The undulating land of Purulia district with the Ayodhya Hill as a background often earns kudos from tourists for its scenic beauty. Purulia is a remote agricultural area, six hours by train from West Bengal's capital, Kolkata.
Unfortunately, the region is also known for its impoverished local people, especially the Santhal tribal people who have been living there for centuries and whose lifestyle has been badly affected by the changing times. Many, like Shakuntala Hansda have seen abject poverty. Shakuntala, who is in her 30s, lost her parents, was abandoned by relatives and, subsequently, was on the verge of starvation.
Fortunately, women like Shakuntala, have found succor as a result of the micro-finance initiative of a self-help group (SHG) working in the Arsha Development Block, a tribal- dominated area of 50 villages where around 85 per cent of the population are below the poverty line.
The SHG is an offshoot of the Village Earth Purulia (VEP) project that undertakes self-sustaining projects. Replicating the international Village Earth Model that was launched in 1993 and replicated in many countries, the VEP project undertakes sustainable community-based development. This is achieved by connecting communities with global resources - through training and networking with organizations, worldwide. The VEP project is, thus, a tool to bridge the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
Incidentally, the aim behind Village Earth Model, the brainchild of Maurice L. Albertson, 88, is to fight poverty and ensure sustainability in developmental projects. An American engineer by profession, Albertson has been teaching at Colorado State University, USA, for over 50 years. He is also the co-founder of the Peace Corps and was a consultant for the Bhakra Nangal Project in India. He firmly believes in the power of the people at the grassroots to change their destiny. While in Kolkata recently, he told representatives of NGOs working at the grassroots: "Ask questions all the time. Ask them what they want, not what you think is right for them."
This philosophy of putting the people first may sometimes slow down the take-off time of projects but it is worth the wait, feels Mousumi Dinda, 35. Along with husband Milan, 42, a social scientist, Mousumi established Village Earth-Purulia (VEP) after undergoing training in Participatory Practices in Sustainable Development in Colorado. "My husband has been associated with Village Earth since 1993 when he took some courses at Colorado State University. From the very beginning he wanted to apply it for tribal empowerment. In 1999, we were working on an adolescent health and nutrition project in the area, when the tribals showed an interest in joining us. In fact, one of them even wanted to donate his set up on the condition that we would work with them. When my husband and I explained the village earth model to them and they liked it and we initiated the Purulia project."
In line with the idea of putting people first, at Arsha, the duo patiently let people come up with their own ideas. "This intervention actually started six years ago. We sat with the women several times just to ask questions. At first, the word 'problem' was a problem to them. But slowly, they came out with their problems and probable solutions. Solutions mostly came from the old women," recalls Mousumi.
One old woman asked for some start-up money for a small business. She was considering businesses such as animal rearing, leaf-plate making, and 'making' rice from paddy. "As a representative of the community, she tried to convince us by saying amader taka diyei dekhna, amra thik kaj kore taka pherot diye debo (Try us... give some money. We'll surely earn and return your money). And thus VEP's micro-finance initiative came into being. It was seen as a way to improve the economic condition of tribal women in the region and decrease the degree of exploitation of Ayodhya Hill, with natural forests succumbing to the rural poverty of the area.
The initiative began in April last year. Mousumi and Milan experimented with two groups, investing their own money. "We were really happy when they came with the profit and said, 'Dekhli! Amader pashe ektu thak, amrao parbo' (See! Stay with us for some time, and you'll see that we, too, can deliver)."
Last year, Village Earth arranged some seed money and began the intervention with more groups, with each receiving Rs 2,500 (US$1=Rs 40). Each group has designed manageable plans for the small loans that they obtain. For example, one group requested for a loan for Rs 5,000 for a three-month rice-making project. One woman member proposed, "In November, we will buy paddy directly from the field, boil it by collecting wood from Ayodhya Hill and then make rice. We will sell this rice in the market directly. We can earn more by avoiding the middlemen. Out of the profit made, we will pay back the loan and save the rest as seed money."
"I can now save approximately Rs 250 per month. I am also eager to open a savings account of my own," explains a successful Shakuntala, who has moved on from her days of destitution. With a small loan, Shakuntala initiated a plate- making project using teak leaves collected from the nearby Ayodhya Hill. She then sold these plates in the local markets. Her venture inspired other women in the group to make a collective venture of leaf-plate making. Today, Shakuntala is the leader of that group and provides technical and marketing support. The group produces around 2,000 leaf plates per day that, on an average, bring in Rs 200 for the group.
In keeping with the philosophy behind the initiative, the women establish the rules and guidelines of the project. At present, 60 women are involved in the SHG project and hope to expand participation to as many as 500 women representing all 50 villages within Arsha.
Besides the micro-finance project, VEP also runs a water project in villages such as Bagmundi, Juri and Pitati to increase water security in a region that annually experiences a severe water crisis in summer. This water project is in collaboration with the Colorado State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
VEP has also initiated 10 Forest Protection Committees (FPCs) that work on creating eco-friendly livelihood strategies. The FPCs operate through the SHGs - with around 10 people per group. Interestingly, the micro-finance initiative evolved from six of the groups composed of women.
While it has been a long journey for Shakuntala and the other women of Arsha, they have proved to the world - and more importantly, to themselves - that they can cross the hurdles of poverty and make two ends meet.