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Women collectives prove that self-help is the best help

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on May 30, 2020 Published on May 30, 2020

(From top) Ansuiya Devi (left) and Sushma; Julekha with her husband (left); Pooja with her children Swapna Majumdar   -  Swapna Majumdar

SHGs in the villages of Uttar Pradesh offer food security during the ongoing Covid pandemic

A few days after Pooja admitted her ailing father-in-law to the government hospital near her village Noorpur in Prayagraj district, Uttar Pradesh, he passed away. With her husband not being able to return from Gujarat, where he worked, due to the countrywide lockdown, Pooja was in dire straits. She had no money for his funeral. The little that was left was just enough to feed her four-year-old son and his six-month-old sibling.

When news of her plight reached the village women’s self-help group (SHG), they immediately came to the rescue. Not only did they provide her the money for the funeral, they also gave her food grains. “I was really desperate as I had no resources for the funeral. If I hadn’t received ₹2,000 as well as 30 kg of rice and 30 kg wheat from the group, I don’t know what I would have done,” says Pooja, an SHG member.

Pooja is not the only one. At this time when distressed families of migrant workers are struggling to cope, it is the women collectives in the villages of Uttar Pradesh that are leading from the front. With these workers unable to send money to their families living in the villages, life has been extremely tough for them. Many, especially the elderly, have struggled after being left to fend for themselves. The SHGs have become lifesavers by giving food grains and money to tide over the crisis.

Grain banks to the rescue

This support has been possible thanks to the 2,600 grain banks existing in different villages of Uttar Pradesh. The grain banks, started by over two lakh SHGs trained by the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP), a not-for-profit, came up to ensure food security to SHG members. Since almost half of these 20 lakh women belong to marginalised communities, the grain bank was a good strategy to provide food security to them. However, the groups have not turned away any woman in need even if she did not belong to an SHG.

When Kanchan, a daily wage labourer in village Sricharanpur, was facing trouble arranging food for her two children and widowed mother-in-law because she had no work during the lockdown, women of the local SHG turned up at her house. “Although Kanchan was not a member of our SHG, we could see her distress. She doesn’t even have any land. So, we gave her 30 kg rice and 20 kg wheat,” says Meera Devi, an SHG member in the village.

In adjoining Bahariya block, daily wagers Julekha Bano and her husband faced a similar problem. Unable to get work amidst the lockdown, Julekha first appealed to the village head to intervene so that she could get rations from the PDS shop. But the shopkeeper kept her waiting for several days. When the situation became unbearable, Julekha appealed to the SHG. “I have five children. I was told that I would get work when the harvesting started. But how would I survive in the interim?” posed Julekha.

Once they heard her story, the collective provided her with 10 kg of rice, 40 kg of wheat and money to buy cooking oil and vegetables. But they didn’t stop there. They took up her case with the shopkeeper of the ration shop. Their intervention has ensured that Julekha will be able to access her quota of rations when she needs it.

According to Devesh Kumar, the RGMVP field officer working in these villages, the power of collectives has become more evident in times of crisis. He said that the Coronavirus pandemic had led to a lot of fear about jobs and income. This was particularly so for families whose breadwinners were stuck outside the State. “We had heard news about the woman who threw her small children in the river because she could not feed them. The women collectives know that they need to boost the mental health of these families in addition to monetary and food grain support during these times of hopelessness and uncertainty,” says Kumar.

It was because of the counselling and support provided by the collective that Ansuiya Devi was able to get over her anxiety. She had panicked when she heard that her husband would not able to return from Surat, Gujarat, and neither would he be able to send money. “He is a daily wage labourer there and has no work right now because of the lockdown. The ₹2,000 my husband sent three months ago had been spent and I didn’t have rations or money to buy food for my two children. I was afraid and was not able to sleep at night. I was able to overcome my fears after Sushma didi made me understand that the group was there with me and I should not worry,” shared Ansuiya.

Sushma Patel, who is the treasurer of the SHG, ensured Ansuiya was given 50 kg rice and 50 kg wheat and three kg dal. “She is my neighbour and I saw her anxiety. I counselled her. Since her phone balance has run out, I have told her to use my phone to speak to her husband. I am happy that she is no longer tense and knows we are with her.”

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on May 30, 2020

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