By Joel T. Fagsao
In the village of Nandej, a two hours ride away from Ahmedabad city, in the state of Gujarat, India, we visited the Meera Self-Help Group. Our interaction with the group members composed mostly of women, men residents of the village brought upon us a new learning experience on how poor villagers can emerge from poverty. The Meera Self-Help Group members tell of how they made a living prior to banding themselves together as a group. They were landless villagers with neither livestock such as buffalo or goats to take care of, they worked as farm laborers. But they were exploited by landowners and work in the fields required fifteen to eighteen hours each day. The villagers were paid a daily wage of twenty to twenty five Rupees (P20.00 to P25.00). The villager’s fate changed when they were encouraged to form a group by government social worker, Gram Sevak. Sevak worked for the District Rural Development Agency, Ahmedabad District, a government agency tasked to work with India’s rural sector residents.
Sevak painstakingly explained the benefits of forming a self-help group in terms of economic and social development. The initial 11 members relate their difficulties in forming a group but they did start saving 10 Rupees per month. The group became Meera Sel-Help Group and the members slowly built up savings continuously. When the members had enough amount of money, they started to lend money to members at a low interest rate of one percent. It was a far cry from the village lenders who charged from 5 to 10% rate per month. In their gatherings, they contemplated on coming up with an enterprising activity. The group met up with a local artist, Mr. Yusuf K. Divan, who introduced them to an art form called Meenakari art. The group requested government worker Gram Sevak for training on Meenakari art. Meenakari art is an ancient Mhugali inspired art form where metal is embossed with design pattern and painted over with various colors.
Sevak arranged for the implementation of the training with Divan for the Meera Self Help Group members. The Meera Self-Help Group was soon supported with a grant from the District Rural Development Agency of Ahmedabad. The financial support was used to purchase a manual design stamping machine, raw materials such as soft wood, aluminum foil, paint and working sheds. The government agency also provided marketing support for the new entrepreneurs. The group participated in local and statewide fairs to showcase their functional Meenakari products that include temple replicas, decorative plates and other functional items. The men-folk work on the wood frames and a square size aluminum foil is embossed with the design by a machine that is manually operated. The metal embossing blocks carry the designs of Divan. In our visit to their manufacturing site, the men and women members worked in various phases of the crafts production. Some men were working on the wood frames that would form the base for the temple replicas. Others are embossing the design patterns and women work on the finishing by meticulously painting over the bare designs creating a wonderful piece of functional art work. In time, the group members were earning from 80 to 90 Rupees per day, a far cry from the 20 Rupees they earned before. The group also expanded to include one hundred sixty women from nearby villages. The Meera Self Help Group went on to discover new markets for their products by participating in statewide fairs and a stint at the South Asian Country fair held in China. So what is the formula for success of self-help groups in India? The initiative has to come from the members to form and strengthen their group with the guidance of a dedicated government worker. The manual on developing self-help groups provided by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (India) guides the development worker in the formation of self-help groups. In introducing the program development workers must earn the trust of the villagers. The development workers are also cautioned not to promise anything especially money or subsidies under any scheme. In meetings with the villagers, it is important that the formation of the groups are not for the “giving” of anything but to enable the members to come together and help each other. Time is an important element in the group formation process. For some it would take a year to stabilize the group. It is also important that individuals coming together must belong to the same economic status, educational attainment and share the same ideals. The inclusion of members who are of a higher economic status than the rest or have received more years of education might jeopardize the stability of the group. There is this tendency for such members to take the lead and more often than not, are prone to influence the group in decision making that works to their advantage. The sourcing of funds from their own pockets will also discourage individuals who are always on the lookout for government dole outs. It takes some time for the self-help group to mature but by working on the principles of helping each other, the poor gain more confidence and is more able to handle bigger responsibilities. Most government programs often fail because they form groups and start on the wrong footing-the usual approach is for the poor to form a group for the promise of a loan or grant. The Meera Self-Help Group worked hard to build up on their savings and was dedicated enough to work for the better from the grant provided them by their government.