Jeevika brings an identity to women in Bihar villages

Smriti Kak Ramachandran

GAYA: With poverty came illiteracy and with illiteracy came low self-esteem. The profundity of their low confidence can be gauged by their unanimous confession “we had no identity”. But that was to change soon. A group of women at Bhusia village in Gaya district of Bihar, like several hundred across the State, today have etched out for themselves “an identity” by organising themselves into self-help groups.

“Till some time ago we could not even imagine talking to the educated and the well heeled. Our hearts would race,” said Ramrati Devi, who is part of one of the several hundred self-help groups that have sprung across the State as part of the Bihar Rural Livelihood Project -- Jeevika.

When Jeevika -- a project funded by the Bihar Government, the World Bank and the community -- took off in 2007, the officials could not have anticipated the revolution it would unleash. Poor, illiterate, marginalised women, who had no voice even at home, came out and took charge.

“The women were reluctant to join the SHGs, the concept was alien to them, and we were suspect. Today SHGs have become part of our lives and the numbers are swelling,” said Jitendra Kumar, District Project Manager of Jeevika in Bihar.

Economic liberation and a new perspective were the discernible changes that the SHGs brought. “The women have preserved against hardships, about 87,205 SHG members have learnt to sign their names. The women in several villages have even taken over the public distribution system,” said Mr. Kumar.

Meena Devi, coordinator of Jeevika in Sekhwara village, rattles off figures of “red and yellow cards” (Antodaya and below poverty level cards) distributed. She explained how SHGs in Purnia and Shekhwara applied for licences and took over the PDS.

Announcing an end to the faulty execution of PDS, where the shop-owner sold ration according to his whim rather than the need of the consumers, these women manage the scheme and the accounts with each penny being accounted for.

The SHGs have also meant an end of the money-lender. Villagers had to borrow money at a considerably higher interest rate from the local money-lenders, a practice that ended with the loans that came from the SHGs.

A resident of Sekhwara village, Sobha Devi's husband threatened to throw her out of the house if she insisted on joining a SHG where she was expected to contribute Rs.5 every month. “He beat me up, but I did not give up. I kept coming for the meetings (each SHG has regular meetings, and members are penalised for not attending). Finally when I took a loan of Rs.20,000 to pay off our old debts and that is when he realised the importance of what I was doing,” she recalled.

Thousands of women have taken loans for repaying old debts, reclaiming their fields and pawned assets; some have turned entrepreneurs, opening small shops. “The SHGs have been able to tie-up with the local banks that in turn grant them loans. These loans are in turn disbursed among the group members on the basis of need. They have a meeting and take stock of each other's needs, decide who the most disadvantaged is and decide the loan amount,” explained Mukesh Chandra Sharan, State Project Manager, Micro-Finance, Jeevika.

The women also decide the repayment strategy and have an excellent record at the bank. A beaming Sunil Narayan, the Manager at the Bank of India in Gaya, told The Hindu that the women have never defaulted. “They are good business for the bank with a 100 per cent repayment record. It is profitable to give them loans and our branch alone has lent out Rs.45 lakh to the SHGs.”

According to the figures provided by Jeevika officials, till February 10, 2010, about 17,044 SHGs have been formed in 1,366 villages of 18 blocks in Bihar.

A Class VIII drop-out Baijanti Devi has become a community mobiliser, but is best remembered for the work she did in getting a road constructed. In her Bhusia village there was no road, even after work was sanctioned the road continued to elude the people. “We tracked down the contractor and forced him to begin construction. Later, we realised that he was not providing the mandatory drainage system, so we talked to the labourers engaged and sought their help. They suspended work and forced the contractor to do the job properly,” said Baijanti.

With the SHGs having improved their lot, the women are stringent about the rules that they have to follow. Attendance at the weekly meeting is a must, so are weekly savings, updating records and regular repayment.