Susheela Majhi sits guard outside a warehouse at the small town of Mandibisi in Orissa’s Rayagada district. The warehouse has nearly 16,000 brooms lying there for more than two years now – that’s from when the NDA government suddenly implemented demonetisation and invalidated high-value notes in November 2016.
The 35-year-old is the secretary of Ama Sangathan — a tribal women’s movement-turned-organisation in the east Indian state — that heralded what is famously called the ‘broom revolution’ in the state. Hers and about 1,200-odd women’s means of livelihood, that of making hill brooms, however, took a sharp hit when the noteban froze the cash-driven economy that Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) heavily depend on.
Susheela says after the noteban they could sell some brooms only locally while the inter-state sale came to a standstill. “What if our history is all we have left?” she says with fear palpable in her voice.
In places like Odisha and Assam, hill broom grass (thysanolaena maxima) grows in the winter months, from December to February. The grass is gathered, dried and woven together to make longer pieces and then stacked to make brooms.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank, about 90 per cent of the 10 million jobs that Indians lost last year were held by women. Demonetisation and, thereafter, the confusion caused by Goods and Services Tax (GST) were seen as among the main causes behind women’s unemployment in the informal and rural sector, noted Reuters.
Ama Sangathan – which means ‘Our Organisation’ — was formed in 1987 when tribal women in Rayagada started demanding a licence to gather and sell hill broom grass — a Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) procured from forests. To be financially independent and to gain their rights over forests, they fought exploitative middlemen who would pay them a pittance and sell the brooms at the market at higher prices. These traders would be selected by the Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation (TDCC), a body mandated to protect tribals to conduct business on their behalf.
When the women in Mandibhisi wrote to former chief minister and then Lok Sabha member from Kendrapara, Biju Patnaik, pointing out the monopoly of TDCC, he allowed them to procure grass and conduct trade on their own if they organised themselves into a Mahila Mandal. “But exploitation continued as TDCC officials would forcibly raid our members’ houses and take away our brooms — even the ones kept for personal use!” says Susheela. Some of them were even booked under false cases, following which more women from nearby towns joined the movement in solidarity and, thus, Ama Sangathan came into being.
Susheela’s journey with Ama Sangathan is one of determination and resilience. Before she joined the organisation as an 18-year-old in 2004, she was teaching at a night school for adults, staying 30 km from Sargiguda, her village. “I was not afraid. My family too supported me,” she says. When she was two, Susheela fractured the bone of one of her thighs in an accidental fall. Since she could not be given timely medication, the bone of one thigh became shorter than the other, leading to a limp in her walk.
But her slow gait never came in her way to make Ama Sangathan grow from strength to strength.
As she displays the ready-to-sell brooms kept inside the warehouse, Susheela relates how they go about her work. “To collect around 5,000 quintals of grass per annum, we have to walk for days through deep forests and steep tropes. At least in the first six-seven years, when our organisation was formed, it was hardly financially rewarding for us. As a primary collector, while one woman would approximately make Rs 25 for collecting up to 10 kgs of grass every day, the middleman who bought the grass from us would make Rs 50 at least.”
It was only in April 2000 following the de-nationalisation of NTFP, including brooms, that Ama Sangathan began making profits.
“A quintal would fetch at least Rs 3,000 in the early 2000s as opposed to the mere Rs 200 we would make for the same quantity when we had started. Eventually, the brooms found inter-state clients who would come from Andhra Pradesh, Nagpur, Chhattisgarh, etc.”
That was till demonetisation. When the Goods and Services Tax was implemented, things began sliding downhill.
In 2015, Ama Sangathan was able to procure around 107 quintals and their total income was Rs 4,53,645. Locally, brooms would be priced between Rs 25 and 30. Between 2016 and early 2017, they procured around 133 quintals, considerably more than the previous year, and the labour for binding and purchase of other raw material also saw a hike. But their income was a dismal Rs 37,340 this time as the clients cancelled deals after the noteban.
As it is with all SMEs, Ama Sangathan would get payments from its clients in exchange of cash that was frozen in banks at that time.
“Demonetisation impacted the unorganised sector and small traders the most. The non-availability of cash did not just put restrictions on cash transactions, it also led to a fall in demand for products,” said Dr Jayati Ghosh, development economist and professor of economics at Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.
“Alcoholism is rampant in Mandibisi and manufacturing brooms helped women gain economic independence and, thus, assert themselves in their households. After the noteban, it became difficult for us to pay them,” says Susheela.
Then, GST compounded the confusion among small traders. Hill brooms, which were not taxable until 2017, was slotted under the 5 per cent GST bracket until September 2017. Even though it went back to being non-taxable, Ama Sangathan saw the demand drying up for the brooms that were impacted by noteban anyway, says Susheela.
According to Jena, who facilitated Ama Sangathan’s inter-state dealings, they lost clients as it became much cheaper for them to procure brooms intra-state. Even as he blamed demonetisation, he was unsure about the effects of GST.
As things stand now, Ama Sangathan’s client base has considerably shrunk and is unlikely to recover the lost momentum anytime soon.
Given that Odisha has many small and medium traders, the impact of demonetisation was severe here, said Shashi Bhusan Behera, Odisha’s finance minister and a member of the GST Council. “Could the drive weed out fake currency and black money – which was one of its main objectives? Not only did it not succeed, but poor people also had to bear the brunt of it as well,” he said.
Significantly, the organisation is also beginning to go digital — selling their brooms at online retail portals priced between Rs 70-80 each.
Though soft-spoken, Susheela is vehement when she asserts that she will not give up trying. “These women are like my sisters. It is important to me that their needs are met. Since gathering hill grass is a seasonal occupation, we also organically farming kandula dal (pigeon peas), tamarind and millets,” she says.
Emphasising that they are not here just to reap profits, she says: “Aame ei kranti ku maribabu dei paribani. Amaku faltu re jhaadu kranti kuhanti ni! (We cannot let this movement die. We were not called the Broom Revolution for nothing).”