Pidodama is a small sleepy village with a population of barely 400 people situated in the heart of the Odamha hills in Daringibadi block of Kandhamal district of Orissa. Its people belong to the Kandha community and speak in Kui and Oriya languages. There is no electricity in the village, no borewell providing safe drinking water. Almost all, barring very few individuals, are illiterate.

Despite these harsh conditions and sparse life, there is something remarkable about the women of the village. Their level of awareness, their attitude and their personality have undergone a dramatic change in the last few years. They are no longer submissive women who tolerate the beatings of their husbands. They are no longer dependent on the money lenders for their small household expenses.

On the contrary, today they are small-scale entrepreneurs. They are investing in the education and the future of their children. This has been possible due to the formation of Self Help Groups (SHGs), popularly known as Maa Sangha, in the village. There are as many as three SHGs in the village -- Elutipa (New Life), Peninimba (Change of Mind), Ekata (Unity). Elutipa has 17, Peninimba has 12 and Ekata has 11 members, all of whom are women.

During the last financial year (2005-06), the Elutipa SHG took a loan of Rs.17,000 from the a State Bank of India (SBI) branch to invest in turmeric trading. After it successfully repaid the principal and interest (8.5 per cent interest per annum) to the bank, it was able to make a profit of Rs.12,000 in four months. The profit was further invested in the same trading. Pleased with the success, the bank accepted their application and released an amount of Rs.30,000 for further investment.

Before the SHGs were formed, the village had a good production of turmeric, but the villagers were unable to market their produce and hence forced to sell to the middle men at a cheaper price. But now the village SHGs are trading the turmeric, thereby freeing themselves from the exploitation of the traders, though the dependence on traders has not completely disappeared.

How it came about

It all started with the efforts of one Laxmi Didi of the Council of Professional Social Workers (CPSW), a local NGO. She introduced the villagers to the concept of an SHG and helped them form the three SHGs in the area in 2002. CPSW, the parent NGO which promoted these SHGs, works in the area to promote livelihood security amongst the villagers and to provide minimum health services. It also undertakes empowerment activities in the village through awareness and sensitisation campaigns about the functioning of panchayati raj institutions.

The adivasi society of this village has traditionally been highly male dominated. The idea of women forming a committee was not taken too well initially.

Laxmi suggested to the villagers to regularly save something in the form of rice or money so that it would help them in times of need or even for investing in business if the savings were more. That was the first step, she helped the villagers understand, towards reducing their dependence on the moneylenders from whom they borrowed money during festivals, for healthcare requirements, and even to meet their daily food and clothing needs. The villagers began by collecting one fist of rice from the quantity required for their everyday meals. At the end of the month, this collection was saved in the form of money in the village fund. Thereafter, the villagers started saving Rs.10 in their individual accounts. During the harvest season, when they had some more money in hand, they increased the contribution to Rs.15 or 20 per month. When they did not have any money to deposit, they engaged in kuta kama, i.e., working in groups, in order to meet their obligation.

As the savings became regular, a bank account was opened in the name of the SHGs. The president and the secretary of the SHGs, elected every year by the members of the respective SHG, hold monthly meetings wherein apart from discussing the matters relating to the SHG, they also discuss issues like children's education, pulse polio drives, government health worker’s visit to the villager, etc. Till date there has been no instance of internal differences among the members in managing the affairs of the SHG. Due to their sincerity in depositing money, holding regular meetings, etc. the SHGs have been able to establish good relations with the SBI branch.

Change in socio-economic scenario after SHG formation

"The concept of SHG is not new to the state, though the terminology is," says Manoj Pradhan of CPSW. CPSW is a partner NGO of Orissa Development Action Forum (ODAF), which has 12 such partners working in 13 out of 30 districts in the state. "Previously also such ideas were executed by us in other areas where we work under the umbrella of Maa Sangha (mothers’ unity). The only difference between Maa Sangha and the SHGs is that in case of SHGs the number of membership is kept limited for better and efficient operation," says Pradhan.

Jigyansa Dash, the coordinator of the ODAF head office at Bhubaneswar adds, "We form and nourish the SHGs in all our 758 operational villages. The primary objectives of forming SHGs are to organise women, provide them economic security as far as possible, to develop savings attitude among the adivasi people and to save the community from the trap of the moneylenders. During the process, the women get an exposure to the outside world. As a result their attitude to stay in seclusion and fear the outsider undergoes a dramatic change. The formation of SHGs has contributed toward the economic and consequent social empowerment of women in interior adivasi pockets," she concludes.

In the initial days, when the SHGs had been newly formed, its members and the social workers of CPSW faced many difficulties. The adivasi society of this village has traditionally been highly male dominated. The idea of women forming a committee was not taken too well. "It was very difficult for us to convene a meeting of the SHG members in the villages," says Thomas Baliarsingh of CPSW. The men ridiculed the idea of women attending meetings. Tamangalo Mallik, a women member of an SHG, says, "Previously one man could marry more than one woman, but after we became aware about the equality of men and women, this practice has been abolished in the village." Wife battering is also no longer prevalent here. The unity and rejuvenated confidence of women have helped them stop this menace in their village.

Financially too, the villagers are happier. They do not have to go the moneylenders any more. The SHG comes to their rescue in times of need. The members of the SHGs take loans from it for the purpose of consumption, health, children’s school needs, festivals and for investment in the farm sector. The rate of interest charged from the members is three per cent per month. Initially only the men in the family kept the household money with them; now the women hold the key. In fact, it is the women who help out their men financially by borrowing money from the SHGs for farming needs. This new role has even led to the women participating in family decision-making and sitting in on village meetings (this did not happen before). There has also been a perceptible attitudinal change in the menfolk of the village. They now welcome the women with respect and agree that women should be allowed to voice their opinions before everybody.

The success of these SHGs has impacted the women in nearby villages too. The women of Sikalama, Mahagudi and Kalingi villages of Daringbadi block came together to form SHGs in the year 2005 though there was no NGO working in the village to guide them. Four SHGs in other villages in Kadhamal district where CPSW operates have ventured to acquire a PDS licence to distribute kerosene to ration card holders. Some SHGs in Umarkote area of Navrangpur district are reported to have taken up the cause of NREGA implementation. The level of awareness among the women has certainly gone up. Due to the economic independence, group affiliation, exposure owing to their dealing with outside people, etc., they have become more assertive in demanding their rights. Given the low education level in the area, this kind of transformation in the social status of women and change in the attitude of the men toward them is no certainly no mean achievement.