The large swathes of cotton farms in Central India have been the epicentre of a global crisis that has gripped the rural population in crippling debts and driven thousands to suicide. But amidst the gloom, it is the women of this region who have emerged as the torchbearers of hope and progress. This new hope comes in the form of women collectives comprising of farm widows who are pooling their tenacity and frugal resources to rebuild their families.
The suicide count has varied with the government often fudging the figures or under-reporting them, but one estimate says that at least 10 farmers end their lives every day in India. The reasons for the distress are all but obvious. Within the self-perpetuating cycle of debt which offers little apparent escape, wrapping a noose around the neck is an easy exit for men. While their deaths might bring personal escape, they leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens, inherited by those left to farm the dust: the women.
Have we all not seen story after story running the same script: the gaunt, grizzled faces of the cotton farmers of Vidarbha and Andhra Pradesh staring out of their marriage portraits or ration card images, even as the restless eye of the electronic age ranges over their grieving families and politicians swoop down with a consolatory dole, and they become yet another piece of statistic reflecting rural despair? The most recent addition, after the highly popular Pipli Live, is a film evocatively titled Cotton for my Shroud, detailing the plight of Vidarbha farmers.
Farmers borrow loans from moneylenders at extraordinarily high rates of interest. The peasants hope for a better yield in times to come, but this never happens, and they find themselves in a debt trap. Unable to pay the interest, let alone the principal, they borrow more to get onto a treadmill, recklessly driven by the cruel money-lenders, who are no better than sharks.Crushing debts, therefore, push farmers into the darkest of pits.
While handling microfinance operations in Maharashtra’s eastern belt of Vidarbha for several institutions, I observed an excellent credit culture among poor women.Several of them were farm widows, who had come together in the form of small clusters or collectives of women, known as self-help groups.
These groups, locally known as “bachat gats”, primarily promote a culture of saving. The sorority has enabled farm widows to step up and help restore order in their lives. Even in traditional societies, no matter how oppressed or illiterate the women are, they often act as the stewards of family savings.
The horrific agrarian crises in Yavatmal district in central India, where countless cotton farmers committed suicide every other day, was also followed by a spectacular boom in the growth of self-help groups of women. These self-help groups withstood the tempest and their members demonstrated remarkable tenacity and fortitude to rebuild their financial lives and, in the process, built remarkable credit histories. The Yavatmal district gave birth to a highly refined and innovative microfinance model that won accolades from the government. Not only have these self-help groups helped women reweave their lives; they are also playing a big role in galvanising the moribund rural economy.
These community groups have also produced social capital in the form of various catalysts for change in different spheres. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals (CPs) for mobilisation, leadership, financial management, agriculture, livestock, health, literacy, and more.
If you want to see the credibility of poor women borrowers, you must visit villages in the suicide-prone Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where banks had to plough dud agricultural loans like a mountain of rotten potatoes. My experiences during the last few years in Yavatmal have made these convictions indelible.
In Pandharkawda Taluka in Yavatmal district, one can find women who have summoned the last ounces of their energy to overcome the huge hurdles in life. Sakhra is home to completely illiterate backward women who ensure the rights and protection that they, owing to their identity as forest tribals and displaced people, are guaranteed by the law. It is a resettlement village in which villagers uprooted by a development project have been rehabilitated. Seventy households led by Anusaya, lovingly called Amma, have fought their way on their own. They demonstrated before the local administration for days to get a barely motorable road constructed. Each family now owns six acres of irrigated land, and at least a pair of bullocks, two cows and a few goats.
Women have the instinct and the determination to bring about a change in their own communities if they get the right opportunity. For these women, overriding sentiment is hope for humanity and the future. However, money is a major hurdle. When targeted properly, financial access gives people the choice of doing something that makes their life more sustainable and lifts them out of extreme poverty.
Poor people show inspirational courage and the ability to transform the little that the deck has dealt them into livelihoods for their families and communities. They already have skills, are politically conscious, and are aware of the need for schooling their children and taking care of their health.
Experience worldwide shows that when a woman receives money, her extended family usually benefits, as any profit percolates down and brings about the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people. We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change. For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: if we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women
In the lives of these tenacious women I found the story not of a country’s doom but a story of a country’s will to survive. This may not be a revolution but at the very least this is a revolution in the making.
What sparks change for people living in poverty? Is it a microloan, access to water for crops, use of a mobile phone in a remote village? Or is it a personal vision, grounded in hope and courage? Whatever the spark, we need to foster and nurture it. Several development successes have succeeded in lesser optimal settings. In each case, creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness and imagined a way forward that took into account local realities and built on local strengths.
As a simple, low-cost and resilient strategy, it can be carried out by small informal organizations and spread elsewhere. What humanity needs to understand is that development truly lies in the hands of the people.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at email@example.com