Bodh Gaya: Bimla Devi of Bara village in Bodh Gaya block of Gaya district mobilised over 200 women to block traffic movement on the highway skirting their villages for two days.
"We allowed traffic to move only after the Block Development Officer (BDO) arrived on the spot and promised in writing a regular supply of oil from the local public distribution system (PDS) shop". Four years ago, the same Bimla says she "used to shiver" if an outsider spoke to her.
Savitri Devi's family was on the verge of starvation when her young son died. Her 70- year-old husband was able to earn as and when he found work as a daily wage labourer. How was she to feed a family of nine with such an erratic income?
Four years ago she took a Rs.5,000 loan and opened a general store in her village Bara. "Now I earn Rs.100 a day. I send my grandsons for tution, have a savings account in the bank and have repaid the loan," she says.
What changed it all for these women? Their coming together to form vibrant and bankable self-help groups (SHG) under the World Bank aided Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP) called 'Jeevika'. The poverty alleviation programme targets the poorest of the poor, and particularly women, in the villages.
The objective of BRLP is to usher in social and economic empowerment of rural households by developing institutions of the poor like SHGs, and their federations. These have enabled them to access and negotiate better services, credit and assets from public and private sector agencies and institutions as well as promoted development of micro finance and agribusiness.
For Dukhni Devi of Shekhwara village, those days of seeing her husband go off for months to big cities in search of work are over. She decided to take to agriculture interventions that have increased the yield from her rice and wheat field by four times.
It has also drastically cut down the expenditure on buying seeds and manure. "I now have food grain for an additional six months, so there is no need for my husband to go to the city to earn money."
Noorjehan of Jagatia was beaten by her husband for attending a meeting of women. "He has shut up now that I bring in substantial money for the family". Noorjehan is part of a group of women who roll out incense sticks to meet the order of a multinational.
"The tie-up with this big company has raised the rate of agarbatti by Rs.5 per kg. Earlier we used to sell in the local market or to a middleman who gave us the raw material," she said.
Women like her have emerged as the backbone of the BRLP. The success of the programme is credited to the women's SHGs which are in an overwhelming majority. Experience shows that the men's SHGs are non-starters. The repayment of bank loans acquired through SHGs is about 95 percent.
"We have learnt that our strength lies in numbers. We have joined hands irrespective of what caste we come from. Together we decide what is best for us and our family. We then work towards attaining it," says Bimla who was elected the village organisation head by 13 SHGs comprising about 200 women.
"We decide if we need a loan to set up a small business, meet a health emergency, switch to agriculture intervention like System of Rice/Wheat Intervention, start a school for children, build toilets or even run our own PDS shop so that we are not cheated of a regular supply."
The women's SHGs are bringing down caste barriers, stemming migration by improved earnings at home, hiking literacy rates, putting a stop to wife beating, child marriage and alcoholism among men.
"We have brought in winds of change. We now take part in decision making at the family level and are no longer merely informed of decisions taken by the men folk. The same husband who used to order us indoors when officials came to talk now tell us to go to the BDO, SDO and even the District Magistrate when there is a problem," says Radhadevi of Barma village with pride.
The learnings of Jeevika form the framework of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission launched in 2011 named Aajeevika. The union rural development ministry last week released funds for the implementation of Aajeevika in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The three states are among the 15 from where 93 percent of poverty in India comes from.