Watershed Women: Self Help in India

Watershed Women: Self Help in India

by Swapna Majumdar

May 12, 2011

In an economically distressed region of India, categorized as “severely food insecure,” and prone to recurrent natural disasters like droughts and floods, women have seized the opportunity via self-help groups and watershed committees to pave the way for change.

The self-help groups were developed by the Western Orissa Rural Livelihoods Project (WORLP) in four districts of the impoverished eastern Indian state of Odisha and for ten years were funded by a program from the UK’s Department of  International Development that supported water related activities. An impact study of the project found a financial turnaround led by women who emerged from the traditional patriarchy of their society to quietly transform themselves and their environment.

In this region women had subsisted as daily wage laborers, migrating with their families to eke out a living. Typically, migration in search of  better incomes in western Odisha is seasonal, but self-help groups have provided constructive alternatives. For example, Demonti Nag, 45, of the village Larki, used to migrate every year to the capital city of Hyderabad, with her husband and four children to work as daily wage laborers because they could raise only one rainfed crop in a year. The watershed project started in her village encouraged women to form self-help groups and save money to start income generating projects. Nag makes bricks in her own brick kiln and earns an annual income of $448 (20,000 rupees).  As a result, she stopped migrating completely.
But having undergone the turmoil of skipping a meal to enable her family members to eat during times of drought and unemployment, Nag got together with other members of her self-help group, Ma Parbati, to take up the challenge of food security. As a member of the village watershed committee, Nag collaborated with Gram Vikas, a rural development organization, to build a grain bank. This grain bank has saved many women and children from malnutrition and starvation deaths. For a state where 48 per cent of women suffer from nutritional deficiency — 55 per cent for illiterate and poor women — this is a big achievement.

The Livelihood Project (WORLP), in conjunction with the local government Watershed Mission, provided the financial and technical impetus to expand women’s agency, which has, in turn, created social and economic change. It has helped women to develop skills to restore water bodies to enhance agricultural produce, and reduce migration by providing constructive employment opportunities like aquaculture.

What has been even more remarkable is how women have used their newfound confidence and skills to address other challenges, such as local sanitation, school absenteeism and negotiating access to resources. The women have not merely taken control of their lives, but also of their villages, among the poorest in the state. Involving women as active agents of change rather than passive recipients of  welfare has been the prime objective of working with poor communities in Odisha, according to GB Reddy, director of the watershed mission. The project, he said, “mandates that women must account for 33 per cent of watershed committees. This has had an amazing impact, as women have come out of their homes, increased their participation in decision-making within and outside their homes and fostered long-term social change.”  Approximately 29.2 per cent of the poverty households in the target area for watershed projects are now earning enough to rise above poverty levels, according to the impact study.

Grain banks have a played a catalytic role in raising communities from the subsistence level of existence. “They are no longer dependent on moneylenders to tide over difficult periods. We have seen how it has given women the confidence to aspire for better things and therefore push for change,” said Sukant Patnaik, development officer of Gram Vikas.

In village Kantapali, Baragarh district; women of the Ma Brindavati self-help group took an innovative approach to alleviate their economic condition.  Of  $337 (15,000 rupees) given as loan by the watershed mission, the self-help group president Jayanti Dube gave $157 (7,000 rupees) to a group of widows to acquire rights to sell kerosene through the Public Distribution System (PDS).  Some money was invested in taking a pond on a seven-year lease for aquaculture, while the rest was given as loans to its members in the village.

Tarabati Saber, 40, used to grow paddy on small piece of land. But after becoming a member of the watershed committee, she learned that by multiple cropping she could enhance her income. She took a loan and started growing different crops and now earns $348 (15,000 rupees) annually.  Saber is happy about the increase in income; what has made her happier is that her husband respects her decisions.

The initiatives may be different, but the stories are the same: increasing incomes, raising confidence and transforming lives. With a little help from WORLP — the Livelihood Project — women have become instruments of change in villages of western Odisha.

Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India, and writes on development, gender and politics.

Also see “Life’s Precious Trio: Women, Water, Health” by Elayne Clift in this edition of On the Issues Magazine.

See “The Art Perspective Featuring Mary Miss” curated by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.