A woman deals with hay in Faridpur village of Birbhum district, West Bengal, in December 2017. (Morung Photo)
Morung Express Feature
Birbhum (WB) | January 21
Faridpur village is about 20 km away from Bolpur (Shantiniketan) in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. A section of the village is designated for the Scheduled Tribes of the village consisted mostly of Santhals. In this part of the village, life is all paddy and hay.
At the entrance of the village, a woman is sifting grain from chaff. Stacks of hay are being bundled and piled up at different points in the village. On the one lane that runs through the village, women are working on mounds of hay.
Animals are sitting or grazing on hay; children are playing on it. There’s hay on rooftops. There’s hay to cover the traditional granaries. Chaff is in the air. Those working on a machine to separate the grain from the dried stalk tie their faces with cloth to ward off the chaff.
Neither grain, nor chaff or hay belongs to them.
Balika Murmu is winnowing the grain she collected from someone’s field using a fan borrowed for the day from a neighbouring village. This way, she will quicken the process to earn some rice. The arrangement does not work to fill her stomach every day.
On the outskirts of Faridpur, where the village meets the cropped paddy fields, a separate activity is underway.
Makhan Tudu (35) is piling bricks on her head and taking them to be placed as a wall of a goatery under construction here. Makhan runs a Self Help Group (SHG) of 12 women who will operate the goatery among several other projects they work on. Started in 2006, her Group is called Sido-Kanhu.
“I first went for fishery training to Kolkata. Once back, I started an aquarium in the village from which we sell fish in Bolpur,” explains an upbeat Makhan, mother of three. Her husband works as an agriculture labour on others’ fields at times and at a brick kiln at others but he is mostly unemployed. The family makes its only savings from the SHG work. With this, their daughters are studying at a local school while their son has been sent to a missionary run school, with a hostel, in Kolkata. “He used to always run away from school before,” says Makhan who works from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm.
The SHG work, however, was not reaping benefits till the intervention of Anuradha Ghosh, secretary of a not-for-profit named ‘Suchetana.’ Ghosh, who also hails from Faridpur, has decided to convert it into a model village by empowering the women in it, focusing on the indigenous Santhali.
“When men here earn a penny, they spend it on themselves. When the women earn, they help raise the whole family and society,” reflects Ghosh as she finds her way easily through the hay.
Elected to the Bolpur Municipal Council as Councilor at the age of 22, she became the youngest woman in Bolpur to be in governance from 2000 to 2010, elected twice in a row on a reserved seat in the Urban Local Body. Having dedicated a few years after 2010 to her two sons, she is back to the community work she loves most.
“Being in politics taught me a lot about the system and how to implement ideas and through whom,” explains Ghosh, who insists on all-women teams on her projects. The only exception is Kunal Sain, her childhood friend and neighbor, who helps her with Suchetana’s financial and web-based needs. He does this from Bangalore where he has a full time job as a software engineer.
In 2010, Ghosh decided to facilitate five SHGs, each consisted of 12-15 women, that were struggling in Faridpur. Through her, the Santhali women of the village started a goatery with 400 baby goats, couple of fisheries and a duckery. The SHGs planted 250 fruit trees in the village apart from starting to grow vegetables. They sell the fruits and eat the vegetables.
“The tribals here are agriculture oriented. We cannot empower and sustain them only by teaching them handicraft work, which is also part of what we do. They need to work with the land,” states the Suchetana Secretary as women pour in from all corners of the village to meet and greet her. They hug her and chatter with her in circles—personal and professional merge. “We only help them implement the government schemes available. They do all the work,” she acknowledges.
This facilitation can be myriad; for instance, vaccinations for the goats and ducks could be hard to get or the right place to sell the meat generated is difficult to find. Through Suchetana, Ghosh asked her contacts from a chain of hotels to make sure that the meat they cook in their restaurants are sourced only through these SHGs. She puts the two parties in contact and lets them take the deal forward. Handicrafts are similarly marketed—“they have the skill to make it, and I have the skill to market it so we combine our skills and work together,” explains Ghosh who gets to hear stories of the lives of the women here every day.
At platforms like the Poush Mela, Ghosh spreads their message through her Suchetana stall which then helps attract independent donors for the work she does.
Child labour school
Suchetana specializes in linking projects.
Through the organization, Anuradha Ghosh runs a National Child Labour Special Project (NCLP) school, funded by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment.
“Empowerment of women is a dream but while working with women we realized how essential it is to look into the welfare of children,” observes Ghosh. Given the levels of poverty in Bengal, children are often pushed to the streets to earn for the family. “Every mother who has a child in street labour wants them to study instead,” she says.
So, the Basantitala NCLP School, which Suchetana runs, not only provides ‘bridge education’ to children in order to mainstream and initiate them into regular schools, it also provides a stipend to each child. The first tenure of the School ran from 2012 to 2015 with 42 students in attendance; they were initiated into regular schools later. The 2017-2020 tenure has 44 children. Soon, the School will start providing mid day meals to the students—a project she has named Annapurna.
“These children eat off dustbins and if we don’t give them food, they cannot focus on education. The government has enough funding to support wholesome meals for the students but we want to get the food through the right channels and make it sustainable,” maintains Anuradha Ghosh.
She is now working to tie the mid day meals at her NCLP School with products from the Santhali women’s farms in Faridpur. If the SHGs can supply mid day meals for the children, both activities will be sustainable.
At the Suchetana stall at Poush Mela, children from the Basantitala NCLP School are performing small acts they have learnt at school—a poem, an exercise regime, a song-dance number. The children have gained a sense of empowerment after spending most of their childhood on streets. Following the performance, they queue up, excited about a Mughlai meal at a stall of their choice at the Mela.
Five women are helping the children out. The women, all from marginalized families, have trained under Anuradha Ghosh—they run the school administration, including all banking operations, and have learned enough about investments to help grow their families and communities.
Elsewhere, in Faridpur village, 18 year old Santhali girl, Krishna Tudu is ready to be married off by her parents, as is the custom among her folks. She studied till class 8 when circumstances put her back into the paddy fields and stacks of hay. Ghosh opened up a world of possibilities for girls like Krishna, and many older women in the village, by bringing new modes of work and earning through the Self Help Groups.
As the horizon expanded, Krishna realized that she is good at taking photographs and making short clips from a hand held phone. Anuradha Ghosh sees the potential in skilling young women like Krishna Tudu to empower them to make their own decisions and run their own projects—she eventually sees Krishna become a leader in the skin of Sido-Kanhu. Not to revolt but stand up to face the challenges of her people.
As the sun sets on a crowded Poush Mela, the women munch on sweet pies, finding hope in each other; the strength to take their communities forward together.