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Supporting creation of institutional platform of 45 million women for social and economic empowerment in rural India: The National Rural Livelihoods Mission

Parmesh Shah's picture
Jasmine cultivation

In the early morning at Dadar station in metropolitan Mumbai, a common sight is unloading of tons of jasmine and marigold flowers packed in jute sacks. Flowers come from Jawhar block located in the district of Palghar in Maharashtra. At the village the flowers are procured from each producer, weighed and packed in jute sacks. These are collected from the village bus stands and transported to Dadar in Mumbai by either bus or train. Floriculture has emerged as an alternative source of livelihood for small and marginal farmers in the region. Collective marketing has allowed small producers to aggregate and sell their flowers. Aggregation has enabled producers to realize better incomes through collective bargaining. About 3,500 women farmers have been mobilized as producer groups, and their annual turnover is expected to be around US $ 1 million in the next season.

Similarly, in four tribal districts (Koraput, Rayagada  Gajapati and Mayurbhanj) of Orissa in the eastern part of India, 6,300 women mango producers have been organized to facilitate creation of a Producers’ Company with annual turnover of US $260,000. They planted high-quality mango trees in their land with the help of Government’s horticulture department. They were provided training on pre-harvest, post-harvest management & market information and price discovery. The producer company was able to do local value addition through grading, sorting, packaging and loading through trucks. The producer company has been able to sell products to wholesale and high value channels like retail outlets and have become aggregators for large food retailers and companies. The producer company has helped the members to realize additional income of US $800 for each household. 

Mango value chain: sorting, grading and packaging

Many such enterprise clusters have been catalyzed as part of National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in 30 states in India. The program so far has mobilized more than 45 million women from deprived and poor households and covers more than 40% of rural India.  Women meet regularly within their self-help groups to save and inter-loan money to each other; represent their self-help groups in the village and cluster-level organizations to work on collective economic action and deliver financial and economic services to members.  Based on their savings and lending track record, the members of self-help groups have become clients of commercial banks and borrow from banks to launch businesses and enterprises of their own. They are also provided extension and skills based training to expand their livelihoods. They have also initiated producer organizations and companies to start higher level economic enterprises.  Over last six years women have formed 3.2 million self-help groups and 145,465 village-level organizations. Collectively they have saved US $1.4 billion and leveraged US $ 20 billion from commercial banks.

Women self-help group meeting

NRLM has emerged as the flagship program for women’s economic empowerment in Government of India.  The World Bank funded National Rural Livelihoods Project (NRLP) has provided support to Ministry of Rural Development, in Government of India to set up professional architecture and systems for implementation of NRLM. The project aims at establishing efficient and effective institutional platforms of the rural poor that enables them to increase household income through sustainable livelihood enhancements and improved access to financial and selected public services.
The project has been a site for rich experimentation and innovation, particularly, in addressing challenges common to other development projects: How, for instance, do we efficiently scale and expand a community-led project? How can we bring in innovation and social enterprises into the work of a large-scale government program? And finally, how do we retain and grow human resources within government organizations?
 
Some of the key innovations in project implementation and scaling up is harnessing community level social capital from all over the country to develop peer learning and extension networks among communities. Community Resource Persons have been a crucial resource for scaling the project across, low-income states in India. Nearly 20,000 rural women, who have successfully come out of poverty, serve as Community Resource Persons. These “poverty-reduction champions” travel outside their villages and to other states to identify the poorest households, using participatory methods. Community Resource Persons train new self-help groups on various sub sectors like financial inclusion, microcredit, agriculture, horticulture, dairy, poultry, and fishery. Through these programs, new women members learn about potential livelihoods opportunities and pathways to take them out of poverty. They use Information Communication Technology (ICT) for providing extension services to members through creating local content and creation of short videos highlighting both internal and external best practices. Video content typically consists of technical demonstrations customized after local experimentation, discussions, or success stories of best practices. After content generation, the existing social networks are used for dissemination.

Community Resource Person preparing learning video

Through “Innovation Forums”—akin to the World Bank’s Development Marketplace—the project brought together social enterprises, grassroots innovators, private sector players, and the government on a common platform to exchange innovations in health, nutrition, livelihoods, skill development, and energy access. Many of the innovations presented at these forums have gone on to be implemented and scaled through the project. Partnerships between the project, social entrepreneurs and private sector agencies have been an avenue to bring innovation to the government. These private sector agencies have connected rural women to wider domestic markets, and, to larger urban and foreign markets as well.
 
With the help of the World Bank, in each of the NRLM progressive and agile human resource policies were put in place: from recruiting at India’s leading social science, engineering, development studies and management institutes, providing competitive compensation to staff, to implementing a Young Professionals (YP) program. Through the YP program, over 500 young professionals have been placed in low-income states. Many of these young professionals have gone on to start their own social enterprises, drawing from their experience with the NRLM and with implementing a complex, multi-sectorial community-led program.
 
In 2017, Government of India is working to expand and deepen the program in two directions.  Firstly, it wants to scale up the current program of social and economic mobilization of rural women from 45 million to 87 million ensuring that very women from a deprived household becomes a member of SHG and the related institutional platform. Secondly, it wants to develop 5,000 local economic development clusters across the country to trigger a women enterprise ecosystem throughout the country, especially in low income states and with bottom of pyramid populations. The lessons from these programs are currently being shared in many countries globally through South to South experience sharing and have generated strong interest. The program has demonstrated that designing and implementing a large scale women’s economic empowerment program requires participating women at the center and needs creation of an institutional platform and an enabling ecosystem.
 
Authors acknowledge contributions by Varun Singh, Vinay Kumar Vutukuru, Debaraj Behera, Anjani Kumar Singh and Paramveer Singh for the case studies, data and pictures.

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