The earthquake in 1993 in Maharashtra's Latur and Osmanabad districts killed thousands and devastated many more lives. But in its wake, there have been seismic social upheavals - positive ones, for once. And it is now that the changes are becoming visible.
Following the earthquake, a Mumbai-based NGO, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), stepped in with relief and rehabilitation efforts. The organization decided to place women as the nucleus in these efforts and it involved them by setting up women's collectives and helping them rebuild their homes and their lives as well.
These Mahila Mandals (women's collectives) coalesced on the issue of credit but with sustained inputs from SSP through training programs, exposure visits etc, they started emerging as a pressure group of sorts and are now a force to reckon with.
In Osmanabad, the lives of women in several villages have been transformed since they became members of the women's Savings and Credit Groups (SCGs).
From a time, many of its members - fearing their husbands' wrath - could not attend monthly meetings and paid their monthly membership fee on the sly. But now these mandals have emerged as nerve centers of women's empowerment.
Their economic stability has had a predictable impact on the age-old village system. "Every now and then, we would turn up at the moneylender's shop pawning whatever little we had, to borrow money at a high rate of interest. That's in the distant past now," says Sumantai of Dhutta village.
Other equations have changed too: in over 200 villages in this district, women are at the centre-stage of development, playing an active part in matters concerning them. From liaison with the village panchayat (council) for schemes and galvanizing the idle panchayats, participating in village education committees, maintaining a check on ration shops and spearheading anti-liquor movements, these women's contribution has been a substantial one.
In Gandhora village for instance, the Mahila Mandal brought repeated pressure on the panchayat and together, the women have almost wiped out the alcohol menace. The mandal also took a lead in removing encroachments on the approach road to the village.
In Tugaon village, the panchayat had bungled in the allotment of houses for the low-income group and was forced to retract these allotments due to the mandal's pressure. Not just that, the mandal also ensured that the houses went to the intended beneficiaries.
Since the malfunctioning of the PDS (Public Distribution System) ration shops was a common complaint in all the villages, the Mahila Mandals have been monitoring the quantity and quality of products and ensure that shopkeepers issue receipts. This has often meant approaching government
officials or raising the issue when they come visiting.
Women here have also been very active on the education front. Right from ensuring that children are sent to school by parents to monitoring whether teachers are doing their job well, the members are active both through the mandal itself and by becoming members of the Village Education Committee, a sub-committee of the panchayat.
In Chikondra village, women sat on a fast to protest against the lack of basic amenities in the village school building and ensured that things were set right within a week.
Such has been the level of women's involvement that in Gandhora village, the school headmaster sought the help of the women's group in approaching the government to carry out repairs to the school building! In many villages, the Mahila Mandals have instituted prizes for children who perform well.
"The objective," says Kalpana Jadhav, Mahila Mandal president of Tirth village, "is to ensure that women get involved in every aspect of community life. Women had never stepped into the school building and we used to hold 'haldi-kumkum' (socio-religious get-togethers, mainly for married women) programs in the school so that women came there."
It was not ordinary women alone who had to be drawn out but, in many cases, even elected women members of the village panchayat. "We told them that they had been elected to perform a job and that they were obliged to do it," recalls Sushila Sarvade.
On the economic front, too, there has been a remarkable change. Sunita Vakil took a loan from her village Mahila Mandal and bought a sewai (vermicelli)-making machine. With no one to explain how it worked, she figured it out herself through sheer grit and determination. She has now repaid the loan on her own.
A couple of kilometres away in another village, Sushila Sarvade overcame her husband's opposition to her decision to rear goats. She too got a loan from the Mahila Mandal and is now earning a good income. And for bangle-seller Gauribi Pathan, a loan from the mandal put her creditworthiness up. "Earlier, the dealer would give me goods worth Rs 2,000 on credit. Now, he has increased my credit limit to Rs 10,000. He knows my business has expanded."