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Two women and a flying squad

By Girija Godbole

She used to use a sickle to cut the umbilical cord. Now she uses gloves, scissors and thread when she conducts a delivery. In her nine-yard sari and traditional nosering Sugandhabai and her co-worker Shantabai manage the local self-help groups, take the ecological message to hundreds of villagers as they march through the Western Ghats, fight the country liquor mafia and hold the local administration accountable

 "Every day we see these sprawling blue waters which have displaced us, but we do not get a drop of it. And you city people enjoy it at our cost. Lift that hunda (water pot) and walk with us to the village. Only then will you realise what we women have to go through everyday," said Sugandhabai to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Pune district. The CEO and others present were taken aback. How could an illiterate, poor, village woman say anything like that to a sarkari afsar (government official)!

But thanks to Sugandhabai's straight-talk, the proposal for the drinking water facility was processed speedily in these villages just 50 km from Pune, Maharashtra, in the catchment area of Pavana Dam in the Western Ghats. These villages have an acute water scarcity now. But these slopes were green once, right until the 1960s. Then the government leased out lands to contractors who chopped the vegetation mercilessly, completely denuding the area. Though the rainfall is quite high (approximately 125 inches), the lack of tree cover does not allow retention of water, and the gushing rainwaters wash away the topsoil. Construction of the Pavana Dam in the 1970s added to the problems of the villagers. Those situated in the valley were displaced without adequate compensation; the displaced are still fighting for compensation. A few villages were relocated on the hilly slopes where water is a major constraint.

Jeevan Sanstha, an NGO working in the catchment area of Pavana Dam in Pune district, spotted the spark in Sugandhabai and got her to join as a field worker in the 1980s. Since then she has been with the organisation through thick and thin.

Sugandhabai is an experienced and much-sought-after traditional birth attendant who learnt the skills from her grandmother. Till a few years ago she would cut the umbilical cord with a sickle. But now that she has been trained she uses gloves, scissors and thread. Even today the women prefer to call her for a delivery rather than a doctor.

"Generally I do not get any cash. If the family can afford it they give me a sari. If it's a poor family I do not expect anything, after all I have to do my bit for society," says Sugandhabai.

The land holdings in this region are small and the majority depend on one rain-fed paddy crop for their primary source of income as irrigation facilities are not available. Many of the families have at least one member working in cities of Pune or Mumbai.

The Marathas are the dominant caste here, with a few scheduled caste and tribe families also settled in the catchment area. Traditionally women are not considered equal to men. They get little exposure to the outside world and rarely get a chance to be financially independent. But interaction with the local women brought the early realisation that they were yearning to be financially independent and stop relying on the men for minor expenses. When the decision to form Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of women was taken, Sugandhabai and her friend Shantabai of the neighbouring village took the initiative.

Shantabai has studied up to the 7th standard and does all the paperwork. Now she handles big sums with confidence. "I used to be very different. I used to be afraid of even looking at strangers. I divorced my husband who along with his mother used to harass me. I had heard about Jeevan Sanstha, but felt too shy to approach them. Once a woman from my village who was working as a village health worker with them took me with her for a weekly meeting. There we discussed local health problems and simple remedies using common herbs. I found it very interesting, started going for the meetings regularly and soon joined them. When the SHGs were formed I was trained in account-keeping and can now take care of the transactions," says Shantabai.

Shantabai and Sugandhabai organise monthly meetings of the SHG representatives. Shantabai reads out important articles from the newspaper to the women present. They discuss the news. Sometimes she arranges a talk about health and hygiene. They make a good team. Sugandhabai is good with communications and Shantabai is good at management.

Last year they organised a play based on the life of well-known social reformer Savitribai Phule. The majority of the village women watched a play for the first time in their life. "Our village women hardly get a chance to experience such things. Many of them have not even seen a train! We feel it's our responsibility to try to give them the kind of exposure we have got," remark Shantabai and Sugandhabai in unison. These two ladies have travelled as far as Uttarkhand to visit the women involved in the Chipko Movement. They have also been to Alwar district of Rajasthan to study the water conservation efforts of Tarun Bharat Sangh. They have also taken part in rallies organised by Narmada Bachao Andolan.

"Exposure to such initiatives was essential to enhance our understanding of environmental issues. It has inspired us to do something similar in our villages. It also helped to build our confidence. A poor, illiterate rural woman like me would never have got a chance to go so far and experience a different world. Now when we talk about different places in India we have been to, the male members of our villages listen with awe. And it feels good!" says Sugandhabai mischievously.

Sugandhabai travelled extensively in the Western Ghats from Navapur on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border to Goa during the Save the Western Ghats March. For three months she visited a number of villages along the crest along with the other core marchers. Clad in her nine-yard sari, wearing the traditional nose-ring, she could easily win the confidence of the local villagers. She proved an asset in collecting information about the problems faced by villages in the Western Ghats. She also learnt to speak at public forums. When she sings songs in Marathi that tell of the misery of a woman displaced by a dam, she strikes a chord in her listeners.

Presently the two women are battling illegal liquor in their villages. The SHG members have formed flying squads. For a month last year they took turns patrolling the roads at night to check vehicles carrying black jaggery used to make country liquor. The women hired three tempos and went to the police station to complain. The officer was taken aback to see these rural women coming in unaccompanied by males. When the local police did not take them seriously they marched to the police commissioner and complained about the apathy of the local police personnel. Sugandhabai and Shantabai led several women at the dharna (sit-in protest) against illegal liquor in Pune organised by the Pune District Anti-Liquor Committee. They were taunted and jeered at by villagers who drink and gamble, but they stood their ground.

They are also working to find supplementary sources of income for poor village women. As part of this they have started preparing hand-pound rice. At present they are selling it through a few friends in Pune. But they are looking for bigger outlets to sell their product. One of the SHGs earns extra money making chilly and turmeric powder on the grinding machine bought with revolving funds. One group has started a plant nursery.

Their exposure to conservation initiatives in other parts of the country has helped these two crusaders understand the importance of community participation. During village meetings they urge local villagers to stop setting fire to grasslands and uncontrolled grazing which harm the environment. Slowly their efforts are beginning to bear fruit: a few SHG members are contemplating planting trees on wastelands, a few farmers have stopped grazing their cattle where saplings have been planted. One SHG member is wants to learn how to make energy-efficient smokeless chulhas, which can be sold to the members.

This region has not been transformed. Far from it. But the significance of Sugandha and Shantabai's work lies in the fact that they are taking the lead to improve their lives. They are dreaming big.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2003