Hill women, long deprived of any economic rights, have found their independent, confident voice in activities spurred by a welfare group
IN THE highland village of Paini, 7 km off Joshimath in the Garhwal Himalayas, the village Mahila Mangal Dal (MMD) -- the women's welfare group -- today has a sizeable treasury of money in its village fund. The fund not only helps the women during lean periods, but also meets the operational costs of running its production and marketing centres for pickles and squash.
This new-found prosperity has its roots in an incident in May 1994 when about 30 determined women foiled the attempts of the village sarpanch to grab a 0.2 ha nursery. The provocation, according to Mangala Devi Bist, president of the MMD, was the vegetables grown on the plot of land. "The sarpanch seemingly wanted to make good money by encroaching upon the nursery," she says.
The women were motivated to make pickles and squash by a ngo, the Himalaya Environment Study and Conservation Organisation (HESCO), which would fetch them supplementary incomes. Thereafter, they decided to grow vegetables themselves, reducing not only the production cost, but selling the surplus in the local market.
HESCO was established in 1979 to improve both the living standards of the villagers and their environment. The alternatives HESCO suggests do not entail a break from the villagers' traditional practices. At Gholtir, it modified the gharat (watermill) used to grind wheat. While a teflon bush has been attached to the mill's shaft to increase its speed, the water flume reduces the friction of the water flowing into it. The blades give the water an unidirectional flow. The result: increased efficiency. "Earlier, I used to grind 15 kg wheat in an hour, but now I get 30 kg," says Narayan Rana, 44, the mill's operator, "and I am going to line the canal with cement so that not only its efficiency increases further, but I get a sense of satisfaction of doing something myself."
In 1991, HESCO organised a meeting of all the village MMDs of the region to explain the technologies that could be adopted, tailored to respective needs. "And since we didn't want to impose an alien technology on them, we let them choose the alternative after suggesting the best possible ones," explains Kiran Rawat, 27, a scientist with HESCO.
The people of Bilagarh, a village perched on a 2,000 m high plateau, were being fleeced out of a decent price for their bumper potato crop by middlemen. In August 1994, HESCO trained their women to make potato chips, and also provided them a packaging machine. Now the chips, priced at Rs 6 for a 100 gm pack against an input cost of Rs 20 per kg, go to almost every mmd centre. Says Sangita Dhobhal, 21, an active member of the village Mahila Dal proudly, "We have not only broken the nexus of the middlemen to an extent, but we also compete with Uncle Chips and Pepsi Foods."
Animath, a village of 20 households, has no electricity. Here HESCO has put up a 3.5 kw gasifier developed with technical assistance from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. It supplies electricity 3 hours a day using diesel and coal made by briquetting -- tamping loose biomass into solid fuel. The village committee charges Rs 30 a month from each household and is responsible for the gasifier's maintenance. Says Pushpa Devi, 40, one of the 3 women who learned to operate it, "I learned it because if Chand, its operator, were to fall ill or go somewhere, I shouldn't be without light in my house."
HESCO workers claim success in the community forestry scheme in the Siwalik area of Kotdwara, in which it initially started its activities. But the benefits are not evident in the villages around Chamoli. People there were hardly enthusiastic about protecting monoculture pine forests on panchayati land. Realising this, HESCO propagated the concept of "family forestry" among farmers, which merely involves planting useful trees on the bunds of farmland. Nima Devi, 20, of Gwar village of the Gholtir block of Chamoli, claims to have planted 125 mulberry trees. Today, she is sitting pretty as her family enjoys the profits from her foresight: the 3 Fs -- fruits, fodder, and fuel.
The 3 Fs are the key components of the integrated biomass development project HESCO is running. Taking the diverse climatic condition of the Himalayas into consideration, HESCO has motivated villagers to establish fruit nurseries in Kotdwara. Prithvi Singh, 38, of Dalimsain started a 0.2 ha nursery 4 years ago. Today, he not only grows various citrus fruits, but also supplies sisum saplings to the forest department.
Considered practically useless until now, Rambans (Agave), a commonplace plant, has several uses. At Animath, Indira Devi Rawat, a weaver, now earns about Rs 600 a month selling rambans-fibre products, enough to provide a living to her family. Planting rambans along the perimeters of the fields has fortified them against foraging wild animals that destroy the standing crop.
Garhwal abounds in medicinal herbs. Extracts of brahmi (Centela asiatica) can be used as a cough syrup. Euphoria powder has laxative properties, and Solanum indicum mixed with tulsi can cure asthma and bronchitis. However, research on these plants is still at an experimental level. The much-talked about employment generation through making local Lantana bush furniture doesn't seem to be promising either.
On the brighter side, these projects have a good demonstrative effect. And for women who are too tied up in farming, HESCO has found an innovative solution by targeting children, calling them the "future innovators". Three months ago, Kuldeep Singh Negi, 12, of Gwar, learned to grow mushrooms on sullu (Euphorbia roylena) plant skin. "Amma (mother) was surprised when I gave her Rs 45 I earned by selling mushrooms. Now, she has also learned to grow it," he recalls enthusiastically.
These changes have made the hard, spartan lives of the hill women a little comfortable. Further, they have brought about a seachange in the relations between the sexes. No longer are the women ready to tolerate the whims and fancies of their menfolk. They now seem bold enough to even opt for a radical change in their personal lives and relationships.
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