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The 2003 monsoon could herald a great change in the socio-economic landscape of village Birora Kheth in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. Its 42-member fishery co-operative -- set up and run by the village's Dhimar (fisherfolk) women -- is all set to double the village's annual income just by selling fish.
Two years ago, the women didn't own the tank they tend carefully today. They were daily wage labourers in a May-June 2001 poverty alleviation programme to build a tank in the village. When work was completed, the gram sabha (village council) handed it over to the village's tribal and scheduled caste communities. The Dhimar women protested: the decision amounted to upper-caste control over the tank by default; the dominant Yadavs would get the poor communities to sign agreements and effectively take over the tank. So began a battle over this resource; the Dhimar women didn't allow anybody to fish in the tank, and formed a cooperative of their own. "In face of drought and diminishing livelihood sources, we women took the lead to change the fate of the village," says Panchia Kewat, a Dhimar. As the rift along the village's caste lines grew, the district collector judged that the lease for the tank would go to "whoever could fish". Panchia and 19 other women demonstrated their ability to do just that. The tank became theirs.
In 2002, the monsoon was deficient, but the women earned Rs 20,000. It wasn't enough for the co-operative; but it was the first time they had physically got so much money. "This monsoon the pond will fill up and we are sure to earn around Rs 1 lakh," says Panchia.
It started on a monsoon night in 1994. That night Ram Lal, a resident of Darletha village, defied a fishing ban on the 37.5 ha village pond upper caste villagers had imposed. "I was caught and threatened to be shot by the high caste residents," he remembers. Community elders were reluctant to confront the upper caste villagers who controlled fishing rights, but Ram Lal and 15 other Dhimar youths were intensely interested in ways to reclaim the tank. They had to cobble together Rs 32,000 the tank contractors had demanded. That year, they weren't able to put together the money, or the political confidence. By 1995, they realised they'd been functioning like a 'club'. So they decided to formalise their relationship into a co-operative.
Finally, on March 9 1996, the co-operative managed to get a lease for the tank. And within four months, an economic miracle happened. They fished for the first time in June, and earned a whopping Rs 2,45,000. After deducting expenses and initial investment, each member got Rs 11,500, plus another Rs 3,000 for the labour they had put in: in all, an income 10 times more than what they were used to. Impressed by their performance, the government helped to renovate the tank. Using this money, they constructed a new tank last year. Today in Darletha, fishing in the new tank is controlled by an all-women cooperative.
Parallel to Darletha's success began a campaign. Village after village saw Dhimar protests and attempts to reclaim tanks. To force the upper caste to secede, they would refuse to ferry water in some villages. In others, community strength and unity saw them through. Always, it was never a village-specific fight: Dhimars from other villages would chip in. The campaign strategy that evolved was two-pronged: 1) ownership of tanks through co-operatives, and 2) retaining ownership. In this way, from 2 co-operatives in 1998, the Dhimars by 2003 formed 29 co-operatives spread over three development blocks in the district. Of these, the seven most effective and richest ones are operated exclusively by women.
"Given the fast spread of the pond reclamation campaign, the 1.75 lakh-strong fisherfolks community seems to have waged a war for their rights," says Om Prakash Rawat of Vikalp, a non-governmental organisation (ngo) based in Mandiya village which first helped Dhimars to get organised. Says Nidhi Labh, a programme officer with Oxfam (India), an international ngo that supports the campaign as a non-funding partner, "It is an amazing socio-economic movement that has huge economic ramification for the community." The figures show this isn't a fiction: the 29 fish co-operatives with about 4000 members earned Rs 48 lakh by 2002-end. Out of this, Rs 5,26,980 is savings, controlled by 15 savings/self-help groups, formed to better manage their earning from fishing.
Women took the lead in forming these groups: "We have even beaten our husbands in savings, as they tend to spend much more than us," Panchia chuckles. It was both an empowering strategy as well as an economic initiative to strengthen the capital base of a community that had freshly taken up tank management. Women saving groups played a crucial role in forming women co-operatives. Today, out of these 15 groups, seven are actively managing co-operatives and another five are in the planning stage. Besides new tanks, traditional tanks are also now being considered for management under women co-operatives.
The economic benefit has resulted in other innovations (see box on previous page: Dhimar innovations). With Dhimars taking over tanks, there was a huge demand for fish seedlings. So the women co-operative society of Garora Jagir village dug a huge pond with voluntary labour to produce seedlings for co-operatives. "It would save money and effort to procure seedlings from the town. So it would lead to more profit also," says Lachhi Bai Rawat, a member of the co-operative.
The campaign is now set to expand; Vikalp has identified 54 villages with fisherfolk populations and traditional tanks through Padayatra. For close interaction and to guard their interests they have formed a three-tier institutional set up (see box on previous page: How not to squabble). Indeed, with state elections around the corner, the political leadership can hardly ignore this new -- and growing -- power base, especially since the Dhimars can swing votes in four assembly constituencies. Whether they will be taken into account is a different matter. So far as Tikamgarh's Dhimars are concerned, the campaign to transform their livelihoods is what matters.