were asking me to sit or walk,” said Phulwa Devi who has been to Jharkhand four times and Uttar Pradesh once.
But travel for many women is more than just a discovery of India.
The Word 'Loan' No Longer Frightens Jeevika's Women
Jeevika claims to be India’s largest movement of SHGs. Modelled on the Andhra Pradesh SHG movement, it now trains community mobilisers in other states, such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Amola Devi laughed when she recalled her initiation into the Jeevika movement in 2007. She was suspicious when they came to ask her to set aside Rs 10 a week as her personal savings. “I had seen so many thugs who would come and say, ‘give us money, we will invest for your daughter’s wedding’ and then they would just disappear with your money,” she said.
Asking for her first loan, Rs 1,500 to repair a hand-pump, wasn’t easy, but she reckoned she could pay the 24 percent interest in small installments. Then came another loan request, for Rs 6,000 to redeem the piece of land she had mortgaged to pay for her mother’s funeral rites. The third loan for Rs 7,000 got her a pair of buffaloes. By the time she applied for Rs 30,000 to buy her son a ‘DJ baja’ (soundbox), it felt like she had been taking and paying off loans for a long time.
About 11 percent of all Jeevika loans go towards paying off older, usurious loans taken from commercial village money-lenders. Wife of a daily wage labourer, Kanti Devi of Barah village promptly paid off a loan she had taken at 120 percent. “The interest was pushing us further into poverty and we couldn’t even afford to send our seven children to school,” she said. The informal money-lender has since slashed his interest rate by half to 60 percent per annum.
In a state where 30.4 percent women are malnourished, some women reported taking loans for their own medical treatment. When she hurt her head after falling off a cycle, Saroj Devi said she was unhappy with the quality of medical care in Gaya, and so took a Rs 20,000 loan to seek medical treatment for herself at Ranchi, the capital of neighbouring Jharkhand.
Perhaps most remarkable is Sheela Devi, the wife of a casual labourer. In 2009, when her 22-year-old son, Surendra Kumar, then a tourist guide at Bodhgaya, told her he wanted to go to Delhi to learn Mandarin, she said no. “It was out of the question, how was I to raise so much money?” she said.
The son played the emotional card. “Why did you give birth to me, if you didn’t want to educate me?” he told her.
Sheela Devi said she couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, she asked her SHG for a loan of Rs 80,000. Combined with her savings, she bought her son an air-ticket –not to Delhi but China. If he wanted to learn Mandarin, he would do it properly, her way. Nobody in her family had ever taken a flight to anywhere.
Some of these are run by their husbands or sons. Renu Devi’s husband worked as a casual labourer in the fields of Kurmawa village until she joined an SHG in 2008. With her first loan of Rs 5,000 she set up a hair salon for her husband. A second loan of Rs 25,000 went into expanding that salon to make it “fancy”. When her son started his own beauty parlour, she took another loan of Rs 50,000. Over the years, she said, she has taken loans of over Rs 200,000. All have been paid off, but she herself does not run any of the businesses she has financed for her son and husband.
Success Has Spawned New Challenges
While scale has been an important factor, Jeevika’s success owes much to the innovative thinking of those who run it.
For instance, the programme has a social-afforestation project, where the women receive wages through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)– India’s make-work programme funds to plant and maintain trees that they will own after five years. Another partnership between Jeevika, Nidan – a non-profit, and GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) provides wheat mixed with rice and pulses and fortified with minerals and vitamins for anganwadis.
Village organisations receive a health-risk fund and a food-security fund that enables women to collectively buy foodgrain during peak season and store it for lean times.
In the early years, this led to some confusion, recalled Tiwari. When a group of three women approached a rice wholesaler to buy 200 quintals of grain, the trader thought they were wasting his time. After all, since when had a woman ever purchased grain in bulk? But the women were not to be fobbed off and showed him their cheque book before beating him down to a good price.
Jeevika has succeeded in a state with weak administration and widespread corruption. It has created a robust structure from the grassroots level. From the choice of the districts, chosen because of poverty and need and not political influence to the young professionals hired at market salaries, Jeevika has been the only one of its kind in Bihar if not in the entire country.Shaibal Gupta, Member-Secretary, Asian Development Research Institute
“The best idea in the world will fail if it is not executed well. We hired the best people to implement this project because from the beginning it was clear to us that the poor should not be served poorly,” said Arvind Kumar Chaudhury, secretary, department of rural development and former CEO of Jeevika’s.
Paramveer Singh, a 2012 graduate from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, has seen Jeevika progress since he joined in May 2012. “The reason why we were able to scale up so successfully was that we developed resources at the community level,” he said.
Over time, the project exposed women to institutions and entitlements like banks, panchayati raj and the MGNREGA. “It brought in a new level of empowerment where women who had never moved beyond their homes now demand meetings with bank managers or district magistrates to discuss their problems,” said Singh.
The expectation that the Jeevika project will deliver on a range of issues from prohibition to sanitation is also challenging. But the real key to Jeevika’s success lies with the women themselves. The project has never issued doles, and loans are paid back with interest (recently brought down to 12 percent from 24 percent).
It’s the didis who decide on loans, administer the repayment, organise weekly meetings along with book and record-keeping practices. They hire the community mobilisers and pay for their salaries.
This article has been edited for length.
(This article was originally published in IndiaSpend. Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on the gender issues confronting India.)