By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna, Womens Feature Service
Rawain valley in the Uttarkashi district of the hilly state of Uttarakhand is one of the most backward areas in India, where women have always had a secondary status and where gender-based discrimination marks life, whether it is at the household or societal level.
But all that is changing. The hard-working, determined women of Rawain have decided to enhance their lives by playing a key role in the socio-economic development of their families and communities. Forming a cooperative – speared-headed by Dehradun-based NGO, Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC) – these mountain women have started making several processed food products, which are attractive alternatives to the packaged food items promoted by multinationals.
At the forefront of these efforts is Mohini, a resident of Dhari village and one of the first members of the cooperative. “I motivated other women in the village to join the cooperative,” she states. During orientation programmes for developing micro-enterprise in the village, Mohini encouraged women to start income generation activities and set the process going. “We started the micro-enterprise based on garlic pickle-making and each woman got a net profit of Rs 500 (US$1=Rs 47.15) in the first round of production of garlic pickle,” she says proudly. Gradually, Mohini developed her expertise in garlic pickle-making, while the cooperative provided support in marketing the product. “Today, I am a master trainer, helping other group members to process and prepare pickle,” she adds.
From a humble beginning in 2003, the cooperative now boasts of 250 women belonging to 22 Self-Help Groups (SHGs). They are actively involved in the production and sale of garlic, ginger, chilli, mixed vegetable and mango pickle; fruit jam; chutney; and amla (Indian gooseberry) candy. While prior to this project their earnings were zero, a group of 10 women can now earn Rs 300 to Rs 500 for producing 200 kilograms of garlic pickle.
Though women’s self help and other thrift groups have been engaged in community-based activities for over two decades now, organising women under a proper business programme has been HARC’s biggest challenge. When HARC started its intervention in the Rawain valley in 2003, the Mahila Mangal Dals (village-level women’s welfare groups) that came into being under different government development schemes were inactive because of the lack of proper vision, guidance and plan of action, says Chhaya Kunwar, Senior Programme Coordinator, HARC. “Men had control over the cash and women had a low level of awareness and no opportunity to participate in village meetings,” she points out.
The NGO began its endeavours by developing a cadre of women and girl motivators from different villages. These motivators played a crucial role in creating an enabling environment in their respective villages for the empowerment of local women and girls. HARC workers explained the benefits of an activity if managed collectively and then started imparted training to the women by setting up processing units that were located at accessible places.
The outcome was the creation of 10 women’s SHGs, which decided to set up agro-eco based income generation activities by trading surplus pulses, millets, spices and some processed items prepared from locally available raw material. This helped to enhance local incomes. The biggest challenges they faced, according to Anarkali, 36, of Bagasu village, was the tough competition in the market. The women realised that they suffered from a lack of marketing skills. There was also concern about improving and maintaining the quality of their products. These issues were discussed at the monthly meetings and the need was felt for a more effective trading regime. “Though there was a federation for male farmers that dealt with the production and marketing of fruits and vegetables, we wanted a separate federation for women’s groups – a trade-oriented federation that would buy and market products like pulses, millets, spices, grains and processed products,” explains Anarkali.
Finally, 13 groups, consisting of 160 women, decided to build a capital fund by contributing a share of Rs 500 each to begin trading activities collectively. The federation was formally established in October 2002 under the name HARC Mountain Women Multipurpose Autonomous Cooperative. When the women of Bagasu village joined the cooperative under ‘Gulab SHG’, Anarkali was selected as the Director of the Cooperative. She participated in all activities of the cooperative and was instrumental in getting the Bagasu SHG a housing loan of Rs 130,000. “This money was utilised by the women to start business ventures and in constructing houses. I, myself, am running a general provision shop along with my husband in the village,” she reveals. As a result of her dynamic work, she has now been elected President of the Cooperative. Anarkali has been able to give her three children a better life – better clothes and more nutritious food.
The Cooperative has helped its members to generate income and get employment in three major ways – through direct involvement in fruit processing activities; by hiring the services of its members for grading, packing and labelling the products; and by enabling members to sell their surplus produce to the cooperative.
Today, their products are sold in the local market and also in Dehradun, Delhi, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, under the brand names of ‘Rawain’s Nature Pure’ and ‘Switch On’. “Our products are in great demand at places like ‘Dilli Haat’ (an ethnic and tribal art shopping complex) in Delhi,” informs Renu, 34, of Dhari village. She adds, “The cooperative has given me a sense of achievement and self-respect. It provides us training so we can start income-generating activities in our village and become financially independent.”
The cooperative also participates in national and international trade fairs to popularise its products. Since the office is on the way to Yamnotri, a religious centre which plays host to over 200,000 tourists visiting from all over India and abroad between April and October each year, the processed items enjoy brisk sales. From time to time, HARC organises market promotion events as well and every year and it has a turnover between Rs 700,000 and Rs 10,00,000. According to Kunwar, the total turnover of the cooperative in the year 2008-09 was Rs 10,97,628. The lion’s share of the profits goes to the women’s SHGs. While all the products are manufactured throughout the year, apple chutney and garlic and chilli pickles are the best sellers. Most of the Rawain products have a shelf life of 12 months.
The NGO has now started training in the manufacture and marketing of handicrafts in order to broaden employment opportunities for women not involved in farm work. This has helped women like Madhu of Naugaon, a mother of four who had no income of her own until now, to hone her skills in making files and wall fixtures.
Madhu is more than satisfied. She says, “I earn Rs 500 or more a month and the best part is that I can work at home and look after my children, too.”