"The Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." " Lao Tzu
Pochagaon is a remote village inhabited by Muslim minorities with poor connectivity, gender discrimination, female illiteracy and credit availability being its major development challenges. SeSTA planned to mobilize that village with the help of female members as they were the ones who were victimized of discrimination.
Initially, SeSTA held three meetings to break ice with the villagers but not a single woman turned up. They persisted with the hope that sooner or later somebody would be ready to meet and talk to them. After much wait, during the fourth meeting, 2 women named Sahenara Khatun and Jahinara Bibi of Mechkajhar and Moinaguri hamlets respectively came to see them. This little but significant development restored their belief that SHGs could be formulated in a village so challenging at varied fronts. Both, Sahenara and Jahinara took active interest and were convinced of SeSTA's approaches, intentions and the need for women collectives. They started mobilising more women and despite initial opposition from the male folks, they could convince many more women to join SHGs.
The journey that had begun with two gutsy women led to the formation of 5 SHGs in the village. Slowly but steadily they were becoming confident and less scared to voice their opinions or leave their village for meetings. Before SeSTA's interventions they were members of SHGs but the same were completely handled by men. Now, the women members are taking ownership of their groups and have extended their efforts in promoting 10 more SHGs in the same village. They have changed the status quo by challenging the patriarchal society, something which is more than commendable.
Gorsingpara village is located 22 kms from Sidli block of Chirang ditrict on the banks of Champabati River. Scenic as much it may appear but the villagers have to walk an hour to reach Garubhasa or Runikhata which are the nearest markets. The village lacks the basic infrastructure for schools, anganwadis, electricity and health centre as well as access to potable drinking water and sanitation. Communication facilities are rudimentary and apathy from mainstream agencies is quite visible.
The village is inhabited by 118 households of mostly Santhali community. Poverty is stark with very little avenues of sustainable livelihoods and seasonal migration is rampant. The condition of women folk has been particularly deplorable under the existing patriarchal society. Access to mainstream credit is almost zilch and the women had relied on traditional system of bharals and mahajans at exorbitant interest rates. The situation worsened as the village got caught in the ethnic riots of 1996. Most of the villagers had fled to Runikhata relief camp and stayed there till 2005. On coming back, there were no livelihood options available in this ruined village other than catching fish in the nearby Leorachora, Lungchung and Champabati rivers for day-to-day living.
Even today, the fear, mistrust, anger and frustration are palpable. Barah Ghar is a hamlet of this village, from where 25 women took the lead to bring about a change. They formed 2 SHGs (Towa Baha and Champa ) with support from SeSTA. Women like Baha, Rahil, Sushila, Jomila took the risk of forming an SHG, but now they have imbibed a belief in themselves and other women of the village that SHG is an institution which can reach up to those who are the most vulnerable and neglected. They have realised that this is a platform where women can meet and draw support from each other.
With systematic trainings and inputs from SeSTA, they are brimming with a new found confidence. They are able to venture out of their homes and have a sense of economic security through small savings. They now have easy access to credit at times of need and at a low rate of interest, which was a far cry few a years back. The members are more confident, articulate and rising above stereotypes. The SHGs got revolving fund of R15000 each from Assam State Rural Livelihood Society with which the members took up alternate livelihood options like pig rearing. 18 women members implemented paddy cultivation using SRI technology in their small plots of land and surprisingly they could produce 5-7 quintals per bigha which is 2 times the yield obtained through traditional method of paddy cultivation. This was just the beginning of a revolution. The village once battered and bruised because of ethnic riots was beginning to stand back on its feet through women led initiatives.
Phonika Barman of Bowari Self Help Group of Sidli is an enterprising woman - a woman of spirit, indefatigable in spite of hardships and poverty. After joining the SHG and getting exposed to various motivational and technical trainings provided by SeSTA, she and her husband Bijoy, himself a very energetic and hardworking man, decided to adopt a new technology in paddy cultivation. They were among the first few farmers of Rajajan, Sidli, who initiated the System of Rice Intensification(SRI) method of paddy cultivation in that area in 2011.
SeSTA assisted them in this endeavour by providing technical know-how, quality inputs and regular on-field support. Initially, they were apprehensive and skeptical and fellow villagers used to make fun of them. They cultivated Boro paddy in 8 bighas land and to their surprise they produced 8-9 mons per bigha whereas they used to get only 4-5 mons per bigha in the same plots of land through traditional method of cultivation. Every year, from then till now, after coming up with such dynamic output, they have been continuing cultivating paddy in their 9 bighas land using SRI method. And last year, they were overwhelmed as the production increased to more than 15 mons per bigha in the kharif season which was triple the quantity they used to harvest through traditional method. Phonika says whenever there is a need for working capital for farming, she used to get it immediately from the group at a very low interest and in return, she gets up to three times more profit by following the practice. She has inspired many SHG members and other villagers in applying this method. Both Phonika and Bijoy were even invited by other SHG members to instruct them about the procedure. She is planning to cultivate Rabi crops through SRI method as a group activity in the Bowari SHG which she believes will result in enhancement of income of other members. She has now achieved twelve months food security and has a surplus by selling rice and paddy. She is now aspiring to take up cash crops using the same method.
Dherkajuli is a small village under Barduar tea estate in Kamrup district of Assam. It has around 70 households mostly from Rabha and Adivashi communities. Every household earn their living by wage labour in the Borduar Bagan or nearest towns like Mirza. They are subsistent farmers and regular cash flow is a constraint. Geeta Murari (43 years) and her husband, Dinesh Murari (45 years) along with their son Montu and daughter Jasmina reside in Dherkajuli. Geeta is illiterate.
Geeta said that the money that her parents and siblings earned from the bagan was too meager to mitigate the costs of food and education. She recalled that sometimes it was even difficult to get three square meals a day for the family. Poverty compelled her to work as a wage labor from the age of 13. Things didn't change for her after marriage as she reluctantly said "I have seen the worst after my marriage, my husband spent all the earned money in drinking liquor and abused me physically".
Geeta, then got support from SeSTA. Her husband happily said that "I have never been able to save a penny, it was difficult for us to buy a piglet paying Rs 1800/- all at once, but SeSTA has given it just for Rs 300/- and the rest amount as a soft loan". Geeta had experience of rearing few local breed piglets on Aadhi(sharing) system. The breed that they procured from SeSTA was a Hampshire. Geeta stated smiling "the pig brought fortune to our family, I took care of our pig and fed him well". SeSTA provided support for veterinary Care in the form of vaccination, deworming, AI and disease mitigation as well as technical knowhow for quality shed construction. This reduced mortality to a large extent. Dinesh also underwent a change. He also started helping Geeta in pig rearing and stopped consuming alcohol and abusing her. The pig fattened up and sold at a sum of total Rs 9960/- , from that amount she returned the loan amount to SeSTA. She purchased tins for roof, a piglet , and a second hand bicycle for Dinesh and the rest of the amount was spent on various domestic purposes. Geeta was quite happy as they have been able to change the thatch roof by tins. The total cost incurred in rearing the pig was about Rs 1000. They again took care of the second piglet which was later sold at Rs 8300, this time they spent the entire amount in procuring 4 bighas of cultivable land. This was the biggest achievement in their lives since they didn't have any agricultural land before. Geeta had a saving of total R360/- in a self-help group promoted by SeSTA. She took a loan of R400 from her group and Dinesh had a saving of R800/- from his daily wage earning and spent the sum of R1200 in ploughing the land with a tractor. For the first time in their lives, Dinesh and Geeta were cultivating paddy on their own land. Geeta expressed her joy and confidence saying "the bad days are over now, my husband works in the field and he is no more a drunkard like before. We both have mutual understanding now, and we will educate our children".