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A role model from a remote village

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

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The story of Hirabaiben of the Siddi community in Gujarat offers the hope that development initiatives can emerge from underprivileged sections of society.

I VIVIDLY remember the `soul searching' I indulged in with my fellow scientists, sitting in the `state of the art' control room of the particle accelerator (Pelletron) at the Nuclear Science Centre, New Delhi. Having just made it into the civil services, one was at a crossroads, wondering whether to continue with the interesting and stimulating career as a scientist or to join the civil service. After long hours of deliberations with family and friends, the fact that emerged as the clincher was that a career in the civil services would offer an opportunity to intervene and make a considerable difference to what existed, besides a variety of experiences. This has indeed come true. Each posting has virtually been a different avatar. Probably being an `incorrigible enthusiast', I continue to have more positive experiences. Here is one of those learning experiences from a rather unexpected corner.

In the middle of nowhere is Jaywanti village. In the heart of the Gir forest, the only natural habitat of the Asiatic lion, exists the Siddi community. The Siddis are primarily of African Negroid origin and were brought to India as slaves by the Nawab of Junagadh, 400 years ago. They are predominantly an underprivileged lot - socially, economically and politically. Literacy has been abysmally low in this community. They are largely concentrated in the Jambur and Shirvan settlements of Talala taluk in Junagadh district. Apart from Gujarat, the Siddis are present, in negligible numbers, in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Diu. It is in such `back of beyond' settings that I once ended up visiting a school, all bleary eyed, tired, towards the end of a long day and a long road journey. But then what I saw infused fresh energy into me. I was awestruck by the incredibly clean school premises with well-maintained gardens and orchards.

Towards the end of the programme, after all the dignitaries had spoken, Hirbaiben, an unlettered middle-aged Siddi woman boldly, strode up to the podium and sought permission to speak. Despite being late in the day (night actually!), there was something about her that left me entranced and with no choice but to give her the nod to go ahead. Orphaned at a young age she was brought up by her grandmother and was given three important lessons: not to steal, not to get involved in vices, and to feed her children with rightfully earned food. Her speech was not in chaste Gujarati; nor was it sophisticated or peppered with idioms. It was plain, direct and yet had a strong impact as she passionately spoke about the Mahila Vikas Mandal (MVM), a women's development group. She narrated how she motivated Siddi women in other villages and organised more than 100 women from six villages to form several such groups.

"Out here, ours is the only village where we are concerned about children's education and their future," she said in simple Gujarati, forcefully waving her hand. Realising that lack of education was a major problem for the members of her community, she met and convinced officials, right up to the district headquarters and had a balvadi started in her village. She persuaded the people of her village to use a part of the public land for this purpose, instead of using it for private housing. Today children of the village receive basic education at this centre along with a meal!

Siddis, primarily because of their very low earnings, find it very difficult to have any savings or to borrow money from moneylenders. Hirbaiben encouraged the women's group members to save on a monthly basis. Now, the groups extend credit to its members, are linked to a bank for their credit needs and enjoy a good reputation with the credit agencies.

A major accomplishment of this determined woman has been to ensure income generation for the members of the MVM, through the manufacture and sale of organic manure branded Panchtatva. Starting with five women, this MVM sold 165 bags (8,250 kg) in the year 2000 making a profit of Rs.11,300. This steadily rose to 1,180 bags (59,000 kg), fetching a net profit of Rs.85,000 with 16 women involved in the manufacturing activity. This goes to show that women from such backward sections can prepare a high-quality product that could compete in the open market. AKRSP (Aga Khan Rural Support Programme), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), has played a key role in this activity.

It was gratifying to hear that Hirbaiben was among 32 laureates selected to receive the `the prize for women's creativity in rural life, 2002', instituted by the Women's World Summit Foundation. "I felt that the prize money of $500 that I received would be better used for the development of the children - I have donated all this money to the balwadi run by MVM," said the courageous lady, with a sparkle in her eyes. No wonder she has become a role model and inspiration for members of her community. People address her as sarpanch even though she lost the elections to that post. Vivekananda has said, "No one ever succeeded in keeping society in good humour and at the same time did great work. One must work as the dictate comes from within, and then if it is right and good, society is bound to veer around, perhaps centuries after one is dead and gone."

If one were to look around, there are many underprivileged and backward groups struggling at the fringe of development. And there are NGOs of all shades dotting the landscape. Support by dedicated NGOs in the form of spotting extraordinary people, building their capabilities and taking them on exposure visits, provide the necessary inputs to such strong visionaries and motivators like Hirbaiben from within the community, to be the spark that would light up the development flame and transform the quality of life.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 31, 2003.)

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