Gaya (Bihar): Amola Devi had never been to school, had never seen the inside of a bank and is a musahar, or rat-catcher, a Dalit caste so low and marginalised that the Bihar government puts it in a special category known as mahadalit.

Ten years ago at her home in the village of Zindapur in this southern district of Bihar, two of her eight children fell ill and died because she could not afford medical care. On a good day, her husband, a rickshaw puller, earned Rs 200, of which Rs 100 went to the rickshaw owner. She had to feed and clothe her family with the rest. None of her kids went to school. When she went to the village well to draw water, she had to wait for the others to go first, lest her bucket polluted theirs by contact.

In 2016, Amola Devi managed financial transactions to the tune of Rs 1 crore.

Like thousands of Bihar’s poorest women, Amola Devi is the beneficiary of a state-wide programme called Jeevika, co-financed by the World Bank, the state government and the national government though the National Rural Livelihood Mission.

The programme today involves over 8.2 million rural women in self-help groups (SHGs). Setting aside Rs 10 each every week, these women have collectively saved $64 million (Rs 418.5 crore) and got loans of $500 million (Rs 3,270 crore) from banks. The programme has, so far, launched 600,000 women farmers, dairy and poultry producers and entrepreneurs in small businesses. These women are also emerging as a political and social force across the state.

It was at a meeting of Jeevika SHG women members, didis as they are called, that chief minister Nitish Kumar promised--recklessly, some said--a ban on alcohol if voted to power, a promise he has kept, much to their delight.

“The men would get drunk in the middle of the day and misbehave,” said Saroj Devi, president of the Ujala gram sanghatan, a village council of some 20 SHGs. “Now we tell them, if you want to drink, please be prepared to eat khichdi in jail.”

In 2012, when the police dragged their feet in a murder case, a group of Jeevika didis, including Saroj Devi, gheraoed (picketed) the police station, broke down its gates and insisted that arrests be made, she said. In 2016, she contested local panchayat elections--and won by 288 votes.

Nowhere to go but up

The emergence of Bihar’s most marginalised women in a state that has consistently remained at the bottom of the statistics sweepstakes is significant. Despite the data, women are visible everywhere--asserting themselves on the streets, in the field, cycling to school or running small stalls at bazaars and haats.

Bihar has India’s worst female labour force participation, and as with the rest of India--as our ongoing, nationwide investigation has discussed; today’s story is the eighth in the series--women have been dropping off the employment map despite rising educational levels and economic betterment.

Source: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation

But on other parameters there is a clear movement upwards over the past decade. Bihar has not caught up with the rest of the country, but over a decade, literacy is up by over 10 percentage points, the proportion of women who marry before the age of 18 has fallen, and more women have a bank account that they themselves use.

Bihar's Women Better Off Than Decade Ago, But Behind National Average
Indicator Bihar
Bihar (2015-16) India
Women who are literate 37% 49.6% (70.6% urban, 46.3% rural) 68.4%
Women aged 20-24 who married before 18 60% 39.1% (26.9% urban, 40.9% rural) 26.8%
Women who have experienced spousal violence 59% 43.2% (40.2% urban, 43.7% rural) 28.8%
Women with a bank account they themselves use 8% 26.4% (36.9% urban, 24.6% rural) 53.0%
Women with below normal BMI 45% 30.4% (22.2% urban, 31.8% rural) 22.9%
Married women who take part in household decisions 69% 75.2% (77.6% urban, 74.8% rural) 84.0%

Source: National Family Health Survey 4, 2015-16, and National Family Health Survey 3, 2005-06

It would be far-fetched to credit Jeevika with these gains, but they do coincide with the launch of the project in 2007.

“Women’s agenda is critical for Nitish Kumar as they have emerged as a constituency he wants to capture,” said Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), a Patna think tank. In the 2015 state elections, 60.5% of Bihar’s female voters voted; 54.9% of men did.

To woo this constituency, Nitish has a basket of schemes: Cycles for girls to go to school; increased representation for women in panchayats and municipal elections, from 33% to 50%; a promise to reserve 35% of all state government jobs for women, in addition to the 35% reserved for them in the police.

Targeting women from rural households in six of Bihar’s poorest districts, Jeevika began in 2007 with three objectives. Chief of these was the social empowerment of the poorest rural households, followed by economic empowerment and poverty reduction.

The programme now runs across Bihar’s 38 districts and 534 blocks.

Jeevika’s structure is a bottom up approach: 10-15 women organise as a SHG to take loans on interest and obtain credit from banks. They also form producer organisations centred around an economic activity, such as honey production or making low-cost solar lamps for students.

Twenty to 30 of these SHGs form a village organisation, while 25 to 35 village organisations band together as a federation of SHG clusters. Amola Devi heads one such federation called the Ekta Sankul Sangh with 7,000 members from four village panchayats. Income from the interest alone for this federation is around Rs 100,000 per month.

When the women repay loans, the interest is distributed to all levels, so that village and cluster groupings receive a share. Weekly meetings are mandatory, and records must be maintained. It is here that women meet to discuss social issues, from child marriage to sanitation. On October 2, 2017, they pledged to end dowry, a practice entrenched in Bihar.

But starting off wasn’t easy.

After initial resistance from families, women stepped out

“Bihar has had a culture of restricting the movement of women. Even in the villages, women were confined to their homes and its periphery,” said Archana Tiwari, Jeevika’s state project manager, social development. “So, the men were suspicious; they wanted to know what we were teaching the women.”

Many who joined in the early days didn’t tell their husbands, or else braved their resistance. When Phulwa Devi joined in 2009, her mother-in-law taunted her and asked if she was going to ‘spend her time roaming around in the gallis (bylanes) of the village’. But when Phulwa Devi took a loan of Rs 100,000 to set up a hardware shop for her husband, he began to recognise what she had done. “He said to me, ‘You have done for me what even my own parents couldn’t do’,” she said.

For the first time, women were stepping out of their homes, out of the villages and, over time, out of the state to travel on work to mobilise and train other women in similar projects.

“These are women who never used to step out of their homes unless it was to work in the fields, visit relatives or for some social function,” said Balamurugan D, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer presently on deputation as Jeevika’s CEO. “Now these women go to other states and stay there for as long as three months.”

The women are discovering a world beyond their villages.

“For the first 15 days that I was in Jharkhand, I couldn’t figure out what the women were saying to me, whether they were asking me to sit or walk,” said Phulwa Devi who has been to Jharkhand four times and Uttar Pradesh once.

But travel for many women is more than just a discovery of India.

“When we go out of the state together, we can’t ask each other what’s your caste. We cannot say, ‘but I cannot eat or drink water with you’,” said Saroj Devi.

Balamurugan concurred. “You can see the impact on caste and gender barriers in a big, big way,” he said. “Today when you look at a group of 12 women, you cannot tell who is upper caste and who is lower caste. Everybody sits and works together.”

Moonma Devi said she had been to Kerala to participate in an SHG mela, taking with her Bihar’s delicacy of litti-choka. In 10 days, she said, she had notched up sales worth Rs 232,000. Yet, there was a time she said, ‘when I couldn’t even dream of buying bangles’.

The word ‘loan’ no longer frightens Jeevika’s women

Jeevika claims to be India’s largest movement of SHGs. Modeled on the Andhra Pradesh SHG movement, it now trains community mobilisers in other states, such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Jeevika is “the only project to invest in social capital for Bihar at this scale”, explained Balamurugan. “You cannot create impact in a state like Bihar without scale and right now we can say with conviction that we have created an impact,” he said.

Amola Devi laughed when she recalled her initiation into the Jeevika movement in 2007.

She was suspicious when they came to ask her to set aside Rs 10 a week as her personal savings. “I had seen so many thugs who would come and say, ‘give us money, we will invest for your daughter’s wedding’ and then they would just disappear with your money,” she said.

When she finally relented and opened a bank account for the first time in her life, they asked her to take a loan. “The word ‘loan’ is frightening,” she said. In Bihar’s informal village economy where interest rates can be as high as 120% per year, it’s easy to see why.

Asking for her first loan, Rs 1,500 to repair a hand-pump, wasn’t easy. But she reckoned she could pay the 24% interest in small installments. Then came another loan request, for Rs 6,000 to redeem the piece of land she had mortgaged to pay for her mother’s funeral rites. The third loan for Rs 7,000 got her a pair of buffaloes. By the time she applied for Rs 30,000 to buy her son a ‘DJ baja’ (soundbox), it felt like she had been taking and paying off loans for a long time.

About 11% of all Jeevika loans go towards paying off older, usurious loans taken from commercial village money-lenders. Wife of a daily wage labourer, Kanti Devi of Barah village promptly paid off a loan she had taken at 120%. “The interest was pushing us further into poverty and we couldn’t even afford to send our seven children to school,” she said. The informal money-lender has since slashed his interest rate by half to 60% per annum.

Saleha Khatoon, the wife of a migrant furniture polisher who works in West Bengal, borrowed Rs 1,500 the first time to buy medicine for her child. She has, since then, paid off the mortgage on her land and, when her husband fell seriously ill, took a loan of Rs 40,000 for medical care. All her children are in school; the eldest, a daughter completing a BA degree.

In a state where 30.4% women are malnourished, some women reported taking loans for their own medical treatment. When she hurt her head after falling off a cycle, Saroj Devi said she was unhappy with the quality of medical care in Gaya, and so took a Rs 20,000 loan to seek medical treatment for herself at Ranchi, the capital of neighbouring Jharkhand.

Perhaps most remarkable is Sheela Devi, the wife of a casual labourer. In 2009, when her 22-year-old son, Surendra Kumar, then a tourist guide at Bodhgaya, told her he wanted to go to Delhi to learn Mandarin, she said no. “It was out of the question, how was I to raise so much money?” she said.

The son played the emotional card. “Why did you give birth to me, if you didn’t want to educate me?” he told her.

Sheela Devi said she couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, she asked her SHG for a loan of Rs 80,000. Combined with her savings, she bought her son an air-ticket--not to Delhi but China. If he wanted to learn Mandarin, he would do it properly, her way. Nobody in her family had ever taken a flight to anywhere.

Anecdotally, it would seem that when Jeevika women take loans it is for a range of reasons, from house repairs, paying off older debt, making capital investments and setting up small businesses.

Some of these are run by their husbands or sons. Renu Devi’s husband worked as a casual labourer in the fields of Kurmawa village until she joined an SHG in 2008. With her first loan of Rs 5,000 she set up a hair salon for her husband. A second loan of Rs 25,000 went into expanding that salon to make it “fancy”. When her son started his own beauty parlour, she took another loan of Rs 50,000. Over the years, she said, she has taken loans of over Rs 200,000. All have been paid off, but she herself does not run any of the businesses she has financed for her son and husband.

Chintu Kumar, the husband of Sunita Kumari from Khizarsarai, has an ice-cream business that employs 16 vendors in peak season, when sales touch Rs 10,000 a day. Capital for the business came from Sunita’s SHG loan. Does she work? “When she can help me with my ice-cream business, where is the need for her to go out and work elsewhere?” he said.

More recently, said Vinay Kumar Vutukur, senior agriculture specialist, World Bank, the women are being trained to set up and run enterprises like backyard poultry and high-value agriculture, as well as non-farm work like bee-keeping. The women own and run these enterprises and, to date, nearly 270,000 women’s producers groups have been trained.

Success has spawned new challenges

While scale has been an important factor, Jeevika’s success owes much to the innovative thinking of those who run it.

For instance, the programme has a social-afforestation project, where the women receive wages through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)--India’s make-work programme--funds to plant and maintain trees that they will own after five years. Another partnership between Jeevika, Nidan, a non-profit, and GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) provides wheat mixed with rice and pulses and fortified with minerals and vitamins for anganwaadis.

Women work at the fortification plant at Sahadevkhap village, Gaya district, Bihar. A partnership between Jeevika, Nidan, a non-profit, and GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition), it provides wheat mixed with rice and pulses and fortified with minerals and vitamins for anganwaadis.

Village organisations receive a health-risk fund and a food-security fund that enables women to collectively buy foodgrain during peak season and store it for lean times.

In the early years, this led to some confusion, recalled Tiwari. When a group of three women approached a rice wholesaler to buy 200 quintals of grain, the trader thought they were wasting his time: Since when had a woman ever purchased grain in bulk? But the women would not be fobbed off and showed him their cheque book before beating him down to a good price.

Jeevika has succeeded in a state with weak administration and widespread corruption. “It has created a robust structure from the grassroots level,” said ADRI’s Shaibal Gupta. From the choice of the districts--chosen because of poverty and need and not political influence--to the young professionals hired at market salaries, Jeevika has been the “only one of its kind in Bihar if not in the entire country”, said Gupta.

“The best idea in the world will fail if it is not executed well,” said Arvind Kumar Chaudhury, secretary, department of rural development and former Jeevika CEO for seven of its 10 years. “We hired the best people to implement this project because from the beginning it was clear to us that the poor should not be served poorly.”

Paramveer Singh, a 2012 graduate from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, has seen Jeevika progress since he joined in May 2012. “The reason why we were able to scale up so successfully was that we developed resources at the community level,” he said.

Over time, the project exposed women to institutions and entitlements like banks, panchayati raj and the MGNREGA. “It brought in a new level of empowerment where women who had never moved beyond their homes now demand meetings with bank managers or district magistrates to discuss their problems,” said Singh.

Is there a downside? “When you start doing things on such a large scale, it’s a challenge to keep it at the same level and quality,” said Balamurugan.

The expectation that the Jeevika project will deliver on a range of issues from prohibition to sanitation is also challenging.

But the real key to Jeevika’s success lies with the women themselves. The project has never issued doles, and loans are paid back with interest (recently brought down to 12% from 24%).

It’s the didis who decide on loans, administer the repayment, organise weekly meetings along with book and record-keeping practices. They hire the community mobilisers and pay for their salaries.

“The idea is to create a community of empowered women who are entirely self-reliant and able to sustain the project, even after it is over,” said Singh. Leadership is rotated to prevent monopolies and favouritism. Added Chaudhury: “The women know that this is not a subsidy. They know that they have to sit down and solve their own problems.”

And they do.

When Ramchandra Thakur of Sharwada village sold the cycle that his wife bought from an SHG loan in order to buy liquor in the pre-prohibition days, the SHG declared him an offender and stopped his wife’s access to loans.

When a mukhiya, a village headman, siphoned Rs 50,000 in SHG funds to contest a panchayat election that he eventually lost, the women landed up at his doorstep, shaming him by beating thaalis, or steel plates. The mukhiya has since returned Rs 27,000 and has promised to pay back the rest in installments of Rs 5,000.

Nobody, not even the head of a village, messes with the Jeevika didis.

This is the eighth part in an ongoing nation-wide IndiaSpend investigation into India’s declining female labour force participation.

Read other stories in this series:

Part 1: Why Indian workplaces are losing women

Part 2: In a Haryana factory, tradition clashes with aspiration

Part 3: Housework keeps India’s women at home (but some are changing that)

Part 4: India’s hospitality sector must first win over the parents of the skilled women it needs

Part 5: Why India’s most educated women are leaving jobs faster than others

Part 6: Why Himachali women work: the answer in a jam factory

Part 7: Judge to Worker: The spread of sexual harassment in India

Part 8: Bihar’s poorest women are changing their lives, with a little help

Part 9: On Delhi’s ragged edges, women bear highest cost of scant transport

Part 10: How scooters are helping Haryana’s women get to work

Part 11: As Indian women leave jobs, single women keep working. Here’s why

Part 12: Indian Women, Inordinately Burdened By HouseWork, Pay The Motherhood Penalty

(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on the gender issues confronting India.)

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