A rural Indian spring

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A rural Indian spring

Friday, 07 August 2020 | Moin Qazi

A rural Indian spring

The harbinger of this change is a unique policy experiment in village-level governance, the Panchayati Raj Act, which has brought transformative results for village women

In the last two decades, the gender landscape in rural India has been greening and women are now on the cusp of a powerful social and political revolution. The harbinger of this change is a unique policy experiment in village-level governance, the Panchayati Raj Act, which has brought transformative results for the weakest of the weak: The village women. In a country that has a bad scorecard in matters of gender equality, India has set a stellar example by becoming a crucible for one of social democracy’s most innovative experiments in gender justice. Women now steer local governance in thousands of villages.

This revolution led to the discovery of several hidden gems and one of them is Shalan Shelke, an intrepid and passionate woman with a unique brand of earnestness and determination. She has galvanised the poor, unlettered women in Sangamner, a remote corner of India’s deep hinterland. Sangamner is the site of the confluence of three rivers: Pravara, Mhalungi and Adhala in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.

Now a 49-year-old firebrand, Shalan was one of those emerging backyard leaders, who realised early on that powerful things could happen if marginalised communities were themselves involved in finding solutions to issues plaguing them. She is now a crusader for a number of social causes. By giving marginalised women a stake in the outcome of their communities, Shalan and her band of workers are trying to unlock human potential, both for themselves and for thousands of women in villages around Sangamner.

Shalan was 20, barely out of college, when she became a social activist and entrepreneur. Although she had mentors and friends to support her, the journey was hard. She taught herself advocacy and business skills in a male-dominated culture. “Being a woman in this space is challenging,” says Shalan. She recalls how “scary” it was when her initial efforts landed her in trouble but relatives and friends rallied around and chipped in.

She had seen women of her mother’s generation bearing multiple burdens. The drudge work that goes into cultivation is mostly done by women. They till the land, sow the seeds, de-hull the grains, attend to livestock and also act as primary caregivers to their families, that include children and elders. We all are aware of this but do little to change some of the harsh realities of our country. But Shalan was made of sterner stuff and instead of being resigned to status quo, she decided to upend it.

Shalan’s voice is one among many pushing for women’s rights. In recent years, women have felt more empowered to call out men’s wrongdoings, leading to conversations about the power dynamics that women are subjected to in the home and beyond. In many ways, it is still a man’s world, yet women are working to change that in their communities. Change is seldom easy. The patriarchal status quo is deeply entrenched, especially in traditional societies where challenging the system comes at a hefty cost.

Shalan’s journey began with the founding of Nirmiti Mahila Udyojik Sahakari Sanstha (called Nirmiti for short) in 2001 in Sangamner. It supports local communities to transition from a supply-led to a demand-driven approach and harnesses resources from the departments of agriculture, tribal welfare and other Government agencies. Through their multiple roles and responsibilities, women are learning, adapting and reinventing themselves along the way. The society now has about 900 members with a yearly turnover of about Rs 90 lakh.

A chance encounter in 2003 helped Shalan make her mark as a business leader and also put me on a wonderful journey. I was posted in Mumbai to head my bank’s State operations in micro-finance. Shalan was heading a federation of self-help groups (SHGs) of women in Sangamner. She was also a prominent face on various platforms in Mumbai and Pune for rural women. I was amazed at her understanding of global economics, particularly her ability to analyse local issues in the international context. I continue to marvel at the logical precision with which she presents the economic and social case of marginalised women. 

It was around this time that Shalan and her colleagues decided to set up an organic fertiliser manufacturing unit. One of the primary livelihood activities of women in her federation was the collection of neem seeds, which were processed and then supplied to manufacturers of fertilisers and pesticides. Shalan and her associates decided to set up their own production facilities to enhance employability for locals. The loan processing was fast-tracked and the money released in time, thanks to Shalan’s perseverance. However, due to her lack of experience and the technical inadequacy of the team to whom the job of assembling the plant was outsourced, the unit couldn’t take off.

It was a major setback but Shalan fought back. She and her partners didn’t let the bank down either. They paid off the entire loan from their own savings. Shalan has grown wiser in the process and has preferred to spread her risks evenly by opting for joint ventures.

While pursuing her entrepreneurship journey, Shalan didn’t lose sight of her primary mission: Advocacy for broader social issues of poor and discriminated women. In 2006, she started a magazine to channel the voices of these women. It is named Bahina, after a local poetess Bahinabai Choudhari, who was herself unlettered but composed inspiring verses. The coverage of rural issues in the mainstream media is very spotty and Bahina filled an important space. It has a distinct activist flavour and serves as a hyper-local platform. The region’s arid expanse overflows with social and economic strife. This has been channelised into the magazine’s writings where issues are reported and analysed from a woman’s perspective.

The magazine brought about immense change in the lives of the readers. It has been able to capture the groundswell of discontent and package the subtle nuances of the discourse in a highly palatable form. It has been able to build the perspectives of women so that they are equipped in their effort to upend the feudal system that kept their women ancestors trapped in servitude.

Shalan has also tapped business opportunities for women to have a reliable and consistent source of income. In 2011, the co-operative set up a canteen at the girls’ hostel in the local university campus. The canteen caters to 500 girls, providing nutritious, hygienic meals made from locally-grown crops and vegetables. Three years later, the Nirmiti started canteen services for the students of the Lok Panchayat Rural Technology College in Sangamner. In 2016, Nirmiti set up its own Co-operative Credit Society. It has 1,237 members with a share capital of Rs 20 lakh and fixed deposits of Rs 1.25 crore.

Shalan’s entrepreneurial dreams found sturdy wings when she collaborated with an acclaimed food company to set up a bakery. Reema Sathe, a well-known entrepreneur, has mentored this project which provides employment to farmers, workers at the baking unit and retailers. Nirmiti has also been able to use the time-honoured native knowledge of seeds to build a cadre of “seed mothers” who are now the stewards of biodiversity, protecting the genetic wealth of the country through “seed vaults.” They are conserving the indigenous seed heritage and preserving heirloom races of crops.

Now, more than ever, these women, many of whom escaped poverty through the SHG route and know what it is like to be destitute and poor, are living up to their motto of self-help and solidarity. For these women and communities, crisis is not new. They have lived through failed crops, unpaid debts and recurring droughts which they have faced almost every single year. Nirmiti’s approach of self-reliance and self-empowerment has helped strengthen the innate resilience of these women that is steering them through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shalan has come a long way since she started out. She shepherds a federation of almost 350 SHGs, all of which are actively engaged in a variety of socio-economic activities. Her success story underscores the importance of giving poor people access to loans, savings accounts and other financial services that can help them create businesses and reach their full potential. It is worth understanding that sheer grit and a helping hand can sometimes blaze trails where none seems possible. “It feels so good,” beams Shalan. “I really feel like a seasoned business leader.” Women leaders like Shalan present us with shiny, silver glimmers as they steer their communities through these tenuous times.

(The writer is a well-known development professional)

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