SMITA GHATE was assistant collector in Madhya Pradesh's Sagar District from January 1997 to January 1998. She was transferred for taking a proactive stand on the participation of women in rural development programmes. She was also actively involved in the Rajiv Gandhi Mission for Watershed Development. In an interview to KAZIMUDDIN AHMED, Ghate narrates her experience while working in the villages of Madhya Pradesh
Involvement of women is on your priority list. Why?
The women in the villages are involved in three basic things - water, fuel and fodder. Along with agriculture, one of the basic goals of watershed development programmes is to help in improving the life of women in villages. It is essential to involve them in something which is a part of their every day life... empowerment of women is necessary to build up their confidence and give them a sense of financial security. Also, I feel women know how to manage better with minimum resources.
Did you face any problems while involving the women in the work?
We did face some problems. The villages in those parts are very patriarchal. The women do not have any role in decision-making. Their lives are confined to doing the daily chores and living behind the veil. lo in that kind of an atmosphere, getting them out of the house proved difficult.
A lot of people, from politicians and bureaucrats to sarpanches (village chiefs), tried to discourage us. Once a sarpanch from some other village came and threatened the women in a village where they were actively involved in the development programme. The women kept mum the first time. But the next time these men came, they were beaten up by the women. However, after the success of the programme, people have stopped pointing fingers.
What steps did you take to make the women self-sufficient and financially secure?
We made the women participate in all watershed programmes and enrolled them in the watershed committees. Our first goal was to make them financially independent. We did this by helping them earn money and then saving it. We sponsored nursery development programmes in their own homes. They would tend to the plants which would be sold later to the committee itself. We persuaded them to save money and then forced the banks to collect the money from them. Now, at least, they have some savings and they can use it for their own or their family's welfare. This also reduced their dependence on the local money lender.
Then we stressed on sanitation facilities. We encouraged the people to have a sanitation system. Initially, the people were not very enthusiastic about it. But they soon understood and started giving importance to it.
Which agencies have facilitated, encouraged or helped you in your effort?
Firstly, the Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Development Mission itself is very flexible. This flexibility allowed us to work without the old government procedures. This was a government project with a difference. As implementation officers at the local level, we were given the right to take decisions. Then the army and the National Cadet Corps also helped us a lot. The fact that my own boss gave us the space to experiment with new schemes was a major help. And later, of course, the villagers showed enthusiasm and that doubled the pace of work.
What has been the outcome of these women getting involved in development projects?
The results have been overwhelming. The women acquired a tremendous amount of confidence, They even became better in the technical aspects of the watershed development programmes than most of those involved. And the regeneration of women, both economically and socially, I feel, has been a major success. It has also narrowed the gap between the various castes. Another important aspect is that the bureaucracy has been sensitised. The chief minister later commented, "Yeh mahila jagriti ki ek adbhut misal hai" (It is an extraordinary example of the awakening of women).
But how sustainable is this financial independence? Are there any conflicts?
The women might not get the same amount of money throughout the year, but it is the change in their attitude that matters. It is not just an issue of involving women in watershed development programmes, it is social change we are talking about. I think the self-esteem of the women has received a boost and they will certainly retain this. They would not want the next generation to suffer like they have. There can be conflicts like factionalism later, but with a strong political will things can be managed.
Do you think that you being a woman helped in generating enthusiasm among the women in the villages?
Well, yes, that definitely helped. Because I could relate to them and they could also talk to me very freely. When the women, even the older ones, saw that another woman could come out of her home and work in an alien land, they also came forward with their views. They felt happy that they were being given a choice. The enthusiasm was there. What was needed was the initiative to bring it out. Then it was "jab sonch liya ki karenge, to karenge he" (since we have decided to do it, we will do it).
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