In the last few years, rural women’s Self-Help Groups have become a noteworthy movement in India. This has become increasingly evident in the ongoing coronavirus crisis that is wreaking havoc across the world — dipping economies, ruining livelihoods of millions, and disrupting food supply chains. With no clear end in sight and the growing need for enhanced support in many spheres, it is the network of Self-Help Groups promoted by Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana — National Rural Livelihoods Mission under the Ministry of Rural Development that have stepped in and emerged as frontline workers in combating the pandemic.
In the initial days of the coronavirus outbreak, the incredible reach of the Self-Help Groups (SHG) to about 7.2 crore rural households was leveraged to raise awareness, educate others on personal hygiene including hand washing, and behavioural change to maintain social distancing. SHGs ensured that verified and authentic information reached the communities at regular intervals. They also made efficient use of WhatsApp groups to convey messages.
Video conferencing is also being used to conduct training programmes. The latest programme on ‘prevention of spread of COVID-19 in rural areas’ reached around five lakh community-level workers directly and to over five crore SHG members indirectly.
SHG women have been the unsung Covid-19 warriors of rural India, proving to be a great resource during the pandemic, helping not only vulnerable families but also the government.
Ensuring food supply
When lockdown measures were put in place, SHG leadership at the cluster-level federations (CLF) and village organisations (VOs) took immediate steps to ensure food security of the most vulnerable households. The safety net tool under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission called the Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF) was used for preparing food kits, which contained staples, cooking oil and personal hygiene products. These kits were then distributed to the most vulnerable households in the villages. This is also being extended to families of migrant labourers for small grants/interest-free loans to meet any consumption and emergency requirements.
SHGs were involved in operating the community kitchens started by some state governments to ensure that no one went hungry, especially the old, homeless and destitute. In Bihar alone, Jeevika, the state mission, disbursed over Rs 350 crore by way of loan for food relief and health risk mitigation. SHGs worked with local self-government (LSG) institutions in Jharkhand, Kerala and Odisha to run community kitchens as well. By 24 July, almost 12,000 community kitchens across 75 districts of three states — Jharkhand, Kerala, and Odisha — had provided a total of six crore meals.
Constant production of masks and protective gear
As masks were the first line of defence against Covid-19 and supply chains came to a halt, women-led SHGs immediately took up the production of masks. Various categories of masks including 2-3 ply woven and non-woven surgical masks as well as cotton masks were made while adhering to the advisories of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and instructions from health departments of the states.
The masks were supplied to the health departments, LSGs, frontline workers and police officials. It has also been distributed free in rural households.
As of 24 July 2020, more than 22 crore masks have been produced by 296,396 women members of 58,581 SHGs across 29 states. And 6,565 SHG members also produced more than 35 lakh protective gears. Sanitiser production was taken up in 17 states with 13,662 members producing total 4.8 lakh litres till 24 July. One lakh litres of hand wash was produced by 1,790 women SHG members across 10 states. This also ensured that rural areas got a steady supply of these essential items when other supply chains were struggling.
The highest number of masks have been produced by Andhra Pradesh — where total11.58 crore masks have been produced by 69,568 members from 4,891 SHGs. The state government supported the SHGs by providing orders for free supply exclusively to them. Andhra Pradesh also produced the highest number of protective gear units (32 lakh). Other states such as Uttar Pradesh also provided large orders to the SHGs in the state. The production of these items generated employment for workers in times when other jobs were limited.
Access to cash
The Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana–National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) and its implementing architecture in rural areas was put to full use for reaching financial services to the doorsteps of those who need it.
With restrictions on movement, BC Sakhis (business correspondent) ensured that rural households had access to cash, especially the entitlements announced through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) schemes. Since 25 March to 31 July, about 6,934 BC Sakhis from 14 states have done 83.63 lakh transactions under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) amounting to Rs 1,845 crore. Moreover, under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), the DAY-NRLM scheme has transferred Rs 30,957 crore benefiting 20.65 crore women account holders in three instalments (April, May and June).
Farm to door
The SHG members who faced problems in selling their produce were supported through the Producer Groups (PGs) and Producer Enterprises (PEs) set up by the SHG network. These institutions procured vegetables worth Rs 40 crore in select states such as West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Support was provided so that they could sell their produce in markets; innovations like app-based delivery of fresh vegetables were attempted in Jharkhand. The cadre of Krishi Sakhi/Community Resource Person (CRP) was engaged to support activities contributing to the food and nutritional security of SHG households.
SHG members were also involved in a number of key activities in different states including helping people access entitlements. In Bihar, the state government utilised the Jeevika Didis to identify ration card beneficiaries. The Take-Home Ration (THR) micro-enterprise units in Kerala continued their operations and ensured that children and lactating mothers got their monthly supply of ration at their doorstep. In Bihar, Jharkhand, Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh, the quarantine facilities were operated by the SHG network.
It’s time the SHG women of India are recognised for their efforts, which have probably been the most critical and have the ability to bring about a socio-economic transformation.
The author is Secretary (Rural Development), Ministry of Rural Development. Views are personal.