This is about a rural woman’s journey of serving her community. Her story of commitment, and ownership that inspired me.
Shramik Bharti is a Kanpur based NGO that started its operation in 1989 with Self-Help Groups based on micro-finance. The organization has been running a host of projects on diverse social issues and the Self-Help Groups have been the platform to initiate these projects. The issue with SHGs and their federation, however, is their long term sustainability and self-regulation, a problem seen throughout the country. A crunch of resources in the form of funds, manpower, and technical expertise come across as a major hurdles in front of the organizations promoting SHGs. In case of the groups started by Shramik Bharti, a few community leaders have taken the ownership to run these groups for more than a decade.
I met Ram Murti for the first time in a farmer training session. Middle-aged and petite, the woman was confidently singing a song in front of a huge audience. The song, her signing, and the chorus sang by other women was a treat to witness. It was a song about self-help groups which went something like this: Samuh Teri Shakti Mein Daulat Ka Khazana Hai, Ek Ek Mahila Ko Sahi Dhang Se Bulana Hai…
Back to 2002
Ram Murti Narrates:
“I came across the term ‘self-help group’ for the first time when a community worker had come to my village to form these groups and motivate women to start saving money. Since I was the only graduate woman in my village, I was the one they approached initially. At that time, my family’s financial condition was not great. I did not have even 30 rupees to save per month. Though my husband and I both worked, our income would not suffice even the basic needs of the 4-member family. To add to it, my teaching work at a primary school and the household chores used to take up the entire day which became another reason for my reluctance in starting the group. I agreed to it after almost two weeks of contemplation, thinking if the group runs well, the savings will help my family in future. Twelve women from the village agreed to be a part of the group.
We faced a lot of questioning and mocking initially; our husbands and other family members were not ready to keep some money aside to save, saying, “When we do not have enough to eat, how can we think about saving?”.
I used to keep small pennies from here and there, in the group’s pool. We started realizing the importance of the group within three months when we began to receive smalls amount of loans internally from our own savings. In those days, getting such a loan used to be a big deal for us because the other option was to beg in front of a rich lender, every now and then. Sometimes when the money was required urgently in an emergency, we could not get it despite numerous efforts. Once a member’s daughter was getting married and only two days were left for the ceremony. She was short of 10,000 rupees. Despite lots of efforts, the family could not arrange the money. As a last resort, she approached the SHG and got a loan of Rs. 10,000 at 2% interest rate. On that day, she and other members of the group were really proud about starting the group and decided that they will put all their efforts to continue running it.”
SHG has been a building block of her life, says Ram Murti. She has educated her sons, got them married and constructed her house with the help of loans sought from the SHG. After forming the group, she realized that she doesn’t have to cut down on her children’s education just because she doesn’t have enough money. “Aaj mera beta chota-mota doctor hai”.
A book writer in SHGs
In 2008, Ram Murti was offered the role of maintaining accounts for 20 SHGs as a book writer. The main responsibilities were to attend monthly meetings of the SHGs that she was assigned, update the books of accounts such as the saving register, minutes book, members’ passbook, etc. Additionally, she would help the group leader in facilitation of group meetings. The book-writer used to get Rs. 50 for each group and hence, Rs. 1,000 per month in total. Ram Murti was keen from the beginning to work as a book-writer, even though it didn’t pay much. There are two reasons for the same; firstly she believes that the SHG has helped her become self-reliant. She wanted more women to know about her experience and motivate them to start their own SHGs. Secondly, she sees it as a privilege that her parents invested in her education despite being a woman and wanted to use it fruitfully. She thought that there was no better way of using her education than in SHGs.
A platform for Entertainment, Empowerment and Education
The book-writers and leaders use different approaches to conduct the monthly meeting. Ram Murti uses her passion for music to make the meetings a platform for entertainment. Over the years, songs and discussions have become an integral part of the meetings in several groups that she manages because it makes a mundane monthly saving meeting, an enjoyable event. For instance, this one time when she was asked to motivate the women in SHGs about organic farming, she did it through song and music as she felt that giving a lecture is too difficult a task.
Ram Murti says that in her decade long experience, she has seen many women who were not allowed to step out of their homes and did not have a say in the household decision making. Many such women are now coming out of the closed doors, talking about agriculture, health-care, education and more with their husbands and are availing the benefits of the projects started by the organization.
Though it’s been more than 10 years that she has been working as a Federation leader and a Book-Writer, she works with the same old passion even today. Visiting different villages every day and witnessing the small and large impact that SHGs make in the lives of women and their families, inspires her every day. Ram Murti has spent 17 years of her life to make, sustain and regulate the 18 groups that she herself formed. Today, around 1000 women in Shivrajpur block of Kanpur are running their own SHGs under the Ekta Mahila Samiti federation. At present, Ram Murti is the secretary of the federation that comprises of 89 groups with around 1158 members. There are many such men and women like Ram Murti who have given their lives to social work by volunteering for Shramik Bharti.
Ram Murti has won the first prize in FICCI FLO women’s award 2019 in Uttar Pradesh, for her outstanding work in the domain of Social work.