When women take wings

A women's cooperative, started off with an aim to reduce the usage of plastic in Balrampur, is slowly taking wings for a flight that we hope will lead to freedom - both economic and social. 

LogoIt was in October, 2014 that the District Balrampur, located further north - east from Surajpur on the border with  Jharkhand, became my second district of posting. The district, apart from being much more disconnected and backward than Surajpur, is also one of the first 4 resource districts for National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in Chhattisgarh. Thus, we have a young hard working team of District and Block Programme Managers who have taken it upon themselves the task of women empowerment and poverty alleviation by organizing women in Self Help Groups (SHGs) since 2012.
It was with this background, that I was assigned the task of overseeing implementation of the scheme when I joined. The scheme had been intensively running in three of the six blocks with almost 1800 SHGs already formed. And the results were drastic. My initial experience of Community Resource Persons (CRPs) talking very confidently to highest officers of the district opened my eyes to what women empowerment actually meant. Whichever village we went to in the resource or intensive blocks, it was much easier to call women from SHGs together and get work done. Having failed in bringing women together for mushroom cultivation in Surajpur, I realized how systematic intervention and persistent mobilization was the key to community empowerment.
The festival of Makar Sankranti, celebrated on 14th January every year, is one of the major festivals celebrated by the people of Balrampur. A place called Tatapani, about 12 kms away from the district headquarters is the site for a huge three day mela every year that is thronged by thousands of people from all around the district and Jharkhand. It was sometime in November - December 2014 that our Collector - Alex Paul Menon Sir came up with the idea of having the mela on a grand scale in 2015. Thus, a large number of cultural events, competitions and departmental stalls were planned for the festival. A special initiative taken up to ensure the mela created lesser pollution was to make it plastic free by banning plastic bags completely.
The decision to ban plastic was the easier part, providing for an alternative much tougher. We decided on bringing together women from SHGs to manufacture paper bags, plates, cups, etc to replace plastic as far as possible. We had just a month or so to bring everything together which seemed quite impossible initially. Collector Sir had been in talks with a Vigyan Ashram to start a training for manufacturing paper products, and they were hurriedly contacted to finalize everything. They were extremely cooperative and the training was started at such a short notice. The other part of mobilizing beneficiaries had to be done through NRLM. Our block level team suggested starting the training with SHG members of Sarnadih panchayat, just 2 kms away from the district headquarter, as they were motivated and it would have been easier to monitor the training.
Thus, started the training in paper bag making and about 30 odd women and youth turned up on the first day which seemed to be quite an achievement. What followed was hectic training with continuous production of bags. It was obviously not possible to completely replace plastic through this mechanism and we did purchase a lot of ready made cloth bags, donnas and plates for the mela. The initiative was well taken by everyone including the visitors, though its impact on reducing plastic could be debated. However, what it did give us was a group of people, mostly women, who were really interested in starting a livelihood activity on their own. The running around that they all did during the mela was proof enough that their interest was genuine.
Done with the mela, something had to be decided for our primary beneficiaries. Alex Sir always wanted to give it a sustainable shape so that the income generating activity would continue and that was what our interest was as well. Our discussions with Vigyan Ashram revealed that they could give training in stitching school bags, purses,  pouches etc using rexine and such material. That seemed to be a natural extension of the initiative then and we had sufficient funds available to start the training immediately.
With a lot of jugaad and management, we got hold of 20 stitching machines that were lying unused. The Principal of Sarnadih primary school, with some pestering, agreed to give us a big hall that was lying vacant to start the training. Equipment - scissors, thread, raw material, etc was procured with getting things at lowest rates being our primary concern. We even bought raw material from Pune and Raipur just to save costs. Inspite of the hectic running around we had to do, every thing seemed to fall in place then, and that was what kept us all - the beneficiaries included, motivated.
The training continued with Kohle Sir (the trainer) visiting Balrampur for 10 days every month to teach the women new techniques and design. By this time, the men who were initially a part of the initiative, naturally distanced themselves as stitching was seen more of a women's activity. It was already March, and seeing the positive response of the women, we also initiated the process of registering a multipurpose cooperative and it was then decided to restrict the membership to women only. By May 2015, Unnati Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited  had formally come into existence with 23 women members!

Letter  to Corporates for Support!



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