Gowramma, 26, was just another poor village girl with no prospects. With her family struggling to make ends meet, she was unable to get quality education or have access to decent jobs. Like other girls in her village, she was married at 20 and soon became a mother. Perhaps her life would have been no different from that of her parents had it not been for Meadow (Management of Enterprises and Development of Women). A Titan Industries' village women empowerment programme, Meadow was set up in association with Myrada, a non-government organisation managing rural development programmes in South India.
Sometimes the strangest collaborations create the most amazing ventures. What began as a route to help unemployed young poor women in Tamil Nadu's Dharmapuri district is now a roadmap for corporate rural development programmes.
The idea behind Meadow first took shape in the 1990s when Titan employed groups of washerwomen from Denkanikottai village to launder factory workers' uniforms at the Sipcot Industrial Area in Hosur. The discipline and hard work of the women impressed the company considerably, who then, encouraged by Myrada, began to seriously consider further programmes to help explore the potential of rural women. (Titan Industries is a Tata Group company, India's largest private sector business group.)
In 1996, they set up a metal watchstrap (bracelet) unit. Twenty-four women were identified by Myrada and trained by Titan to work at the unit. These women made the most of the opportunity given to them and their efforts were duly rewarded when Titan increased its production. With the success of the unit, Titan recommended that Meadow be registered. So, in 1998, the bracelet unit was registered as a privately held company, owned and run by the women themselves with Titan having legal contractual agreements directly with Meadow till 2008.
Myrada made the initial investment of almost Rs 1.5 million (US$1=Rs 40) in association with Plan International, a UK-based NGO, to help set up the infrastructure, which included the purchase of land, construction and training. But as Myrada's project coordinator M.C. Shivarudrappa points out, "Once Meadow started functioning independently, it was able to maintain its own cost effectively."
Today, Meadow employs 282 girls who are divided into 16 task groups. A representative is selected for each group to attend the monthly board meeting to review progress and address the needs of each unit. The day-to-day functioning is overseen by the Board of Members that consists of the project coordinator of Myrada/PLAN along with three women directors selected in the Annual General Body meeting for tenure of three years. In addition, there is a CEO, accountant cum-systems operator, technical supervisors, and a handful of general staff.
There are a number of jobs being undertaken at Meadow, such as bracelet link assembly, hand pressing of bracelet components, end link fixing, final assembly of compacted bracelet, loop fixing, calendar mechanism maintaining plate, table clock assembling, silver and gold rope making and precious stone fixing. The skills of the women have been slowly upgraded from the simple, manual assembling of bracelet links to the more mechanised and complex movement assembly, train wheel bridge screening and inspection and rotor assembly. Some women have also acquired management skills and gained enough confidence to handle charge independently.
The nature of work puts a great deal of mental and physical strain on the women. Health concerns like deterioration in eyesight and finger dexterity not only impacts production but also the lives of the women. So, Meadow provides regular medical check ups to ensure employees' sound health. Moreover, says Shivarudrappa, "Meadow also often holds medical camps to provide health facilities in general to other women in the community."
Over the years, Meadow has been responsible for transforming many lives. The average monthly salary is about Rs 2,500 after deductions for Provident Fund, ESI, and so on. The profits are shared equally among the employees, with a generous amount being added to a fund that is utilised to support women through crises. Besides the company's various needs, the money also funds upliftment activities for the employees' families. Naveena, 26, recalls taking a loan of Rs 20,000 from the company, which helped in rescuing her husband from a financial crisis.
What makes Meadow such a success is that the women are able to positively contribute to the family income and no longer feel they are a burden; they not only acquire respect within the household but also in the community. They now have a confidence that only comes rom being self-reliant.
When Kalpana, 29, joined the company eight years ago, she had no savings or assets of her own. Her contribution to her family was limited to household chores and taking care of her little child. She says, "Life is very different now, as I am able to save every month. I even have assets like a television and some jewellery. However, I am most happy at being able to financially contribute for the welfare of my family."
Individual case studies conducted by Myrada at various times reveal that the once shy and hesitant women who used to barely leave their homes, have now begun to recognise their own worth and appreciate their true potential. They have acquired a more positive attitude towards life and are confident about taking leadership responsibilities and making their own decisions. Many are also well aware of their rights and are constantly looking to better their quality of life. Says Gowramma, "I have managed to buy appliances such as a TV, mixer-grinder and also some land."
Besides providing greater financial freedom and confidence to the women, the company has also managed to bring about an attitudinal change in society. The earlier negative attitude towards women going out to work has slowly given way to respect and greater recognition of their skills and knowledge. The pressure to get married at a young age also begun to decrease since women contribute financially to the family and are therefore not viewed as liabilities.
R. Radha, 26, says, "There is little or no opportunity for girls to attend school in villages because people in the community feel it is hopeless to educate girls who will eventually move from their paternal homes and not contribute to the family in the long run. But Meadow is helping to redefine this attitude. Things will certainly change for the better." Amen to that.