Their kitchen radiates energy

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From rolling papads and hand-grinding masalas to negotiating with foreign buyers, bankers and legal cells... two organisations that capitalise heavily on women's inherent strengths and skills.

Annapurna's papad rolling unit.
Annapurna's papad rolling unit.

Surekha Kadapa-Bose

They had humble beginnings but, today, both Annapurna Mahila Mandal (AMM) and Shri Mahila Griha Udyog (SMGU) are credited with changing the lives of scores of women living on society's fringes. Those associated with these organisations run entirely by women, not only feel empowered but also proud to be part of the women's movement or mahila chalval, as they say in Marathi.

SMGU, better known for its product Lijjat Papad, began with seven members and Rs 80 as seed capital. Today it has an annual turnover of Rs 315 crore, with Rs 12 crore in exports. The three-decade-old AMM, which initially had 14 members wives of mill workers has so far disbursed Rs 60 crore as micro-credit loans to members, and there has not been a single defaulter. While SMGU believes in making members financially independent, Annapurna goes a step further extending a helping hand in the rehabilitation of victimised or sexually abused girls and women.

In the 47-year-old SMGU, members are co-owners and fondly referred to as `sisters'. The 11-member executive committee is assisted by Sanchalikas who look after the day-to-day affairs of centres spread across the country and boast of about 42,000 members.

"Most of our founder members, who are now in their 70s, had hardly visited a school. But today we have many graduates as members. What they earn with us is a significant contribution to the family kitty," explains Jyoti Naik, president of SMGU, who as a 12-year-old accompanied her mother to roll out papads. Today Jyothi, once a child helper and with only SSLC to her credit, interacts with foreign buyers, attends to court matters and is occasionally invited by women's organisations/ colleges to speak on women's empowerment.

On the other hand, Annapurna has grown into an extraordinary grassroots movement, touching the lives of over 2 lakh women from the lowest economic strata in Mumbai, Pune, Belgaum and the State's Marathwada region. Prema Purao was closely involved in the Goa freedom struggle, the Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan, and was even imprisoned for nine months while working as a trade unionist in the 1960s. In 1975, she organised the wives of mill workers who supplemented the family income by supplying lunch dabbas.

These women were always at the mercy of moneylenders and the neighbourhood kirana (grocer) shops. Prematai, as she is known, convinced a bank to provide loans to the khanawalis. Initially, 14 women received Rs 1,500 each at 4 per cent interest. The women refused to be exploited by the kirana (grocery) shops that shortchanged them and switched to wholesale purchase of provisions. They managed to repay their loans and even took additional loans to start large-scale catering operations.

"Till today two lakh women have benefited from our micro-credit scheme availing loans ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 25,000. We have excellent coordination with banks and our members," explains Prema, a Padmashree awardee, as she shows us around the large kitchen and women's hostel located in Navi Mumbai.

At Annapurna, rural and exploited women receive top priority. After receiving training at the Mumbai headquarters and at Shirwal, about 40 km from Pune, many of these women are occupied in selling vegetables, fruits, bangles, flowers, fish, grain, papad and masala. Sari fall, beading, toy making, tanning and manufacturing bakery products are the other activities they are involved in.

The trained women, most of whom are single earning members or single mothers, become eligible for loans. Even banks and other financial institutes have recognised Annapurna's role as a mediator and authorised it to identify loan beneficiaries.

Another similarity between SMGU and Annapurna is their readiness to start new ventures that benefit women. After tasting tremendous success with their papads, SMGU began producing other products like khakhra, masala, vadi, wheat atta, bakery products, south Indian products, and detergent powder and cakes under the brand name SASA. To maintain the quality of the final products, the head office purchases and distributes all ingredients. For example udid dal, the main ingredient in papads, is imported from Myanmar, asafoetida from Iran, black pepper from Kerala etc; whenever there is a shortfall in quality, the central committee deducts a rupee from the worker's daily wage!

Annapurna entered the spices market, manufacturing masalas using traditional hand-grinding methods. The value addition comes with the packaging. The `purnaanna' brand of masala packets with a green sticker indicates that the spices are processed by the Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT) and is licensed by the State's food and drug administration.

"What makes these basic masalas unique is the outstanding quality offered at rock-bottom prices. Rural women at our centre in Shirwal, carefully grind chosen ingredients in the traditional way and seal the powder in aluminum foil," she says.

The sealed packets are `cold pasteurised and gamma radiated' to maintain top-quality hygiene and processed at a Rs 5-crore commercial demonstration plant established in Navi Mumbai by BRIT for the department of atomic energy.

What differentiates Annapurna from others is the vision of its team leader. As 71-year-old Prema says, "Our sole aim is to empower women who have suffered broken marriages, have been deserted, sexually abused by male members or generally those whom the society refuses to accept as its own."

The NGO has women victims coming from Assam, Nepal, and Punjab, besides other States neighbouring Maharashtra. Recently three teenaged sisters from a Mumbai suburb entered Annapurna; their father sexually abused the girls in the absence of the mother. Then there are young unwed mothers, and deserted women with children from West Bengal and south India.

The success of both organisations owes to the efforts of their member-sisters who have withstood several hardships with unshakeable belief in `the strength of a woman'.

"Neither our women nor our organisation wants any charity or donations. We want to work, earn on our own and become independent. We believe in empowering our members," adds Jyoti Naik.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 1, 2005)
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