March 8th is observed as the International Women’s day and many organizations celebrate it in many different ways. From seminars, to newspaper articles, to public rallies and conferences, the celebrations differ but the theme is common. It is a day to remember and reflect on not only the contributions of women to society but to also explore how one can work towards a society that sees both men and women as equal partners in progress. But for me the month of March was different and special. It not only gave me the opportunity to interact with some extraordinary women, but also gave me insights in appreciating the many challenges that they still face in this journey towards equality and partnership.
A quiet revolution in India’s rural hinterland…
Early in the month, I had been to Hyderabad, Telangana State and rural areas of Andhra Pradesh visiting the offices of Tata Business Support Services and the BPO’s that they run. I had the privilege of interacting with some of their women employees both at their center in Hyderabad and at one of their rural locations in Ethakota in AP. What impressed me was the confidence with which the women spoke and interacted. Two women, Ms Malleswari and Ms Nagaveni particularly impressed me. Coming from very modest families, these women had joined the BPO many years ago. Their growth was not just in their careers, but was evident in the way they communicated, interacted and shared their stories. Marriage was not a deterrent and both of them continued in their jobs after finding understanding grooms. The difference that this job in such an interior rural location has made to their lives is something that is seen to be believed. What is truly impressive is the faith and trust that this Tata Company had in them and their capacities. It does take a lot of courage of conviction to set up a business entity in India’s rural hinterland. What left me wonder struck was also the fact that this center was not only profitable but also had very low error rates in their business transactions. I have repeatedly written about how rural India needs to jump onto the economic bandwagon that is urban driven and here was a real-life example of it not only working but also making a difference in the lives of hundreds of young men and women.
The next week was my visit to Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. Though the journey from Mysore was long, I was happy that I would be visiting a location that Mr J N Tata had conceived. The treat for me was to see a copy of the original letter written by J N Tata to Swami Vivekananda asking him to head the Indian Institute of Science. Though J N Tata had passed away before the first batch of steel could roll out of this mill, his dream of a world class Industry with a humane outlook towards all its stakeholders was made into a reality by his son Sir Dorabji. I was here to visit the social activities that the Tata Steel undertake in the area.
From a school dropout to a Education minister…
My visit to a rural bridge school stands out from amongst the many locations that I could visit. It was here that I met with 11-year-old Duli Besra, a Santhali tribal girl who impressed me with the quiet confidence with which she was engaging me in a conversation in English. And to think that this girl could hardly speak any Hindi just 6 months ago was indeed difficult to believe, but reflected the hard work of the 5 teachers, most of whom were young and educated tribal women from the same area. This little girl was telling me how she was one amongst 5 siblings, how she had to drop out of school in the second grade, and the problems faced by her family because of her alcoholic father. Her life after she grew up would have been no different from that of her mother but for the fact that the outreach staff of the CSR team of Tata Steel touched her life. They motivated her family to admit her to the residential bridge school for tribal school dropouts. She proudly told me that she was the ‘Education Minister’ for her school and was principally mandated to ensure that all the children learnt well. In her own sweet way she shared her dream of wanting to become a ‘wildlife biologist’ after she grew up. I was wondering if we would have noticed it or batted a eyelid if a urban child coming from a well endowed and educated family had said this; but for a child of the forest with no inter-generational equity or social capital to dream of, this was no mean feat. This clearly reflected the years of hard work that hundreds of committed people from Tata Steel had put in.
From Self Help to making a business of development…
I also met with around 20 women members of a federation of self help groups. These women were proudly sharing with me the fact that they were second-generation members of their groups and how their mother-in-laws would object if they did not participate and continue the tradition of self help and micro finance. One women whispered how she was now earning not less than Rs 15000 per month and how her children were being educated in a well known local private school. I asked another woman if her husband objected to her participating in the Groups activities and she very emphatically told me that he wouldn’t dare to, as she was now the principal wage earner for her family. They also explained how they had taken a contract from Tata Steel to develop 49 farm ponds in the area. These tribal women with hardly any formal schooling were explaining to me concepts that needed knowledge of basic engineering, measurements, costing, accounting and business management. This was empowered human capital that had also built up enormous social capital through the Self Help movement and the accumulated capital of the Tata’s. The economic consequences that they were reaping is astounding. The had now gone beyond making the traditional masala powders, papads and pickles (which they continue to do so) and had moved into the ‘business of development’ itself.
This opportunity to be a witness and to listen to the inspiring narratives of such extraordinary women was possibly the best way that i could celebrate not just the International Women’s day, but of womanhood in action itself. Now, i can see hope for not just Indian society, but for the world at large.