The modern Indian woman has been the centre of much discussion. How she has stormed into previous male bastions to carve out a niche for herself, how she has reclaimed her right over her own body, how she is shaping a new India and raising the progress curve of the nation is well-documented. But most of these stories have been about the success of the urban Indian woman—the one with the suave car and the trendy sunglasses, in a well-cut salwarkameez or suit entering a glass building. But what about the other India—the one that doesn’t make headlines, but, is equally, if not more important to the nation’s development?
Rural Indian women are often thought to have no voice and no rights either, let alone contributing to the state’s advancement. ENe travels to the villages of Assam and listens to their success stories, undocumented till now. Although a considerable debate on what constitutes empowerment exists, the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them can be loosely termed as empowerment. For women in India, this suggests empowerment in several realms: personal, familial, economic and political.
Magdali Ekka-Dibrugarh district
There are very few people in this world who prefer to opt out of the rat race and give in to their inner creativity. Magdali Ekka, who runs a weaving centre called Teena Deepjyoti, is one among them. Taking inspiration from her elder sister, Ekka imparts weaving training among rural women to help them become self-reliant. ‘We impart weaving training to 20 women at one time. We give it free-of-cost to those who can’t afford it. Our aim is to make women of our adjacent villages financially independent,’ says Magdali Ekka.
Since 2003, Ekka has been running her weaving centre at Timona village in Dibrugarh district. ‘Initially we used to make dolls, bags, scarves, etc. on a smaller scale. Once our products got due recognition, we designed a calendar showcasing our products. Seeing our quality products, the government came forward to help us,’ says Ekka, her eyes shining with pride.
Now, they provide hostel facility for those women who come from far-flung areas. The exclusive products of the weaving centre have been exhibited at many places in Assam. Some artisans from Jharkhand had also come down to her place to learn from her skill of weaving. But Ekkamodestly says, ‘I took two-month government training in the year 2006. And after the successful completion of my training, the government offered us a loan of Rs 2 lakh. Thus, they financially helped us in constructing our weaving centre’s building’.
Earlier,the City Foundation recognised the talent of MagdaliEkka’s elder sister and rewarded her with the best Micro Entrepreneur Award. The award citation, proudly displayed at the weaving centre reads, ‘Augustine had to drop out of school at the age of nine because her parents could not afford it anymore. But she was determined not to tread the beaten path. With neither capital nor experience, Augustine through sheer determination overcame poverty, adversity to become the role model for her village’.
Carrying forward the legacy of her elder sister, Magdali has been dreaming big now, a reflection seen aptly in her work. In peak season, she earns over Rs 25,000 per month. And as she is debt-free now, Magdali wants to expand her business. ‘We are so popular here that we don’t need to go outside to sell our products. During Bihu, we are usually flooded with orders,’ says Ekka with a smile.
Demographic pattern: Dibrugarh District
Total population: 1,32,7748
Rural: 10,83,984 (81.36%)
Urban: 2,43,764 (18.36%)
Male : 6,80,114 (51.22%)
Anu Baruah–Morigaon district
Anu Baruah can’t cycle her way through her native village of Bhurbanda without someone stopping her to ask about a toilet for her/his home. After all, this frail 40-something woman has helped build a whooping 2400 plus toilets so far. She heads a self-help group that helps built toilets for BPL card holders. Not only has she dedicated her life to the ‘Total Sanitation Campaign’ that aims to eradicate defecating in the open, she has also personally made sure that many whose names do not feature in the Sarkari BPL holders list also have access to these toilets. To that end, she has provided a survey of her area which recommends non-BPL families for BPL cards based on their economic condition. Assam is lagging behind in its targets for The Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) which is a community–led total sanitation programme launched by the Government of India in 1999 but people like Anu are trying their best to move the movement forward.
It is a demand–driven and people–centred sanitation programme where Rs 2700 is provided by the government and Rs 300 is added by a particular householder. The main goal of the Total Sanitation Campaign is to eradicate the practice of open defecation by 2017. Villages that achieve the ‘open defecation free’ status receive monetary rewards and high publicity under a programme called Nirmal Gram Puraskar. Anu hopes she will soon live to see that day.
How she got associated with the campaign is a story in itself. ‘I had initially started a diary farm which could not be marketed well and as such suffered losses. Dejected and in debt, I was left with little option but to let it go. It was then that I realized my strengths lay more in activism than in business. I threw myself heart and soul into the TSC campaign and I have never looked back since’, says Anu. Even after the toilets have been built and handed over to a householder, Anu revisits the household to make sure the nearest water source is 20-30 feet away or if the toilets are actually being used. ‘Some people call me the latrine lady, I do not mind that. Now that I have realised that a toilet near a house is as essential as the house itself, such names tell me that I am on the right path’.
Demographic pattern: Morigaon district
Total population: 9,57,853
Rural: 8,84,557 (92.35%)
Urban: 78,296 (7.65%)
Male: 4,85,328 (50.67%)
Female: 4,72,525 (49.33%)
Biju Das &Usha Das–Kamrup district (Rural)
Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s white revolution, would have been happy to witness the silent cooperative dairy movement that is sweeping many districts of lower Assam. For the past two years, around 100 women of Choigaon have formed a mahila federation to supply milk to their neighbouring towns. Biju Das and Usha Das, two energetic women, have been leading the group. ‘We had been trying very hard to be economically independent. Earlier, middle men used to take away a huge share of profit from us. Now we are supplying milk directly through our federation’s centre,’ says Usha Das.
It was Biju Das who started a dairy farm at her home five years ago. Inspired by her success, other women of her village also took it up as their profession. Now, they have formed No 2 Balasidhi Mahila Federation and daily supply over 2,000 litres of milk through their cooperative.
‘At the beginning, we could supply only 21 litres of milk. However, with the support of some women of our panchayat, we successfully expanded our business. If we get some support from the government, we can really make it big,’ shares Biju Das.
It’s heartening to see that apart from managing their households, these women have gone the extra mile to make things happen for themselves and their communities. Of late, their sincere efforts have paid dividends. The local Gramin Sahara office has given them a two kotha land to build their dairy farm. ‘Our dairy selling centre is at Dupjoni and we supply milk to neighbouring towns of Choigaon and Boko. We hope we will able to supply milk to Guwahati someday,’ beams Usha Das.
Demographic pattern: Kamrup (rural) district
Rural: 13,75,188 (90.64%)
Urban: 1,42,014 (9.36%)
Male: 779608 (51.38%)
Female: 737594 (48.62%)
In the Adivasi Sadri language, epil means star. Under the same name, Bina Topno leads a team of 10 women at a village called Chetiajaan in Dibrugarh district and they are rising like a star in the field of poultry farming.
‘Earlier as seasonal tea garden labourers, we worked for about six months in a year plucking leaves and remained idle for the rest of the year. In 2005, we started a self help group with a mere contribution of Rs 50 from our members. Again, we collected Rs 30 from each member to start a poultry farm in our village. And we haven’t look back after that,’ says Topno.
In 2010, the SHG got a government assistance of Rs 25,000 and expanded their business. Once they returned their debt, they received another loan of Rs 2 lakh from the government, which boosted the confidence of the group. ‘If we invest money on 200 chickens, we can earn upto Rs 15,000 in 45 days. We help our fellow members when they are in need of money. That is big relief for us as we don’t need to look to others in times of crisis,’ asserts Topno.
It’s a well known fact that despite the tea industry being the most well organised industry of the country, the labour sector associated with it is the most unorganised. ‘Earlier, we found it difficult to run our families even. But things have changed now. We have very good markets in Duliajan and Dibrugarh for our products. I believe one should dream and chase it. Nothing is impossible to a willing heart,’ says Topno.
Recently, Epilhas opened a tent house and they are doing brisk business in its nearby areas. ‘There are many SHGs in our area. We, however, always lead by example. Basking in the glory of success, we haven’t stopped dreaming. We have a long a way to go,’ sums up Bina Topno.
Dilzjan Begum–Darrang district
It’s heartening to see a mother of five children managing a nursery for the past 10 years at Besimari block in Darrang district. Dilzjan Begum, who leads a self help group called Santara, has helped other women of her village cross economic barriers in life. There are 10 members in the group, out of which seven women have been actively looking after the nursery.
‘We received a grant of Rs 2 lakh from the government and we consequently developed our nursery. On 29th October, 2013, we showcased our plants at a mela organised by the Darrang administration,’ says Begum.
The unique operating style of the SHG has reaped dividends and the group members are now financially sound. ‘Our monthly income is around Rs 5,000. Earlier, our male counterparts raised questions about our creditability. But we have shown them the power of women,’ says one of the members.
During the past seven years, the Santara nursery has been growing by leaps and bounds. The nursery has a wide range of flowers, plants and orchids. The success of the nursery has inspired many other women of the area to take up something on their own. ‘We have a great responsibility of running our families. I could not continue my study because of our poverty. But I want my children to be educated. I will try all possible things to make this happen,’ Begum asserts.
Demographic pattern: Darrang district
Total population: 9,08,090
Rural: 8,52,692 (93.90%)
Urban: 55,398 (6.10%)
Male: 4,72,134 (51.99%)
The Edgy Entrepreneur
Sobita Tamuli–Nalbari District
She is a stickler for being on time. 32-year-old SobitaTamuli has never been late in her life, a quality that has served her well. Heading a flourishing establishment that specializes in making organic manure, Sobita has been in the business for 12 years now. When she started out in 2002 in Telana village, a married woman from a small village as hers with little formal education aspiring to be an entrepreneur was something unheard of. But Sobita always knewshe had to be one, a hundred innovative business ideas would swim in her head as she went about with her daily chores at home. Until one day, she decided to test one of them. Together with a handful of other women from her village, Sobita started making organic manure at home. Her brand of manure was simplicity itself, a mixture of cow dung, banana plant, earthworms, khaar and fallen leaves. All materials were locally available as well as financially viable. Today, this brand of organic manure (also called kesuhaar or earthworm manure) is in great demand owing to our consciousness towards growing healthier food products. Both farmers and nurseries buy her brand of organic manure via her Self Help Group Seuji. A 5 kg packet costs Rs 50, roughly the price of a burger in the city.
Deciding not to rest on her laurels, Sobita ventured into the traditional market of japi making as well. Assam’s japis are arguably the most important cultural icons of the state. The japis that Sobita and her group makeare often customised according to an individual or an organisation’s request. Thus, their little workshop is choc-a-bloc with japis of all shapes, sizes, and designs. Not only do the women manufacture the japis themselves, they also sell them in the neighbouring market. ‘Instead of relying on middlemen, we deemed it wiser to do the selling themselves. Also, our main motive is to attract visitors to smaller markets such as ours, and not the other way round,’ says Saboti.When customers buy their produce from their doorstep or the neighbouring market, it augurs well not only for Saboti and her group, but also for the community at large. ‘A decade back when I had started, there was hardly any encouragement for me. Now, things are different. The whole village is involved in the organic manure and the japi business. They have realised how possibilities live in even seemingly small ideas.’ Next in line for Sobita is an exploration into the Agarbatti market, after all, true entrepreneurs hardly catch a breath in between!
Demographic pattern: Nalbari district
Total population: 76,9,919
Rural: 6,87,368 (89.21%)
Urban: 82,551 (10.72%)
Male: 3,95,804 (51.41%)
Female: 3,74,115 (48.59%)
It’s reassuring to witness the involvement of rural women in the process of growth and development of the state. On the surface, it may look like these women are working to earn their bread and butter only—in reality—they have struggled hard for breaking the conventional stereotypes of society. They too have broken through the glass ceiling like the best achievers amongst us.
Earlier, since Assamese rural women were mostly engaged in a few unorganised sectors, their contribution towards society was often swept under the carpet. In contemporary times, they have taken that up as a challenge and stormed into the organised sector to make a mark. Of course, a major factor that figures in all these remarkable women’s stories are their Self Help Groups. In Assam, especially, they have been embraced by a lot of rural women who have thrived on the SHG model and used it to enrich their lives. Often, credit given through this model has not translated to income generation. But when rural women have succeeded in making that transition as reflected in the above stories, success stories have not been far behind.
Inclusive development in the world’s largest democracy won’t be possible unless there is women’s participation in the country’s developmental process. Development at the grassroots level is the need of the hour for the resurgence of the sleeping Indian economy. Widespread participation of rural women in the growth process can help jumpstart the economy as well as remind us that change of any sorts should start from the way down for it to be truly revolutionary.
Nasreen Habib & Dhiraj Kumar Sarma
This story was first published in January 2014 issue of Eclectic Northeast magazine