Mumbai: Women's self-help groups across India have been playing a crucial role in managing the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as they deal with members' reduced incomes, which have caused unpaid dues to stack up over the past year, women across Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh told us in interviews.

"Last year was quite difficult," said Sushma Devi, 45, reliving the health and livelihood crisis in her village, Daru-kharika, in northern Jharkhand's Hazaribagh district, since the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020. "A lot of people returned from the cities; there were no jobs available; people did not have enough food at home."

For well over a year now, Sushma and other women in her village, all members of self-help groups, have been helping mitigate the impact of the pandemic by running community kitchens to feed poor families, distributing ration kits and setting up kitchen gardens for many households.

These self-help groups consist of around 8-10 women who pool their savings and use the corpus to give credit to members to earn a living. They are promoted under the central Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana- National Rural Livelihood Mission (DAY-NRLM) launched in 2011 to empower women by providing them with easy access to credit. But in the last one year, they have gone beyond this role to do community work with funding from governments and non governmental organisations (NGOs), including tasks normally performed by health activists.

Nearly 76 million women in rural India had taken up self-help initiatives that proved instrumental in managing the food insecurity and healthcare challenges posed by the pandemic, an October 2020 report by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) said. Since March 2020, and as per July 21 data from the DAY-NRLM dashboard, these groups have manufactured nearly 170 million masks, 500,000 pieces of protective equipment and 500,000 litres of sanitiser. Through community kitchens, they also served more than half a million cooked meals to people from vulnerable communities.

SHG members cooked over half a million meals for the poor

The nationwide lockdown announced last year to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the economy and the food intake of poor Indians: Nearly half (44%) of the 3,994 people interviewed from 11 states in October 2020 for the Hunger Watch report said their income fell by half or quarter and 45% said their need to borrow money for food had increased.

To help deal with this crisis, self-help groups helped rural communities by distributing food and ration supplies and creating awareness, said a preliminary report of a study by a group of scholars from various institutions on the lockdown's short-term effects on rural communities. The study, supported by a research organisation, the International Growth Centre (IGC), is based on baseline interviews with 400 self-help group members from 80 gram panchayats in Madhya Pradesh and nine bi-weekly interviews over five months to November 2020.

The study found that self-help group members provided support to community members in 70% of the gram panchayats surveyed. As of July 21, 2021, community kitchens run by these groups had served over 500,000 meals in 128 districts of 14 states. In 121 districts across 15 states, over 50,000 members ran vegetable delivery units.

Since March 2020, on government advice, SHGs have also been engaged in spreading awareness about Covid-19 and since April 2021, they have also been dispelling myths about the COVID-19 vaccination drive. Through phone calls, pamphlets, wall writings and social media, the women created awareness on the correct method of handwashing, the importance of maintaining physical distance and addressing myths about the disease.

Reduced incomes, increased debt

However, despite increased activity, SHGs are having a hard time dealing with loss of income and rising debts as members deal with the economic impact of the pandemic, studies found.

"Livelihood opportunities have been severely impacted due to the economic shock of Covid, especially [its impact on] non-farm livelihoods, in which a large section of women members of SHGs are involved," said Nilanjana Sengupta, technical specialist at International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). "Due to the fall in purchasing capacity, mobility restrictions etc., micro businesses of women have been negatively impacted."

Take the example of Mandla district of eastern Madhya Pradesh. It has a federation of multiple SHGs from neighbouring panchayats in Bichhiya block. (Usually around 300 SHGs with 3,000 members form a federation.) "With the lockdown and other restrictions, there was a slowdown of activity and that meant little to no income," said Shashi Devi, president of the federation. "But, loans and interest amounts had to be paid. We made masks, sanitisers and supplied them to the panchayats. While it was not enough to deal with the crisis, the money proved to be a relief."

Though government agencies and NGOs purchased masks, sanitisers and other Covid-related products made by the SHGs, the demand for these diminished after the first wave. "The second lockdown was quite severe in rural India, and for the self-help group members," said Nikhil Rathi, partnerships manager at Transforming Rural India Foundation (TRIF), a nonprofit organisation. "There was not much involvement in the production of masks and sanitisers as their supply in the market was high. There was not much demand for these goods in the public sector either."

No compensation for running kitchens

While the women were paid for manufacturing these products, they said they were not compensated for running community kitchens. These community kitchens, run under the 'Mukhyamantri Didi Kitchen' initiative to feed poor families, were supplied with rice and dal. The self-help groups were given some money for other supplies and cooking fuel but were not paid for the work they put in, said Sunita Devi, secretary of the Jagruti Mahila Sangh, a cluster-level federation of 360 self-help groups in Dumarkudar village of Jharkhand's Bokaro district. "We still have not got paid for running the community kitchens last year."

It would have helped the women if they were compensated for their efforts, she said, adding that when the government asked them to restart the kitchen in April but did not supply rations, they refused.

Delayed loan repayments

Over eight in 10 women said they could reach out to their self-help group in times of need, in an IWWAGE survey of 423 self-help group members from Odisha conducted in July 2020. The self-help group was the preferred avenue for women to access emergency loans, savings and gain information, the study found.

Self help group members saw a higher borrowing rate (59%) against 42% women on average, a study of 15,000 women and 2,300 men from low-income households across 10 states conducted between October and November 2020 found. The report, published in May 2021 was conducted by Dalberg, a global consulting firm.

But members have been struggling to return their loans taken from SHGs. "We loaned a little money to everyone, as per their needs," said Sunita Devi. "But many members have not been able to earn much over the last year because of the lockdown and the restrictions during the second wave. We did write off some of the loan amount for those who were struggling and asked them to pay the remaining amount when and as much as they can."

"If earlier people could pay back in installments of Rs 500 per month, [in the pandemic] this fell to Rs 100-200 per month," said Sushma Devi of Daru-kharika village. "We are not pressurising anyone as we understand the situation. But delaying payments also means more interest and higher interest rates."

Despite more women from SHGs being employed before the pandemic, as compared to women on average, they were hit harder, found the Dalberg study. More SHG women lost paid work, and, on average, they both lost a higher share of income and experienced a slower income recovery than all women, says the report.

Given the adverse impact on the economy, there is an urgent need to think about new funding dedicated to crisis amelioration (perhaps through cash transfers), as well as an extended moratorium period or flexible repayment schedules for existing loans, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head of IWWAGE told IndiaSpend.

The Dalberg report also recommended that the DAY-NRLM programme focus equally on supporting SHG women's own economic recovery and resilience as it does on engaging SHG members in community response.

Discrimination, lack of mentorship and transparency

Over the years, the self-help group model has been hailed for improving household incomes, increasing women's negotiation power and agency. But researchers say the scheme's growth has been limited by cases of discrimination, lack of transparency and mentorship.

"As things stand, self-help groups are formed by community resource persons who mentor the group for some time, usually four weeks, and then move on," said Bidisha Barooah, senior evaluation specialist at International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). "[However] when new members join, they often do not receive the high quality training imparted to the original set [of members]. Of course, peer learning happens but if we want to accelerate quality improvement then refresher training is needed."

The current system wherein critical information percolates to self-help groups through cluster-level federations and village organisations leads to the exclusion of some women from government schemes especially those related to livelihood opportunities, said Nilanjana Sengupta of ICRW. Usually, NRLM officials share scheme-related information at cluster-level federation meetings, whose members are supposed to discuss this in the village organisation meetings, whose members take the information further on to their respective SHGs, Sengupta explained. "In our formative research in Madhya Pradesh, we found that some of this information does not percolate in this systematic manner and certain leaders keep that information to themselves or their own friends and relatives," she said.

Also, limiting SHGs to the credit/thrift role does not always give women more agency because they end up as mere channels for fund flow to families, said Sengupta. "Integrating a gender lens within the structures and operations of the NRLM is the critical way forward," she added.

Leading from the front, self-help groups have played a critical role in providing resilience for households during the pandemic and going forward, there is a heightened need for strengthening their links to institutions and creating a supportive ecosystem for them, Kapoor Mehta of IWWAGE told IndiaSpend, "The state needs to focus on improving their access to entitlements related to food, water, health care, childcare and boost their livelihoods and employment prospects by incentivising SHG led enterprises through public procurement of products of women's collectives, or by providing subsidized input support."

(Pragathi Ravi, an intern at IndiaSpend, contributed to this report)

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