13 April 2020
No one had imagined that a microorganism would bring human societies to such a halt. The entire universe was caught unawares. While we discuss and analyze the behavior of man vis a vis nature, one thing that is still making humans resilient is their ability to join hands in a planned and systematic manner to face any challenge thrown by the Supreme.
Mr Lalit Jain, IAS, Director, Rural Development, Himachal Pradesh said, “In the Department of Rural Development, the Self Help Groups (SHG) are an instrument to fight rural poverty. Under the Himachal Pradesh State Rural Livelihood Mission (HPSRLM), 18263 groups are registered with the department, each consisting of 5 to 20 women. We realized the potential of these rural womenfolk, when Corona knocked at the doors of the State in the last week of March this year.”
As the news of infection of Covid -19 virus being preventable by masks spread, so did the black-marketing of commodities. The HPSRLM received an SOS message from the Chief Secretary and the women army waiting for an opportunity, dusted its sewing machines and with a little ingenuity, dissected a machine made mask procured from a chemist. They came up with a triple layer mask, made out of non woven fabric-used for making carry bags these days. Till time, in Himachal Pradesh, 50 SHG’s consisting of 200 women are involved in a daily production of 15,000 masks. These maske are being used by rural population, thus giving alternatives to the people at a much cheaper cost. A group like “Radha Soami Self Help Group” in Una, is aware that the masks need sterilization. Hence they are offering ultra violet treated masks to the general public at just Rs 7 per mask. The local MLA and Rural Development Minister Varinder Kanwar has already ordered one lakh masks out of his own funds to distribute to the people of the area. After all, studies suggest that masks reduce chance of infection significantly as they are a vital barrier for aerosols. Almost all the SHG’s are making masks for their own use and groups like “Jai Durga Maa” village Tarror in District Shimla, even donated these to the local policemen on duty as a goodwill gesture.
The story does not end here. In remote Basantpur block of Shimla district, “Kanak Dhara SHG” of village Ghaini, the womenfolk indulged into Kitchen Gardening on a small scale. This season they grew Spinach, Fenugreek, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Peas in an area of about 10 Bighas. In pre Corona times , the produce would be picked from their threshold by the small Arhatiyas. But the lockdown led to a complete disruption of this market chain. Not to be cowed down, these ladies started “Barter” of their vegetables amongst themselves and with the local villagers. About a quintal of vegetables have been exchanged thus keeping the micro rural economy floating and also providing the much needed food security.
With farm labour having gone, it is these ladies, who will work shoulder to shoulder with menfolk to harvest the ready crops of wheat and vegetables. Some of them have plans to dry the vegetable and process them so that they are preserved using traditional methods. All this while, they are aware that the message from Shimla is to maintain “Social Distance”, hence they may not herd themselves for evening tea together till the things get better.
In Rajgarh, the peach valley of India, the Akal SHG is trying its hands at a desi version of a hand sanitizer. They sourced alcohol with the help of a local NGO and mixed Aloe Vera extract, Haldi (turmeric) and Lemon sourced locally to the concoction which will be used for the local population. While in the local market the hand sanitizer is off the shelves, the ones made by them is costing just Rs 30 (100 ml).
The hardworking hill women numbering 1.4 lakh in the State have also become a messenger for the State to take the message of social distancing to the remotest corner of the inaccessible villages. Thanks to the rapid strides in the literacy rate of Himachal Pradesh, the women are connecting with each other through numerous Whatsapp groups, where they share their videos and voice messages about how to productively use their time in this lockdown. While the state headquarters is sending them videos of prevention and mitigation ideas related to the Covid-19, the creativity of these simple yet resolute women can be seen in videos they make about trying new cuisine, stitching , sharing religious bhajans and family jokes.
The government of India provides these Self Help Groups a seed money amounting to Rs 15,000, in the form of revolving fund. The visionary leadership of the state of Himachal took a decision to provide an additional Rs 25,000 to the kitty of these women, as a tribute to their efforts to contribute towards self dependence and poverty alleviation. The fund acts as a micro finance for inter loaning and is given gratis by the government to these groups. It is from this fund that the women have been able to procure raw material, seeds etc in their effort to mellow down the effects of the lockdown. Whether or not the lockdown will end soon is a hypothetical question. But if the decision is taken otherwise, the governments will be best supported if the groups remain active and make efforts at their local level and as per needs of their area.
All these efforts are the best example of an innate urge for entrepreneurship that makes efforts come out of the foot soldiers in rural areas. While their efforts may not make headlines, but there is no doubt that in the little republics of villages, where India lives, if our rustic looking villagers specially women, are given the right training and leadership, they have the capacity to give their best in any crises.