Between 2010 and 2012, the Surguja district hospital saw deaths of more than 400 children due to malnutrition and anaemia. Last month, after a four-year-old child died of suspected malnutrition, the local administration identified over 400 children in the district in need of “assistance”.
But Surguja, one of the poorest districts of Chhattisgarh, is set to turn the page. Riding on the success of a 15-month drive by its Collector, Surguja recently made it to the Chhattisgarh Education Board’s Class IX book as a story of women’s empowerment.
Women belonging to the Oraon tribe — one of the poorest in Chhattisgarh — here now run pig farms and brick kilns, work as masons, contractors and suppliers in various departments, run the Collectorate canteen and supervise its parking area, and, in a first for the state, drive auto-rickshaws.
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Rimi is among the 10 women who make up the self-help group (SHG) that now owns 24 piglets, and is set to get at least a dozen more. The women of Andhla village, who till recently lived on subsistence farming, got a loan allowing them to purchase piglets at a concessional rate of Rs 500 each from the Veterinary Department. With even a mid-size pig selling for over Rs 15,000, the members are looking at a neat profit.
“A pig needs no special food or care, but gives a very good price. Bakra se zyada paisa milta hai (One earns more than one does from a goat),” smiles Rimi.
A little distance away, Meena Singh Rathiya is laying bricks. The women of her SHG will sell these bricks for the construction of toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Besides, as many as 700 women have been trained to work as masons under the Abhiyan and other government schemes.
In another locality, 38-year-old Pushpanjali placed a Rs 67,500 order before Jindal Steel and Power Limited on June 4. In their first such order, the women purchased 300 sacks of cement for Rs 225 each, which they will now sell to government departments. While the earlier supplier charged around Rs 260, they will sell the 50-kg sacks for around Rs 240 each.
Surguja has around 12,000 such SHGs, including at least 1.25 lakh (around 10 women in each group) of the district’s 3.25 lakh women. Of these, 3,000 groups are already into some economic activity.
Collector Ritu Sain’s plan was to ensure that every woman between the ages of 18 and 60 in the district, belonging to a weak family or in need of some work, be a part of an SHG.
“A scheme targeting malnourishment based merely on supply of food or rations would work only for a limited period. Economic empowerment of women is the best way to tackle malnutrition,” says Sain, the first woman Collector of Surguja.
The women are encouraged to form an SHG with government support. As per their skills and preferences, they are then given training. Later, with the help of a loan, they begin their ventures, with the assurance that their products would be bought by government departments — such as phenyl by hospitals, bricks by construction works, flowers for various functions, chalks by schools, vegetables for mid-day meals etc.
Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for example, 26,000 toilets are to be made in Surguja. Women SHGs will not only supply raw material like bricks and cement for these toilets, but also work as masons.
Another ambitious programme involves mapping the health parameters of women of the district. Over 50,000 women have undergone a detailed check-up, revealing 315 cases of suspected breast cancer, 9,166 of suspected cervical cancer, 3,027 of cataract and 2,522 of anaemia.
“In the second phase, we are getting an advanced check-up done. Then we will begin operative care and surgical procedures,” Sain says.
Another programme covers widows and deserted or separated women, over 13,000 of whom between the ages of 18 and 50 years are being given vocational training for jobs. “All departments have been asked to give priority to these women in their schemes,” Sain says.
Geeta Singh, a widow, was among women who were taught driving — Surguja now has the first ever instance of women driving autos in Chhattisgarh.
Sushil Soni, a cab driver, says the change is unmissable. “Something is happening. Women are very active and visible these days. In my area Bauri Para, they hold weekly meetings, outsource goods from other areas and sell them here.”
The men are not happy, says Sadhna Kashyap, who is part of the SHG that has turned around the Collectorate canteen. “Aadmi log kehte hain tum logon ka dam tabhi tak hai, jab tak madam hai. Uske baad pata chalega (The men say our power flows from the Collector. Wait till she goes).”
Kashyap treats that as a challenge. “Maybe by then we will be prepared to handle whatever comes our way,” she smiles.
Sain too is aware that much of the success in Surguja depends on the ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ linkages she has been able to provide, in terms of loans and assured work. In Koriya district for example, where she was posted earlier, over half the projects she began for women collapsed after her.
But the Collector also takes heart from the ones that proved self-sustaining. “It reflects the mindset of people towards women. I am optimistic.”