This is a post by Tanvi, a member of Rang De’s Impact team, on her recent visit to Bihar
Bihar, home to nearly 104 million Indians, is one of the poorest states in India. 36 out of the 37 districts in the state rank amongst the 250 most backward districts in the country. North Bihar is particularly vulnerable to floods and in the year 2008 Kosi river flood displaced over 3 million individuals. Regions of North Bihar also fall within the “Red Corridor”, regions which have been affected adversely by Naxal violence over the past few decades.
Two weeks ago, I undertook my maiden trip to Patna and north Bihar. We have been in conversation with a few organizations working in North Bihar and the aim of the visit was to assess the kind of livelihood activities the community was engaged in and what role Rang De could play in empowering rural entrepreneurs.
Over the course of 4 days I met women and men in Vaishali, Saran and Sitamarhi districts of North Bihar. Most families had husbands, sons, fathers who had migrated to far flung regions of India in search of employment and came home only for 2 months during the plantation season. The houses in Saran and Sitamarhi district looked particularly fragile, made with light weight bamboo and grass, designed this way to minimize damage during the almost perennial floods. Farmers shared that the damage caused by floods has gotten progressively worse each year as the natural drainage systems have been blocked due to construction of roads, buildings etc. In one village located on Gandak river, the temporary bamboo bridge had collapsed during the heavy rains the night before rendering it accessible only by boat.
Most women I interacted with reared cows, goats, sold vegetables, sewed petticoats or worked as wage labourers to contribute to the family’s income. The women all swore by the difference that the Self Help Groups had made in their life, where by they saved small amounts each month and used the group’s savings to take small loans ranging from Rs 500- 2000 (mainly for home repairs or health emergencies). But it was difficult to service everyone’s credit needs with the small savings the group members could put aside each month. For larger ticket size loans they still had to go to the “mahajan” or the local MFI representative. And while the MFI’s loan came at a lower interest rate the pressure to pay up every week took a toll on the emotional well being of the women.
One of the more remarkable stories I heard during my visit was narrated to me by a group of women from Saran district who came together to fight the menace of alcohol fueled domestic violence. Three years ago, four alcohol shops had opened up in the vicinity of their villages. Almost immediately there was a corresponding increase in the incidence of domestic violence that women and children had to suffer. Women belonging to 5 different SHGs then got together to work out a plan of action to shut the shops down. They approached their local representative who despite being supportive indicated his helplessness in this situation. The women by then had gained enough confidence and decided to take out a rally to lobby for more support for their cause. They pooled in money (a five rupee here, a ten rupee there) and hired a loudspeaker and a mike. Their children jumped on the bandwagon and drew up posters to show their support. Men too applauded the initiative that the women had taken and lent support. The rally got featured in the local newspaper and drew the attention of the local administration which finally ordered the illegal liquor shops to close down.
Life has not been easy for the women I met, most of them were raising a family by themselves while their men folk earned a living outside, some of them were landless farmers who work as share croppers, others were tired of being wage labourers and wanted to do something else. The willingness to work hard and the desire to improve the lot of their families was evident but they need support. They need business mentoring, access to credit and someone to believe in them. We are hopeful that in the coming months, Rang De will be able to help some of these women embark on the road to economic empowerment.