‘Will provide all the help farmers need’: Aska MP Pramila Bisoyi
It has been just over a month since Pramila Bisoyi’s life, well into its seventh decade, turned on its head. The resident of Chermaria village in Ganjam district of Odisha who won the Aska parliamentary seat on a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) ticket, is in New Delhi — her first visit to the nation’s capital — to attend the Budget session of the 17th Lok Sabha. It’s the longest she has been away from home, but it’s not her family that she misses the most.
Up until she was given the party ticket in April, Bisoyi, a petite farmer with four grown children, managed the mid-day meal scheme in her village’s anganwadi. Young children from nearby villages study there too, and it was Bisoyi’s task to ensure that they got nutritious food. “I would do more than just oversee the meals. Once I finished cooking with others, I would clean the vessels. I helped children cross the road. I would clean their mouths after they had eaten,” she said in Odiya. Her personal assistant appointed by the BJD, Nilamani Patnaik, translated for her.
She tears up recounting how some children wondered if “Pari ma” — as she is called in her village — had died, because they had seen a photo of Bisoyi wearing garlands, quite likely taken while she was on the campaign trail. “The anganwadi workers told the children that I had gone to get more food for them. They miss me, and I really miss them,” she said.
Bisoyi has a reputation as an agent of change. About 200km from Bhubaneswar, Chermaria village is like most nondescript rural habitations in Odisha. Cows and heifers roam the narrow streets lined by pucca houses alongside asbestos-roofed hutments. The stifling summer heat is worsened by an erratic power supply. Not too far from the village is Pakidi hill, parts of which were fallow but are now covered with massive trees and frequented by peacocks thanks to Bisoyi and the women in self-help groups (SHG). For her efforts, Bisoyi was felicitated by the Odisha state government, and received the Prakriti Mitra award in 2007.
It is her role in initiating SHGs that Bisoyi is most widely known for. The state has over 600,000 women’s SHGs, with an estimated 7 million members. Bisoyi is credited for starting at least 100. Her first foray started at the turn of the millennium, when Gram Vikas, a non-governmental organisation, began to work in her district on issues of sanitation and water with the government.
An SHG typically comprises between 10-20 members, and works as an informal credit system. The members pool in their money and deposit it in the bank. Members can borrow from this pool, and they are required to pay it back with interest within a specific time period. They can also borrow from banks and avail of several microfinance schemes.
The state government often extends support to these SHGs. For instance, just before the assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Odisha this April, chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced financial assistance of Rs 3,000 to each SHG in the state. Last November, the state launched a scheme to fund 300,000 new groups with seed money of Rs 15,000 each, and the CM announced his intention to distribute smart phones to all members. The government even has a department to look after the needs of women’s SHGs, called Mission Shakti, which has been operational since 2001.
“To convince women [to save money as part of the SHG], we would say, instead of spending money on gutka or paan, save it, and it will be of use later,” Bisoyi said.
Soon, the SHGs began to operate their own bank accounts, with each member putting a small amount. They charged an interest of Rs 20 for every Rs 1,000 crossed, and each member was entitled to take the money for whatever her needs may be — the group had veto power — but she was asked to repay it within six months. They still follow this model. “We have never said no to anyone who has asked for money. Whatever we can afford, we give. If they struggle to pay it back, they reach out to their sons for help,” she said.
Migration is endemic in this region. In colonial times, Aska is said to have had the first and the biggest sugar factory in Asia, and still remains a predominant sugarcane producer. But unsold sugar and unpaid dues have forced mass migrations from the region to the spinning mills of Gujarat. Bisoyi’s two sons, Dilip (48) and Ranjan (46), migrated 20 years ago to work in Surat. “We are forced to stay in the most pathetic conditions in Gujarat. But what sort of work can you do here? There are no major industries in the area to provide jobs to youths,” said Ranjan.
Now back in their village, Dilip and Ranjan earn a living running a tea stall and a two-wheeler repair shop respectively. Bisyoi’s daughters, Sulata Jena and Runu Swain, are married. Her husband, Banchhanidhi (80), is a retired peon from state water resources department.
Situated on the banks of Rushikulya and Badanadi rivers, Aska has also been a victim of floods. Cyclone Phailin in 2013, which affected a large part of the constituency, adversely impacted livelihood. “If we get good harvest in one season, the next one is ruined by floods,” said farmer Surendra Sahu of Nuagaon village. Bisoyi’s farm, where she grows eggplant, tomatoes and chilli, was affected too.
Bisoyi said that SHGs helped families tide over the bad times. “When we are able to give the money in times of a bad crop, or a calamity, it’s like a second income for the family,” she said. R Minati Reddy, an anganwadi worker, who is part of an SHG started by Bisoyi, said the women are now taken more seriously at home due to the money they bring in. “We are now valued at home,” she said.
Patnaik’s encouragement of SHGs has empowered women such as Bisoyi. However, the groups also serve as a ready vote bank. During her campaign, Bisoyi asked for votes, especially from women, in the name of Naveen Patnaik, who recently began his fifth term in office. “Earlier, when women wouldn’t work, but stay indoors, they wouldn’t be so aware. Now, with more women coming out of homes, working, they are more aware.”
This April, Bisoyi was all set to go to her one-acre farmland to harvest black gram when a vehicle from Bhubaneswar stopped in front of her home. Bisoyi’s husband thought his wife was being taken to Bhubaneswar to be awarded for her work. In Bhubaneswar, she was driven to the BJD’s office where she was told she would be the party’s candidate from Aska Lok Sabha constituency, a seat that was once represented by Naveen Patnaik and former CM Biju Patnaik. Her assistant shows HT a video of her on the campaign trail — a diminutive Bisoyi surrounded by a sea of women. “This was how it was all the time,” he said.
The BJD also reserved 33% party tickets in the Lok Sabha polls for women. Of the 12 seats the party won, seven were won by women. The party did not reserve any of the 147 assembly seats for women in the state polls.
On June 17, Bisoyi took the oath as a member of Parliament, in Odia. She will return to her village once the session is over. Her plans for the constituency will depend on what the party decides, her assistant said. But Bisoyi said her priorities are better schools, roads, sanitation, water facilities.
“Whatever help farmers need for their cultivation, I will provide.”