Santhal woman form self-help groups to break the poverty circle

Sushila Murmu, a tribal woman in a nondescript hamlet called Paharpur located in the Kathikund block — 27 km from Dumka in Jharkhand, was struggling hard, till three years ago, to change the mindset of the villagers who had dashed her hopes of a better tomorrow. Today, when she looks back, she notes with satisfaction the entire village’s support for her. The journey, however, has been no cakewalk.

The only woman in the entire village to have completed her school education, Sushila was upset at seeing people of her community quit farming due to heavy losses and forced to migrate to other States in search of livelihood. She wanted to put a halt to the trend. With her husband Mahadev Tuddu, she started cultivating the infertile land to transform it into a lush green field and tried her best to inspire her fellow villagers, at first with no success.

She, however, did not give up. She restarted from the scratch; this time targeting the womenfolk. Day-long chats of motivation and encouragement helped her gain their confidence. Soon, she was associated with non-profit organisation Lahanti and started her own self help group ( SHG). She called the SHG Beli Lahanti.

In the last few years, Sushila has successfully shown the way to self-dependence through farming. The transformation received a boost with the assistance of the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme, an initiative of the U.K. government’s Department for International Development (DFID) aimed at the welfare of socially excluded groups.

Under the PACS programme, Sushila brought together a group of women and gave them lessons in community farming. Her sustained endeavours not only empowered women but also encouraged the adivasi community to break the cycle of poverty through concerted and coordinated efforts. Sharing her experiences, Sushila says, “Tribal women are believed to be backbone of their community. It was because of such an ethos that we could infuse a sense of confidence and community among Santhals who were struggling to survive. The results are before everybody: how we turned rocky and dry land into cultivable land through our collective efforts.”

While there is a considerable decrease in the seasonal mass migration from the village now, its residents also enjoy a proportionate increase in their collective prosperity. Today, the village is food and financially secure like never before. Now, self-reliance in farming has earned them a livelihood, collectively farming the vast tracts of land which were earlier left barren. The children are now being able to study without interruptions through the year.  

Sushila’s SHG spread awareness about MGNREGA and procured job cards for all those looking to enrol themselves. Soon the group of women launched a movement against the middlemen who had monopolised job cards and pass-books issued in the name of villagers under this scheme. Thereafter, the group started targeting exploitative private money lenders whose land- grabbing had devastated the lives of poor villagers. 

“We motivated the villagers to reclaim their lands in Paharpur, Kodarchela, Lakhanpur, Kadma, Pakardeeh and Manjhdeeha. The moneylenders have been chased out of the agrarian business today,” says Sushila proudly. 

It was only after a series of such achievements that Sushila could win the confidence of the men folk of the village to come together and find socially sustainable solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing their people. “Soon after the first evaluation of the SHG, we took a loan of Rs. 25,000 from the bank. We used it to cultivate potato and had a good harvest of 20 quintals. After selling the surplus produce, we repaid the borrowed money. Today, we are self-reliant in farming and are growing almost every crop. Consequently, every woman in the village is earning a monthly income of Rs. 1500 through agriculture and allied activities. Some families were able to start their own small businesses,” says Sushila. 

The group’s crusade has led to a drastic decline in the sale and purchase of liquor in the area, besides closure of illicit liquor manufacturing distilleries. The women also diligently attend meetings at the Panchayat Bhawan where, every Thursday, they curiously gather information related to government welfare schemes. In these meetings, they also table social development issues. “Our group members are now more aware of the Forest Rights Act, for instance. They not only participated in the panchayat elections but also stood for and won the seats for Panchayat Committee and Ward Member. Recognising the efforts of the group, the district administration has handed over the implementation of the Public Distribution System to them, thus bringing transparency to this beleaguered scheme,” says Sushila.

(Charkha Features)