WOMEN'S EYE-VIEW:
Grassroots women's approach to settlements development
__________________________________________________________________________________ January 1998 - March 1999

This set of documents represents an action-research project that seeks to understand how grassroots women see settlements development and how they can impact the planning apparatus to incorporate their concerns into policy agendas at local and national levels.

Monitoring the implementation of the Habitat Agenda

The Habitat Agenda represents a set of international policy commitments that states, including India, have agreed to abide by, in order to ensure adequate shelter and sustainable human settlements. It recognizes "the need to improve the quality of human settlements which profoundly affects the daily lives and well-being of our peoples" and that "safe and healthy living environments and basic services are essential to a person's physical and psychological well-being."
The Huairou Commission partnered with the UNCHS Women and Habitat Program on a global initiative that seeks to monitor the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, following the Istanbul Conference in 1996. Grassroots women's groups and networks in three regions, Africa, North America and Asia, have initiated projects in the last two years. In Asia, the Women's Eye-View project was hosted by Swayam Shikshan Prayog, in India on behalf of the Asian Women and Shelter Network.

The Journey So Far
During the preparatory process leading up to Habitat II Conference, SSP organized a series of consultations to look at the different forms of women's participation in settlements development. In January 1995, for the first time a group of practitioners and researchers, representing different sectors came together to look at settlements development in a holistic manner. They asserted that settlements development must be seen as more than housing and land issues. A settlements perspective should encompass the range of issues that affect the survival of communities. Participants also expressed the need to create learning fora to promote inter-sectional exchanges of ideas.

In following meetings which culminated in a national consultation with NGOs and women's collectives, it became clear that the human settlement in which the woman plays multiple roles is the ideal ground for the transfer of lessons across sectors. The interest expressed by women , in learning from other women's initiatives made it evident that they have an integrated view of settlements rather than a compartmentalized, single-issue view of the settlement.

One of the key objectives of this consultation was to try and understand the processes by which women participate in transforming their settlements and how they are supported by mainstream structures to sustain this transformation. From experiences narrated by women's collectives, it became evident that when women's collectives addressed settlements concerns, it transformed the way in which they were perceived by both the community and institutional actors.

Women's Eye-View: The Indian Initiative
This set of documents includes an overview of the project and a set of case studies of women's initiatives in different sectors from different parts of India. The overview provides the backdrop against which we attempted to evolve a methodology for grassroots women's participation in monitoring the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. The case studies, on the other hand represent strategies employed by organizations and grassroots women's groups to involve women in the articulating their needs and designing systems and mechanisms that enable women to direct local development processes and gain the support of mainstream institutions.

This set of documents is useful for those who are interested in linking macro-policy agendas to micro-level initiatives by grassroots women. It provides a menu of strategies that have been used by women's groups and communities across sectors to make mainstream institutions such as banks, local governments and national governments more accountable to women.

SETTING THE CONTEXT Women and Settlements
Women's voices in the Habitat II processes brought to the forefront the critical role that women play in human settlements' development. For women, the settlement - where they live, work and take care of their families - plays a vital role in the quality of their daily lives. For the poor, who are trapped in a web of disadvantage, survival is a constant priority. The struggle is both a daily one for basic necessities, such as food, water, shelter, health as well as a long term one to gain control over assets.

While women's gender roles within the settlements are socially constructed and this determines the specific way in which women use and contribute to resources and services, women's needs and contributions within the settlement often go unrecognized in "gender neutral" planning processes.

Women are concerned not only with themselves and their own well being. Their well-being is closely connected to that of their families and communities. As actors with multiple roles within the human settlement, women have evolved a set of strategies that serve as safety nets in times of crises; as well as help communities gain access to resources and services; and voice their concerns within the planning framework.

The efforts of organized women's collectives to meet their credit needs, drinking water and livelihoods requirements have often been located in processes that enable them to address their strategic gender interests. By addressing issues that are of concern not only to themselves, but also bring benefits to the entire community, women set the stage for re-negotiating their relationships with actors both within and outside the community.

Linking women's concerns to policy agendas
As organizations who work with grassroots women's collectives, our role is to link local development concerns of women, and their aspirations for their homes and communities to policy agendas. Swayam Shikshan Prayog, took on an action-research project that sought to understand how grassroots women participate in monitoring settlements development. As part of the "action" element of the project, SSP was committed to strengthening grassroots processes through assisting participants to reflect on their work, sharpen their articulation and take forward their work through advocacy and partnership efforts.

The search for alternative ways to monitor settlements development
At a national level policies are usually monitored by the state in terms of concrete, measurable inputs that represent the state's efforts to address the problem at hand. Success or failure of a policy is usually measured in terms of state budget allocations and utilization of resources for state programmes in the sector. For example, on the issue of poverty alleviation, implementation is seen in terms of how much credit is disbursed annually. Or in the case of shelter, progress is assessed on the basis of how many housing units were constructed in a given period at a given location. year.

In India, the implementation of the Habitat Agenda is lodged within the Ministry of Urban Development. This ministry coordinates with other departments and ministries - Rural Development, Poverty Alleviation and Rural Employment and Labour, Transport and Communications, Forests and Environment, Health, Education, Social Development including Women and Child Development to name a few. Monitoring the implementation of the Habitat Agenda involves coordination with numerous sectors and institutions. Again this is to be done at national, state, district and local levels of the government.

The formal process of monitoring habitat issues at the national level is reduced to a mammoth data collection exercise. The priorities of communities, especially those of women are lost amidst the reams of paper and the neat columns of numbers. While these statistics in government reports form the basis for the annual plans. At present there are no mechanisms to include a grassroots perspective in the implementation and monitoring of the Habitat Agenda. For women living in poor settlements the question is not how much the government spent on a programme. The question is, how do development policies affect their lives what is the impact of Habitat policies and programs at the level of communities. Do local development process respond to their priorities and interests?

While this is not easily measurable, we cannot abandon attempts to evolve mechanisms using which women can make visible their view of poverty and development. It is important to recognize that it is the same information that is collected during the monitoring process that feeds into local and national planning process, that in turn determine future policies.

National poverty alleviation programs in India, have distributed subsidies and created assets for a majority of families living below the poverty line. And yet official statistics show that over 40% of urban and rural people remain below the poverty line. Similarly, large scale investment by the state has resulted in a wide network of social sector services and infrastructure. The outreach of these services to remote villages is well recorded. However, if we take the example of two key services which are important indicators of the improved quality of life namely - health and primary education, the use of education and health services by the poor, particularly women is very limited.

Multi-level monitoring
This strengthens the case for developing alternative ways of monitoring the implementation of the implementation of habitat agendas. Recognising the importance of this aspect, the UN agencies such as UNCHS and UNDP have established Indicators Programs. Tools such as Report Cards, have been introduced. Senior personnel at national and regional level have been trained to use tools and develop the Indicators Programs. Since the Habitat II Conference, there have been continuous efforts to get multiple actors involved in monitoring the Habitat agenda at different levels.

In several countries, gender and development researchers have collaborated with the government to institutionalise Gender Budgets. The process of reaching this stage, involves painstaking secondary and primary data collection and analysis. Further, stakeholders at local, district and national levels in countries such as South Africa were consulted in order to en-gender budgets. This ground level experience and stories of what worked were reinterpreted to add value to official statistics.

In the course of our work as NGOs, we have come across several key areas which need to be and can be monitored at the grassroots. Women's eye-view of what works and what doesn't work provides important lessons for planners and policy makers.

The project, Women's Eye-View was also seen as an opportunity to not only understand the process by which grassroots women monitor local development processes but also to try and strengthen these processes through making visible grassroots initiatives and gaining the support of other actors, especially institutional actors.

Redesigning monitoring
One of the main insights that emerged from our efforts was that monitoring from below is not only about feeding into macro statistics. Monitoring the Habitat Agenda at the grassroots level means reinterpreting the term and re -shaping the tools and the process of monitoring occurs. It means dismantling the classic imagery of monitoring, in which monitoring development processes is the prerogative of planners. It means reconstituting the set of activities to include processes that draw from the experiences of grassroots initiatives. Most importantly, monitoring from below means acknowledging that what communities and women's collectives find will be qualitatively different from what governments and researchers will find, because to begin with, the questions that people on the ground are asking are quite different from those that are asked by planners.

Reversal of top-down monitoring systems entails opening up the processes for consultations between state agencies and grassroots organisations from the local to the national level.

Designing the learning process
An essential element of this action-research process was that it did not stop at documenting the work of women's collectives. The documentation processes were instrumental in catalysing a whole set of activities such as dialogue workshops, learning exchanges and national advocacy events with a network of organizations and women's collectives.

Where does one begin the process of rethinking the notion of monitoring implementation of policies. How does one go about understanding the women's eye-view? Can monitoring be a tool of empowerment ?

As organisations working in the field, we sought to place monitoring in the context of capacity building of key actors. The project was designed with a view to strengthening a network of NGOs and women's groups within the country. These NGOs and groups had already been part of an informal self learning network on issues of women's empowerment. Dialogue workshops with partner institutions, government, banks and other agencies were also organized. As an active member of the AWAS network, GROOTS International and the Huairou Commission, the follow up entails transferring the lessons from this exercise to network members in Asia and other regions.

A set of case studies were used to walk us through the idea of local level monitoring. We have called these case studies "Our Best Practices" These interventions in different sectors of settlements development helped us understand how women are empowered to monitor settlements development. They helped us to peg our ideas on concrete realities. They helped us to view settlements development through the eyes of grassroots women. We chose to partner with interested field NGOs in the SSP network who had done sustained work with poor communities. The organisations selected had a formidable reputation in empowering community groups in key sectors of settlements development. The "best practice" initiatives which we have chosen to document, showcase ways in which women's groups organised themselves to leverage resources and participate in public decision making fora.

Walking through the project process
The phases of the project evolved over the last year. In what follows, we walk through the process with our readers:

Keeping women's perceptions in the centre
The documentation and analysis process was not undertaken by researchers alone, but through visits of field teams and women's collectives. This was really the value added that we as a field NGO brought to the action-research process. Because field activists and women's groups were involved in the process, we were able to identify what was important to women. The process of documentation was driven, not by an academic research agenda, but by a practitioners' and grassroots women's perspectives. It was their responses to what they saw and experienced when they visited different groups that guided the activities undertaken. The interest shown by various organizations and the women's groups in learning from these initiatives, became the touchstone of the project. It was this touchstone that kept us on track. It was this that prevented us from straying away from the heart of the matter: What do grassroots women want to do within their settlements in order to change their everyday lives? What are the different systems, mechanisms, processes and skills that can be used to realize women's goals and create a policy environment to support them.

 

Locating the right initiatives

Identifying interventions was a long and arduous process. After a series of false starts, and a several visits to organizations, followed by discussions with researchers, practitioners the criteria were refined and organizations were selected for documentation.

Our Best Practices had to respond to women's practical concerns. They had to see the problem from a women's perspective. Water is a practical concern but all over India, drinking water is women's domain. In the initial phase of the programme, a considerable investment had been made in identifying a priority. For instance in Utthan -Mahiti, while the organization had identified soil salinity as a priority area, the women insisted that for them the most acute problem was the lack of drinking water. For others it was clear that income generation programmes were not women's first priority but the need for crisis credit

LEAD
In Trichy district of Tamil Nadu, LEAD has created a highly sophisticated money management system that builds women's capacities to manage money . At the same time this system demonstrates to the formal banking system that women's groups are trustworthy borrowers. 240 informal women's self-help groups have accessed over Rs. 400,000 from commercial banks. This is no small achievement in a country where recovery rates on government loans have been as low as 30%, making it an uphill task to convince bankers to lend to women's groups.

UTTHAN-MAHITI
Utthan together with the grassroots women of Mahiti has addressed the issue of water in the drought ridden areas of Gujarat. But they began by addressing drinking water because this was a priority for women's groups. Today they are working in partnership with the state water supply agency to plan and implement alternative water harvesting programmes.

SWAYAM SHIKSHAN PRAYOG
Women's groups in two districts of Maharashtra have successfully re-oriented a large scale post-earthquake project to involve grassroots women's collectives. These collectives have successfully created

GRAM VIKAS
The Gram Vikas initiative in Orissa provides a holistic approach to settlements development, that integrates secure livelihoods, drinking water, sanitation and housing in the backward areas of Orissa. Gram Vikas' intervention builds community assets such as fish ponds, community orchards and village funds which act as safety nets in times of crisis and support incremental community development initiatives

AMHI AAMCHYA AROGYASATHI
AAA has been building the capacities of women's collectives in both forest areas and rural areas to move from being single issue savings and credit groups to a host of other issues by entering into various dialogue forums and partnerships with the district authorities and local banks.

THE COVENANT CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT
CCD has employed a strategy that addresses the capacities of women's collectives to participate in a livelihoods strategy that focuses on local resources.

MONITORING AS A TOOL FOR EMPOWERMENT
For women, whose contributions are often invisible within the settlement itself the challenge is twofold. They must ensure that their voices are heard both by communities and by planners and policy makers. Frequently women gain recognition within the community after their contributions and capacities are acknowledged by planners.
For women whose daily lives are a struggle, the concern is not so much how much the government has spent on water and sanitation, or subsidized credit or on transportation . The questions for them are quite different. Do they have access to safe drinking water ? Do they have water for sanitation facilities in their villages. Is there a bus that comes to their village. Is there a doctor nearby? Is there money to pay the doctor and buy medicines when someone at home is ill?
It is clear then that monitoring settlements development from a grassroots women's perspective is quite different from monitoring it from the state's perspective. We need to see monitoring as part of an empowerment process that

Women have to move from being mere beneficiaries or objects of policies to active participants, who can intervene in policy-making processes. Women need to evolve their own set of tools that help them to analyse their changing environments. They need to create structures that allow women to participate as equal partners in development. The tools they need include a sound information base and a set of feedback mechanisms that will enable them to interface with mainstream institutions.

What follows is a set of tools, using which women have equipped themselves to analyse and articulate women's interests and impact the planning apparatus:

Mapping: Articulating gender interests
Women need to be given opportunities to reflect on their lives and interact with their peers in order to better articulate their gender interests. Women's collectives are participating in mapping exercises where they map out local resources, drainage facilities, annual credit needs, etc. These mapping exercise help them identify local resources, opportunities for economic activities. Mapping of local facilities is also useful for the creation of a local database on village facilities.

Study tours and learning exchanges
Through study tours and exchanges women are given opportunities to see and learn from their poor. These experiences help them compare and contrast their own situations with those of others. Such visits play an important role in helping women build a vision of what is possible, and planning towards such goals.


Gender and Community Audits

Access to accurate information is a vital part of planning. Women's collectives have developed skills to conduct gender and community audits. On one hand this provides feedback on community priorities. While on the other hand they become equipped to act as an interface with planners, to demand greater responsiveness to community and gender needs. Accurate and upto-date databases becomes a powerful tool that allows women to negotiate with officials.

Exposure visits to administrative offices
Visits to block and district level offices build women's confidence, increase their mobility and allow them to understand firsthand how government resources are administered. These visits have multiple gains for women. They help women build a rapport with local officials. This is essential if they are going to participate I in planning and monitoring of state programmes.

Market visits
Through visits to local markets women are learning more about the competitive economic environment in which they are operating.

Dialogue meetings
Dialogue meetings with officials from the government, banks or any other mainstream institution provide opportunities for women's collectives to interface with policymakers. Dialogue meetings have been used extensively by women's groups to voice concerns and for grievance redressal.

Entering planning fora
Women's leaders, supported by women's collectives are now participating in local level planning committees. This provides opportunities for women to bring their priorities, their information and knowledge into official decision-making processes. As already mentioned, SSP was committed to strengthening both the organisations and the women's collectives who were part of the documentation exercise. In what follows are some of the ways this happened

Designing demonstration projects
Women are involved in designing and planning entire projects which they implement and supervise and raise resources for. One such example is the women's information centres designed and constructed by women's groups. These have not only built women's capacities but also demonstrated their abilities to actors both within and outside the community.

STRENGTHENING NETWORKING PROCESSES
Articulation of strategies and insights

In the course of documenting successful initiatives , we built a rapport with the women collectives and the organizations involved. This allowed for sharpening of insights, and articulation of strategies. Very often, while the accomplishments of women are visible, the strategies and processes remain invisible. The Women's Eye-View Project demonstrated that if women are to "own" the ideas and direct processes to transfer the lessons from these achievements it is vital that they are part of ongoing capacity building exercises that allow them to understand and reflect on the lessons learnt.
Exchanges, focus-group discussions and observation visits helped grassroots women leaders immensely. Women belonging to groups and federations traced the journey they had undertaken so far. The reflection and collective analysis at different stages with community groups helped them to articulate their vision and perspectives, their approach and their strategies. Frequently, it was the right questions that moved the process of documenting and helped to sharpen strategies.

Local Advocacy Efforts
The lessons and insights gained from several initiatives informed local advocacy efforts of organisations. In the case of CCD and AAA they sought to educate potential partners- financial institutions banks and the policy makers. AAA's success in upscaling initiatives to access credit from local banks led to a series of learning and advocacy efforts. They participated in an action research project in which representatives from the central bank headquarters and local banks. As a culmination of this work a partnership was forged through a series of events coordinated by SSP and AAA. Dialogue workshops with NGOs and bankers followed by visits to savings and credit groups led to redesigning of activities.

National advocacy agendas
Organizations from different states who participated in the documentation initiative have come together to pool their resources to create a national advocacy strategy on the issue of women's empowerment and enterprise development. A national workshop was held in January this year, with representatives of banks, government, financial institutions and donor agencies. The focus of this partnership effort is reformulate policies and programs, document women led community enterprises and strengthen information and networking among organisations. A national forum for community enterprise - CEFI jointly convened by SSP and other organisations is a direct outcome of our efforts to strengthen networking between NGOs and institutional actors.

Partnerships
Documentation of best practice initiatives acted as a springboard for advocacy efforts. New partnerships among the NGOs and mainstream institutions such as the government agencies and banks were forged as a result of dialogue on these initiatives. New opportunities were created for direct dialogue between grassroots groups and institutions. In contrast to previous occasions, when NGO research strategies led to confrontation, a collaborative process was designed in which they could together work towards a common goal. As a result participants have been able to draw on the strengths that each actor brings into the process. This was an important insight drawn from the case studies. On similar lines, a partnership process at national level is being spearheaded by the Forum. This time, it is with the State Bank of India, the country's largest commercial bank, to increase linkages between women's credit groups and banks.

Validating efforts through learning exchanges
In each case the Best Practice initiatives were visited not by researchers or documentalists alone, but by a team of field activists for whom learning was the main agenda. Study tours and learning exchanges included community women leaders to all the initiatives documented. These were organised by SSP. The excitement and interest expressed by visiting field teams and leaders of women's groups re-validated the work of organizations and women's collectives. A group of twenty from Maharashtra made their first sojourn to the southern states of India. They visited SAKTI, CCD and LEAD to learn about credit federation structures, livelihoods strategies and monitoring mechanisms. Two teams of women leaders from Latur and Osmanabad (SSP's area of operation) are visiting women collectives in the tribal district of Gadchiroli. While one team studies the bank linkage process, the other will be training women to construct toilets.

In the final analysis, we believe this project is an attempt to rethink the traditional notions of monitoring. It is informed by the fact that communities and professionals are located at different standpoints. Hence they look for, see and construct different realities differently. The project has made a beginning in devising monitoring processes that begin with communities' perceptions and priorities, and moves from there towards incorporating these concerns into planning agendas. In the long run, we want to ensure that community actors are not just part of top-down led monitoring processes as faceless numbers in giant databases that gather dust in government offices. The documentation of best practice initiatives and the series of events and activities that comprised the Women's Eye View Project are at the core of strategies that seek to ensure that grassroots women groups remain at the centre of development agendas§ .

s m a l l c h a n g e,

B I G D E A L S

Debates on poverty acknowledge that it is a complex issue comprising both material and nonmaterial deprivation. The poor are not only denied a means of income, food and shelter they also suffer from a lack of power, well being, confidence and the lack of information. The question is how best to prioritise the two distinct sets of needs while designing poverty eradication programmes. It is the choices made around this question, which determine the degree and nature of transformation effected in the lives of the poor.

This case study represents a combination of strategies. It addresses income-poverty of a network of 2,000 poor women; and provides the space for learning participation with an aim of building of capacities to sustain the very process of transformation.

THE COVENANT CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT
The Covenant Centre for Development is a voluntary organization whose mission is to build people's institutions and empower them to address issues of economic security. CCD operates in eight blocks in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This area, otherwise known as Ramnad Plains suffers from severe drought. As a result small farmers who grow paddy in the wetlands and groundnuts in the drylands, rarely get both crops. So mass scale distress migration to cities ill equipped to handle them (usually to Madurai) takes place. The poor farmers are then confronted with a new set of problems of marginalisation and survival in the unfamiliar city environment.

Thus CCD decided that the only long term answer to the problems of the poor was in securing their livelihoods at home in their villages and decided to work with rural communities to build local skills and regenerate local resources with a view to providing economic security for the poorest households.

Kalasms: Women's Self-Help Groups at the village level

CCD began by training local women, who went on to organize 12 self-help groups at village level. Each of these groups has about 20 women. In each group, locally known as kalasms, members pool in their savings every month and borrow from the group fund at terms collectively agreed upon. In the lean season a large proportion of loans go towards meeting consumption needs such as foodgrains. During the agricultural season women borrow for agriculture and allied operation. Each group member usually saves Rs. 10-20 per month. Loans from the group fund thus created are lent out to members at about 2-3 per cent per month. A group member, Bhanumati points out that in her group, loans have been given for medical expenses, marriages, funerals, agriculture, school fees, house repair, buying cattle, redemption of old loans and food. She admits that the most challenging task of the group is prioritizing loan requests.

The kalasm or savings and credit group is more than a source of crisis credit for women, it is also a space within which women come together to analyse their problems, resolve conflicts, make rules and take collective decisions all the while gaining valuable experience in the management of money and multiplying savings. They also serve to demonstrate within the group and to outsiders that women are indeed capable of borrowing and repaying loans.

The Federation: a federation of women's self-help groups

At the very start of this exercise CCD and women's groups jointly agreed that no external funds would be given to groups for the first three years. Instead the groups would have to depend on their own

resources and demonstrate their abilities to manage these resources for the first three years, before they received any external resources from formal credit institutions.

In 1995, in keeping with their plan, the federation known as the Mahakalasm was set up within the three-year self-imposed time limit. In 1996 registered the Mahakalasm as a trust. In other words, it now had a separate legal identity, independent of CCD. The federation's trustees are all representatives of the self-help groups. The organization does not own any shares in the federation, it simply provides support in an advisory capacity. Today, a total of 96 groups are part of three-tiered women's federation structure.

In addition to raising funds from member groups to set up a corpus fund for productive loans to groups, the federation also leverages external credit from financial institutions for various productive activities. Starting with Rs. 100,000 raised from member groups' retained earnings, the federation has successfully leveraged a total of Rs.2 million in loans from a variety of sources including banks, foundations, and NGOs. While the federation includes all 96 groups, the banking facilities provided by the federation are only extended to 41 mature groups based on a well laid out criteria of attending three years of successful operation, good repayment record of internal loans and total savings of more than Rs.20,000/-.

BUILDING IN WOMEN'S PARTICIPATION
A number of design elements have been incorporated into the federation structure to ensure that women are at the centre of all decision-making processes. The groups are organized into clusters (10-15 groups in each cluster) and the cluster leaders represent group interests at the highest level - the apex body.

Functions within the three- tiered structure are clearly, differentiated to accommodate and utilise a large number of women with varied skills.

                            Apex body of 
                     10 members 
                  ( Board of Trustees) 
            supported by a 
     manager and an accountant  
                                                             Clusters of groups 
                                              96 groups

Capacity Building at village level
For instance at the village level where the kalasms operate, the roles of the office bearers are kept distinct from each other. The accountant ensures that accounts, records, systems are properly adhered to by group members. While the group leader takes the lead in group decision-making processes, consensus building and negotiating with others. While it is common practice for those who can read and write to be entrusted with book-keeping and to monopolize leadership positions, there has been a conscious effort here to separate the role of the accountant from the leader so that more women irrespective of their abilities to read and write are given opportunities to take on responsibilities and build their capacities.

This separation of the two functions: leadership and accounting reflects the 2 crucial elements of self-help groups. These two elements: financial management and community mobilization are often conflicting forces within the group because the organising, and participatory aspect of group activities are not conducive to efficient money management. Nevertheless if the self-help group is to empower women, it must strive to create a balance between both processes:

The Cluster: Leadership spport and keeping communication lines open
The cluster is an intermediary structure that keeps communication lines between the apex body and the 96 member groups open. A cluster consists of 10-15 groups. At monthly cluster meetings, its leader and accountant represent the group. The cluster-committee screens all requests from groups for federation loans. The cluster committee and the staff member each present their own analysis of the viability of the loans requested. The loan applications are then short-listed and presented with recommendations to the apex body of the federation.

The cluster level is also the place where the leaders of several groups converge to discuss common issues of concern. Here, women with special skills in conflict resolution, training, dealing with banks, record-keeping and business skills have been identified as resource persons who can work with a number of groups to address different needs of groups. The cluster level meetings also provide opportunities for different groups to interact and learn from each other's initiatives.

LIVELIHOODS PROMOTION

Working on Scale

CCD in partnership with local women has been able to upgrade the economic activities of a large number of women rather than simply promoting a few individual entrepreneurs. This has been possible because CCD's interventions were well grounded in the realities of poor women and they utilised existing livelihood activities and the local resource base to make a meaningful change for the better.

Livelihoods strategy

The search for lean season livelihood activities that would prevent out-migration meant mobilizing local knowledge, local capacities and local resources to enhance incomes. A survey of local livelihood

activities provided a list of 192 activities (trades and services) that were being undertaken in the area. These included brick-making pottery, basket-weaving, weaving and charcoal making. Where women in communities were already undertaking these activities the challenge was to work out what support was required in order to increase their incomes from these activities. How could these activities be upgraded from small survival efforts to micro-enterprises.

CCD worked with women's groups to identify the weak links in these activities. Often it was the lack of information and credit forced women to sell at low rates to creditors. Credit and information were the two inputs urgently required to turn the situation around.

In the next phase through informal consultations with women leaders, traders, state agencies, researchers, CCD was able to identify 4-5 activities, which it could focus on developing.

The following are the ways in which women's survival activities are being upgraded:

UP-SCALING CHARCOAL-MAKING: Making more credit accessible

Charcoal- making is one of the important seasonal activities that the federation has been instrumental in scaling-up. An analysis of this activity showed that the raw material - a shrub that grows in abundance in the area-is available at a low cost or at no cost and the skills required are well known to local families in the area. The only problem was that local contractors control the charcoal business in the area by advancing money to poor families who must sell the charcoal to the contractors. Those selling charcoal are constrained by the fact that they are indebted to the traders and thus are unable to negotiate a fair price.

The middleman buys without weighing the charcoal. Price offered is for 30 k.g. but the actual contents may weigh about 45 k.g. He has a "fixed rate" for each bag of charcoal. He usually buys at a rate that is so much lower than the prevailing market rate that in effect for every two bags of coal which he buys, he gets one bag of charcoal.

The main intervention in this activity has been to circumvent the trader and his business malpractices by providing members access to credit through the Mahakalasm. or federation. Kalasm members get loans ranging from Rs. 5,000 to Rs 15,000. This investment is used for the 45-60 day cycle. It goes towards the purchasing of the trees used for charcoal-making and transportation. The initial investment

recovered 15-60 days and the profit generated from the first cycle are re- invested in the second cycle. The profit from the second cycle is large enough to repay the loan plus invest in agriculture. In some cases, the profits of the first two cycles may be re-invested in a third cycle of charcoal making. Because credit is provided through the Mahakalasm the producers can withhold stock and sell it during the agricultural season when prices are the highest. RS. 90/- to-110/- per bag containing 30 k.g. of charcoal.

The federation is now exploring the possibility of value addition through pulverizing charcoal and is also planning to market charcoal directly to local industries. The Mahakalasm has accessed a loan of Rs. 330,000 from the Small Industries Development Bank of India to fund charcoal-making.

TAMARIND PROCURING AND MARKETING
CCD and the Mahakalasm are also working together to make tamarind collection and marketing into a commercially viable activity. Tamarind trees grow in abundance in the drought prone areas of the Ramnad Plains near Madurai. A high demand for tamarind plain fruit exists in South India because it is commonly used as seasoning for food. CCD felt that tamarind collection could be a seasonal activity that can be used to supplement agricultural income in the lean season.

A non- commercial activity, tamarind collection, had to be converted into a commercial activity. Women traditionally collect tamarind for household consumption and the surplus is given to friends and

relatives. 722 women from 40 groups were convinced by the federation leaders to procure, collect, process and sell fruit. They were made aware of the fact that there was a good market for both the seed and the tamarind pulp. Mahakalasm members had earlier conducted an intensive market survey of neighbouring markets. They identified markets where tamarind was available for as low as Rs.45/- a basket and as high as Rs.100/-.

The federation provided credit for this activity from external credit accessed from a foundation. This money (Rs. 700,000 ) was invested in procuring and processing tamarind fruit pulp and seeds from the group members.

The women collected the tamarind fruit, decoated, de-seeded and packed them in palm leaf bags made by local artisans. The federation was responsible for marketing. A total of 53 mega tonnes of fruit was

collected and 33.5 mega tonnes of seed were collected. The total cost of this activity was Rs. 4.75 lakh of which Rs 1.94 (about 40 per cent) was spent on wages paid to women for collecting and processing fruit.

The fruit was then sent for storage to a godown. CCD was responsible for the storage. The federation leaders supervised the work of the women and ensured the quality of the stored tamarind. While some was marketed immediately, some pulp has been kept in cold storage to sell at a later date.

BUYING AND SELLING GROUNDNUT When groundnut is harvested, women who work as wage labour are often paid in kind. Women exchange groundnuts for other provisions at the local grocer. The grocer generally undervalues the produce, paying less than the actual worth of the groundnuts. Six months later the grocer sells the groundnuts back to the women as seed for the next agricultural season the kalasms identified this problem as something they wanted to address. The women decided to visit local markets to find out the prices of groundnut. They found out that immediately after the harvest, groundnut can be sold at local markets for Rs. 2 per 1.4 k.g. The women found that if they bought groundnut at Rs. 2 per kg, pool their stocks, packed it in gunny bags and sold them they could get Rs. 4 per kg at least. If the groundnut was stored for six months, dried and processed as seed material, it could fetch up to Rs. 12 per kg. The kalasm identified women with good business sense and advanced them money to procure groundnuts, semi process them and then sell them as seed to the same local women. The advantage for women is that they get a fair price for their produce while the entrepreneurs in the group build their capacities to do business.

Learning together

The staff of CCD and federation leaders along with about 50 women who have some business skills are jointly involved in the exploration and experimentation of livelihood activities. The involvement of women in the exploratory phase provides a way for them to learn, experiment and try out their entrepreneurial skills within the protected environment of the Mahakalasm.

This experimental learning process puts to use the existing business skills of women, thus minimizing the organization's role. It also provides a space for women to collectively test out and strengthen their capacities to take on market forces - acquiring information, analysing costs, negotiating in markets and collecting raw materials from local areas.

INSIGHTS
As economies grow and open up, it is often observed that the poorest have no share in the benefits of such change. Their inability to keep pace with the changing economies, further marginalizes them. This initiative is grounded in the reality of poor women. It recognizes that even the poorest have resources and skills that can be built upon. It has used women's own savings however small they may be to build an institution that is owned, managed and controlled by local women. This new institution is being recognized by formal institutions as a legitimate player in the local economy, thus attempting to carve

a niche for the poorest in the local economy and reap the benefits of its growth.

The multi-layered federation fulfils a number of needs of the member groups. It also demonstrates the strategic manner in which the differential capacities of a large network of poor women can be effectively harnessed and upgraded. Everyday survival needs are taken care of by the group fund created from the small savings of the group at the village level. Loans from the savings and credit groups reduce vulnerability to seasonal fluctuations in income.

Who does what in the federation ?

APEX BODY/ MAHAKALASM

CLUSTER BODIES

GROUP /

KALASM

  • Interfacing with markets
  • Leveraging external credit
  • Providing large loans to groups
  • Builds capacities to manage large sums of money and run an enterprise
  • Peer group support for leadership
  • Space for practising specialised skills
  • Builds capacities to manage money
  • Builds capacities for collective decision-making
  • Inter-group experience sharing
  • Screens group applications for federation loans
  • Peer group support for leadership
  • Space for practising specialised skills
  • Builds capacities for collective decision-making
  • Space for practising specialised skills
  • Mobilises women
  • Mobilizes women's own resources
  • Provides consumption loans and small production loans
  • Builds capacities to manage money
  • Builds capacities for collective decision-making
  • Regular meetings among group leaders at cluster level provides a support system of peers for group leaders. In addition, the cluster body promotes an inter-group learning process in which women find out what is happening in other groups around them. In some cases this has helped women locate raw materials and markets in nearby villages, thus leading strategic alliances between groups.

    The apex body of federation leaders essentially takes on the task of interfacing with the outside world because it has the ability to pool a large amount of resources and use these to leverage resources from

    the market. It would be difficult for individual women or individual groups to perform all these functions on their own. In effect the Mahakalasm subtitutes the functions of the traditional middleman. But with one crucial difference. The Mahakalasm represents group interests. By procuring goods from member groups and marketing on their behalf, the Mahakalasm negotiates for good deals in the market and pays a fair price to groups. In the process federation leaders get a chance to sharpen their own business skills.

    Most initiatives around economic empowerment tend to focus on building the skills and resource base of a few prospective entrepreneurs. But CCD's partnership with women's groups demonstrates that it is possible for creating decentralized people's organization to manage and control local resources and utilize traditional skills to bring about large scale transformation. Scale, in this case not only implies the volumes of business, but also the large number of people who are involved and derive a benefit from such business. More than 2,000 women are part of the 96 groups that make up the federation. For instance, credit for charcoal has already added significantly to the annual incomes of 300 families, 400 women are involved in the collecting, processing of neem, over 700 women are involved in the buying and processing of tamarind.

    By supporting the formation of a decentralised institutional structure which is owned by women and in which women's knowledge and capacities are made visible and strengthened, CCD along with the federation has created a process that addresses both income-poverty and the intangible elements of poverty: the lack of information and exclusion from decision making processes.

    CCD's intervention in partnership with women's groups works because the strategies used successfully use the logic of business, but locate this logic within an organizational structure that embodies the values of participatory decision-making.

     

    ACCESSING CREDIT:

    Developing Women's Capacities To Manage Money

    SECTION I

    THE POLICY ENVIRONMENT

    Credit is widely recognized as an effective poverty alleviation tool. In India, the Integrated Rural Development Program, launched in 1978/79 sought to provide households a subsidized loan to purchase a non-land based income generating asset. However there was no mechanism in place to ensure that the loan was indeed used productively by its targeted beneficiaries-the poor. So, far from pulling the poor household above the poverty line, two decades later dependance on informal exploitative credit systems remains high.

    Despite the well-meaning intentions of the IRDP there has been some mismanagement from bankers not sensitised to the needs of the poor. For instance, of the small percentage of loans that actually reached the poor, the bulk was diverted to pressing consumption needs. Inevitably massive defaults followed and bankers lost no time in branding the poor uncreditworthy.

    Despite the failure of IRDP, credit remains an important tool to address poverty. While IRDP continues to be the most important policy effort to combat poverty, a new approach to overcoming poverty using credit as a tool has emerged in recent years. Grounded in the many advances made by grassroots level women themselves to access credit, it promotes the concept of ownership and participatory management-- a novel departure from the top-down IRDP regime.

    THE INNOVATION: COMMUNITY BASED FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS

    Poor women in crisis situations have to rely on kin, friends and the local moneylender as they are unable to access credit from the formal market, and have social restrictions on their mobility. It is in this context that the savings and credit group or self-help group emerged as a viable solution to poor women's need for easily accessible, non-exploitative credit.

    By locating themselves within the parameters of poor women's existential realities and responding to local needs and constraints NGO promoted/alternative finance institutions have succeeded where formal credit institutions have failed. Self-help groups, thrift and credit societies, community based coalitions and non-governmental organizations - whatever their quality or mandate - all represent nascent efforts on the part of civil society to organize itself in ways which serve people's needs and in forms which seek to articulate their concerns.

    What is a Self Help Group.....

    ... is a voluntary association of women or men at the village level. It may be linked to a village organization, or to an NGO (Voluntary Organization), or may be an independent initiative of the people itself.

    ... is not restricted to people who are classified as being Below the Poverty Line (BPL), but can be a mix of both BPL and non-BPL people who have come together to help each other

    ... meets on a regular basis - it can be daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly

    ... creates a group managed fund through the regular contribution of savings from its members. The fund allows the group to meet their members' need for easily accessible credit

    ... determines the amount of savings its members are supposed to contribute - these savings can either be a fixed amount, or they may vary from season to season, or they may vary from member to member

    ... gives loans to meet the consumption credit needs of their members as well as their production credit needs

    ... collectively decides on a priority basis, who gets a loan and works out the term of the loan with each individual member

    ... disburses loans at an interest rate determined by the group; the rate is usually lower than the local moneylender's rate but is often higher than the rate the bank's charges

    ... enjoys on-time recovery of loans. Late repayment of loans are the exception to the rule. This is because:

    • members can take a loan for all kinds of credit needs - consumption and production; therefore loans are not diverted to meet purposes other than the one stated
    • members are all part of the same community - they know whether the problems an individual member is facing are genuine or not - besides, there is a social stigma attached to defaulting on one's loans
    • members take loans for economic activities that they know about and have the skills for

    ... develops very clear procedures regarding the group's decision making process, attendance of meetings, loan priorities, penalties etcetera

    ... can be registered or unregistered

    ... opens an account in a bank in the name of the group (not a joint account). It need not be registered in order to open a bank account.

    ... keeps a record of all the financial transactions of the group. Besides group records, each member has an individual passbook in which their savings contributions, loans, repayments and fines are recorded regularly

    ... provides poor people a forum where they can learn about collectively mobilizing and managing money - and people

    ... soon moves beyond meeting the credit needs of its members to linking with schemes and programs that concern the overall development of their village, not just their members.

    WOMEN ARE CREDITWORTHY

    Increasing numbers of poor women have begun to successfully organize themselves into savings and credit groups. The very mainstream credit institutions, which have remained out of reach for them have begun to take note of this. Today, the tremendous potential of these community based financial institutions and their potential in providing solutions to a wide range of development issues facing the poor has been accepted in diverse countries and economies.

    In India following the widespread success of the voluntary sector in promoting SCGs the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) took the initiative to demonstrate the effectiveness of SCGs. In February 1992 NABARD launched the SHG Bank Linkage Pilot Project. This project sought to link the formal banking system to informal women's self-help groups. By March 1996, 4750 SHGs had been financed by 95 banks, enjoying recovery rates over 95%. Encouraged by this, in April 1996, the Reserve Bank of India, the country's Central Bank instructed all banks to consider lending to SHGs as part of their regular lending operations.

    Since December 31, 1997, 10267 SHGs have been linked to banks under this scheme. Apart from NABARD, there are other agencies that have recognized SHGs as effective vehicles for credit delivery to the poor. Foremost among these agencies are the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (RMK) and SIDBI, both governnment owned institutions. Under the various SHG credit linkage programs floated by mainstream financial institutions, loans through these programs are granted to the group and not to its individual members. Decisions regarding the on-lending of these externally accessed funds, such as the selection of loan beneficiaries, the rate of interest charged, the activity for which the loan will be used, are collectively taken by the group.

    Clearly there has been a significant policy change but more groundwork needs to be done to enable women to use this opportunity to their

    advantage.

    SECTION II

    THE CASE STUDY

    LEAD was formed in 1987 with the aim of organizing women around issues of alcoholism, bonded labour and destitution operating in the districts of Tiruchirapalli, Karoor, Perambalur and Dindigul of Tamil Nadu state in South India. It has facilitated over 500 linkages between banks and poor women's' savings and credit groups. The following case study showcases the strategies that LEAD found helpful in facilitating women's access to credit. It also indicates ways to build managerial skills women must necessarily learn to exercise control over their newly found asset. LEAD's experience shows that while using credit as a poverty alleviation tool, poor women do not benefit from single large doses of credit but from a series of progressively increasing sizes of loans. The latter approach allows them to build their credit absorption capacity and the technical skills to manage their loan optimally.

    Genesis of the Credit program

    One of the initial interventions of LEAD was to set up a small revolving fund, of Rs.40,000, from which young destitute women with small children could draw credit in order to create an income generating asset. By 1988 LEAD expanded its area of operation to include the semi-arid region of the Panjapatti panchayat, adjacent to the Srirangam region where it began with the idea of exploring income generating opportunities in the post-harvest period. The initial income generation intervention did not succeed and LEAD's introspection indicated some reasons for this. LEAD realised that for the long term success of income generating programs it was best that they should be set up as a joint and collective effort of the poor, rather than at the prodding of an NGO.

    Around this period LEAD was working with the district government on a study of bonded labour in the region and at one stage organized a small group of bonded labour into a co-operative society. In 1991 LEAD decided to learn more about savings and credit groups and so visited Co-operative Development Foundation, PRADAN and MYRADA, three NGOs who had pioneered the savings and credit group practice in India. Underscoring its own early experiences these NGOs too favoured helping groups mobilise resources from themselves to meet credit needs. LEAD also began to experiment with the notion that savings and credit would be a useful tool to organize poor communities. And thus their savings and credit program was born.

    Soon after village level women's' collectives called sangams came up. Women from these sangams would informally help each other financially in times of crisis, some sangams operated a chit fund, the profits of which would be used to open individual bank accounts for women.

    SAVINGS AND CREDIT: Scaling up Operations

    In August 1992 LEAD staff along with 90 women from the groups went to MYRADA to study the concept and practice of savings and credit groups and the intricacies of setting up an SHG federation as well. Following the training, thirty sangams were formed. Apart from these sangams LEAD also began organizing the disabled into sangams. Existing sangams practising short term credit activity evolved from the short-term chit fund style to developing a long term perspective of their credit needs.

    During this period the local office of NABARD became aware of LEAD's work in forming SHGs and expressed their interest in involving LEAD in the pilot phase of the NABARD SHG-Bank linkage program. LEAD stalled the linkage process for a few months until the groups found their feet. In January 1993 LEAD became one of the first NGOs in India to participate in the linkage program when ten sangams were linked to the SBI Panjapatti branch, each sangam accessing a loan of Rs.2000. A few months later another 10 groups linked to the same branch also took loans of Rs.2000 each.

    Today LEAD works with 487 savings and credit groups who have mobilized Rs.19,01,622.8 through monthly savings contributions from their 6,395 members, and disbursed credit amounting to Rs.54,88,110. As of October 1997, 406 linkages had been forged between groups and banks. 240 groups had accessed credit amounting to Rs. 42,15,000. Apart from credit accessed from banks under the NABARD SHG-Bank Linkage Program, LEAD has also facilitated groups to access credit from the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh.

    # SCGs

    # Members

    Mar'98 Savings

    Total savings

    Lending Done

    Demand for Recovery

    Amount Recovered

    Over-dues

    Outstan-ding Amount

    %

    487

    6395

    1,10,120

    19,01,622

    54,88,110

    13,40,296

    13,45,744

    58,080

    41,82,200

    99.5

    With the increase in the scale of savings and credit operations, clusters of 15 to 20 SCGs have come together to form cluster level federations. These apex bodies, of which there are 19, play an important role in the process of accessing credit from mainstream financial organizations as they are responsible for selecting the groups requiring external credit, and monitoring the use and repayment of the loan.

    CONCEPTS AND PRACTICES

    The savings and credit group is a "first" in many ways in the lives of poor women. It requires them to handle sums of money larger than anything they have had to deal with thus far. As an organizational entity that functions on democratic, collective management principles it requires the active participation of its members and the development of leadership skills. It is easy for the SCG to become a microcosm of the society in which it operates, where dominant caste and community interests determine the distribution of resources. The smooth functioning and prompt repayments that the SCG model is lauded for, will only work if it functions in an equitable environment where each member has an equal opportunity to take a loan and demonstrate her ability to repay it.

    Credit creation

    Most people are dismissive of an SCG's ability to meet its members' credit needs when they hear that the group's fund is built through collecting a paltry Rs. 20 from each member each month. While the sum is indeed extremely small, the experience of most SCGs prove that it can, if properly managed, go very far in meeting their members' credit requirements. While initially the fund is able to service only a few, small loans, in time it is able to develop a diverse loan portfolio with loans ranging from Rs.100 to Rs.10,000 and more. One important principle that LEAD has been able to inculcate in the groups they work with is the optimal use of funds mobilized and the need to deploy most of the money collected at their monthly meetings.

    It has ensured a high turnover of credit by putting certain pragmatic procedures in place. For instance in the early stages of the group's development when the fund mobilized is small, loans have to be paid back in one installment itself so that funds are not locked up and an optimal level of cash flow is maintained. As a result, the rate at which credit is created is very high and the opportunity for members to take a loan progressively increases.

    Nature of credit given (March 1995) 213 SCGs, 2651 women

    Purpose

    # of times

    Amount Given in Rs.

    Agriculture

    199

    635643

    Livestock

       

    Goats

    560

    354717

    Milch Animals

    83

    144525

    Poultry

    592

    78963

    Others

    181

    63920

    Health

    547

    154932

    Educations

    319

    73000

    Consumption

    675

    336850

    Ceremonies

    706

    256669

    Total

    5318

    2829704

     

    As the group grows older its fund grows larger too and its ability to access credit from other sources like banks increases. With the increase in funds the sizes of loans taken by members also increases. This is because groups witness a shift from consumption loans to production credit needs such as the purchase of assets like poultry, sheep, agricultural inputs and to redeem old debts. In older groups, members are able to take loans upto Rs.8,000 and sometimes even larger - Rs.17,000 for a petty shop.

    Rotating Leadership

    Each sangam has two leaders - one leader elected for the entire year while the other leader is appointed for the month. The monthly leader has to assist the Annual leader with all her work. These responsibilities include:

    · collecting savings

    · collecting loan repayments

    · counting the cash

    · going to the bank

    · representing the group at federation meetings.

    The presence of an annual leader allows for continuity. Rotating leadership ensures that each group member has the opportunity to take responsibility for the decisions taken by the group, financial transactions, safekeeping of cash in hand, and attending cluster level meetings at which common issues are taken up for discussion by leaders of neighbouring groups.

    Credit deepening and Poverty Alleviation
    The SCG's fund is built up over time through the regular savings contributions of its members as well as by the income earned as interest. At the time of a group's formation, the thought of a woman being able to access a loan of Rs.10,000 from the group is unimaginable, as the fund available for credit is small. In time however the group's fund increases and the purposes for which credit is taken shifts from consumption, to small term and to medium term and long term investment. This graduation does not occur overnight. It takes nearly five years for the corpus fund to swell so that a member can take a loan of Rs.15,000 (long term loan); by the time a woman draws Rs. 15,000 (which really takes her above poverty line), she might have already mobilised loans for more than seven to eight times that amount and repaid them. Hence she would have become capable to retain the asset and also the corpus fund also would have grown substantially. The repayment of credit in time has been established as a value. Subsequently, members also access credit to meet their short term production credit needs. The credit deepening process enables women to handle progressively larger and larger amounts of credit.

    ACCESSING CREDIT FROM MAINSTREAM FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS

    For the branch manager of SBI - Panjapatty, lending to SCGs is not just an innovative way of reaching out to poor clientele...
    "I am convinced that it is a good business proposition for the branch and I do not see it as a charitable act." In the last financial year he has disbursed Rs.16-17 lakhs as credit to SCGs. Approximately 20% of the year's growth in business is due to SCG lending. In addition these loans post the best repayment performance with 96% recovery. The next best lending business in terms of recovery is loans to tractors at 70% recovery. As of October 1997, this branch, associating with 151 SCGs, has given 283 loans amounting to a total of Rs.30,34,000.

    As members start taking larger loans to meet their production credit needs, the group has to augment its fund by accessing external funds to service the credit requirements of its members. The funds that the groups associated with LEAD have managed to access are bank loans and loans from the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh. Six years after the first few groups accessed bank loans of Rs.10,000 each in January 1993, today the total amount of credit mobilised by 240 groups amounts to over Rs.60,00,000: Rs.42,15,000 from banks and Rs.20,00,000 from the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh. LEAD has been one of the few organizations that have been able to facilitate the linkage of large numbers of groups with banks. In fact, they hold the record for facilitating the highest number of SCG-bank linkages in the country.

    CONCLUSION
    Accessing external credit is an important milestone in a group's evolution. Maintaining good repayment behaviour when a group functions on internally mobilised funds is relatively easier than doing so with funds generated from external sources, for in the former case members know that it is their money that is at stake when recovery falls. The fact that 240 groups have taken and repaid bank loans is a measure of the effectiveness of LEAD's capacity building program in instilling the repayment ethic. Malaram sangam in Kullampatty village has accessed three loans from the State Bank of India (Panjapatty branch), the total amount of credit amounting to Rs.82,000!

    The success of SCGs has also led to unexpected but welcome results in other areas and programmes at the village level run by governments as well as the voluntary sector. SCGs no longer look for hand outs from the NGO - they are ready to repay.

    State sponsored credit to individuals in the form of IRDP assumes that by injecting a single large dose of credit into a poor household poverty will be overcome. The State has had to learn the hard way that the poor first need resources to fulfil daily survival needs of their family. Furthermore, as IRDP is a one-time loan it is not usually repaid, thus making further credit unavailable to the poor in rural areas. Hence an individual's capability in mobilising credit stops with one dose resulting in failure of credit deepening. But it is not so in the case of savings and credit management groups in which the whole process is sytematised resulting in availability of more credit (both in amount and frequency) resulting in credit deepening and incremental income, thus leading to poverty alleviation in the real sense.

    BUILDING COMMUNITY ASSETS

    Experiences in housing, basic services and livelihoods

    Introduction

    The context is the remote tribal districts of Orissa located in eastern belt of India. Gram Vikas meaning Village Development was started about two decades ago by a group of students and professionals.

    It is with this premise, that GV entered the villages in the tribal areas first and then later in the non tribal villages. The organisation committed itself to cover one hundred villages through establishing village based organisations. In the last few years, these village committees implement all the development projects whether it be basic services, housing, health and sanitation drinking water or credit and secured livelihoods.

    Gram Vikas is part of a development action network started earlier to do indepth action research on drought. Similarly, they have supported the tribal groups and encouraged the tribal network initiated in one district to lobby against environment projects. For e.g. Govt. of Orissa proposal to start tea plantations in predominantly tribal areas - GV supported the tribal movement against it.

     

    The problem of tribal villages
    Tribal villages are located in remote areas. The state machinery has largely not reached these areas. On our visit we travelled several hundred kilometres to reach villages. Further, tribal villages were traversed on feet -there were no roads.

    Community managed basic services

    The RHEP program (Rural Health and Environment Program) was started in 1992 in five villages on an experimental basis. This was initiative was later upscaled to over fifty villages in the non-tribal districts. Within a village, the idea of 100% coverage was promoted by Gram Vikas. It was essential that the entire community subscribe to the idea of a rural sanitation and health program. Concretely this meant, all households not only contribute to building of individual toilets, while the community would support any future expansion or maintenance expenses through setting up of a Village Fund.

    Gram Vikas adopted a holistic way of addressing issues of secure livelihoods, housing, drinking and sanitation through community strengthening and contribution.

    The village committee and the village funds were instruments that helped community managed basic services - toilets, drinking water etc. Community solutions were designed in this manner. Individual households contributed their labour to build, while the village fund was created as guarantee for sustainability of the interaction.

    A village committee of the poorest, SC/ST and women representatives decided how the Village Fund should be used. In case of sanitation, operation and maintenance of the water supply and toilets was carried out from returns on the interest accrued through investing the Village fund. In Samiapalli, the health worker was paid through this fund. Upkeep of community basic services was as important as creating it. Communities especially among tribal groups, were willing to invest for future needs.

    Unless the community efforts to set up a village fund were completed, i.e. for 100 houses, an fixed amount of Rs. 100,000 the program did not begin. Similarly community commitment was demanded in terms of a transparent functional general body and elected committee to oversee the entire program and manage the funds. Gram Vikas raised funds for construction of the large infrastructure such as the overhead water tank and main line for piped water supply, however the works were carried out by the committee.

    A community committee was elected by the villagers who constituted the general body of the village. In the eight member committee, equal numbers of women, SC/ST groups were represented. This committee of peoples representatives was entrusted with all the funds acquired by Gram Vikas to build community infrastructure

    The investment in health and sanitation by communities was an important milestone in people taking control over local development. In the first few villages, it took very long for the entire community arrive at a consensus to invest in a programme which offered little or no economic returns. Once this was achieved , the contributions to the village fund started pouring in. Besides individual contributions, Gram Vikas assisted the peoples committee to take up projects at the community level.

    The community projects were designed to meet many ends. Activities such as duck rearing, fish rearing, piggery, poultry and community fruit orchards, social forestry etc. resulted in enormous surplus which made up the corpus of the RHEP fund. For e.g. In Sarakumpa, the unused village pond, now reared many varieties of fish. A village volunteer supervised the pond. Families had a source of nutritious and cheap food. Around Rs. 25,000 was earned annually and this held in the village fund and reinvested for greater returns. The interest accrued was used for operation and maintenance of the infrastructure and for any future expansion.

    The experience of working together on community asset building programs was new especially in the non-tribal communities. Managing community contracts gave men and women leaders the confidence to take on larger public works. In Samiya palli village the RHEP effort had resulted in a strong team of skilled masons. After the toilets were built, the work progressed on to construction of the water tank. With the surplus funds from the fish ponds, peoples confidence grew by leaps and bounds. There was a ripple effect---roads, drainage's and electricity were next on the list. The committee was legally registered and they bid for a contract from the local govt.

    In the last few years, GV obtained loans for peoples' housing from HDFC at 8-9% p.a. payable over 22 years. Standard estimates were prepared at Rs.25,000 for a house of 500 sq. feet area. GV made an agreement with the village committee for management and supervision of loans given to individual beneficiaries. It is remarkable that at the same time, GV started a livelihoods program to help the poor households to repay loans. Basic agreements were made regarding the construction management aspects. Each household had to contribute labour and materials to build upto the plinth level. Training for masons was provided by GV.

    Several allied income generation activities were encouraged such as starting brick quarries, stone cutting, production of soil cement blocks, production of tiles for roofing, etc.

    These activities were managed by the village housing committee. In addition, GV negotiated with the village committees that the subsidy got from government schemes could be put into the village fund for incremental housing and maintenance of settlements infrastructure.


    Building community assets through secured livelihoods

    If communities have to take ownership of resources - whether it be trees, land, building, services, they had to create if from their resources. Gram Vikas was of the view that incomes from agriculture on MFP collection and sale was only sufficient to meet survival needs on daily basis.

    In the area of credit and livelihoods GV's approach began with linking tribal households to anti poverty loans given by the banks. They worked in an environment where people did not think they had to repay government loans. Entrepreneurship was totally new to the tribal culture which is based on the principles of collective use and sharing resources.

    Later with the idea of building self reliant village based organisations, GV started women's self help or savings and credit groups. Women and these groups save Rs. 10 to 20 every month and gave small loans to members. While in some villages, the women's groups have accessed revolving funds from village committees, in others they are completely cut off from outside sources of credit whether it be the village committee or the banks.

    Secured livelihoods are linked to natural resource management and specifically to management of minor forest produce in tribal villages. In these villages, Gram Vikas's assessment is that shifting from Podu cultivation (slash and burn) to permanent agriculture will mean a complete change in tribal culture which is based on agricultural/crop patterns. However, tree planting is a very profitable income generation activity and it gives people access to land. In tribal culture community assets are linked to traditional practices.

    In each of the project areas, GV's approach to livelihoods is based on principles of increasing incomes, building skills and assets not only for individuals but most important for communities. In what follows are outlines some of the community approaches.

    In tribal villages, traditionally the custom is to store food grains. The grain bank idea helps tribal communities to meet their own food security needs and allows them to sell food grains at higher prices in the market.

    With support from government programs and banks, GV encourages village committees to take community contracts for social forestry. The organisation lobbies for selection of plants and trees which have medicinal and nutritional value. For e.g. cashewnut, drumstick, papaya are cultivated and sold to government cooperatives. The gestation period for this project is around four years after which the project is very productive. The subsidy obtained from government is kept in the village fund.

    Every village traditionally has a pond which is used for bathing and washing. GV invested in research with the fisheries institute and discovered that the ponds once cleaned could be used for rearing fish. Harvesting of fish is done throughout the year within the village fish is sold at a low rate while in the markets the price is higher. For e.g. the inputs in one village was around Rs. 40,000/- while the income earned was Rs. 1,00,000 annually. From this experimentation, several other activities emerged such as fish nurseries, backyard ponds, prawn cultivation.

    Lessons from the community livelihoods approach are given in what follows:

     

    WOMEN BREAK NEW GROUND

    Context
    Women's organisations working in diverse fields and issues have known for long the advantages of activating networks among community groups on a similar principle. Learning from peer groups was the basis for the Sakhi Sahyog (SS) initiative. Initiated in the latter half of 1995, this was an experiment to allow existing women's collectives in an area principally in Savings Credit Groups (SCG) to build alliances with other groups and elected members.

    Aamhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) is one of the four organisations in the SS initiative. The villages and the women's groups were located in Kurkheda and Dhanora talukas in Gadchiroli district. The work of NGOs and women's groups showed the need to move away from preoccupations with economic issues alone. There was a need for a new perspective that would allow groups to simultaneously address many issues.

    The sheer dynamics of the process that puts women's collectives in touch with other institutional actors ensures that the former have to independently establish themselves as equal partners. Besides, the onus for ensuring that gender specific concerns are adequately addressed in the planning and implementation of mainstream development processes, lies with the collectives as well.

    AAA was called on to provide support to DWCRA (Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas) in all blocks of Gadchiroli district. Until December 1995 they worked with 50 women's groups in three blocks. Six months later in June 1996 they were working with close to 850 groups spread over all 12 blocks and by October 1996 they were working with 15,000 women in 1375 groups. It was the linkage and access to multiple government schemes that transformed AAA from an organisation that kept away from the government framework to being the resource agency within the district in charge of directing the course of DWCRA .At the end of its evolution it had come to actively seek opportunities and mechanisms that would enable women to access and negotiate government programs.

    Anti poverty and rural development schemes for women such as DWCRA, CBCS (Community Based Convergence Service), ICDS (Integrated child Development Schemes) offered new platforms and opportunities both in the social and economic sphere.

    The success of savings and credit in mobilising women led AAA to support the formation of men's savings and credit groups. They see this as an important milestone in renegotiating gender relations. Today in few villages, representatives of the men's and women's groups are members of the informal village committee, in lieu of the panchayat, to decide what needs to be done for the village.

    Availing of AAA's guidance women in the region have proved adept at utilising DWCRA funds very creatively. For example in Malanda village the group has begun hiring goods and services for marriages and large gatherings and lent them out. In Kheri village women have used the DWCRA funds for a brick kiln, in Mendha village women have set up a general store and have leased a stone quarry and crushing unit. Women's groups in these villages have explored a variety of livelihood options and moved away from the narrow prescriptions given by the government.

    In Six villages women's groups have taken the lead. They created best practices which have been transferred to groups in other villages in the same cluster. Moving beyond crisis credit needs these groups are slowly moving towards occupying a centrestage position in the village development process. Each of these best practice villages, the more experienced groups have initiated the formation of a number of new savings and credit groups both within the village and outside

    As women's SCGs are increasingly becoming involved with broader decision making processes gender issues are getting their rightful perspective. Anti liquor agitation ,inequitable distribution of resources are some of the issues that are now surfacing at the village level fora.


    Linkage with banks

    Gadchiroli has the unique distinction of being the one district in Maharashtra where women's groups have been able to successfully link up with banks and access loans (through the NABARD linkage project). In the last two years, a record number of 80 groups availed of bank loans with each bank having increased their quota from the previous year. Having gone through the process with several groups now, both the organisation and the women involved are able to clearly articulate the process to other groups, NGOs and banks. Several NGOs and groups have visited to learn from this experiment.

    Today AAA and the experienced groups has a clear methodology of facilitating linkage with banks.

    Once the records are in order and the group does not already have a bank account it opens one. Records of group's savings and credit transactions are presented to the banks. A process of identifying consumption and credit needs and doing an informal cost-benefit analysis of economic activities. The actual drawing of a loan proposal and negotiation on size of loan follows.

    One of the biggest obstacles at this stage of negotiations between the bank and the SCG is the issue of the govt. IRDP loans and the defaulters in regard. Banks are unwilling to give a loan that will benefit women who are themselves defaulters or whose family members were loan defaulters.

    AAA has been able to argue that the loan would be a group loan and that the group would stand guarantee. The defaulters are examined on a case by case basis, and the extent of default is also taken into consideration.

    AAA has to play a strong bargaining role here. Once the loan is sanctioned constant supervision and monitoring is needed. AAA encourages groups to repay the loan in installments.

    AAA is going through an internal debate on the role that the federation and individual groups linked to it should play in mobilising and disbursing funds. AAA sees the federation playing the role of a financial intermediary where access to credit is limited either from banks or other agencies. In Gadchiroli however, given the success they have had so far in accessing funds from banks under the NABARD schemes for SHGs and the logistical problems that distances between villages create, AAA would rather pursue a strategy where individual groups enter into negotiations with local banks as the demand for credit increases.

    In the past few years, AAA has also refreshed its own views on what constitutes a good SHG and sustainable livelihood options with a series of workshops. It discovered that the strength of individual SHGs was derived from its participants and the group's consciousness as a women's group and not just as a savings and credit group. While identifying leadership qualities needed for SHGs some common characteristics came up. For example women who were interested in learning about social issues and who were capable of motivating other women in the group. Interestingly literacy and economic status figured nowhere.

    Workshops have also reiterated that livelihood options must be local. In order to understand the nature of economic activities in Gadchiroli better AAA began a study where each field worker collected information about rice production and marketing in at least 2 different villages.

    AAA was invited by NABARD to conduct two training camps for the promotion of SHG-Bank linkage in Gadchiroli. SHGs were invited on the basis of those that had completed regular savings for one year, conducted regular meetings, had initiated internal lending and had a record of proper payment. It will in the future continue to follow a project strategy that will focus on the cluster or Parisar approach. In order to make the SHG NABARD linkages work more smoothly AAA has played a primary role in the initiation of the Vidarbha Bachat Chalval-a platform for exchange between NGOs working on credit and livelihood issues in the region. One of its first activities was to begin a letter campaign from Vidarbha that supports changes in the SHG-Bank linkages to make it user friendly to women's groups.

    Several bankers at the Gadchiroli workshop held in May 1997, brought up procedural problems as a major obstacle to SHG lending. That many bankers tend to fall back on paperwork and procedural difficulties as a major obstacle, is an indication not so much of the problems related to procedures but of discomfort related to lending to informal groups.

    Where the NABARD SHG-Bank Linkage Scheme differs from the other schemes is that the banker is required to assess the group on financial terms rather than on social terms.

    NABARD guidelines indicate that as a thumb-rule, banks can use the amount of savings mobilised by the SHG to determine the amount of credit that the SHG can avail of.

    At the Gadchiroli meeting, bankers suggested that one way to address this problem would be for the SHG to operate its savings account in such a manner as to put on record the total amount of funds mobilised by it.

    Consequently, there is a need for a mechanism to assess the amount of savings mobilised by groups using a combination of the group's internal records and the bank records. Women are more comfortable and certainly better equipped to undertake those activities which they are familiar with, and at scales that they can manage. Women need assistance however to analyse the activity and its viability more realistically.

    Savings and credit groups are an extremely strategic tool of both economic and social empowerment of marginalised populations. The importance of the two facets of the SCG - social and economic - becomes apparent when one realises that providing access to credit is not sufficient, if the beneficiary cannot exercise control over its use and management.

    REBUILDING COMMUNITIES

    Experiences in a post-disaster project

    The Context
    Till a few years ago women in Latur and Osmanabad districts of Maharashtra or the Marathwada region, were not seen. They hardly ever stepped out of their houses. The region was no different from other Indian rural regions, where women spend their time mainly in the house, and they socialise with other women while collecting water, or going to the fields for work, or to the river for washing clothes. They have limited mobility. If at all they move out it is to the weekly market, or to visit their relatives during yearly festivals. They generally do not participate in decision-making on village development issues.

    But the Latur earthquake of 30th September 1993 which destroyed and damaged over two hundred thousand seriously damaged houses changed many things. It undid centuries of a system skewed against women and them to in developmental processes around them. They were given an opportunity to say in fashioning the course of their own lives and that of the settlements they lived in.

    The Government of Maharashtra became involved in post earthquake efforts from 1994 onwards through a massive rehabilitation programme supported by the international agencies including the World Bank. One of the largest component was the program to repair and strengthen approximately 200,000 houses in 1300 villages in the two districts. It was designed as "owner driven" and "community based" programme involving house owners and communities in self-help housing and reconstruction. This was the largest component of the 350 million dollar World Bank assisted rehabilitation exercise.

    It was the flurry of developmental and rehabilitation activities in the region and the government's decision to involve people that saw increased participation first by the communities concerned and then later by women. Women's groups as community actors made substantial contributions not only to the immediate task of restoring their homes but also proved adept at interfacing between government and beneficiaries, detecting and questioning corruption, disseminating information on earthquake resistant construction and making their own inputs on design.

    It was unusual during this period (1994-1998) to see women enter male dominated sectors like construction. Women learned masonry and proved they could build low cost appropriate building components like stabilised mud blocks, stone create blocks, double curved tiles, semi-precast joists. In fact in villages like Rajuri, Yedshi, Baspur, Sonegao Kangara and others, active women collectives have gone several steps further; demonstrating that they are capable implementing agencies for village development. They have successfully implement the non starter government sanitation scheme for one. Their efficiency forced the state government to recognise and transfer powers to women's groups as implementing agencies in the reconstruction and later in development efforts.


    Post Earthquake Scenario
    The government provided financial assistance to owners of damaged houses in the form of cash and materials (cement and steel.)The entitlements worth Rs 17,000 or $425 were distributed in three phases upon assessment of reconstruction progress. House owners were at the core of the effort to reconstruct houses. They were entirely responsible for the repair, reconstruction, strengthening of their houses. Technical assistance was provided by the engineer.

    The government and international agencies believed there was a need for an agency to actually facilitate participation of the affected communities in the rehabilitation effort. Since August 1994 Swayam Shikshan Prayog - SSP worked as Community Participation Consultant with the government at state and district level. SSP played a major role in translating the policy on the ground. It meant the creation of participatory mechanisms at the village level, establishing institutional fora at the district and state level, conducting awareness campaigns for general public and training programmes for elected representatives, officials and representatives from NGOs and community groups.

    Right from the start, SSP's main objective was to create space for peoples' participation, to build capacities of communities, particularly women's groups to participate in the reconstruction process, to create institutional channels of communication between communities and government, to promote alliances amongst actors involved in reconstruction and development.

    Drawing from its own positive experience in collaborating successfully with communities and rural women's groups earlier, SSP decided that such a large scale intervention could be feasible and sustainable in the long term only if local capacities were built and these were emulated by others through a network of groups. Merely, providing technical and financial assistance did not add up to the "owner driven process" as a research by the government.

    After the first round of surveys in the earthquake affected regions, after the first training sessions of masons and various meetings with villagers, engineers and government officials, it was clear to SSP that there were problems on the ground related to the management of the reconstruction programme and to the appropriate use of government instalments.

    Villagers were growing increasingly sceptical about building earthquake safe houses within the government grants. House owners lacked information about their entitlements and the government programme and thus were completely dependent on the engineers.

    In order to make some headway with the stated objectives SSP adopted the strategy of investing in a few demonstration villages which would for all practical purposes be sites of experimentation where people were enabled to develop their own solutions and innovations and to transmit these to neighbouring villages. Wadala and Masobabawadi, the first two villages stand as clear examples of how this could happen and eventually became a standard practise.

    When SSP began work on these two villages in February 1995 it sought to demonstrate to the government that people's initiatives had to be supported and information flows easy and accessible to all.

    People needed to know that earthquake safe houses were affordable and in everybody's reach. Thus there was a need to create demonstration sites where experimenting and training and collective effort would save resources. It also hoped to develop mechanisms for community participation and women's involvement in the reconstruction process. It also aimed to have a mechanism in place that would allow "scaling-up" and institutionalisation of any innovations emerging at the grassroots level but most importantly to create space for women to participate in the reconstruction process and future village development.

    Following the initial meetings between SSP and the beneficiaries from Wadala and Masobavadi, the two demonstration villages. Nearly fifty per cent of the house-owners in both villages came forward to start reconstructing their own houses and experimenting with collective strategies for purchasing building materials and managing the reconstruction process.

     

    Women take initiative
    At this stage people were organised in construction groups to motivate them to look for functional and creative uses of government funds. The field workers insisted on the appointment of women's representatives in each committee. At the same time, they insisted on activating women's collectives or Women's groups to support the activity of the women members of the committees. Recognising and making visible women's contribution to the construction process was a primary issue on SSP's agenda, thus, the particular attention paid to mobilising and activating their collectives.

    The high point of their involvement started with the mapping of their old houses and the planning of their would be reconstructed houses seeking a functional use of space. Very soon mapping emerged as a powerful participatory tool able to activate women's groups. According to a SSP field coordinator in Osmanabad women who had no experience of holding pen to paper learned to draw the plan of her new house as she would like to construct it. "We have never done anything like this before…Are you testing us?", they would ask initially. As they drew their old houses and plans for the new houses they learned to add more details. They were reminded by the field worker to make clear plans. The women agreed, saying, "After all, we are the ones who live in the house but no one ever asks our opinion".

    The next step for women's participation was to supervise the building site and make sure that masons were actually building what they had planned. Since women had attended meetings and training's of masons they knew about earthquake resistant technologies, so their supervision also ensured good standards for the quality of construction. A lot of them offered self-help labour. But more important, women went on to manage and supervise entire building sites, manage of the building site, making sure that labour, material, water and money were always available when needed. They also kept an account of money and materials coming into the site. Women used their practical sense and creativity and their knowledge of what is needed in the house to start introducing interesting innovations in their newly reconstructed houses.

    Mobilisation of women and the recognition and understanding of their role in the reconstruction process are probably among the most important achievements of this pilot intervention. Once this remarkable breakthrough had been made it was time for women to consolidate and make more significant and substantial contributions to the rehabilitation process and ensure that it was a long term sustainable effort for the holistic development of the village.

    Learning exchanges and use of participatory tools have shown themselves as powerful strategies to mobilise women and activate their collectives to begin empowering process

    Among the achievements and outputs from the experience in the two villages was the fact that a good number of them had an impact on government policies and the process of institutionalisation of people's initiatives. The government reviewed the system to release the instalments by shortening procedures and releasing joint cheques on the names of both husband and wife.

    What emerged from the two demonstration villages was the need for village representatives in charge of managing and supervising the reconstruction process in each settlement. The government appointed engineer was in charge of more than 300 beneficiaries across several villages and was not able to do justice to the job of monitoring reconstruction processes. A village based agency that would motivate communities to participate with the government rather than receive as passive beneficiaries, was needed.

     

    Women's groups as Catalysts

    At SSP's insistence a redesigned program was catalysed through the appointment of Community organisers(village based communicators who interfaced between the government and village communities) and Women's groups (womens collectives) as part of a deliberate Community Participation strategy linked to the PMU action plan. Community organisers and Women's groups took on the following tasks:

    Monitoring house owners

    Monitoring and supervision of quality of construction

    Liasoning with officials

    Between April 1996 to March 1998 three hundred community organisers were appointed by women's groups and village based organisations in the two districts. Each community organiser would supervise about 150 to 300 beneficiaries in each village.

    At the time of starting the Samvad Sahayaks/ Community Organisers scheme, majority of the women's groups were registered and yet they were not active in the reconstruction process. Before the earthquake they had participated in social and cultural activities, adult literacy, health programmes and income generating activity. The challenge was to activate the women's groups in not just the earthquake programme but also in village development programmes.

    The SSP team assisted women and communities to walk through the R&S program. The objective was to demonstrate how women's groups and communities can create an alternate community based programme that includes:

    Speeding up construction

    Manage and supervise construction

    Deal with government officials

    Involve women and houseowners in house planning

    Change government perceptions regarding people's ability to manage the construction process

    Appointed for a six month period community organisers in all villages began with a survey of houseowners. This assessment involved several visits by the community organisers and close interaction with the community organisers encouraged women from households to attend gram sabhas, understand and install functional design features in the house, mapping of the settlements, assess village resources and form small groups for the supervision of construction.

    SSP took several deliberate steps to support the women's groups to emerge as a key actor with the capacity to understand problems and find solutions at a community level.

    The partnership with communities started giving important outputs, when the government agreed to give more space to community participation and when both the government and village communities recognised the skills and capacities of women collectives and their potential to boost the reconstruction process and village development.

    A year after it start the Samvad Sahayak scheme was recognised as a major success. This is the year that witnessed a real scale up of field activities and initiatives, and the gradual transition from disaster to development.

    Undoubtedly government's official support and recognition of their roles gave women a sense of purpose. SSP's tools and methods too did the same. The following activities supported in negotiation with the government.

    Women though unused to the new sense of importance were very excited and were motivated enough to seek creative solutions and find new strategies. Usually this involved enlisting support from Women's groups . The whole collective was involved, and women took the new work very seriously, helping the house owners to properly plan their new houses, supervising the quality of masons' and they would use their new skills and knowledge of sources of information for the benefit of the whole village development (sanitation, forestry, schools etc.

    Strong in the support of their group women would publicly fight back and report cases of corruption to higher officials during monthly meetings. Data on the performance of community organisers show an incredible increase in the number of houses completed and in progression. Women community organisers and their mandals acquired a definite status at the village level. The incredible success of the scheme was clear and under everybody's eyes and none could deny their capacities anymore. This scheme really opened the doors to initiating long term development and placing women in the centre as stakeholders and promoters of change.

    The Samvad Sahayak scheme has empowered women and activated women's groups by making visible and making official their position, giving them a reason to come out of their homes, travel, contribute to family income.

    Starting from an initial hesitant involvement in tackling the immediate issue of housing in a post earthquake scenario women in the two districts have clearly grown to participate in development processes. This has energised all actors at village and taluka level and given women's groups the status of village development agencies. Till today women community organisers voluntarily keep working at issues of village development, creating new alliances with women collectives, self help groups, representatives of local self government (gram panchayat) and villagers. They contribute their skills, knowledge contacts to support and promote village development, encourage women's groups in taking on new ambitious projects, as it is the case for sanitation and for the construction of Mahiti Kendras or Community Information Centres.

    In the last year, women's groups have completed six kendras on a demonstration basis. These centres are a collaboration with Women's groups, NGOs, SSP and the district administration. These are physical spaces where women groups from a cluster of villages can go for training, meetings with government officials. Kendras also function as small mobile construction centres, producing low cost building components such as stone create blocks, stabilised mud blocks, cement tiles etc. Many centres have acquired land, mobilised community contribution. At the cluster of ten villages, they continue to network with other groups on issues of common concerns. All women's groups have formed savings and credit groups and linked to banks and they have grown to monitor schools, health centres and address such issues as drinking water management, natural resources etc. development creating new alliances.

    The Mahiti Kendras are a demonstration of community managed space. On one hand, for SSP and women's groups the Mahiti Kendras represent the institutionalisation of learning and capacity building efforts carried out in the reconstruction project. It is expected that visible information and training network linked to the Mahiti Kendras will expand the collaborative efforts between women's groups and the institutional actors.



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