A Case study from Kalam Village, Kalahandi District
Madhulika Sahoo (1) and Sanghamitra Bhoi (2)
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Director Student Welfare and Placement, Kalahandi University. Editing Manager at Avoidable Deaths Network Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
M.A Anthropology Student, Department of Anthropology, Kalahandi University Email: email@example.com
Believe in your infinite potential. Your only limitations are those you yourself set upon
Roy T. Bennett
You have within you the strength, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.
The concept of self-help Group drives its strength from the two quotes by Roy T. Bennett and Harriet Tubeman. For decades’ women’s ability to manage finances and resources remained enveloped in the assumption that women are domesticated species of human race, and their agency is bound to fail if they get the autonomy to manage their finances. This unfounded assumption was challenged by Dr. Mehmud Yunus, Professor of Economics at Chicagoan University, Bangladesh. In 1976, he initiated an action research project called ‘Grameen Bank’ which is rated as one of the most successful programmes for rural finance.
The concept of self-help Groups in India pre-dates the formation of this Bank and was initiated in 1972 by Self Employed Women Association (SEWA). It was only in 1992, the SHGs Bank Linkage Project SBLP was formed by NABRAD. This is today the largest microfinance project (To the Point, 2019), through its flagship financial initiative called Rashtriya Mahila Kosh that provides exclusive funding for women’s groups. To get funding under this budget head, small groups of 10 to 25 members come together voluntarily. These are mostly women from the he most marginalized sections of community. They save small sums of money regularly and pool their resources. Once these groups are financially stable, members may take loan from their collective savings if they require it for any emergency. These groups also acquire assets for community use and lend them to others on nominal payment of rent to add to their income. Rutherford (2002) describes this as a process of “small pay-ins” into “larger take-outs”.
It is a unique model that uses collective wisdom and peer pressure. Success of some of these endeavours has brought about regulatory guidelines for all banks to provide collateral free loans at nominal interest rates to SHGs. These enterprises have provided avenues for the poorest of poor women to get funding for their emergency needs. But to call it a magic bullet that would bring empowerment to rural and Adivasi women is not necessarily true. It is an instrumentality or pathway for giving women ability to manage their finances but there are numerous cultural and social barriers to women attaining self-actualization (for details read Naila Kabeer, 2005). Other argument visualizes SHGs as development agents that provide women’s agency pathway for furtherance of their future. It is this vision that has shown remarkable acceptance in India and provides way forward for strengthening finance management ability of the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the Society.
EXPLORING DYNAMICS OF WOMEN’S SELF -HELP GROUPS
To help young researchers comprehend empirical realities from the perspective of grounded theory, anthropological methodology encourages data generation through narratives and case studies. It was with this objective that an Undergraduate student at Kalahandi University, Odisha opted to go to village Kalam, district Kalahandi, Odisha to study one such group. This write up is premised on the narratives generated from the field by this young learner-the second author of this blog.
Odisha has a vibrant programme that supports formation of SHGs. There are nearly six lakh SHGs in the state. This model of inclusion of women in income generation and welfare activities has become a flagship programme of the state called “Mission Shakti”. The programme was launched in the state on 8th March 2001 to mark International Women’s Day. Since its inception till date, it has enrolled 70 lakh women in various projects. The network has created many livelihood opportunities for most vulnerable and poor women. They are engaged in Agriculture (Rice, Sugarcane, Onion, Ground Nut etc.), Vegetable cultivation, Organic farming (all Kinds of Millets, rice, Turmeric, rajma etc.), Floriculture, and Apiculture, Livestock rearing (Dairy, Goat and Sheep rearing, Piggery, Poultry farming), Mushroom Farming etc..
Potential of rich tradition of handicrafts and bamboo making in which large section of women specialize is getting immense boost through these SHGs. Several other new initiatives in the form of small-scale domestic products like Badi and Pampad, Paper/Leaf Plate Incense sticks, Pickle as also Puffed Rice mixture, Silk thread jewellery, Spices making have become popular over the years. These SHGs are also involved in the preparation of mid-day meals, in running PDS dealerships and many similar small-scale ventures. These women collectives are also successfully managing Aahar Kendras, which provide subsidized meals to the urban poor and also to patients and their attendants at various hospitals. Some of them are even engaged in Chhatua (Sattu powder) making, civil construction, Fly Ash Brickmaking etc. The list is exhaustive, emphasizing skills and capabilities of large rural and Adivasi population brought into these programmes. Through these programmes 16,000 SHGs, women and other vulnerable people are given opportunities to strengthen their livelihood for a better quality of life.
At present Mission Shakti SHGs are doing partnership with the Housing and Urban Development Department (H&UDD), Odisha, encouraging women to take leadership roles and becoming independent owners of individual houses under Pradhan Mantri Avas Yojana- Gramin (PMAY-G). SHGs contribution during two years of Pandemic is praiseworthy. Several of them came forward to offer all kinds of support and services during the lockdown. Many of them became corona warriors at the Panchayat level and played a crucial role in promoting vaccinations. Several steps were taken by these groups to ensure community hygiene and to promote awareness for warding off risk posed by the virus. During lockdown, they facilitated delivery of essential dry and cooked food to the elderly and quarantined people. Some of them mobilized members to set up ration shops in villages and towns. Few of them also gave the option of home delivery through mobile vans.
United Nations has declared 2023 as the international year of the Millet and India is a key player in it. Furthermore, most Adivasi communities in the country had millets as their staple food. But with the free supply of wheat and rice as part of the PDS programmes, both consumption and production of Millets declined. With the revival of the Millet mission, women’s self-groups are playing a critical role in the preservation of organic methods of growing these nutritional crops. Odisha Millets Mission (OMM), a major program of Odisha's state government is actively involved with the self-help groups to promote its use and production. Many members of the Self-help groups observed for this write up in the village Kalam of Kalahandi district also participated in this innovative mission. It is now a shift from livelihood enhancement activities to entrepreneurship initiatives.
ABOUT SHGs in KALAM VILLAGE
Kalam village in Bhawani Patna block of Kalahandi district is situated at 20 km. west from district headquarters. It has a total population of 1207 inhabitants comprising of 606 males and 601females, indicating a healthy sex ratio. However, literacy gap between the male and female population is striking. Literacy rate of the village stands at 57.42% but only 43.93% of females are literate vis-a-vis 70.79% males. With a view to provide better opportunities to the women, first SHG in the village was formed in the year 1998 and named Indra bikash. Subsequently, other SHGs were formed in the village.
The SHGs in the village was facilitated through Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), GRC, Stree Shakti camps, and other community Development scheme. Indira Vikas was the first SHG formed in the year 1998 and comprised of beneficiaries of the ICDS scheme. Currently there are two CLFs (Cluster Level Federations) in Kalam village, named Maa Manikeswari (CLF1) and Maa Samaleswari (CLF2) comprising of 10 and 11 SHGs Group respectively. Each group has minimum of eight members to maximum of 20.
Most groups have memberships in the range of 8-10. Only one group Divyashakti has twenty members, and they are engaged in animal husbandry. Indira Bikash-the first SHG in the village has 11 members. Each group has a secretary and a president and a treasurer. They work under the CRP. They conduct regular weekly, fortnightly or monthly meetings as per the rules decided by the SHGs. The Periodicity, venue and time for the meetings are decided by the Members. These meetings are like brainstorming and bonding sessions. Ideas are floated and discussed, and problems faced by individual members are attended to attentively. Members give their opinions or talk about their experiences to resolve some of these issues. This way probable solutions are worked out. These meetings are tremendous source of developing intimate ties with each other and mutual appreciation of each-other’s work. Minutes of the meetings are kept meticulously along with records of expenditure.
One of the primary principles of forming the SHGs is to encourage its members to develop a habit of making regular small saving out of their limited earnings. Thus, regular savings become inextricable part of these groups and help micro-credit programme. Each group has a unique system of organizing and managing its finances and operates as an independent unit. Members tend to pursue multiple income-generating activities to sustain their livelihood. The most common activity was found to be paddy cultivation which was taken up by half of the respondents. This could be due to the familiarity of women with these activities, complemented by the easily mastered skills and the familiar nature of the jobs involved.
The prayer depicted in the image calls for self-motivation and encourages them to mitigate cultural barriers for a better future. It says:
There will be trouble in life, but we will win it, we will bring happiness in our lives. Like autumn leaves falling from the trees, like winter season but we will save for bad days. With our collective strength and bonding we will remove hunger and poverty. We will bring happiness …’
The prayer is the symbol of pathway for strengthening themselves and prepare for better tomorrow.
The study revealed that common economic activities undertaken by the villagers were vegetables and paddy growing, followed by collection of kendu leaves, Animal husbandry, and poultry farming. Some other activities that augment their meagre income include tiffin centres, sweets making, animal husbandry (goat, sheep, cow), agriculture (paddy, cotton, groundnuts) and in a Grocery (Kirana) shop. Some of the activities undertaken by various Self-Help Groups in the village are mentioned in the table below:
SHGS FUNCTIONS AND SAVINGS
The model for SHGs followed in the village is in conformance with the general guidelines stipulated for these groups by various voluntary, banking and state agencies. Income-generation is one of the important activities defined for these groups. Having personal savings helps these women members access formal savings institutions and participate in the management of these savings. All the members save regularly, have their own bank accounts, and make deposits into these accounts. This is a positive outcome of being engaged with any SHG and it gives them financial management skills, recognised as a critical attribute for helping women actualize their potential.
It is important to draw attention to the fact that most of the income activities pursued by these groups reiterate pursuits that these women are only familiar with. Range of activities remained confined to tasks like Tendu Patta collection, dairy and agriculture related work. They have not yet innovated or adopted other different income generation activities like pickle making, and bamboo craft. Some of these tasks generate better income but lack of familiarity or proper training prevents them from taking initiatives. It is important that to make these groups successful, skill development plans must be put in place by the district or other local bodies.
A corollary of participation in SHGs is an improvement in a woman's access to credit. The project is perhaps too early in its implementation to directly improve women's access to credit in our study. The financial mobility due to their participation in these groups has led to an improvement in the quality of life. Such sentiments were shared by several members of the various groups. It is evident from the data that many families were able to address their basic needs better than before.
A significant achievement of this intervention model is to bring poor and vulnerable sections of the population that was earlier excluded from formal financial institutions to get monetary support from them. Several studies (P Satish, 2001, Seibel and Khadka, 2002; Naggaya and Rao , 2009) have shown that the record on the repayment of loans by women was often better than that of men and that women were also more likely to spend the income earned, on their families, leading to improved health and nutrition of the poor population and for improving the quality of their lives. Narratives from the field support this observation as stated by one of the members from one of the self-help groups covered in this study:
Before I joined the SHGs group my living condition was not so good. My husband kept migrating to another state to work in brick kilns to earn money because we had no resources and barely any income-generating activity to sustain. But after I joined the SHG, our living condition is little better now. My husband doesn’t even have to go outside for work. Because of the support of the Group loan, we are doing animal husbandry and doing agricultural activities by taking land (Temporary land sharing) from the landholder.
Sabita Majhi (name changed)
Narratives and data from the study reflect that SHGs have added value to day-to day living of its women members. It has given them ability to generate and control some part of their financial resources and augment their family income. Responses also document that additional income generated and saved from participating in SHGs activities is invested in personal use. These include health, expenditure on social functions like marriage and for giving customary gifts on special occasions. It is a well-known fact that in parts of rural India, debt is often taken for meeting health and social needs. Debt was earlier taken from moneylenders at high rate of interest resulting in exploitation and deprivation. SHGs are pivotal in helping many families avoid this unwarranted debt burden. The other important reason given for saving and earning additional income is urgent need for agricultural purposes and to diversify as was stated by Sabita Majhi in the narrative cited above.
One of the exemplary outcomes of these groups is strengthening of women’s network that helps in community solidarity as was amply evident in various interactions we had with them. They also become important emissaries and intermediaries in critical situations. Not only in the village Kalam but across India, role played by these village-based small groups is exemplary. This intervention is decidedly helping Adivasi, rural and most vulnerable sections of our population acquire strength of an agency. It gives them capacity and resources to actualize their full potential. But one is apprehensive about the common perception that SHGs are empowering women. Empowerment is a fudgy construct. It entails much more than acquiring self-worth by having financial control. Women become empowered when they acquire power and attain positions that entrusts them with autonomy to take decisions without being under any kind of coercion and control and vice versa (Sahoo and Pradhan, 2020).
Empowerment is a multidimensional process that redefines social norms and prevalent accepted dominance of one Gender. Weber (2009) talks about ‘context’ in which power is exercised. The context is societal setting in which social interactions takes place and relationships crystalized. In a patriarchal setting, by normative traditions power that comprises of decision making and control is embedded with the male members of the society. Women in these groups may have the ability in due course to attain financial independence and control over additional resources they bring to the household, but they are not necessarily the decision makers when it comes to spending these meagre earnings. Similar findings were observed in the study by Sahoo and Pradhan (2020) studying the reproductive healthcare of the displaced tribal families.
This paradox is also visible in urban middle class households comprising of educated professional women who have all the attributes to be empowered but most of them remain subservient to the dominant discourse that legitimizes male control over female bodies. Explanations given for it is rather meek as amicability and family harmony or tradition is cited as the cause for allowing this form of subservience. Even in matrilineal societies, there are several anthropological studies (Nongkynrih et al., 2015; Kharkrang, 2012; U. R. Ehrenfels, 1955) that suggest that the essential power mostly rests with men. Thus, to use casually construct of women empowerment through the agency of self-help groups is somewhat far-fetched. However, it continues to be recognised as an important development plank endorsed by most international development agenda.
 Ela Bhatt, a labour lawyer founded SEWA in 1972. The history of idea behind this emanates from the Women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1918. The phenomenal success of the organisation is evident from the fact that from 30,000 members in 1996, it now has nearly 2 million members.  Sanghamitra Bhoi, the co-author of the blog is a Postgraduate student at Department of Anthropology, Kalahandi University. Under the guidance of its first author Dr. Madhulika Sahoo, she conducted fieldwork with these groups during her undergraduate program. She was also awarded best poster presentation in the 55th Odisha Economics Association Annual Conference 2023 held at Kalahandi University  Pradhan Mantri Avas Yojana- Gramin (PMAY-G) is one of the flagship programs of the Government of India which aims to achieve the objective of ‘Housing for all'.  Ten days field trip to Village Kalam was undertaken in the year 2022 to have learning experience and for a better comprehension of their functioning.
 Tiffin centers provide cooked packed meal services and are popular in Odisha and South India
We wish to acknowledge the cooperation and valuable time of the SHGs women, without whom this study would not have been possible. We also acknowledge the faculty members of the Anthropology department and the teachers at the Kalam school for their kind support during the fieldwork.
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