Indian Village Women Take Control of Economic Life in Their Communities

Published on Apr 15, 2018 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

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Samson Nakkala is a man who has spent most of his life working to empower low-caste women in a range of rural communities in India’s state of Telangana, formerly part of Andhra Pradesh.

Born into a low caste himself, he succeeded in earning a Bachelor of Commerce, but has always used his management skills to open doors for the less advantaged first by informing them about their rights and providing needed education, but then by showing them how to become influential financial players in their villages and beyond.

I met Samson while I was working on my book about microcredit in India called Saris on Scooters – How Microcredit is Changing Village India. It was published in English in Canada and India and in French in Quebec in 2010.

Samson started first by organizing a cooperative among cycle rickshaw pullers. Later he helped rural women in certain districts of the state take loans in order to buy animals or set up small local businesses.

He did this by setting up village self-help groups consisting of about 15 women under a non-government organization he started called Gram Abhyudaya Mandali (GRAM). With GRAM in a training and surveillance role, individuals in these self-help groups accessed money for viable businesses through the Indian banking system.

Eventually 50,000 women in 625 villages were members of 3800 self-help groups that grouped into 19 regional cooperatives that became one large federation of cooperatives.

Samson then encouraged the women to consider more ambitious business ventures that would take them into the mainstream economy of the state.

The first was a milk produce collective composed by 2008 of 4350 women owning milk buffaloes in 65 villages selling milk in bulk to a woman’s diary, thereby avoiding middlemen, and reaping increased profits.

Now the milk produce collective has become a mini dairy selling pasturized milk in half liter and 200 milliliter pouches to stores across three districts in the state. Eighteen hundred  women in sixty villages are part of this dairy known as the Intideepam Mahila Dairy with the brand name Deccanstar. Most of members of the dairy are Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, but the dairy members come from all groups whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

A second ambitious venture was undertaken by a group of women’s cooperatives who were part of the GRAM organization when they won a major contract from the government to mine sand. Many women in the cooperatives had themselves been sand workers. They knew the business and figured out quickly how to find the proper markets. They hired an accountant and got down to work.

However, they faced enormous problems. The first was the arrival of goons hired by rival sand contractors, also known as the “sand mafia” who beat up the male sand workers that the women had hired. The second was the resistance of municipal authorities to provide the necessary waybills for incoming trucks belonging to buyers of the sand.

The grassroots women, who have an intimate knowledge of how their societies work, solved problems in workable even if unorthodox ways. The first was to take over the sand work themselves, armed with a packet of ground chili powder, and the threat of “chili in the eyes” if goons attacked them. That got rid of the goons and the workers they had hired were safely reinstated.

The second was the formation of a revolving women’s committee that dealt every night with the municipalities by paying into a special fund.

The result was a sizeable profit for themselves while at the same time providing jobs and fair wages to local village workers who looked up to these formerly shunned Dalit women.

I have kept in touch with Samson and was lucky enough to see him this past summer in Telangana where he continues to be a community organizer with the goal of helping women take on greater leadership roles in business and the overall economy.

Now, with these success stories in his past, he is mobilizing women heads of households in villages to form producer cooperatives to control the sale of their crops by dealing directly with stores, mills or individual consumers across the state.

So far 34,000 women in 255 villages are part of a women’s federation of cooperatives that is succeeding in selling crops, whether rice, maize, pulses, sugar or millets, without the gouging middlemen. The women are also doing all the buying, including groceries, through their federation.

Everything is being done digitally, with laptops slowly being installed across the villages. The goal is for every woman to have a smart card indicating what they have sold and bought and the state of their financial situation.    

At the village level, drawing from the individual crop cooperatives, village level cooperatives composed solely of women have been set up.

“What about the men?” I wanted to know. “What roles do they play?”

Samson said that the women in the crop cooperatives and in the overall village cooperatives have created committees of expert men that give advice. “This way,” he says, “men with expertise in various areas, whether in seeding and harvesting, transport, or other matters are involved.”

Samson’s goal is to spread this model of control into a total of 543 villages with 121,684 households comprised of about a half a million people across three districts in the state of Telangana.

Because the women heads of households are responsible for so much – working in the fields, feeding families, making sure the children are getting an education, and taking care of older people – the cooperatives, Samson says, are now also working on social issues affecting villagers.

He says that because the extended family is fading in importance, with many children moving to cities, very often older people are not being cared for.

As a result, the village cooperatives are considering opening up special homes for seniors. There is also a push for life insurance.