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Economy Issue 2019

Remember Her

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Incentives for women self-help groups deliver a big political message

VILLAGERS OF Chandu in Haryana’s Gurugram fear even passing by the 19th century dilapidated haveli. Believed to be cursed and inauspicious, after some mishaps, it was abandoned by the Sharma family to which it belonged, nearly a hundred years ago. When Pooja, a young woman, married into the family and opened the door to the haveli in 2005, she could not see the ceiling because it was covered with bats. Some flew into a cave-like arched structure inside. “I was a bit scared, but I decided to clean it up,” she says. She used it to keep cows. That was her only hope of making ends meet.

Today, the house opens into a tiny office with white and silver wallpaper from where Pooja Sharma, now 39 years old, runs nine women’s self-help groups (SHGs) involving around 150 women. “It’s not easy for poor village women to step out and do something. People keep pulling you back,” says Sharma, as she shuts her laptop. She switches on a cooler and settles across the table covered with files, pamphlets and a vase of paper flowers. As she reminisces about her days of poverty, a plate with five different varieties of cookies— whole wheat with flaxseed, oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, double chocolate chip and walnut— all handmade with butter and without preservatives by the SHG women, is served.

Sharma goes on to narrate her rags to self-sustenance story. In 2013, she joined the Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s sewing centre, along with 29 other village women. Realising it would not help her financially, she took up training to learn how to make nuts out of soya. She then set up a self- help group, named Kshitij, which means horizon, with 10 poor women from the village of 300-400 families. She collected Rs 200 from each woman in the SHG, an informal savings and credit group of members from poor families who pool their savings and deal in mutual transactions. The women, familiar with working in the fields, used farm produce like soya to make dalia, bajra to make laddoo and khichdi and soya to make a health powder. They then sold these products. The SHG got linked to the Haryana State Rural Livelihood Mission and started taking the products to international trade fairs and other exhibitions. In 2017, when Access Development Services, a livelihoods support NGO, approached Pooja proposing a project involving women, she did not think twice before saying “yes”. The villagers were sceptical. But the women went ahead. The NGO trained them in making biscuits and then packaging them, nurturing their culinary skills. Five of those cookies are now supplied to supermarket chains like 24Seven, Le Marche and Reliance besides Mumbai’s Hyatt Hotel and functions held by the Home Ministry under the brand name ZingnZest, an initiative incubated by Access as a social enterprise owned and managed by these rural women entrepreneurs, with the support of Citi Foundation. The women, who earn around Rs 5,000-7,000 a month, deposit Rs 10 every month. Any one of them can take out a loan at an interest of 1 per cent, which is also distributed among the women. A large room in the old haveli has been converted into a modern commercial kitchen, with layers of ovens and steel counters. “What was a ghost for the villagers has become God for us women,” says Sharma. Half the haveli still remains untouched in its run-down state, a reminder of the past and a hope for the future.

For women like them, the recent Budget proposals like expanding the interest subvention scheme for women SHGs to all districts, allowing an overdraft of Rs 5,000 for every verified SHG member with a Jan Dhan account and allowing loans of up to Rs 100,000 for one woman in each such group under the MUDRA scheme, are seen as an economic and morale boost. “It will embolden more poor women to join SHGs and spur the movement. More than that, it’s good to see that the Government thinks about women,” says Pooja, who was among members of Haryana’s SHGs invited to interact with Prime Minister Narendra Modi through video conferencing in March, 2018. Like several others, she too is hopeful that a woman Finance Minister will do more for women.

Besides the thrust on Self-Help Groups, Sitharaman has also proposed that a committee with government and private stakeholders will evaluate and suggest measures on women's welfare

WHEN FINANCE Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the second woman in 72 years of India’s independence to present the Union Budget, stood up in Lok Sabha, expectations ran high on what measures she would propose for women. She drew a loud applause, particularly from the treasury benches, when she said “nari tu narayani (woman you are a goddess)”, a phrase also used by Modi in a speech he made in Lok Sabha in November, 2015. Sitharaman quoted Swami Vivekananda who had said “there is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly with one wing.” South Africa’s Nelson Mandela had put it a bit differently: freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. Sitharaman pointed out that the voter turnout of women had nearly equaled that of men in this year’s Lok Sabha election. In 2014, it was 65.63 per cent compared to 67.09 per cent turnout for men. She said a record 78 women members (around 14 per cent, from 11.3 per cent in 2014) had entered Lok Sabha. The minister then turned her attention to rural women. “In India’s growth story, particularly in the rural economy or grameen arthvyavastha, the role of women is a very sweet story. This Government wishes to encourage and facilitate the role of women,” she said.

As she spoke, a self-help group leader, sitting on the other side of the aisle in Lok Sabha, found herself concurring with Sitharaman when she said “nari tu narayani”. The face of SHGs from Odisha, 70-year-old Pramila Bisoi, Biju Janata Dal’s Aska MP, had never before stepped out of the state. “I didn’t understand much, but she [Sitharaman] spoke well,” says Bisoi. It was her perseverance in planting trees in a denuded forest near her village that brought her under the spotlight and earned her a certificate presented by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Bisoi is unimpressed with Sitharaman’s budgetary promises for SHGs, saying Patnaik has already announced interest free loans up to Rs 5 lakh for SHGs in Odisha. “So what is the big deal?” she asks, being both apolitical and political at the same time. Associated with SHGs since the late 1990s, Bisoi says the Centre should give subsidy to them to store perishables like vegetables in cold storage. In her first intervention in the House during zero hour, the grassroots worker took up a subject close to her heart and sought an increase in remuneration for Asha and Aanganwadi workers, saying the recent raise announced by the Modi Government was insufficient. Bisoi, who won by around 200,000 votes, says she would like to focus on seeking women’s empowerment, in her role as a parliamentarian.

Patnaik, in an interview to Open before the elections, had said “it is heartening for me to see an SHG leader like Mrs Bisoi bring her grassroot leadership experience to the hallowed halls of Parliament.” The BJD leader, who won the Odisha Assembly election for the fifth time, had in January announced interest free loans of up to Rs 3 lakh for women SHGs in the state, hours before Modi was to reach Baripada in Mayurbhanj district to launch Central Government projects. There are 600,000 SHGs in the state. Patnaik’s popularity among women, who saw him as their messiah, was apparent at his rallies, in which women seemed to outnumber men, as with the voter turnout in the state, following a campaign powered by Mission Shakti.

The Modi Government too has been striving to send the message that women’s empowerment is a priority area. With Sitharaman at the helm in finance, this theme has been amplified. Even political opponents appreciate that the Finance Minister brought women into focus in her Budget speech. “She at least mentioned the word women, missing in earlier Budget speeches,” says CPM politburo member and activist Brinda Karat. She, however, adds “but alas, when you are looking at allocations for women there is no difference. The share of gender budget allocations have decreased.”

In 2005, the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram had announced that his Budget would be gender sensitive. His Government adopted gender budgeting—one part reflecting women-specific schemes with 100 per cent allocation for women and another constituted by pro-women schemes wherein at least 30 per cent of allocation is for women. Gender budget was the highest at 5.5 per cent of the total Budget in 2014-16. In 2018-19, the share was 4.99 per cent, which has been further cut to 4.91 per cent in 2019-20. The allocation in terms of quantum, however, has increased to Rs 131,699.52 crore from Rs 121,961.32 crore in 2018-19.

Social workers say that to further strengthen Self-Help Groups the state should provide revolving funds for entrepreneurship. This will help them become self-sustaining ventures

BJP’s Lalitha Kumaramangalam, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), says the total Budget is not the only thing that matters. “Merely budget allocation does not mean amounts are spent wisely or fully. What matters more are policies, laws and and implementary framework that puts women at the centre of developmental activities.”

As far as budgetary proposals on SHGs are concerned, Karat says extending interest subvention would help on the ground only if banks can be pushed into giving loans to the groups. “The reality is that Public Sector Banks have scaled down giving loans to SHGs. There is no point in formulating policy that is not visible on the ground. The minister should have given an assurance that government will ensure that banks give loans.” On the proposal of one person being eligible for loan, Karat says the idea of SHG was a collective.

The Union Cabinet had decided in November, 2015, to extend the interest subvention under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) to 100 districts. Under it, women SHGs that avail loans up to Rs 3 lakh from banks are charged interest at the rate of seven per cent per year and get additional interest subvention of three per cent for timely repayment. This brings down their effective rate of interest to four per cent. The scheme has now been extended to all districts.

Kumaramangalam welcomes the budgetary provisions for SHGs, saying given the fact that the majority of India’s non-formal sector labour are women (including agriculture and allied fields) and data shows spectacular success of SHGs especially in south India, this was overdue. According to her, the Rs 1 lakh for one certified member can be used by the group to set up larger initiatives. “As the group’s dynamics ensure better loan servicing, the chances of bad debts too decrease. The power of the collective’s bargaining, scaling up, sharing resources [including human], etcetera are manifold, and are already well- documented, whether in production, or value addition, or even as contract labor.”

She does admit that what was necessary most was ensuring effective implementation. “In a still excessively patriarchal set-up, in both rural and urban india, there will be resistance from vested interests. However, we all need to overlook partisan interests—whether they be political, religious or casteist and give this chance to the multitudes of women who deserve a chance to come into their own,” adds Kumaramangalam.

THE HISTORY OF SHG in India can be traced back to 1985 when they started in the southern states, under the Mysore Resettlement and Area Development Agency (MYRADA). Soon, the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD), NGOs, RBI and other agencies started helping in the financial inclusion concept. By 1992, SHG was formally accepted as a credit option. Today, the number of women involved in SHGs in the country is estimated to be around 50 million. Experts in the field acknowledge that like any concept, the SHG movement needs to evolve and eventually become independent.

Suvendu Rout, associate vice president of Access, says for further strengthening SHGs, the Centre should give revolving funds to them for entrepreneurship. “This has not reflected in this Budget, though there is a tinge of flavour recognising the movement,” he says. While ZingnZest had the support of Citi Foundation, not all SHGs have such corporate backing. According to Rout, the provision for individual loans was unlikely to encourage SHGs, while other proposals like overdraft and extending loan subvention would help.

Kerala-based Kudumbashree, one of the world’s largest women empowerment projects with five million members, now has an MoU with 19 states. Conceived as a joint programme of the state government and NABARD, it has enhanced the socio-economic standing of poor women through micro-credits, vocational training, education and healthcare. “The budgetary proposals for SHGs are a good initiative. The future of these groups lies in their independence. Gradually with funds, they should become self-sustainable with a focus on livelihood and local economic development,” says S Harikishore, the executive director of Kudumbashree. He appreciates the increase in National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) budgets over the past three years.

Besides the thrust on SHGs, Sitharaman has also proposed that a committee with government and private stakeholders will evaluate and suggest measures on women’s welfare. The Modi Government has flaunted its list of schemes for women right from the Beti Bachhao Beti Padhao scheme to save and educate the girl child in 2014 to Stand Up India (which mandated public sector banks to provide at least one loan to a woman entrepreneur). In January 2019, however, a reply in Lok Sabha on fund allocation for Beti Bachhao Beti Padhao— 56.27 per cent spent for media activities, 24.56 per cent sent to states and 19.16 per cent unreleased— raised questions about implementation of the scheme. Earlier, the Government also faced criticism for GST on sanitary napkins at 12 per cent, while sindoor, bindi and Kajal were exempted. The tax on sanitary napkins was withdrawn last year. The Government’s other women- oriented initiatives include increasing maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, enabling at least one one woman borrower to avail of a loan between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 1 crore for setting up a greenfield enterprise under Stand Up India, and providing gas connections to BPL women. The BJP election manifesto has made promises ranging from political empowerment— 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state assemblies— to inclusive growth.

All eyes will be on the Government to see how far it will keep its promises to women.

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