“We want teachers to come to school and educate our children.”
“When the Anganwadi worker doesn’t turn up for work, we don’t pay her salary.”
“I have set up a grievance redressal mechanism to make public services accountable to villagers.”
These were some of the statements made to us by Anita, a once-diffident village woman in rural Jharkhand. What struck us most was the confidence and deep sense of empowerment with which Anita spoke to us. She had started out as a member of a village SHG and now headed the Masaniya village Gram Panchayat (local government) where she worked with other women members to protect the interests of her community.
We - a World Bank team led by Junaid Ahmad the India country director - were visiting rural Jharkhand, one of the poorest parts of the country, to see the work done under the Bank-supported National Rural Livelihood Project (NRLP). As we listened with rapt attention, the women poured out their stories, telling us how their lives had changed thanks to the resolve and positivity that the project had instilled within them. Time and again we heard how it was now possible for them to think of escaping the clutches of poverty and chart out a new future for themselves and their families.
Women pour out their stories
Take the case of Basanti, whose husband, the only earning member in her family, had an accident five years ago that left him incapable of doing any productive work. Basanti slowly realized that she could not allow the situation to beat her down. So she decided to switch from the family’s age-old practice of planting subsistence paddy to growing high-value horticultural crops and keeping poultry – both of which would fetch her higher prices in the market.
After taking – and paying off – five loans from the SHG, Basanti borrowed larger sums from the village organization which she invested in education for herself and her two children. She also purchased a farm machine and a two-wheeler. “No one knew me five years ago,” said Basanti. “But today, I work as a trained technical service provider in agriculture (Ajeevika Krishak Mitra) and give farming advice to a number of villages. What’s more, people now address me respectfully as Basanti Devi,” she beamed.
The other women too narrated similar stories, showing how they have actively begun working to improve their lives. We met SHG women who worked as bank correspondents and used technology to offer doorstep-banking services to their village and adjoining areas. So much so that the local bank manager is trying to extend their reach to other project areas.
Reaching the remotest areas
The NRLP reaches all the state’s 24 districts, including its remotest regions. It covers 820,000 women, with a strong focus on targeting the poor and vulnerable, empowering them socially, promoting financial inclusion, and building livelihoods and skills.
In all, close to 250,000 women in rural Jharkhand are now engaged in productive livelihoods - in agriculture, livestock and minor forestry. In addition, a large cadre of women community leaders like Anita has been created. Moreover, women’s SHGs have cumulatively leveraged Rs. 415 crore (US$ 64 million) through internal savings, inter-loaning and credit from formal financial institutions.
As Junaid Ahmad, our country director, remarked “Jharkhand is leading by example in women power.” Overall, NRLP is being implemented in 13 states of India and has reached 7 million households.
Road to rural transformation
Making a dent in poverty in Jharkhand is critical because the state has the second-highest incidence of poverty in India, despite having 40 percent of the nation’s mineral resources. It has a high tribal population (26 percent), low scores in all human development indicators, is drought-prone, and most districts are in the grip of left wing extremism. That said, the state has shown strong economic performance in the past 5 years, paving the way for strengthening rural growth and creating employment for its citizens, especially for its youth.
A proposed Bank-supported project now aims to build on the NRLP’s strong institutional platform by further organizing the women’s SHGs into producer collectives, enhancing their commercial roles, and improving their earnings. Like the NRLP, the proposed Jharkhand Opportunities for Harnessing Rural Growth (JOHAR) will integrally involve women at every stage of the process.
Jharkhand’s commitment to women’s empowerment, rural employment, water conservation, people’s participation, and tribal inclusion bodes well for a prosperous and transformative future that its people deserve. Indeed, India can put itself on a firmer path of inclusive growth if lagging states such as Jharkhand move toward transformative development.