From poultry, piggery, fishery, bamboo-craft, mushroom cultivation to producing handloom and handicrafts, these self-help groups are not just ensuring livelihoods, but also preserving Assam’s traditional practices and thus its cultural values

Editor’s Note: In rural Assam, women’s self-help groups are challenging narrow patriarchal beliefs to emerge as the symbol of uplifment and ambassadors of developmental politics. Ahead of the state Assembly polls, in which women are expected to be a key voting bloc, this two-part series examines the lives, livelihoods and challenges these women face on the path to self-reliance.

Manju, a tea garden worker from Negheriting Tea Estate in Assam’s Golaghat district, says she often has trouble making deposits to her Self-Help Group (SHG).

“There are times when we have to borrow from a babu (moneylender) because I don’t earn enough to save. That puts me under pressure. Now, we’ve heard that the government will give our Self-Help Group (SHG) a loan of Rs. 1,00,000. Once they do, we’ll divide that into Rs. 10,000 for each of us, she said.

On being queried as to why she keeps her membership despite her troubles, she responds: “My husband had an accident three months ago and I was able to withdraw Rs 7,000 from the SHG. For us, I think it is more important than a bank.”

SHGs in Assam are self-governed and peer-controlled networks that have been maintained by members for years. All in service of one goal: achieving self-reliance.

Although SHGs are not without their issues, they have proved themselves strong agents of financial security for their members.

Women farmers hard at work in a village of Mangaldoi Constituency. Image procured by Abhishek Kabra

From poultry, piggery, fishery, bamboo-craft, mushroom cultivation to producing handloom and handicrafts, these self-help groups are not just ensuring livelihoods, but also preserving Assam’s traditional practices and thus its cultural values.

There are 2,94,514 registered self-help groups in Assam working with the objective of women empowerment and rural development.

Shayera, a woman from an SHG in Golaghat district. used to work as a house help in her neighborhood. During the lockdown, she withdrew money from her SHG and began selling vegetables alongside her husband.

In January 2021, her SHG membership bore huge fruit, pun intended, when she went on to purchase an e-rickshaw for her husband.

Shayera added, “My husband lost his job after the pandemic. I feel proud to say that I am not only self-sufficient but also able enough to buy a tum-tum (an e-rickshaw) for my husband.”

With the initiation of Kanaklata Mahila Sabolikaran Asoni (KAMS) in 2018, over one lakh SHGs in Assam have received help of Rs 25,000 from the government. Ramdhenu, an SHG member from Borbang Jeutipara village in Dibrugarh district, bought three goats from the money received under KAMS in 2021.

Although success stories abound, what’s relevant here is the timing of the fund distribution. More and more such stories have been emerging since February 2021. Assembly elections in Assam are slated to begin on 27 March.

Many SHGs have been struggling in absence of any government assistance. One such example is Najabaka Swayamsevi Mohila Gut in Sivsagar district.

A member, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that the SHG had received no financial help from the government for the past four or five years. This shows that although rural development is one of the major goals of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), lots of issues need to be addressed.

Seven Sisters Development Assistance (SeSTA) a partner of State Rural Livelihoods Mission in Assam, was established to empower women.

Tirtharaj Gohain, executive (Communications and Fundraising) of SeSTA, spoke about the model they have adopted to promote farming amongst members of different SHGs.

“With interventions of SeSTA as well as programs like Mahila Kishan Sashaktikaran Yojana, the model has contributed towards the creation of not just a greater number of women farmers but four Farmer Producer organizations (FPO) in the state,” Gohain said.

“These women were previously confined to their homes, but today they are forming FPOs and recruiting other accountants and management persons.”

He added, “Be it a government grant or a mission of any organisation or the NRLM, the SHGs have become essential. And when it comes to availing these facilities, women handle the entire process themselves.”

Supriya Mahanta, a former student of Social Work from Dibrugarh University, Assam, has worked extensively with SHGs from Dhekiajuli.

Assam Assembly Election 2021 From financial inclusion to spurring entrepreneurship SHGs are driving development

Women farmers tilling their land during a SeSTA intervention process. Image procured by Abhishek Kabra

Mahanta said, “A major issue among the SHGs today is the lack of a market for their products. Many people go for weaving. But a locally prepared handloom product costs much higher than their artificial counterparts that come from other places. Thus, people tend to buy cheaper products like a replica gamocha rather than ones made locally. Even though there are expos and other trade fairs, the problem of a proper market setup still leaves people reluctant to get into manufacturing the products locally.”

Many organisations, like one SHG in Dhekiajuli, have started making agarbattis and candles, which are in higher demand than other products.

The SHGs have also played a major role in the war against COVID-19 by manufacturing over 51 lakh masks in just two months under the brand name Asomi, for which they earned Rs 7.15 crore from 84 stalls in 33 districts.

The SHGs aren’t confining their activities to just ensuring livelihoods. For example, Ambika Thapa of Akota SHG from Lumbajong village of Karbianglong district, has opened a childrens’ home for orphans, the poor and abandoned.

Many women leaders, who have become essential components of the Gaon-Xobha (village meet), are also emerging as opinion makers and the ambassadors of development politics.

In recent visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and at many other election rallies, many leaders of SHGs became a source to mobilising people.

But Ratna Bharali Talukdar, an eminent independent journalist from Northeast India sounds a cautionary note: “The primary goal of SHGs was to generate income. But with time, we have seen different governments depositing money into their accounts. So there is a shift from the goal of doing an activity to generate income and thus many times the empowerment does not occur. But this has also led women to be seen as the source of money at time of emergencies.”

Talking about the role these SHGs are going to play in upcoming elections, she adds,”In most political rallies, parties are trying to mobilise middle-aged women. So they are going to be an important voice in the upcoming elections, but this does not directly transform to upliftment, which was the major aim of these SHGs.”

Dulali (name changed), a woman from a SHG in Dergaon, echoes the same sentiment. “I work in a tea garden with a very little salary. Since I am not registered, I am working as a faltu worker (the name given to unregistered workers). So even though I am in an SHG, it won’t do me any good until my primary source of income increases. And thus my participation in SHG doesn’t necessarily transform into a vote.”

“Whenever we meet, we discuss different problems of our society and how we as a unit can stand up to solve the same,” said an SHG member in Furkating of Golaghat.

So, though these SHGs are receiving help from different missions and programmes, it does not necessarily translate into votes for the government.

Assam Assembly Election 2021 From financial inclusion to spurring entrepreneurship SHGs are driving development

A woman from an SHG in Barampur village of Darrang district. Image procured by Abhishek Kabra

“Recently, the son of a member was selected for a very good job in a PSU. His mother used to take loans for his school and university fees. Thus the group holds a big credit in his success,” said Runu Bora, an SHG member from Sivsagar.

Different SHGs have different modus operandi. Finalising it, representing the group in many intervention programmes, attending as trainees, receiving and spreading gender sensitisation, production of sanitary napkins, taking action against drug abuse and domestic violence, many Self-Help Groups are defying patriarchal beliefs to set examples of leadership and empowerment.

These groups with names such as Sanjivani, Ramdhenu, Pragati have become harbingers of development, adding colours of hope to lives that were previously only confined to the home.

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