Pithoragarh, (Uttarakhand), Nov 17 (ANI): The birth of the new state of Uttarakhand in November 2000 symbolized hope for development in the resource-rich but impoverished hills of Kumaon and Garhwal in the Himalayan region. Eleven years later, that dream is yet to be realized. And yet, a quiet revolution in this Himalayan state, led by unlettered but determined women in the villages, promises to lead the change.
Marginal land holdings of a large number of rural households in Uttarakhand have made agriculture inadequate to meet the minimal needs of families. Many households survive on the remittances coming from migrant workers. With at least one adult male member away per family, large numbers of rural households are headed by women, who tend to their small plots of land and families comprising children and elderly.
The strength that brought them to the foreground and gave them the confidence to take charge was the outcome of much effort, the seeds of which were sown nearly a decade back, when Self Help Groups (SHGs) became active in the isolated regions of Uttarakhand. It was then that the rural women first realized their untapped potential. They participated actively in the functions of the groups, not only by improving at the individual level but also for the betterment of society at large. Today, there are several Self Help Groups working in different fields but with a unified goal.
The SHGs have, over the years, become a channel and platform for the rural and the marginalized to get a taste of success. Christened with the names of local deities, these independent groups work silently and effectively. Golu Devta, Kal Singh Devta, Ma Bhagwati, Santoshi Ma - all names of local deities - are among the several SHGs responsible for a ray of hope in otherwise bleak picture of rural Uttarakhand. Hard work, coupled with smart strategies, is a dynamic option adopted by them in the hope of better results. Today, that hope has become an inspiration for themselves and for others.
To become a member of a SHG, a member has to pay a minimal amount of Rs 10 to Rs 20, based on an individual's monthly earnings. The money thus collected is used in a judicious manner. Few groups deposit the sum in banks, while some have organized themselves further into a Federation. Current statistics on the total number of members actively participating show up an impressive figure of 10,1520, with only 2% participation from male representatives.
A large number of women have entered a new phase of their life by joining hands with these groups. They have ignited a movement wherein they work for their own benefit without losing sight of their priorities for their village. "We are simple people unable to fulfill our very minimal requirements. When we go to banks to seek a small loan, we are not entertained. If someone is lucky enough to gather the relevant information, she gets stuck in the complicated procedures, only to revert to the traditional trap of Sahukars (money-lenders)," said the representative of one such group.
"We do not spoon-feed the members, we make them aware of various means of livelihood and then provide financial help by offering loans at low interest rates and without any complicated procedure. This way, they have a source of livelihood from which they can pay back the credit and grow to contribute to the group in a better way," she says excitingly.
Recognizing their efforts and their stronghold in the region, the Government has given SHGs priority in present and coming policies for the development of the region. Development programmes run by International organizations have also placed these groups at the fore as vehicles of change. They not only teach them skills for livelihood programmes but also generate interest and enthusiasm for social responsibilities like cleanliness, hygiene and health awareness.
The discussions and the meetings held by SHGs, besides creating awareness of the world around them, also impart to their members a basic understanding of the issues with an urge to bring the desired change. Be it mushrooms or vegetable production; or management of natural resources at rural level; or participation in the conservation of fuel, food and forests, women groups are in the forefront, carrying out their roles and responsibilities satisfactorily. Employed in agriculture, fruit production, livestock and ground-water conservation, these women are determined to stir up a revolution.
In addition to the evident changes in the villages, the private world of women is also undergoing a transformation. Women have become more liberated, now that they have defied several norms of the patriarchal society they live in. They are no more behind the veil; they earn, attend meetings, take decisions and fight for their rights. Besides, they decide their role as participants in rural development.
Not long ago, women were not allowed to even cross the boundary of their houses. Today, they have broken seemingly-insurmountable barriers. Ramendri Devi of Lauka Village of Sitarganj, Udham Singh Nagar District, started a SHG in collaboration with Uttaranchal Decentralized Watershed Development Project. She has presented her work at an international conference held in Canada.
"It was a boost to our confidence. Our work created curiosity in the audience. They came up with interesting questions to which our members replied quite confidently. It was an experience that will help us grow further," said Ramendri Devi.
The 18 member team of Interested Agriculture Group of LohaGhat, Khaiskande Village is creating livelihood sources by selling vegetables in the self organized "Sunday Haat" every week.
Working on similar lines is the Shri Shri Pitthoragarh Autonomous Cooperative Federation that circulates milk and milk products in the region. These are not mere examples but trendsetters who now have an iron grip in the region and are helping the government to implement their programmes more effectively.
These women have proved that hard work and determination can achieve results even after starting from scratch. Now it is the responsibility of the government to help them in every possible manner. Government-backed as well as Non-Government Organizations should come forward in unity to prepare them for tougher times ahead.
The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that by doing so, we would have not only eradicated poverty but also achieved economic stability, a luxury in these troubled times. By Dinesh Pant (ANI)