Illiterate Muslim Woman Turns A River’s Fury Into Opportunity

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It all began when hope was flooded out. River Kosi was in spate after a breach formed at Kusaha, Nepal, in August 2008. Several villages adjoining the river downstream in Bihar were washed away. In Sirwar, Saharsa district, people who lived in mud huts placed their cots, one on top of the other, clambered on to them and held on to life. They remained like this for at least a week until someone came in a boat to rescue them. When the waters receded, the villagers discovered that although they had survived, they had lost everything they possessed. It was in these dismal circumstances that Kulsum Khatum, an illiterate Muslim woman, discovered leadership qualities within herself.

Trapped as they were between the devil and the deep river, for the local people earning a livelihood became the first issue they needed to tackle for their survival. Kulsum formed a group of 10 women. They jointly decided that instead of falling back on their traditional sources of income generation – which was fruit and vegetable vending – they would adopt a more innovative and contemporary approach. A loan of Rs 25,000 (US$1=Rs 44.6) was sought from the government and with that money a small-scale business cooperative was launched.

The first thing the women did with the money was to buy five goats. The livestock was carefully tended by the women and within a short space of time the goats gave birth. The women then sold the kids and, with that shared money, each of them was able to pay Rs 50 per month towards the repayment of their loan. They had to pay back only Rs 15,000, since the government waived the rest of the amount. “That was how we helped our families live through the most difficult crisis they had ever faced,” recalls Bhawani Devi, 35, a member of Kulsum’s group.

Kulsum belongs to the extremely backward Rayeen caste. She had all the disadvantages of being an illiterate woman living in an impoverished, male chauvinistic society. Fortunately, she was also marked by a strong sense of optimism and a determination to persevere against the odds. Today, despite the class and caste consciousness that marks rural Bihar, Kulsum’s good work when the chips were down has been recognised. She is an elected member of the Panch (the gram kacheri or village justice system). This was made possible largely because of the Nitish Kumar government’s move to reserve fifty per cent of seats in panchayats (village councils) for women. Bihar, incidentally, was the first state in India to have done this, and later the Government of India adopted the approach nationally. Kulsum is also the president of the Bharatiya Mahila Sangh. “I get a lot of respect since I was made the president,” she remarks with a smile.

Sitting under the thatched roof in a mud hut, about a kilometre away from the Kosi river, Kulsum holds informal meetings regularly with the women of the village and tries to infuse the spirit of unity among them so that they, in turn, can fight for their rights. “Unless we stand up together like the five fingers of our fist we will never get justice; we will always remain weak and be oppressed by corrupt people,” she tells them, while suggesting ways to resolve problems.

The women in the village are illiterate but in terms of articulating their points of view, they can surpass even experienced, city-bred politicians. Near Kulsum’s thatched home is a big concrete school compound. The apathy the school authorities demonstrated on a long pending promise to construct the first floor of the school building had become a contentious issue between them and the villagers.

One morning, when some important functionaries were to visit the school, Kulsum and others collected at the compound and gheraoed the authorities. “If the ‘sahibs’ can weave dreams for their children, so can we,” said 40-year-old Ghurni Devi from Kulsum’s women brigade. When pleading didn’t help and before the situation could turn ugly, the school officials assured the women that they would attend to their promise. Now the floor is being constructed, albeit slowly. Now not only will more children be accommodated in the local school, if the Kosi was to flood again, at least the people here will have a safe place to take refuge instead of fashioning some precarious perch for themselves or run towards the railway tracks, which are generally built on an elevated area.

There were other important concerns too, like the poor availability of foodgrains. For some time now people were forced to buy their rations from the open market because the local dealer of the Public Distribution System constantly turned them away on the pretext that stocks had not come in. The government gives each family 12 coupons in a year to get rations every month from the PDS outlet. But so poor was the distribution system that on an average 24 tokens per family over a period of two years remained unused, although they were kept very safely. Ultimately the struggle for rations became so unbearable that local women, led by Kulsum, mobilised the villagers and hired a boat to reach the district magistrate’s office in Saharsa town which is within Saharsa district.

But once they reached there, they found they could not meet the official. So desperate were they by this stage, they gheraoed his vehicle instead, displaying their unused tokens as evidence of their lack of access to their rations. They then threatened to commit suicide if action was not taken. The panicky staffers at the district magistrate’s office hurried to reassure them of appropriate measures.

Recalls Kulsum, “Later someone told us to move the court to get justice on the issue. Subsequently we even hired a lawyer in the town and paid him Rs 1,500 to file a case in the court. But we realised soon enough the futility of the effort because it was not cost effective in the long run. So we decided to focus on continuing to raise the demand in the district magistrate’s office. Eventually the dealer was changed.”

In fact, since their agitation, the PDS department has replaced three of its dealers and the villagers have so far got oil for four months and rice for two months against their tokens. Although they are supposed to get these rations every month, the village women are satisfied that their glass is at least a quarter full!

But Kulsum has her share of challenges. While the women of the village back her fully, she is yet to win the hearts and minds of the men in male dominated Sirwar. Her strong, articulate voice is not always welcome to the village men. Middle aged Shravan Kumar, on hearing her speak to her colleagues to assert their rights, shrugs off the suggestion and taunts, “What does she want? She wants to become the rashtrapati (president of India), it seems!”

Kulsum, of course, can give as good as she gets. At the same time she knows that patience and preparation are the only way to address problems in the long term. This is a lesson she has learnt over her years of social activism since the Kosi floods. And it is a good lesson to have learnt, given that there is always the possibility that the meandering River Kosi could displace them yet again.