Currently it is the season of storms in Rajasthan. There are the socio-political storms around the Gujjar issue causing anxiety and unrest in several parts of the state. Then there is the IPL storm and the sensation of the Rajasthan Raiders. When the wind picks up, the desert sandstorm takes control.
Kazodi Devi of Theekaria Kala village in Tonk District has more immediate concerns. She has to make sure her buffalo - her 'prized asset' - has enough to eat and drink. The buffalo's shed also needs upkeep. Why all this fuss? Because her asset has caused a quiet revolution in her household and propelled her to be a leader in her community!
It was not too long ago that Kazodi Devi remained in relative anonymity - something that a lot of the women in Rajasthan are accustomed to and resign themselves to. What a difference four years of owning a buffalo has made to her life! Today Kazodi Devi is being seen as an equal to the male member of the household and sought after by women from surrounding villages for advice and mentorship. Nearly 20,000 women like her in rural Rajasthan are a part of the dairy-based livelihood initiative run by well-known organization Srijan.
By noon the Srijan office at Duni in Tonk District is a beehive of activity as women trickle in from over a dozen surrounding villages. They are excited about the weekly gathering, talking about the marriages of the season, the repair work going on in their houses, or plans for the next agricultural cycle.
Namita Pandey, Srijan's co-ordinator often ends up multi-tasking - listening to the stories of the women, while collating the data related to these women's incomes. She also tracks individual household incomes and aggregates incomes of collection centers managed by the women. Namita, an engineer from Uttarakhand, finds immense gratification in the accomplishment of these women. She says, "Empowerment is key. Living here with them has helped me, and in turn my organization Srijan, has become truly sensitive to the community needs and provides the tools for the women to carve out their own plans."
These plans come to life even before the sun breaks out on the desert sky. Milk collection centres are set up at strategic points in the villages. Women bring in the milk from their buffaloes and deliver it to the collection point. Within the stipulated time and necessary quality checks done, the milk is transported to the chilling centres in Tonk. Eventually some of the milk will make its way to the nearby restaurants and the rest will reach larger dairies for processing and distribution.
Farmers here typically depend on the unreliable rainfall - an annual average of 640 mm. The community has built tanks for trapping and storing rainwater. But water is a recurrent issue. The nearby quarries, carpet weaving and animal rearing are other income-generation sources. If these dry out, they end up as migrant labour in nearby towns and cities disrupting their way of life.
Since 2003, Srijan has worked in 60 villages of Deoli block in Tonk district, Rajasthan. Maitree, the collective enterprise, is a federation of livelihood-linked Self Help Groups, supported by the American India Foundation, Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Government of Rajasthan, among others. The women meet on a weekly basis, save small sums, lend to each other when the need arises, bound by a common vested interest - the dairy. The women represent underprivileged communities such as Bairwas, Gujjars, Meena and Raigars. The women of Maitree have sold over 3 lakh liters of milk in last one year.
The long-sightedness of Srijan's founder Ved Arya is palpable in the entire design of the initiative. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Ved has brought decades of development experience and insights to the efforts here. He has used his gentle persuasiveness to coax bigwigs from the World Bank and the Planning Commission to think long-term and truly enable community ownership and bottoms-up change. Elaborating his vision, he says, "In the long run we wish to develop scalable models - we could have 20, 30, 40 livelihoods clusters like Maitree, reach out to and remove poverty among 100,000 poor families by 2011."
Srijan's highly-trained professionals like Rakesh Gupta are important catalysts of change here. Rakesh believes in creating sustainable community-driven institutions, run and governed by women. Like other Srijan professionals, he prefers to stay as close as possible to the villagers to enable regular visits and to be accessible to them.
Experts have argued that secondary sources of income like dairy and livestock are critical for the good health of India's rural and agri-oriented economy. According to Chennai-based Dr Rajeshwaran, of Dr Waran's Livestock Management Consultancy, "It provides a source of daily cash income by way of surplus milk and ghee sales and a synergistic support to the agrarian economy." Dr Waran, as he is more popularly known, advises groups around the country on the nuances of the economics, marketing and most importantly, community participation and ownership of dairy and livestock initiatives.
Another proud owner and community leader Laad Devi asserts, "It is an opportunity for us to work from home and be an equal bread-winner in the family. Yes, we do supply milk to Maitree Dairy. But now our children get the nutritious milk too. We could not have afforded that in the past."
Dr Waran sums it up eloquently, "First there is the intangible value of providing social recognition to the landless. These enterprises are a hands-on opportunity for the women to learn, be aware of and practice micro-economics, physiology, obstetrics and gynecology, marketing, monitoring and evaluating a small enterprise, all within the comfortable environs of their village." That is quite something for a demography with a 6-8 per cent literacy rate.
The wind is howling. Another sandstorm is rising in the desert, blurring everything in sight. However, the vision of self-reliance and women becoming equal players in the household economy that Kazodi Devi and Laad Devi have for themselves and their communities, remains steady and clear despite all the threatening storms around them!