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DEVELOPMENT

Aim for change

Civil society initiatives are encouraging people's participation at the grassroots. SHYAMALA SHIVESHWARKAR assesses their impact on India's poorest districts.

REUTERS

DEVELOPMENT seems to have bypassed Gosainpura village, though it is just 18 km from the district headquarters of Tikamgarh forcing its residents to ask even complete strangers to "Please help us. We have no power, no medical care for our children and no job opportunities... "

"So what are you doing about it?" asks Manoj from the NGO Sarthak. "What can we do?" they ask in one voice. "We don't have any knowhow about these matter... no one will listen to us."

" I'll tell you what to do," cuts in Manoj as he holds up a twig in what is perhaps the first lesson they are receiving in the strengths of collective power. "Suppose I am like this twig. As one person with a complaint, I can be ignored or broken," he says snapping the twig in two. "And even if there are two of us we can be ignored, divided or broken," he says, again snapping the twigs. "But if we are more in number, a group," he holds the twigs together, "nothing can break us and we can get what we want."

The motley crowd of men and women, who had come together after considerable persuasion, become silent. Clearly, this was an argument they had not heard before and they listened intently as he went on to talk about their rights, government schemes and gram sabhas.

For though Gosainpura is not off the beaten track, there have been no civil society interventions, no self-help groups among women and none — men or women — had been to a gram sabha meeting because, "No one informs us about them... no one takes us to them."

In complete contrast, there is Mamamun village, just seven km from Tikamgarh and the site of a Sarthak intervention. Durries were laid out in the open space before the school and, within minutes, about 30 women — all members of self-help groups — had joined us. They required no persuasion and were soon vying with each other to talk about their self-help group — the capital they had accumulated in the bank through their savings of Rs.20 per month, from the bricks they made, the fish they reared in the local ponds that they had restored. And perhaps, more importantly, they spoke with pride of how attitudes in the village were changing.

They said the status of women had gone up because they were contributing to the family income and how many of the husbands — who had threatened to "cut off our legs" if they went to the SHG meetings — were now taking turns watching over the ponds. And it is not as if they do not have problems. They mention the unavailability of power, of hand pumps that don't work and limited livelihood opportunities but there is no sense of despair because they know that together they can make things change.

Cynics may dismiss these initiatives as piecemeal, sporadic and insignificant but what they do demonstrate is that civil society with the right synergy can alter the development scenario. The U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) launched a four-year Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme that provides funding and support to civil society organisations like Sarthak working in the poorest districts of the country. In fact, there are numerous on-going civil society initiatives to promote people's participation at the grassroots by making them aware of their collective power and motivating them to better their lives through their own initiatives.

Since 1996, Samarthan, for instance, has been promoting its two-point agenda in Madhya Pradesh of: "strengthening voluntary organisations of women, dalits and other minority groups through capacity building and advocacy and enhancing the capacities of the voluntary sector by strengthening its organisational management and program delivery skills." PANI has been mobilising rural communities in several districts of Uttar Pradesh, especially women whom it sees as not just the most disadvantaged section of society but also as the best harbingers of social change, which indeed they are.

In fact, with support from PANI, which claims to have initiated the concept of self-help groups for credit/saving way back in 1996, there are over 2,000 such groups with savings to the tune of three crore rupees. And this in turn has led to livelihood initiatives with women linked to the SHG's involved in about 300 different economic activities ranging from agriculture to animal husbandry and catering. Due to PANI's advocacy and capacity building activities, people are also more alert and increasingly taking their own initiatives. Some women's groups like the one in Pirkholi village have even dared to blow the whistle on corruption by refusing to accept funds under the Swaran Jayanti Swarozgar Yojana until the District Magistrate agreed to their three demands — that they would not have to go outside their village, that all the documentation work would be done in the village and that no commission would be given to any official. Subsequently Rs. 54,00,000 was spent in the village under various schemes.

More importantly, all the SHGs have moved on from credit/savings and livelihood activities to being pressure groups on issues like land, wages and exploitation. Land rights has been on PANI's agenda since 1996, when it brought together farmers who were paying for irrigation even though they were not getting water. Consequent to their protests, the Government removed the names of those who were not getting water. It was also decided that rates should not be fixed on the basis of the command area. Collective efforts under its Bhumi Adhikar Samiti have resulted in the redistribution of land that had been encroached on by powerful members of the community. Until now 703 families have benefited in U.P.

Similarly, Samarthan's focus on gram sabha mobilisation has resulted in increased participation and greater transparency in decision making and implementing processes at the panchayat level with SHGs serving as platforms for teaching women leadership and decision-making skills. Not only are women and dalit sarpanchs already showing confidence, gram sabhas are also increasingly using collective strength to achieve their goals. In one dalit village, the women stood their ground against the upper classes and got a dalit teacher appointed.

In another, they refused to provide the requisite quorum unless their demand for a certain road was met. And in Sarguja village, a strengthened gram sabha prevented the Forest Department from taking away the cultivable land of poor tribals for its afforestation programme. Even individually, they have been able to bring physical and attitudinal changes. In Sehore village, the sarpanch Geetha Rathore succeeded in ending wife beating and alcoholism.

Of course it has not been easy. Because as Yogesh Kumar, Director of Samarthan remarked, "Even in a State like Madhya Pradesh which has a positive policy environment, one still has to contend with feudal mindsets, upper castes, sarpanchs and others unhappy at the devolution of powers and benefits that they had always taken for granted. It calls for constant advocacy at different levels. At the Chief Minister's level, at the bureaucrat's level, especially those who are sympathetic to these issues, the panchayat level and, of course, the people and the communities."

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