With minimal resources, skills and capital, women in Jharkhand are turning around not just their own fortunes, but also transforming society. Author and lawyer ASHISH KHETAN reports on the economics of poverty from Palamu and Ormanjhi, among the most backward and poverty stricken areas in Jharkhand.
SITUATED in the north-west part of Jharkhand is Palamu, a district afflicted with poverty, Naxalism and extreme backwardness. It is one of the most rain-deficient districts in the country. This makes most of the cultivable land just good enough to harvest a single crop a year. In 2015-16, there was a severe drought, bringing families to the brink of ruin and starvation.
A five-hour back-breaking journey from Ranchi will take you to Chainpur block in Palamu. Most of the people in the 35 panchayats in the block are Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). The SCs are called bhuiya, which literally means floor, signifying their social status. In many ways, the conditions in Chainpur are worse than Godda in the same state.
Basic infrastructure facilities for health, education, drinking water and sanitation are almost non-existent. The bhuiyas do not have any sustainable means of livelihood. They are landless and lack education and vocational training to take up any kind of job in the formal or informal sector.
Like Godda, Palamu is trapped in a vicious poverty circle. One factor drives the next. Because there are no opportunities to earn a decent livelihood, people are poor. Because people are poor, their children are undernourished, in some cases, severely malnourished and wasted. Because parents are poor, the children are needed at home to do either household chores or work as manual labour to supplement the family’s income.
Even when the children are in school, they cannot cope with the studies because of under-nourishment. Because of lack of education, the employment opportunities for future generations remain bleak. As the population continues to rise, whatever little capital the families have—in terms of land, cattle, utensils, agricultural equipment—gets depleted from one generation to the next.
People here mainly survive on government schemes—food security schemes, minimum employment guarantee and welfare schemes like pension for senior citizens, disabled and widows—which is just enough to keep body and soul together.
Situated 20 kilometers from Ranchi city the Ormanjhi block is similarly impoverished.
Until 2018 this block comprising of 87 villages was marked by backwardness and various social ills and regressive customs targeted against women. The block lies in the catchment area of a local dam, flooding the cultivable land for most part of the year, depriving farmers their livelihood. Alcoholism, domestic violence, gender discrimination, female infanticide and witch hunting were widely prevalent. If the cow stops giving milk, if the well dries up, or if there is a drought or any other kind of bad fate falls upon a family, it may get blamed on the bad luck or evil powers of the women in the house.
Six Types of Capital
In the words of development economist, Professor Jeffrey D Sachs, the extreme poor lack six major kinds of capital:
Human capital: health, nutrition and skills needed to be economically productive
Business capital: the machinery and equipment used in agriculture, industry and services
Infrastructure: road, power, water and sanitation, airports and seaports and telecommunication systems
Natural capital: arable land and healthy soils
Public institutional capital: law and justice system
Knowledge capital: the scientific and technological know-how
Palamu and Ormanjhi residents too lack all these six kinds of capital, which keeps them permanently caught in a downward spiral of poverty, poor health, illiteracy and socio-economic backwardness.
On the lines of the women skill development programme in Godda, in 2018, some inspired local Palamu officials took upon themselves the task of creating opportunities of sustainable livelihood for the women in this region.
With the help of a government grant, the district administration in Palamu set up a textile apparel workshop, equipped with 150 industrial sewing machines. Around Rs 4 crore was invested in the building and machines. It was named Koel Apparel Park.
Stitching a New Future
Four hundred women from the block were selected and given a few months of training in operating these sewing machines. Many of them knew stitching but had never operated a big industrial, semi-automated machine. They were trained to operate them in skill development centres in Daltonganj and Ranchi.
Once the training was completed, 125 of these women were organised into a producer group named Chainpur Ajivika Mahila Silai Utpadak Samuh. The rest of the women started their own small tailoring ventures.
Vinita Devi, 42, from Majhirawa village, became the president of the producer group, while 20-year-old Farhat of Shahpur village became its manager.
In 2018 a young IAS officer Rai Mahimapat Ray chose the Ormanjhi block to launch a unique initiative in women skill development. Ray saw a video titled ‘liter of light’—a simple innovation by which more than 8 lakh homes around the world have been lit up by turning used water bottles into solar lamps. Could rural women in Ranchi be trained in fabricating solar lights suitable to the conditions of rural India?, wondered Ray.
He decided to innovate. With the help of a few volunteers he experimented on a micro solar lighting system that could simultaneously act as a reading lamp,, a home lighting and a torch. After 17 iterations Ray finally struck a design that he thought would be suitable to the rural conditions. He picked 15 women from Ormajhi block and trained them in fabricating this solar lamp. For several weeks they were taught the job of soldering, welding, fabricating and assembling the lamps at a skilling centre run by Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS). “I picked the women from Ormanjhi for this pilot project because of their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn a new skill and create a sustainable living for themselves,” Ray told me.
With support from the local administration, the fortunes of the women of Palamu and Ormanjhi started turning around.
In 2019, the Palamu producer group was awarded a contract to stitch school uniforms for the 25,000 children studying in government schools in Chainpur block. But they could only complete half the order when the Covid pandemic struck, forcing them to shut down the sewing centre. They had a loan of Rs 10 lakh from SBI, which had to be repaid. A promising start was in peril.
“We were very despondent for a few months. But then an opportunity arose. The authorities gave us a work order to stitch masks and package hand sanitisers in small bottles,” said Devi. In less than two months, the Palamu women stitched 70,000 masks and packaged 65,000 bottles of hand sanitisers. The producer group made a net profit of Rs 10 lakh.
In January this year, they received a new order to stitch school uniforms for students of 216 schools in the district. Despite the Covid related challenges, they have already delivered the order of 152 schools, while aiming to finish the rest within the next few weeks.
“Whenever we don’t have a government order, we use our time and capacity to stitch women’s clothes and sell them in the market,” said Farhat. Each of the 125 women in Palamu now earns Rs 8,000-10,000 a month. This is a huge jump in their household incomes. They are now able to afford better education for their children, have drinking water facilities and some savings for rainy days. Having tasted success, these women now want to procure orders from private schools. “All we want is work and enhancement in our earnings,” said Farhat.
Block Programme Manager Satya Priya Tiwari told me that more women in the area now want to join the skilling programme and there is a demand to open more such stitching and apparel production centres in other blocks.
Three years later the change is visible in Ormanjhi too.
When I visited the ‘Ranchi ki Roshni’ centre—the name of the workshop where these women work—I saw a team of quality conscious, meticulous and hard-working professionals, busy assembling lamps, so that they could meet the deadline of the orders pending with them. Each of the 15 women work from 9 am to 5 pm everyday (including Saturdays), and between them they assemble 200 lamps a day. Each woman earns close to Rs 9000 a month. Recently they supplied 4000 lamps to NDRF, even as they are now working overtime to complete the order of 40,000 lamps of Sikh regiment.
Economic empowerment is also creating social consciousness. Manju Devi, 38 years, the president of the SHG Ormanji SHG) has started a local campaign against domestic violence, child marriage and witch hunting. Many men in the block I spoke to about the importance of educating girls and giving them equal opportunities. Other women too now want to emulate Manju and her team and learn a skill that they could use to improve their station in life.
(Ashish Khetan is an author, lawyer, and columnist. His latest book, Undercover, has recently been released. The views expressed are personal.)