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Gujarat polls: Targeting state’s women voters through a vast network of self-help groups

As political parties hit the campaign trail for the upcoming assembly polls, the vast network of women’s groups, along with the lakhs associated with the dairy and banking sector cooperatives, will form a decisive voting bloc in Gujarat polls.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2017 07:40 IST
Hiral Dave
Hiral Dave
Hindustan Times, Mehsana (Gujarat)
Sakhi Mandals,Women self-help groups,Self-help groups
Members of a Sakhi Mandal at work in Gujarat.(Siddharaj Solanki/HT )

For years, Parvati Solanki struggled with the mismatch between her workload and the meagre Rs 4,500 monthly salary as a housekeeper at the Mehsana district civil hospital. Unable to make ends meet, she quit the job in 2014.

The same year, Parvati joined a group of 48 women who formed the Swachhta Mission Manglam Service Group. Months later, she was back at the same hospital job but at almost double the wage. The hospital’s housekeeping department had hired all members of the group on a daily wage of Rs 275 each and five paid off days a month.

“Earlier, I was enlisted through a contractor. But, now we are employed directly as members of the Sakhi Mandal. The big benefit is the higher salary and five off days instead of the earlier four,” says Parvati.

Parvati and her group are not the only ones reaping benefits of the all-women self-help groups, better known as Sakhi Mandals, in Gujarat. They are part of the 2.5 lakh Sakhi Mandals that the BJP has promoted in recent years.

As political parties hit the campaign trail for the upcoming assembly polls, the vast network of women’s groups, along with the lakhs associated with the dairy and banking sector cooperatives, will form a decisive voting bloc.

Tapping into women votes
  • 2.6 lakh Sakhi Mandals operating in the state
  • 26 lakh women associated with Sakhi Mandals
  • Rs 360 crore is the total savings
  • The groups provide services such as catering, small-scale manufacturing, handicraft, producing cheaper sanitary napkins

Usha Patel, 51, heads a 10-member group that has been running a micro-financed canteen at the Mehsana district panchayat office for over a year now. “We started Aarti Sakhi Mandal with Rs 100 contribution from each member. The bank gave us a loan that helped bag a canteen contract for Rs 4,000 per month. Today, our annual turnover is around Rs 20 lakh,” says Usha.

Gujarat’s robust cooperative system has not only helped Sakhi Mandals grow at a brisk pace providing employment to lakhs of women, but also given them a much larger say in electoral politics.

These self-help groups were encouraged under the Mission Mangalam Scheme launched as part of Gujarat’s golden jubilee celebrations in 2010. Under the scheme, the women were trained and extended credit support to provide means of employment. Today, there are nearly 26 lakh women involved in 2.6 lakh Sakhi Mandals across the state.

“Earlier, the concept of self-help groups was largely limited to forming small credit societies for micro-financing. But through Mission Mangalam, the concept of employment or entrepreneurship has been given a push,” said S Bharada, Mehsana district rural development officer.

The Sakhi Mandal platform has been tapped well by the ruling BJP to reach out to women voters. In the run-up to the last assembly polls, members of Sakhi Mandals were mobilised through a series of women’s conventions addressed by (then CM) Narendra Modi in various districts.

The upcoming assembly polls are deemed the toughest for the BJP since 2002.

For one, Modi is no longer the party’s CM candidate. Adding to its woes are the Patidars, its core supporters, who seem to be drifting away over the OBC quota demand and alleged police atrocities on them. Given the unsatisfactory minimum support prices for farmers and inflation, anti-incumbency will also be a big factor.

Besides, a rejuvenated Congress is snapping at the BJP’s heels to win back power after two decades — it got a shot in the arm with the election of Ahmed Patel, party chief Sonia Gandhi’s key adviser, to the Rajya Sabha after a fiercely fought contest.

Clearly, the BJP will have to redouble its efforts to keep intact its support base among women, farmers and other rural-urban voters linked to the cooperatives network across the state.

Shila Parmar, 38, had to take up a housekeeper’s job to support her son after her husband’s death. Parmar, who hails from Visnagar, where the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel started in 2015, says, “My son went to a private engineering college. Despite degree, despite paying high fees, he couldn’t find a well-paying job here.”

She adds, “The BJP has categorically refused OBC status to the Patidars, as a result there is anger among the community. But at the same time, the fact is that development has taken place.”

First Published: Oct 11, 2017 07:32 IST