Each year, the floods in West and East Midnapore districts of West Bengal affect around 7,000 villages and hundreds of thousands of villagers. This year, too, when the rivers, like the Subarnorekha and Jhumi, in the two districts were in spate, 25,00,000 from the 7,810 villages were stranded and 28 persons were said to have died.
Maneka Bibi, 48, of Mohar village in the Sabang block of West Midnapore witnessed the furious waters wash away her two milch cows and four goats. Her two-room mud house also collapsed. But just two months after the nightmare, she has a smile on her face – reassured by the thought of her bank account. “Earlier, every year, at the onset of the monsoon (rain) season, we’d store grains and vegetables in the hope that they would come in handy during the floods. But flood waters spare nothing. Even the grains, stored for sale as ‘dhaan golas’ (paddy igloos), were washed away. But now nothing is stored in kind. I insist on immediate sale. We then put the money in the bank where it remains safe during the floods,” says she. The crop is sold off at the weekly ‘haat’ as well as sent off to the local towns.
This sea change in attitude, witnessed over the last four years, is a result of the Self Help Group (SHG) movement, initiated by the Panchayat and Rural Development Department. Group participation in cottage industries, such as ‘papad’ (spicy savouries) and pickle-making and handicrafts, has made the women aware of the benefits of saving, banking and facilities such as loans.
Most women now have accounts in public sector banks, such as the State Bank of India and the United Bank of India, through their SHGs. Even though there are no banks in the remote villages, the women do not hesitate to go across to nearest towns where they are located. While the minimum balance for those who opt to operate their account through cheque is Rs 500, for those who transact through deposit slips, there is no minimum balance required. The bank officials, too, are encouraging and those who cannot sign operate their accounts using thumb impressions. In case a loan is required, the necessary paperwork is done through the office of the Block Development Officer (BDO).
Now, of course, the women have begun to put all this knowledge gained in their personal lives. Take the case of Maneka. She has already sown paddy on her two ‘bighas’ (one ‘bigha’ is about 2,468 square metres) of land. She now plans to buy two cows from her money in the bank and thus add to her stock of two goats and 12 chickens that she received as flood relief from the state government.
For Sultana Begum, 42, of Charadighi village in the Patashpur block of East Midnapore, the worries ahead of the floods were different: she feared for the lives of her children. Two years ago she had lost a seven-year-old daughter to water borne diseases that were a consequence of the floods. “This year, my six-year-old son came down with chronic diarrhoea but I had the money to take him to a doctor and buy medicines and the Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) came free from the district administration. I am glad I had put money in the bank,” says Sultana.
“The post-flood diseases that hit children in these areas are a major problem for the women. After the floods, the families have no house, no food… nothing. From where can they get money for medicines? The administration provides free ORS and the medical camps are open only until the flood waters recede. Most diseases like diarrhoea and gastroenteritis occur afterwards. Now, with their bank accounts, money is available for treatment,” says Asim Pal, BDO, Sabang.
Several villagers are countering the floods by adopting lifestyle changes. “My mud house collapses in the flood. Next year I will be better prepared, as I have taken a bank loan to build a ‘pucca’ (permanent structure) house. I also have Rs 175,000 (US$1=Rs 42) that I saved over the last three years,” says Maya Rani Pal, 56, of Belda village in Narayangarh block of West Midnapore district.
But the change is not restricted to personal benefits. Maya says, “The 14 members in my SHG, who weave mats, have petitioned the ‘panchayat’ (village council) to make a ‘pucca’ building for the primary school in our village. Post-floods, children can’t go to school for almost four months because the school building is washed away each year. We will keep up the pressure this time so that by next year, the school is not under threat. We have pledged Rs 10,000 from our SHG account towards this end,” says Maya.
Women in the Pingla block of West Midnapore district have also raised a demand through SHGs. They have asked the local ‘panchayats’ (village councils) for an irrigation canal from the river Keleghai. According to the proposal, the canal would reduce the threat of the flood considerably and help convert more single-crop land into multi-crop land.
“The major crop is paddy but where there are good irrigation facilities, other more remunerative crops like betel and sunflower seeds are also cultivated. Most of us women work as hard as our men do in the fields. We want to see an increase in yield from our lands. The government claims to have spent Rs 280 million for flood relief in East and West Midnapore districts this year. It can definitely spend some money for an irrigation project,” asserts Kalpana Singh, 55, of Naya village in Pingla block.
The SHG movement has revolutionised life in rural Bengal. “Earlier we were not very interested. But now we acknowledge the support we get from SHG. My SHG makes ‘sal’ leaf plates generally used for serving guests at weddings. I earn about Rs 10-15 daily from this. Even in the relief camps during the floods we keep making the plates as sal leaves are easily available everywhere. The money comes in good stead when our fields remain under water,” says Sabita Mondal of Kusumdanga village in Narayangarh block of West Midnapore.
This SHG in Kusumdanga has gone one step ahead. The 12 members have jointly invested in a non-electric water filter on returning from the relief camps to prevent water borne diseases in their families.
Similarly, in Dineswari village in Bhagwanpur block of East Midnapore district, an 11-member SHG, involved in betel leaf sorting and packaging, has decided to save money to buy large tarpaulins for use during floods. “The government aid often comes around some four days after the floods hit us, so the tarpaulins will be of big help to the villagers,” says Krishna Das, 37.
Floods are commonplace for the rural women in East and West Midnapore districts but the gushing waters no longer haunt them. Having understood the significance of bank accounts and paper money after being involved in SHGs, they no longer believe in hoarding the harvest for a rainy day. Instead, they now sell their wares and convert them into hard cash that is deposited in a bank. While the bank balance can’t stop the engulfing waters from washing away their livestock and mud houses, it has helped them water-proof their lives to an extent and return to their normal routine as quickly as possible.