Neighbours and friends

Print edition : June 08, 2002

Its name is a tongue-twister - Izhavanthuruthy. But many parts of this panchayat, with its typically rural Malappuram milieu, are now conveniently known as Ward 13, having recently been 'promoted' to be part of Ponnani municipality. More significant is the fact that the people of this panchayat can now enjoy the benefits of being part of an urban body where Kudumbashree activities have been going on for some time, and where the formation of neighbourhood groups (NHGs) of women is suddenly receiving a boost.

APRIL 24, 2002, 4-30 p.m: The smell of a fresh harvest hangs thickly in the air. On the cool verandah of one of the houses adjoining a paddyfield, a neighbourhood group is about to be formed. The trickle of women, some in traditional Muslim attire, started more than an hour ago. The Kudumbashree representatives from the municipality, including the ward councillor and the community organiser finally arrive. "We have been here since three o'clock," one of the elderly women point out, accusingly. The community organiser smiles: "You were supposed to be here by two, you came at three. That is why we decided to come at four." There is a burst of laughter all around.

The mood is set for Shameer, the community organiser and a key grassroot-level worker of Kudumbashree, to address the group: "You are here to become members of a family that will try to eliminate poverty through your own efforts. But what is poverty, really? You would say it is not having any money to make a living. But it is not poverty of income alone that we are talking about here. If you do not have a well in your area, you suffer from poverty of a well. If you do not have a road, you have poverty of a road. Having no sanitary latrine, having no access to educational or health facilities, having no work... all this is poverty. And that is why you are all here at this 'ayalkkoottam' (the Malayalam equivalent for NHG). You must all try and make this a success."

By now the 40-odd women, united in their poverty and differing only in their religious and community denominations, are jostling for space on the tiny verandah, under the distant but watchful eyes of some of the locality's men. "But now we need volunteers from among you women - remember, there will be no men in this ayalkoottam. Who would you like to represent you - to be the president and the secretary of this group?'' asks Shameer.

Two hands tentatively go up, after much hesitation and prompting. Reena and Radha, "known to all, acceptable to all", have just taken the initiative to hold the first public office of their lives. Three more - Baby, Parvathy and Dakshayani, similarly become Community Volunteers for Health, Income Generation and Infrastructure. A "Community Finance Manager" is to be elected later.

Thomas Vaidyan, Project Officer for Kudumbashree in Ponnani municipality, asks the three to give a name to their ayalkoottam, so that they can have an identity of their own. 'Surya'... 'Udaya Surya'... they suggest But other groups have clearly taken these names. "Navodhanam" (Reformation), the new president suggests. Finally, they agree on 'Navodaya'.

Shameer continues his instructions: "You must meet regularly now, to discuss your problems. Write them down in the minutes book, and let us know about them. All of you must start saving some money from now on and bring it to the meeting... Bring a small amount every week. It can be anything from Rs. 5 to Rs. 50. Now, don't start thinking that the money is for us officials. It is for you. We will put it in the bank, in the name of your ayalkoottam, 'Navodaya'. You must realise that other groups are far ahead of you. There are NHGs in Kerala which have Rs. 5 lakhs as savings. And why do we save collectively? Until now when you need some money for an emergency, you had to ask your neighbours or that cut-throat moneylender who charges you Rs.28 for every Rs.100. That is why we are starting a thrift. If one of you, say Parvathy, has put Rs.500 into the collective fund in six months, she will be eligible to get three times that amount as loan from the bank. Do you think this is good?" Like school children, they reply: "It is good."

Shameer goes on: "So now you must start a thrift. The president and the secretary will collect it from you and keep accounts - we will teach them how to do that. You must also identify what needs to be done in your area and do them in the order of priority - like, should you dig a well first or do you need a road immediately? It will be your decision and you will implement it on your own, with the municipality's help. All members of this ayalkoottam, irrespective of caste and creed, are members of a family. Collection of thrift should take place at weekly meetings alone. You should not catch the secretary on the road and say: here, keep this Rs. 5, it is my thrift contribution. All transactions should be at the meetings. This is a programme where you yourself will eradicate poverty from your lives."

Shameer then tests the cohesiveness of the new group with a simple question: "You may all need to take a loan. There may not be enough savings in the bank to satisfy all. How do you then decide who should get a loan first? For example, if Parvathy's child is suddenly ill, she may want an emergency loan. But Fathima, here, may want to buy a pressure cooker. What will the ayalkoottam decide?"

An elderly Muslim woman sitting in the corner does not hesitate even for a moment. "What is the doubt? Parvathy should get the loan. Fathima can buy her pressure cooker later."

For the next half an hour, other officials speak about opportunities awaiting the women; the care they should take in handling their savings and in distributing loans; how their NHG should also become a forum to discuss their problems and solve them on their own through mutual cooperation; and why, men, who had so far taken decisions on their behalf, had no role in the weekly meetings or its decisions.

It is then time for the newly elected secretary to weave her way through the gathering and deliver her maiden speech. "I register my sincere thanks to all those who have come here. The meeting is closed," she says.

The Navodaya NHG of Ponnani shall meet every Sunday - despite the lure of prime-time television.

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