The only time when Karanjia block of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district figures in the national news is when there is a threat of bird flu in the air. But Karanjia should be making waves for other reasons too, because it is here that tribal women like Anjani Nayak from the remote village of Bhadobeda have been able to turn their lives around.
Just a few years ago, Nayak’s family would migrate to brick kilns on the outskirts of cities like Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack to keep starvation at bay. Of course, this meant that they were completely at the mercy of kiln owners who would make them work almost as bonded labour.
Today, instead of slaving in the kilns, Nayak and her husband, Srikant, nurture hopes of their daughter Sabtri, currently pursuing a graduate course in Karanjia College, becoming a teacher. “I want her to fulfill all her dreams and do whatever I could not achieve in life,” says the proud mother.
Dreams, in fact, had always eluded Nayak. So what is it that brought about this change? A pond. “We live in a hilly area with no proper source of irrigation. So we were always dependent on the rains, which would fail every now and then. But once 12 or so of us women got together as a Self-Help Group (SHG) in the village and had a pond dug, things started changing. With our water problem solved, we could begin vegetable and paddy cultivation on our farms,” elaborates Nayak. She and her husband together earn about Rs 1 lakh (US$1=Rs 50) a year from their one-and-a-half acre holding.
Reviving agriculture was the turning point for Bhadobeda village. Pradan, a development organisation that has been working in this region since 2000, spearheaded this change. In fact, it has been able to replicate this model in many villages not only across Karanjia block but in three other blocks of Mayurbhanj – Jashipur, Sukruli and Thakurmunda. Presently, there are 693 SHGs like Nayak’s in Mayurbhanj alone.
Explains Sulakshyana Padhi, a team leader with Pradan, “What struck us was the central role that women were already playing within the family. It is they who bore the burden of managing livestock, caring for the family, and assisting with farming activities. Yet, they had benefited the least from whatever social or economic changes that had come to this region. We felt we needed to empower them.”
Pradan’s interventions thus began with women from very poor families. Since cash was always in short supply, it helped the women to organise themselves into SHGs which put their small savings together. Once this began to benefit family members, the organisation’s engagement extended to the family as a whole. That’s how more ponds and wells started getting built. “Our focus was on building productive assets as well as building people’s capacity to manage those assets effectively. Now we have branched into diversification of crops and developing land and water resources. We have set up dairy and other livestock based enterprises and have introduced forest-based micro enterprises, too,” elaborates Padhi.
Mayurbhanj’s 693 SHGs have come together in 44 clusters, and in early March all the women from these clusters got together in a ‘mahaadhiveshan’, or mass meeting, that was conducted with great enthusiasm. Around 6,164 women from 150 villages in four blocks – Karanjia, Jashipur, Sukruli and Thakurmunda – congregated for the general body meeting of the district’s SHG federation, aptly named ‘Sampurna’, which means ‘complete’. The mass meeting, held in Karanjia, made public the federation’s annual audit: To date, collectively the SHGs have extended credit of Rs 6,56,70,300, while this year the credit uptake is expected to rise by Rs 78,29,100. Additionally, around 3,000 members have been insured through Birla Sun Life and SBI. Sampurna has also introduced a micro-pension scheme promoted by Nabard from this year.
The majority of those who took part in this meeting were farmers, keepers of poultry and dairy animals, and collectors of forest produce, but as women they also experienced issues like alcoholism and domestic violence. So, in 2011, Pradan brought in Jagori, the Delhi-based women’s resource group, to help women here understand issues of gender discrimination, inequality and violence through a special training project supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality.
Today, the women’s ability to express themselves and seek solutions to personal problems is high. But it is their confidence in their income generating capacities that is the most apparent. One only needs to talk to Basanti Hembrum, 60, a widow from Khadi Kudar village, to realise this. Hembrum is widely acknowledged as a successful woman farmer, who cultivates paddy using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method that saves water, uses lesser seeds and gives higher yields. “After the death of my husband – he used to drink too much – a feeling of helplessness overpowered me. There was neither food at home nor work in the village. Finally, I decided to migrate with other villagers to Bhubaneswar to work on a construction site. Those were very difficult years, my five children dropped out of school and we hardly had a roof over our head,” she recalls. It was then that Hembrum learnt about the SRI cultivation method that was being encouraged by Pradan in her village and quickly adopted it. The rest, as they say, is history. “I now get enough from my small farm to lead a normal, self-sufficient life in my own village,” she says.
For both Nayak and Hembrum, sustainable farming was the key. Pradan volunteers demonstrated how they could make their limited land holding into a productive unit. With support from the village SHG, they dug a pond on their land and built a new house on the premises itself. Although this dwelling was a little removed from the village, since it stood on their land they could pay full attention to cultivation. On half-an-acre they began to farm vegetables, while on the rest of the land they cultivate paddy using the SRI method. In this way, they have been able to harvest ladies fingers, cauliflower and cucumbers and make a good living selling them, while getting foodgrain for their families. Both women are in constant search of government agricultural schemes and seed support projects in order to maximise their returns.
There was a time, according to Bhanumati Nayak from Deuli village in Karanjia, when the men in her village would travel out for the whole day to do menial work and their wives would wait for them with their little stock of rice. She recalls, “On most days, the women of the family would starve the whole day in order to feed their children and the men.” Fortunately, those days seem to have gone. Everybody who farms their small patches here now has sufficient food to feed their families.
In fact, even distress migration, that was a constant feature of life in Mayurbhanj, has declined considerably, although it has not completely ended. This, in turn, has helped local schools retain their students. Jemamani Nayak from Mirgimendi village shares her own experiences as a mother, “My children never got a full year of education when we used to migrate for work, because we had to live outside the village for seven or eight months at a stretch. Now that we can support ourselves right here in the village, things are slowly improving. My elder daughter is appeared for the Class VIII exam, but did not pass it. She is planning to appear again. And my younger daughter is in Class VI. I want them both to be educated, unlike me.”
Jemamani’s words hold out hope for the future. She dreams of the day when the lives of her daughters will be free of the tensions and traumas that had marked her own.