About 20 years ago, Vimla Devi from Nanoda village in Dungarpur district of south Rajasthan’s tribal belt faced the wrath of her mother-in-law when she dared to step out to earn money for running a tattered household.
Though her mother-in-law packed her off to her parents' home, Vimla stood her ground and joined a self-help group (SHG) that provided micro-credit. “I took a loan of Rs10,000 and freed the three bighas of land mortgaged by my father-in-law and also repaired the house. Then I took another loan of Rs20,000 for digging a borewell to irrigate the land,” says Vimla, now 54.
Once the land and irrigation facilities were in place, she began organic farming of three crops in a year, working in the fields during the day and going back to her parents home in the evening.
Loans and livelihoods
The courage shown by Vimla two decades back has brought her handsome rewards.
“I feel good. People respect me. They take my advice on organic farming, animal husbandry and on livelihood opportunities for women. I have been invited for talks in various cities and can speak confidently in large meetings,” says Vimla, a class 8th pass-out who is also president of the Dambola Federation which has 300 SHGs under it.
Vimla was also felicitated by the district collector on International Women’s Day a few years back for her work on women empowerment.
The change in Vimla’s fortunes came about through the SHG, started by local NGO People’s Education and Development Organisation (PEDO), which helped her get loans against savings.
Devi Lal Vyas, now 70, who set up PEDO in 1980, says the idea behind the organisation was to empower women in the tribal belt where the state government failed to provide education and health facilities. Even livelihood opportunities were non-existent.
Since its inception, PEDO has given Rs127 crore as loans to women while the self-help groups have notched up savings of Rs40 crore. The SHG gives loans to women members up to four times their savings.
“There was a severe drought here in 1985, 1986 and 1987. All the men migrated to Gujarat and other states in search of jobs. The women were left to fend for the families,” says Vyas.
Vyas spent a month in Bangladesh in 1989 with eminent economist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Muhammad Yunus whose efforts to provide microcredit and microfinance to poor entrepreneurs and show them a way out of poverty are well-known.
Vyas replicated some of Dr Yunus’s concepts in Dungarpur. “Our focus was to offer microcredit to women so they could be free from the clutches of moneylenders and enable them to create assets for earning a livelihood,” he says.
Dungarpur has been included among the country’s 250 most backward districts. It is industrially backward and almost 65 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture. As per the 2011 census, the average literacy rate is 59.46 percent with a female literacy rate of 46.16 percent.
Out of its 3.85 lakh ha geographical area, only about one-third or 1.34 lakh ha is net cultivated area. But the area under irrigation is only 0.46 lakh ha, about 34.74 percent of the net sown area.
“Since the men would migrate to other states in search of jobs, women would be left to look after the elderly in-laws and children. We thought by setting up self-help groups, the women would become financially independent.”
The self-help groups are independent entities managed by the women themselves.
Vyas says earlier, the households engaged in agriculture grew only one crop during the monsoons as there were no irrigation facilities. Moreover, the terrain in the tribal belt in south Rajasthan is hilly and rugged as it is located on the Aravali range. Due to this, people live on hillsides or isolated hillocks. There are few low-lying areas where level ground can be found. Consequently, water storage capacity is poor and people depend mainly on borewells.
“They did not have the money to dig borewells for irrigation or to level the land. So we provided them loans for these activities.”
In north Dungarpur, which is a water scarce area, PEDO has worked on water harvesting and watershed management by creating 80 anicuts and 118 ponds to store water.
Earlier, they only grew maize which was the staple. But with irrigation, they began growing pulses such as moong and urad, grains such as wheat and vegetables such as tomatoes, cauliflower, brinjal, chilli, ginger, turmeric and yam.
The women would earn an average income of Rs5000 annually by growing only maize. But with three crops of grains and vegetables, they now earn around Rs80,000 annually.
Vyas says there have been many positives that the interventions by SHGs have brought about.
There were no education and health facilities but now boys and girls are going to school and access to healthcare has improved. As the income increased, the men also started helping women in agriculture, which stopped their migration.
PEDO’s technical teams have helped women members with skill upgradation so they could undertake commercial agriculture. The women were taught about seed selection, planting of the crops, inputs to be used, watering, making organic fertiliser and pesticide and marketing.
PEDO takes up projects based on funding by donors. One of the donors has been the Aga Khan Foundation through which PEDO is also working on projects in Sudan, Afghanistan and Mozambique to help them set up women’s self-help groups and extend micro-credit.
In Dungarpur, the PEDO teams have helped women reach the local markets to sell their produce. PEDO has received several awards among them the National Youth award from the Ministry of Human Resources development in 1989 and Indira Priyadarshini Raksha Mitra award in 1992.
"Earlier veggies would come from Ahmedabad and other cities. But all this stopped during the lockdown and women were able to sell their produce in the mandis,” he says.
“People have also realised that organic produce is tastier and healthier. All the produce gets sold due to robust demand,” he says.
Lalita Kharadi from Gorada village has been an SHG member in her village since 2006. She took loan to level her land and dug a borewell for irrigation. She now grows brinjal, onions, tomatoes, chillies, and sugarcane on her one bigha land, earning Rs80,000-90,000 per year.
“Earlier my husband used to go to Gujarat and work as a labourer. We would earn Rs2000-3000 per month. But after I began organic farming in 2013, we are able to earn well here,” she says.
Kharadi, 30, says she has been made a community resource person and motivates and trains other women in the village to join in the economic activities. “Before I joined the SHG, I was home-bound. But now I have gained self-confidence and am training other women to become financially independent. Kharadi has managed to build up her own savings of Rs50,000 over the years.
Today, thousands of women have been lifted out of stark poverty and are earning their own livelihoods, thanks to PEDO. As Vimla Devi says, “I have seen poverty and hunger. I want to help other women so they don’t have to face tough times and can earn a sustainable livelihood.”
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)