Case studies

Getting Economic Independence

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When women from the village of Parsa Malik, in the Maharajganj district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, found that 28 names had been deleted from the below-poverty-line list, depriving these people of vital benefits, they sprang into action. Having formed a self-help group (SHG) with the help of PACS and partner Gram Niyojan Kendra, they challenged the decision on behalf of their village and highlighted corruption.

Women of Parsa Malik village organised themseleves into a self-help group.

Patriarchal society

In the village of Parsa Malik, Ratanpur Block, in the Maharajganj district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, an agitated group of women has assembled. They are members of a local SHG and they have a burning issue that unites them: their struggle against the block development officer (BDO) and the kotedar (the licensed holder of the government ration shop, who distributes provisions) who have deleted their names from the BPL list. 

The background to this is explained by one of the women, Malti: ‘Ration cards were made in the village by the pradhan (head) who won the 2005 election; however, after the 2011 election, the new pradhan deleted 28 names from our (Scheduled Caste) community with no explanation.’

Another villager, Ramanand Saini, adds: ‘I wanted to apply for a gas connection and needed some documents from the net. However, when I checked on the net I was shocked to find that my name was not on the BPL list. I was stunned, this was a bolt from the blue – with my name not listed, I would not get a host of benefits from the government. I immediately hurried back, and instead of going home, I went to Ram Kumar, a friend, who was sitting with some people from the village, and broke the news to him. That is how everyone came to know that some names were missing from the BPL list. 

‘Everyone then scrambled to check, and we realised 28 names had been deleted, who were earlier on the BPL list. We held a council-of-war among ourselves to chalk out the next steps.’

Strength in collaboration

Anil Kumar Jaiswal, a Community Mobiliser from the CSO Gram Niyojan Kendra, a partner of PACS, puts the women’s struggles into context, and highlights the significance of their collaborative approach: ‘A variety of constraints including patriarchy, lack of skills, limited training opportunities, and restricted mobility have prevented women here from ever being leaders, entrepreneurs or catalysts of social change,’ he says. ‘Gender inequality is stark, preventing women from learning and utilising skills and capabilities that would make them independent, knowledgeable, informed and able to articulate their concerns clearly and determinedly. 

‘We work on SHG formation because they are essential to ensure [women’s] participation in the day-to-day affairs of the community and to make women capable of taking a lead role in decision making. We want to give them an opportunity to work together for the development of the village as well as themselves.’ 

Forming women’s groups

Sashikala Jaiswal, president of the women’s group, Jai Maa Laxmi Samooh, explains that, in 2011, the (then) block coordinator of PACS visited their village and held four meetings with the women. While a host of issues were discussed, the focus always was on the formation of women’s groups.  ‘We discussed how to achieve economic independence so we could also resist social pressures and biases operating against us,’ says Sashikala.

The self-help group at a meeting in the village.

It was decided that two groups would be formed in each village – one SHG and one community-based organization, focusing on thrift, income-generating activities and mobilising women to develop the community. They would work on a host of  issues  --  the local school, Midday Meals (MDMs), constructing a drainage network in the village, bleaching hand pumps to prevent Japanese Encephalitis, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), or the Public Distribution Network.

Block Coordinator Vinod Chauhan adds: ‘The very fact that [women] assemble in groups to discuss their problems, handle their business activities, share the capital among them, decide the rate of interest to be charged and the eligibility criteria to grant loans, speaks of the empowerment process. These women are no longer hesitant to face government actors and other stakeholders in demanding their rights, in defiance of age-old stereotypical tradition.’

Bringing change

Manju Pandey, Secretary of the women’s group, gives an example of its influence, involving the village anganwadi centre (government-supported day care centre) – designed to combat child malnutrition – which was not providing take home rations to beneficiaries. ‘We spoke to the anganwadi worker but there was no progress on the issue. The anganwadi worker told us she had no money for transporting supplies from the block to the village anganwadi. “I paid the amount from my own salary,” she grumbled. 

‘PACS organised a five-day residential training for the capacity building of SHG leaders on various issues such as right to information (RTI) requests, integrated child development services (ICDS) and so on. This training was conducted for more than 240 groups of women. The biggest gain was that, being a residential programme, members had a lot of time to discuss issues and their solution both during and after the trainings. This allowed them to learn from each other’s efforts and gave more in-depth knowledge; their overall awareness and knowledge levels increased.’

A direct benefit of this training was that the SHG persuaded the Child Development Project Officer in the ICDS Department to extend transport facilities so that the anganwadi centre receives supplies on time and the anganwadi worker does not have to hire a private vehicle to transport them. 

Meanwhile, the women began to demand work under MGNREGA, a law that guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour, rather than waiting for the pradhan (head of the village) to allow them to work for a few days every year – on a whim. The SHG also helped to re-enroll children who dropped out of school, and to retain them, as well as in monitoring midday meals (MDMs) in schools.

Tackling deletions from the BPL list

Meanwhile, the women had no intention of sitting back and accepting the deletion of 28 names from the BPL list, which deprived them of an array of benefits under government schemes.

Ramanand explains: ‘As a first step, we decided to meet the old pradhan, but he denied any knowledge of the matter. So we met the district magistrate (collector) at Maharajganj and discussed the issue with him. We registered a complaint and requested him to restore our names in the list. The district magistrate referred us to the district supply officer (DSO). “You go home, I’ll look into matter,” he assured us, and with this assurance, we went home. However, weeks passed and nothing happened.’

Since the news had spread, it was taken up for discussion at an SHG meeting. The women decided to help the community tackle the issue, and also discussed it with PACS partner Gram Niyojan Kendra for guidance and technical knowledge. Determined to get to the bottom of the issue, all 28 of the affected women went to the authorities again and again, travelling at their own expense.

When there was still no response on the advice of Gram Niyojan Kendra, the women decided to be more assertive and filed an RTI application, seeking information on why the names were deleted. 

SHG member Manju Devi says: ‘Our concern was simple: if we are not eligible [for benefits], so be it; but on what basis were our names cut? Why was the government being so secretive about it? None of us objected to people being added to the BPL list if they were poorer than us.’ 

Finally, in response to the inquiry by the DSO, the kotedar, in desperation, forged papers bearing the ‘signatures’ of those whose names had been deleted from the BPL list, and gave it to the tehsil. This list was shown to them but the women proved it to be fraudulent. 
Sixteen of the deleted names were reinstated. The women continued to fight for those who were still left out list. 

Benefitting the whole village

Ramanand says: ‘We have no hesitation in saying that, because of these women, our names have been added again to the BPL list. Though we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the women, they used their advantage in terms of organisational strength, numbers, better knowledge and informed decision making to take the issue to its logical conclusion. Those who talk about male domination should learn from these women.’

The SHG has boosted the women’s confidence and influence, attests Manju: ‘We now go to the BDO regularly and also face officials squarely.’ 

There is little doubt that the SHG has been incredibly effective in achieving change in the community. Anil concludes: ‘We’ve watched as they’ve shed their shyness and hesitation to become keen representatives for their communities’ rights and aspirations.’

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