Sirohi, April 28 (IANS/ 101Reporters) For decades, the Adivasi community of Rajasthans Sirohi district has remained backward in terms of socio-economic development. With no formal education and minimal access to necessities, the community lived in isolation and was majorly dependent on farming and labour work to make a living.
However, a few years ago, things changed for the better after an NGO stepped in to educate the women of the community and help them achieve financial independence. Over the years, the women gained enough knowledge and confidence to successfully run their own backyard poultry and goat-rearing businesses, most of which were set up after the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, making their newfound success even more commendable.
“As markets were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, it became difficult for us to survive. Farming and the sale of cattle were our only source of income,” said Manisha Devi (27) from Sirohi’s Doli Fali village on the challenging circumstances of 2020.
She belongs to the Bhil tribal community, historically known for their use of weapons such as bows and arrows.
Timely assistance and guidance arrived in the form of Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a non-government, non-profit organisation that works towards empowering disadvantaged communities in rural India. They run the Aravali Pashupalak Sangathan (APS), a special programme that’s part of Bajaj Allianz’s CSR project, Promotion of Women Entrepreneurs in Rural Sirohi.
The main objective of the APS, which focuses on livestock-based activities such as goat-rearing and backyard poultry, is empowering women by enhancing their sources of income. They are provided with opportunities through a women-centric microfinance system known as the “Internal Loaning System”, wherein a loan is granted to the beneficiary for the livestock activities. The women later need to repay this loan to the APS after the prescribed moratorium period.
Since its launch in September 2020, APS has helped around 180 women launch their own businesses by granting them seed money. After they repay the loan, the women reinvest their profits back into their businesses, thus ensuring financial security for themselves and their families.
Self-help groups lead the way
“Earlier, we were only involved in farming, but then PRADAN helped us set up livestock activities,” Manisha added. “They gave us loans and trained us in breeding the animals. We now know about the kind of food and medicines they need to be given and also help train other women.”
PRADAN team co-ordinator Anif Khan explained to 101Reporters: “Our focus is on enhancing their livelihood. We mainly work in the areas of agriculture and livestock. Since the literacy level among women is low, we use pictorial representations to add to their knowledge. The terrain in these regions is tough, and houses are quite far from each other. So bringing the women together was initially a difficult task.”
The self-help groups (SHG) established in 2009 have been instrumental in the progress and development of rural women in these parts of Rajasthan.
“In 2020, when migrant workers returned to Sirohi, there was no work or income. When the matter was discussed within the SHG, the women decided that new employment opportunities were needed, and that’s how we launched the APS,” Khan added.
The SHG have two major focus points: microfinance, under which the women are provided loans for their businesses, and livelihood enhancement, which includes imparting knowledge and training. For instance, women are informed about livestock farming and the measures they could take to make it more profitable. Currently, around 1,800 women are part of these SHGs.
Reaping the benefits of poultry farming
Under the APS scheme, women were not only being trained on the correct methods to go about backyard poultry farming and goat-rearing, but were also being assisted in travelling to the markets and selling their produce. Now well-informed about the market rates and ways to get better opportunities, these women today manage to sell their products on their own. While they don’t sell their eggs, they earn around Rs 300 for their roosters and chickens on a good day.
Surabhi Devi, also from Doli Fali village, has no formal education and was married at a young age. She’s always been a farmer, but it was only a year ago that she began to notice a skill-change within her.
“Before this, we had no idea how beneficial poultry farming could be for us,” the 40-year-old said. “With PRADAN coming to our village, the women who became associated with it were given education about the business. Over time, we learnt how we could benefit from it.”The Rajasthan government has framed a handful of farming-focused schemes like Rajasthan Water Sector Livelihood Improvement Project (RWSLIP) launched in 2019 which aims at providing subsidies to marginal farmers for adopting modern agricultural techniques, but such schemes often fail to reach isolated villages like Dholi Fali.
“We do not know about any schemes of the government if our crop fails or if there is no water. How can we think of availing such schemes when we are clueless?” questioned Manisha.
Casteism and gender-specific challenges
While development is a major obstacle for these tribal women farmers, they have also had to fight patriarchy.
“Before we started experimenting with various businesses, the men in our households were not supportive,” 40-year-old Vasuli Bai from Jamburi village told 101Reporters. “I’m not educated, but I now educate other women in these aspects. We are aware of how patriarchy affects our lives. The men in our society are just like all other men. In our community, while women and men work together in the field, it was difficult for us to start our own businesses.”
Echoing Vasuli’s views, Manisha emphasised: “We urge women to focus on the education of their daughters. We are not educated, but our daughters should be.”
Casteism is yet another challenge these women face. For instance, the women of Doli Fali were not allowed to draw water from the well of an upper-caste man. They said this happened every time they tried to fetch water from the neighbouring villages. The women also claimed there were times they are not allowed to enter upper-caste inhabited areas when conducting surveys.
For a clearer picture of caste-based differences, a comparison between Doli Fali and Tarungi village, a few kilometres away, can be made. While Doli Fali resembles a desert with a few acres of farmlands and mud houses, Tarungi, inhabited by the upper-caste Thakur community, has beautiful brick houses with clear signs of greater development.
Tackling water scarcity
Dry deciduous forests are common in this part of Sirohi district, while the higher elevations of Mount Abu are covered in coniferous forests. This difference in terrain has resulted in a major water crisis in the region, with many farmers losing their crops and plunging into severe debt.
Devi Bai, one of the core members of the village and a member of an SHG, pointed out that this water scarcity was why they started growing vegetables along with bajra (pearl millets) and corn (makkai).
“We grew only makkai earlier, but a year ago, it was suggested that we grow vegetables, too. The water shortage does create an issue for us, but we try to work through it,” the 40-year-old added.
The crisis forces these women to travel far and wide to fetch water for their homes and farms. Moreover, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and delayed rains led most of these female farmers to lose their vegetable saplings. This was when Rekha Bai, a 28-year-old from Phoola Bai Khera village, put in even more effort on her vegetable farm. She now has one of the most successful farming businesses in the village.
“I started tomato farming four years ago. It was very difficult initially, but I taught myself how to do it. Farming requires care and attention,” she said, emphasising on the water scarcity further.
Water woes, gender bias, patriarchy and casteism notwithstanding, the tribal women of Sirohi have beaten the odds and emerged successful through sheer grit and determination.
(The author is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)