What started out as nothing more than a cipher has taken the shape of a flourishing industry run by more than 4,000 women from various parts of rural Madhya Pradesh. In a scintillating example of women's empowerment through the mode of entrepreneurial development, these women successfully supply about 10,000 litres of milk daily to the state's dairy federation which produces highly trusted packaged milk products under the brand name of 'Sanchi'.
Today, the cumulative investment by these women stands to the tune of more than Rs 35 million (US$1=Rs45), raised from financial institutions such as Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) and Housing Development and Finance Corporation (HDFC).
"Our rural areas have unbounded energy, talent and willingness to drive the entire country towards a better tomorrow. It is the absence of a base and a support system, that prevents rural women from proving their mettle," says Nirmala Buch, former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh and founder of Mahila Chetna Manch. This NGO, which has been working for women's rights and uplift for the past couple of decades, has been a catalyst for the transformation in the lives of these women.
The SHG members engaged in dairy farming were given training by Mahila Chetna Manch - the whole process, from milking to transportation of the milk, was explained to them in detail. The women were trained to manage their dairy operations including storage, logistics, accounts, and capacity building. They were also given lessons in quality control, including considerable knowledge of animal health.
The training programmes were organized two-and-a-half years ago (in 2005) in the villages, after they formed SHGs. New members who joined the groups afterwards were given training by the old members themselves. However, the Manch continuously monitors the working of the groups and helps them by providing technical support to increase milk production and to safeguard the cattle. Project coordinators of the NGO visit the villages regularly.
Talking about the bottlenecks, Buch recalls: "Milk starts perishing after a short span of four hours and requires immediate cold storage. Since they could not afford freezers owing to the small scale of their operations, the challenge was to develop a channel to bring it to common freezers as soon as possible. To meet this requirement, we had to establish chilling centres within the radius of 40 km of operation so that it could be brought easily to the chilling centre. And it worked."
SIDBI recently loaned Rs 5 million to Mahila Chetna Manch to further support its micro-finance initiatives for the dairy business.
At present, women from about 1,580 SHGs (all trained by Mahila Chetna Manch) from 10 districts - Raisen, Hoshangabad, Betul, Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Sehore, Chhindwara, Dewas, Bhopal and Sagar - have been given loan approvals for infrastructure and cattle purchase.
Gendibai, a member of the Sahayata SHG says that her lifestyle has changed radically after having joined the group. Her two children are studying in a private school in the town of Hoshangabad. "I had never thought that I would be able to live without my husband who died three years ago," she added.
Similarly, Sumatibai of Semri village in Sehore district says she owns six cows and eight buffaloes and constructed a big barn for the cattle after she joined an SHG. She also dreams of expansion and wants to become the largest milk supplier from the village.
She says, "Members of the SHG deposit almost 50 per cent of the profit in the bank, while the remaining 50 per cent is distributed among the members. With the rise in income, we do not have to seek loans for everyday needs." She's also thinking bigger now: the group could earn a higher profit if it establishes its own transportation system, she says.
Once the milk reaches these centres, it is transported to the Madhya Pradesh State Cooperative Milk Federation Limited (MPSCMFL) centres where they convert it into a concentrated form of fat. The amount of fat produced depends on the quality of the milk. "Depending upon different locations, the price per kilogram fat is between Rs 190 and Rs 210 for dairy farmers. Nevertheless, the Federation pays about Rs 2.40 more per litre to these women's SHGs because of their sustained performance and better quality," says KC Gupta, Managing Director of MPSCMFL.
Recognizing the pioneering efforts of these women, the Federation now clears their bills on a daily basis and no credit is demanded from them. Gupta said that the manner in which these rural women have changed the picture of their villages is admirable.
Aditya Misra, Assistant General Manager of SIDBI, says that micro-financing aims at enabling people to be self-reliant and that is why they have to repay the loan in equal monthly installments just like commercial ones. The involvement of local groups in loan approval and disbursement helps in accurate appraisals of project feasibility. That is why micro-financing has far fewer defaulters when it comes to loan repayment.
An SHG brings together village people engaged in a common profession. Once the SHG is formed, members can get financial assistance from the state government and loans from banks. People from three or four villages may join the group, but according to the rules, an SHG should have 10 to 50 members.