By Bivek Mathur
In Bhaga village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district, 17-year-old Shilpa Singh has taken it upon herself to earn for her family after the coronavirus pandemic washed out her father Mangal Singh’s job.
“When the pandemic hit the country, several labourer families like ours were left in the lurch as our fathers, who until then were the lone breadwinners of our families, lost their jobs,” she said.
To avoid a financial crisis at home, she decided to become a member of the local self-help group (SHG). “And I’m happy that the income from the products sold by the self-help groups sustained my family in the pandemic,” Singh said.
These SHGs that have given hope to several women today, did not have many takers before 2019. Women from Bhaga village did not work outside their homes and instead depended on their husbands for almost all their requirements.
The scenario changed in January 2019 when Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) officer, Indu Kanwal Chib, who was posted as the then deputy commissioner Reasi, intervened. She gently coaxed the women to join Jammu and Kashmir State Rural Livelihood Mission (JKSRLM) — a programme aimed at alleviating poverty in the Union Territory — to earn a guaranteed monthly income and afford a better life.
When the Bhaga women joined the self-help groups under JKSRLM in 2019, they had no inkling of the mission. “Following a brief about the initiative and a recollection of success stories by then deputy commissioner, we dared to start by making lentil papads. And this continued for several months,” Jyoti Sharma, a self-help group member said.
Initially, money was hard to come by. Sharma said that a woman earned about Rs 25 per day by making and selling papads to shopkeepers. That made for a monthly income of Rs 750.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, changed their fortunes.
‘Pandemic brought in more work opportunities’
Two months after the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, the women from Bhaga self-help group were approached by Chib with an offer — making face masks for the district administration.
“Since most of our village women were already adept in tailoring, we accepted the offer,” Sharma said, adding, “To meet our targets, hundreds of women self-help groups worked day in and day out to prepare and provide one lakh masks to the district administration.”
The women in Bhaga sold a mask for Rs 20 and ended up earning Rs 2 crores within 2-3 months. “With this, the average monthly income of an SHG member rose to Rs 4,500-5,000 during those months,” claimed Sharma.
Current Deputy Commissioner of Reasi, Charandeep Singh, said that the average income of some individuals from the SHG amounts to Rs 7,000-8,000 per month.
Singh said that the traditional craft materials made by Reasi women SHGs have been listed as ‘success stories’ under the Atmanirbhar Bharat mission by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. “And this is a major achievement for our women self-help groups,” the officer said.
A better life
According to the director of the JKSRLM, Dr Syed Sehrish Asgar, there are 48,423 women self-help groups that provide livelihood opportunities for 4,16,037 women in the Union Territory currently. In Reasi town alone, 15,402 women are associated with 1,854 self-help groups.
Arif Mohammad, the professional resource person of JKSRLM in Bhaga, said there are 125 women self-help groups only in his cluster — the Prerna Mahila Cluster Level Federation. Around 1,200 women work in these groups.
The SHGs in Bhaga village also make various products like jute bags, traditional ornaments, paper plates, disposable leaf plates and bowls, teddy bears, spices, pickles, embroidery items, masks, cheese, kaladi (traditional cheese) and sandals among others.
The JKSRLM in collaboration with other government departments conduct exhibitions throughout the Union Territory and sell the products made by these SHGs.
As far as other marketing avenues are concerned, the deputy commissioner of Reasi, Charandeep Singh, said that his administration has opened sales outlets for some units while commercial websites are also being designed to help the women sell their products online.
For instance, to benefit pickle manufacturing SHGs from Reasi, an outlet has been opened in Pouni area of the district. Around 500 hoteliers in Katra and other areas near the Katra-Shiv Khori shrine have been requested to purchase pickles exclusively from these outlets by women SHGs.
For other traditional items like Chabhari, Bina (made using wild grass), he said, “At our request, the Katra hoteliers have agreed to present these traditional crafts as souvenirs to the visiting tourists and guests.” The hoteliers, according to him, have been carrying a retail display of these products made by the women SHGs.
“Meetings with e-commerce giants like Amazon are also underway to help the women SHGs market their products online,” Singh added. “My administration is also planning to sell the products made by women self-help groups through some websites that would be named after them.”
Bivek has been working in the media industry for the last five years, covering politics, crime and other developmental issues. He has reported for Greater Kashmir, the largest circulated daily in Jammu and Kashmir, from Jammu Province.
This story was published by 101 Reporters and has been re-published here with consent.