Monday, June 28, 2010

From Thumbprints to Signatures

Scene: Belagara Village, 20 kilometers from Khunti in the state of Jharkhand

I covered a lot of ground last week: a 26-hour train ride to Jamdshedpur or “Steel City,” long but surprisingly smooth car rides to PRADAN field teams in Karanjia and Khunti and the Jharkhand state office in Ranchi, an overnight train to Kolkata (Calcutta), and a flight home to Delhi.

No offense, Tata, but the women of Belagara Village left the most lasting impression. I spent my birthday learning from them what a difference a bell can make.

First, meet Sailaballa and Imtiyaz, two “PRADANites” who each enable 1,000 tribal women and their families in villages around Khunti to transform their own lives.

PRADANites start their work by finding the poorest villages and initiating self-help groups (SGHs) of 10-15 women. The women reflect upon their current knowledge, resources, agency, and collaboration. They generate and commit to a common vision for their desired state of the world and then come up with and implement a plan of action. All the while, PRADAN trains Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and Community Service Providers (CSPs), whom the SHG selects, pays, and monitors, to steward this process. Together, they figure out what the community can do on their own, what help they need from the CRPs and CSPs, and what additional support they want from PRADANites. They build lasting institutions and their own assets so that PRADAN can begin to “withdraw” after a few years.

In Belegara, the sound of this bell brought several members of a self-help group together for my visit, as it does for their weekly meetings.

Asha Purty, the SHG’s accountant, recounted life before the SHG and PRADAN. Each day, she and others would scrounge up one rupee (about two cents) to buy whatever that could get them from the distant market; they rarely spoke to anyone outside of their home and had never visited an office; they couldn’t afford to send their children to school.

Through the SHG, the village came up with a development plan, started harvesting crops, managing their natural resources, saving money, and accessing credit. Now, the village is food secure for eight months of the year through their own production and families are generating enough income to send their children to school. “There is no difference between girl and boy children,” Asha declared emphatically. “Before we’d only leave our thumbprints for any business. Now we sign our names at the bank.”

Asha is charged with keeping weekly accounts of the SHG’s money and tracking the loans taken by members. One woman takes minutes of weekly meetings, another woman keeps the moneybox, another the key to it.

Armed with umbrellas to shield us from the midday sun, the women walked me through their plots of land. Before, no food could be grown here because the land wasn’t flat, the soil was infertile, and there wasn't water. Here's one field that had just been leveled and planted.

This is one well and one of five water-harvesting structures built in the last three months alone. Now these farmers can capture rainwater during the monsoon in this otherwise dry environment.

PRADAN helped the community access funding through a government program called "SGSY" for this nursery that supplies 4-5 SHGs. PRADANites worked with the government over a decade ago to develop this program and now its transition into an expanded (and hopefully more effective) National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

This self-help group selected Magdali Nag to represent them in the governing board of a local horticulture cooperative of 4,000 women that they had started with PRADAN’s help. (300 women have also formed a poultry cooperative that supplies 80% of the local market.) When asked what this experience has meant for her, Magdali said a feeling of ownership. “This is our business and we have to take it to a better position.”

This is Magdali and her husband Samuel in their field of young mango trees. Samuel is one of the PRADAN-trained Community Resource Persons in the area who helps the self-help group carry out their business. When I asked him about his ambitions, he said, “I’ll be doing this work so long as I have strength in my body.”


  1. It must be incredible to be surrounded by so much vision and strength. Reading your descriptions, seeing your photos (my favorite is of you in the circle of women), the word that comes to mind is heroic. You should also know that you have a gift for expression. My favorite of your passages so far.

  2. sounds like an exciting week! keep it up, dear friend!