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Sowing self help
The formula for women's empowerment and poverty alleviation had never been so simple. Throw 20 women into a self help group, make them save a rupee a month till they have proved themselves dependably credit worthy, hand them a loan four times their deposit, which would not be more than a thousand odd rupees. That is it. The women have been raised above poverty, they have also been empowered. Nirvana.
 
But in state after state, women living in tiny mud houses vouch that buying a buffalo or selling steel vessels in the far-away city has hardly made them less poor. There is no money for medicine, for books, for clothes, for fodder… It has only meant more hard work. Which is aside of attending rallies, rag picking, fixing taps and toilets, running ration shops or anything the government needs free labour for.
 
Women have always been self-help individuals, having to fend for themselves, or helpless rather. Now they are self help groups. Or groups of helpless women left to their destiny of making enough money to pay off their debts at 15 per cent if given by banks, or at 25 per cent or more, if given by microfinance institutions (MFIs), and at unknown rates if they have borrowed from both.
 
Amid all this, there are certain women's groups which give a new definition and meaning to the concept of self help groups. They are truly self sufficient, even beyond micro credit.
 
The sanghams of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh belong to this category. The sanghams of 5,000 Dalit women formed by the NGO Deccan Development Society (DDS) date back to 1983. These groups have actually helped themselves and their families in 75 villages to get away from suicides and debt traps, and also in rising above mere sustenance to give a new meaning to empowerment.
 
They till, sow and harvest, have their banks, their own ration shops. Why, you can spot them with a video camera shooting films (it is on the Net). They even run a radio station.
 
Their dealings are with a different kind of banker and their savings are of a different kind. These women's groups in 75 villages have seed banks, 32 grain banks and even an alternative public distribution system manned by them and supplying the grains grown by them.
 
And where do they grow? On seemingly fallow and dry land where there is scarce rain. But more importantly, what? Not the rice and wheat pushed through public distribution system (PDS). It was a switch from sarkari vittanalu or government seeds to pannendu pantalu or the 'crops of truth'. The latter stand by you in rain or shine, they help inter-cropping, besides providing a variety of fodder for the cattle and healthy food for the families.
 
Add to this organic farming and use of knowledge based natural pesticides. Even the children get lessons on these, of the crops, the pests and the treatment, says Rukmini Rao, the director of DDS.
 
Since 1985 the women have brought under cultivation 10,000 acres of degraded agricultural land, raising 30 lakh kg of grains which is more than the 50,000 kg produced earlier. They are growing 89 varieties of millets, suitable to the dry land. Of course, the initial capital came from the NGO which was repaid as grains to form the capital for the earlier grain banks.
 
Says Rao: "We are tying up ecology with livelihood and helping villagers return to farming. The stony land given by government to the landless was never used earlier. Now it is fertile from growing traditional crops."
 
The DDS has helped the sorghum circulate through an alternative public distribution system started since 1996. The APDS has created a grain fund which serves as their food bank in times of scarcity.
 
Women borrow and repay from here. The women are now creating their biodiversity register listing the grains, their cropping patterns to be treasured in the panchayats.
 
That is to beat the wily bio-pirates .
 
The feminist Rao's eyes don't betray the horror that has most of her colleagues call self help groups a Tsunami that has struck women's movement and replaced it with a fake empowerment which serves the global agenda to link them to the monetised economy. She derives her hope from the DDS women who have triumphed over helplessness.
Source :
Business Standard
 
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