• by Ranjit Devraj (bodghaya, india)
  • Tuesday, March 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Kumari, 20, is not a bank employee. She is a ‘Bank Mitra’ (friend of the bank) who helps Sahdeokhap villagers fill out forms to withdraw or deposit savings, apply for loans or engage in other types of ‘business communication’ as World Bank jargon would have it.

'My sitting at this desk has special meaning for the villagers as it gives them a sense of access to the bank - and it gives me respect,' said Kumari.

The scene at this Bank of India branch, located a few kilometres away from Bodhgaya where the Buddha achieved nirvana or enlightenment, is an example of ‘practical implementation’ of the 70 million U.S. dollar ‘Jeevika’ (livelihood) project.

The project was launched by the Bihar government in 2007 through the autonomous Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society. The World Bank provides 63 million dollars for the project.

Jeevika aims to promote the social and economic empowerment of the rural poor in Bihar, one of India’s most backward states in terms of human development indices. The project, when completed in 2012, will have covered 500,000 families in 4,000 villages spread across the districts of Nalanda, Gaya, Khagaria, Muzaffarpur, Madhubani, Purnia, Supaul and Madhepura.

Bank documents say the average annual per capita income in Bihar is 157 dollars or about a quarter of the national average. Eighty-nine percent of its 83 million people live in rural areas with 'poor service delivery, complex political and social fabric, limited inclusion in institutions, limited economic opportunities, and poor development infrastructure'.

While the poverty ratio in Bihar decreased from 64.4 percent in 1983 to 44.3 percent in 2006, the absolute number of poor is still a staggering 36 million and poverty concentrated amongst marginal farming households. Nearly 2.3 million poor are exposed to large debts, with food, health and education accounting for 25 to 30 percent of consumption expenses.

To address this, Jeevika helps build women’s self-help groups (SHGs) that encourage members to save, avail of loans and engage in economic activities that dovetail into the formal banking system and deal competently with established business entities.

'We’ve always wanted to help these mostly illiterate women but they were shy in approaching us and we were too busy to be filling up forms for them,' Sunil Narain, the manager of the Sahdeokhap branch, told IPS. 'Jeevika’s initiative has made a major difference.' In Narain’s view, Jeevika’s main achievement has been the breaking of the stranglehold of the ‘sahukar’ (upper-caste moneylender-cum-shopkeeper) who kept the villagers in perpetual bondage through loans given out at usurious rates of interest against mortgages on their smallholdings.

'Typically, the sahukars would extract an interest of 10 percent of the loan amount per month from the already impoverished villagers, while we are giving out loans at nine percent per annum with no collateral,' said Narain. 'The women and their SHGs put the money to good use, buying livestock, agricultural inputs or setting up small shops... and they are creditworthy, paying back loans 95 percent of the time.'

'The sahukars are now a dying breed,' added Narain.

Rinki Kumari’s own career illustrates the role that the self-help groups have come to play in women’s lives in the villages of Bihar where Jeevika operates. Her mother, Kunti Devi, put her through a university degree course with loans from one such group.

A bank consultant to Jeevika, Vinay Kumar, told IPS that the project was designed so that the SHGs, when grouped together, acted as social service providers, business entities and valued clients of regular banks - roles that the government machinery had failed to play for them.

'The key difference is that the project, its managers and beneficiaries could steer a way around an inflexible government system and a rigid social order in the villages, denoted by caste and patriarchy that resulted in decades of stagnation,' Kumar said.

Once the SHGs were established, the women soon discovered that they could also act as pressure groups to lobby for benefits and services their villages were entitled to, such as electricity supply and roads as well as access to government food and employment schemes.

'Through the community organisations the women gained a say in community affairs, their voices were heard by agencies providing various services and they could demand representation on the boards of bodies that implement schemes meant to help them,' said Kumar. 'For example, they could take to task a truant school teacher.'

'Women trained in the Jeevika programme are more self-respecting and self-confident and respond better to situations than those who are not in the process,' said Kartikey Dhanji, a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service and assistant collector of Gaya, one of the eight Bihar districts covered by Jeevika.

'Jeevika is creating space for impoverished women and acts on its own guidelines. We (government) are there to support it,' added Dhanji. That is no idle claim. In the 2006 panchayat and local body elections, the state government reserved 50 percent of the seats for women, who went on to win 58 percent of the seats.

But to make full use of the power shift in rural areas, the women need training to operate the right levers, says Pradeepta Tripathy, a Jeevika project manager. 'It is a combination of a large number of elected women representatives with the right orientation who can be truly empowered — and perhaps lift Bihar out of poverty in the process.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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