Stories from the heartland of UP are invariably about living on the margins. However, where women have come together to form Self Help Groups (SHGs) and stepped on to the economic ladder, the narrative is changing.
Since 2002, the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana, through a network of 1,31,175 SHGs across 43 districts, has transformed the lives of many women by making them entrepreneurs.
Take the story of Usha Singh, an SHG member from Naraini village of Amethi District, who, with two loans of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000 and some money saved by her father-in-law, was able to buy two bighas of land and construct and run a co-ed school for 470 students.
It was a struggle, but the Sarvodaya Bal Vidya Niketan, set up in 2011 in Nanha Bartoli, adjoining Naraini, is a recognized school with 11 rooms and 11 teachers. As the money came in from admission and tuition fees, rooms were added and teaching scaled to secondary level. Usha Singh, who had studied till graduation, is the headmistress of the school; her husband and father-in-law, qualified and experienced teachers, help run the school. The construction is basic but the teaching standards are high, attracting students. Of the Rs 85,000 a month that comes in as fees every month, Rs 45,000 goes towards teachers’ salaries.
At Phoolwari village, in the Phoolwari block of Lakhimpur Kheri, Manisha, Rekha and Preeti Gupta of the Ekta Mahila Gram Sangathan, all related by marriage, took loans and helped their husbands open and run Chandan Sweet House at Monu Chat Corner on the main road of Phoolwari.
Eight years ago, the shop they ran had been closed and their husbands were out of the village in search of livelihoods as electrician and bus conductor. In 2013, they took their first loan of Rs 10,000, and with Rs 1,000 the family could pool together, started the business. Then, with a second loan of Rs 10,000, they purchased the required kitchenware. In two years the eatery is doing well and the loan has been repaid with 2% interest. Its samosas, mithai and puri bhaji are in demand and often orders are received in advance. While the women manage the back end of the business, making the products for sale at home between 7 am and 9 am, the sales counters are managed by the men. Sales are brisk and the daily profits range from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500.
A family member, Chandan Gupta, who was in the catering business, groomed them for the enterprise, to bring that extra zing to their samosas. The 20 ft by 20 ft shop caters to 10 to 15 people at a time. Rekha, who has studied till Class 5, keeps the books, ensuring that purchase, sales and profits are neatly recorded. Rekha has taken another loan of Rs 15,000 and bought a freezer for keeping cold drinks. Adding to the business, in 2015, Manisha took a loan of Rs 2,000 and her husband bought a machine for packing namkeens. He buys 3-4 varieties in bulk and makes small packets. Not only have the women been the backbone of the business but their children are going to private schools too and life is looking up.
Forty-year-old Kiran, a mother of three, also from the SHG of Phoolwari, had never worked. But seeing the transformation in the lives of other women of her samooh, she took her first loan of Rs 5,000 in 2015 and started a bangle shop from a room in her home in the busy marketplace.
Her husband takes her to Lakhimpur and she buys a variety of bangles in wholesale, keeping in mind the latest trends. Having repaid the loan, she has taken another of Rs 10,000 and is now also selling artificial jewellery, mehendi and other decorative items used at weddings and special occasions. Her daily sales are Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 and, during festivals and weddings they shoot up to Rs 4,000 a day.
Bypassing money lenders, a large number of the SHG members across the state are taking loans and opening grocery stores, investing in goats, pigs and buffaloes to improve their economic status. There is no looking back for them. However, two stories that need to be told are of the mother and daughter team of Anju, a 45-year-old widow of Ekta Mahila Samooh, and her 21-year-old daughter Sandya, who, with SHG loans, have been able to take back eight bighas of land they had kept in mortgage. Sarita, 30, of the same samooh, was able to recover five bighas of land that a landowner had grabbed taking advantage of her alcoholic husband.
Anju’s husband had blood cancer and she kept taking loans from the money lender keeping her eight bighas on mortgage. However, he could not be saved. In 2013, she and her daughter, who is now doing her MA in political science, joined the samooh, took a loan of Rs 20,000 and got back the mortgaged land. The mother and daughter toiled on the land and paid back the loan. Then they took another loan of Rs 10,000 and started running a general store; Rs 5,000 of the second loan too was repaid. Sandya’s 12-year-old brother, who goes to school in the morning, runs the shop in the evenings.
Sandya, who wants to become a teacher, says, “We have crawled back from hell. We are happy now and don’t depend on anyone. The mahajan (money lender) is losing a lot of his clients!”
Sarita, mother of 15- and 10-year-old boys, joined the samooh in 2013. Her husband worked as a casual labourer and blew up his earnings in booze. A landlord claimed her husband had borrowed Rs 20,000 and grabbed the five bighas of land the family owned. So she took this amount as loan and recovered her land. A hard working woman, Sarita grows sugarcane on her five bighas, as well as on two more bighas she farms on. After paying off the initial loan she has taken two more loans of Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 and bought two buffaloes. She does farming, looks after the buffaloes and sells milk to improve her earnings. Her husband, living separately, continues to be an alcoholic. “He can no longer bully and beat me,” she says. Due to economic empowerment, women are now investing in better, private education for their children.
Like Anju and Sarita, five other women of Phoolwari have been able to release their mortgaged land with loans from the SHGs.
Lakshmi and Babli of the Pooja Mahila Samooh are big league entrepreneurs. With extremely supportive husbands, they run dhabhas on the Lakhimpur Kheri highway.
In fact, this samooh got a cash credit limit of Rs 3 lakhs from the Allahabad UP Grameen Bank. Lakshmi took two loans of Rs 20,000 and Rs 10,000 in 2013 to buy utensils, tables, chairs, gas, and basic necessities for running a big dhaba that could cater to over 100 persons every day. The dhaba is conveniently located opposite a cooking gas depot and there is an assured stream of customers from among those who come to collect gas as well as those working in the depot. Lakshmi’s husband, Krishna Gopal, has worked at Sheri-e-Punjab restaurant as a cook and makes good desi and Chinese cuisine. A plate of dal, channa, sabzi and roti (quantity unlimited) costs Rs 50. Chicken and meat are made to order by Lakshmi at home and bring in more money.
Lakshmi says with pride, “Mai gaddi per baithi hoon (I handle the cash)”. In addition, she runs a sweets shop where 15 to 20 items of peda, burfi, jalebi, samosas, etc., are made by hired cooks who are paid Rs 220 daily. Lakshmi’s five children study in a private school and the couple works hard, saving every day to return the loans.