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Fifty rupees at a time

From the land ravaged by the Kosi, a lesson for India: How women in a remote, disaster-battered village changed their lives. A report by Ruchir Kumar.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2009 23:06 IST
Ruchir Kumar

A typical flood-time scenario: Rescue operations on. Man atop a tree for 72 hours is later rescued by an army helicopter. More than XXX million people go homeless as XXX villages are under water. Death toll reaches XXX. Prime minister, home minister and chief minister are on aerial survey. But once the water recedes and aids dry up, the victims are left on their own, waiting for another flood or drought. It’s people like America Devi, who wait for no one.

With a name like America Devi, all that the 35-year-old woman had to do in her remote Bihar village was to dream big.

So she did.

When the Kosi floods took place in July-August last year, the men had all left her Kala Govindpur village in Bihar’s northeastern Supaul district, leaving behind swathes of fallow land.

That was when an upstream breach in the Kosi River had inundated Bihar and affected 3.5 million people. In a cycle repeated every year after every natural disaster in India, there was little government aid to go by, and life seemed grim.

Until America Devi — named so by her farmer father Joli Ram (70), who lived in the village, but was impressed by the US — thought up a plan.

She led the women of Kala Govindpur, 300 km northeast of Patna, as they re-built their lives and village with a self-help group that sought just Rs 50 at a time.

So the Saraswati Swayam Samuh (Saraswati self-help group) was born.

“I was motivated by an NGO, Kosi Kshetriya Biklang, Vidhwa, Vridh Kalyan Samiti, in Supaul to start a self-help group and deposit Rs 50 per month, which would grow into thousands of rupees after a year if we kept the money in a bank,” said America Devi who started the effort with 11 other women.

It is a lesson for rural India, where almost half of farmer households are in debt, and only 27 per cent have access to formal credit sources like banks.

Supaul was ravaged by the flood. As Bihar reeled under one of India’s worst floods, the river changed course and became up to 20 km wide at its worst and inundated 990 villages, killing 527 people, according to official figures. When the water receded, it left barren lands, and thousands out of work.

In Kala Govindpur, a third of the population of 1,100 lost homes. Fertile land became useless. Savings emptied out. Livelihoods were at stake. Government assistance was meagre: all that the victims were offered was 50 kg of rice and wheat each and Rs 4,340 in cash.

Over the past year, the central and state governments have been squabbling over the details of a relief package. Against Bihar’s demand of Rs 14,000 crore (Rs 140 billion), the Centre approved only Rs 497 crore (Rs 4.97 billion). The dispute continues even a year after the disaster.

Back in Kala Govindpur, America Devi’s husband Purandev Ram was one of the few men who stayed back, but others went to Punjab, seeking work.

That was when America Devi’s group availed of a central government scheme aimed at promoting self-employment, and took a Rs 25,000 loan from a local branch of a nationalised bank. Out of that, each member got Rs 2,083.

With that money, most members have now bought goats and carts to sell vegetables. America Devi, the president of the self-help group, has opened a grocery shop.

The success of the all-woman Saraswati samuh has inspired similar experiments in the village such as the Veena Swayam Sahayta Samuh and the Durga Swayam Sahayta Samuh.

“With the money from the loan, I bought a pair of goats,” said Kaushalya Devi (50), the group’s treasurer, whose husband works as a daily wage-labourer in the fields of Punjab. “The goats have now multiplied to five and I am now managing two meals a day, which was difficult earlier.”

Having set their own houses in order, the women have turned to helping their neighbours.

“Many villagers cannot take loan from banks. So, we either take a loan from the bank on behalf of the group, or withdraw money from our account and lend it to the needy for two rupees per hundred (interest of two per cent per month),” said America Devi.

“So far, we have funded some shradh (rituals offered for dead ancestors) ceremonies in our village,” she says. “We have also given out personal loans for medical treatment,” she says.

Phuleshwar Ram (38) was distraught when his father, Jagannath Ram, passed away in March. Adding to his grief was his inability to raise the money for the shradh ceremony. That was when the women’s group stepped in with a loan of Rs 5,000. He has so far returned Rs 3,000 and promises to repay the full loan.

“No one has defaulted on repayment of loan yet. The villagers know that if they default, the village panchayat (village council) will take them to task,” America Devi said. “Besides, if the borrowers do not return us the money and we go bankrupt, the villagers will only be drying up their source of getting instant money in adversity.”