Something wonderful happened today as I was interacting with 3 students from the University of Iowa – Ashley, Isha and Sarah who were here for a program at our Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies. Sarah wanted to know what was the most fulfilling achievement in the last 33 years since I founded SVYM. Till yesterday, I had always thought that my most memorable achievement was taking the issue of improper rehabilitation of tribals to the National Human Rights Commission and getting the Government of Karnataka to rehabilitate these 154-aggrieved indigenous tribals families on 500 acres of land at Basavanagiri in HD Kote taluk. But two very touching events happened yesterday that has left me overwhelmed and has made me revise my opinion.
With the Entrepreneurs The busy sales counter
I had gone to Jaganakotehadi to participate in the inauguration of Prakruthi Food Products. This is a micro-enterprise that is part of the Social Business experiment that GRAAM is undertaking. In association and with the support of SVYM, 20 women were locally mobilized and trained over the last 1 year in enterprise building, food technology and producing ragi-based food items. They were also given inputs in basic accounting and working together as a team. All these indigenous tribal women are in the age group of 20-35 and many of them are alumni of our tribal school at Hosahalli. This unit has been registered as a separate independent company owned by these 20 women and the food products will be sold under the Health-Enrich brand. What makes it special is that this unit is situated in a tribal colony and will be wholly owned and run by these women. Much water has actually flowed under the bridge in our attempt at engaging women in economically productive activities. We had earlier set up a bakery at Hosahalli and around 5 kadukuruba women from Kempanahadi led by Kali were employed here. The moment we insisted on transferring the ownership of this unit to the women, they stopped coming to work and the unit collapsed. A few years later, we made another attempt by setting up a garment unit. This unit did very well as long as SVYM was running it. It too collapsed the moment we transferred the responsibility of running it to the women themselves. Having been bitten twice, I was unsure of indulging myself again till I could understand how to make such activities a success. The last 20 years has also seen me evolve and my understanding of development has also matured. Today, I am confident that building human and social capital of people can lead to economic consequences. The last many years has seen us do exactly this. Slowly and deliberately the human and social capital of hundreds of tribal women was built and these chosen twenty women are from this cohort. While SVYM took on the responsibility of mobilizing the women, GRAAM undertook setting up the actual business and building the entrepreneurial spirit in these women. Despite all the challenges faced and negotiating the harsh realities of rural India and the barriers to business that it poses, we finally managed to have the unit inaugurated in the presence of hundreds of women representing several self-help groups. Watching these confident women market their tasty and well packaged products left me inspired and overwhelmed.
With young Mahadevi, the proud Karnataka forest department employee
As I was processing all these emotions and thoughts, Puttamma mentioned to me that Mahadevi, a forest guard at the forest gate nearby was waiting to meet me. I walked with her to meet Mahadevi who rushed out to greet me and gave me a very loving hug. My mind raced several years into the past and I was reminded of how her father had come running to my residence at Brahmagiri and asked me to come help Mahadevamma, a local mid-wife to attend to the labour of his pregnant wife. Taking this cute little bundle of joy in my arms and handing it to the nervous father is a sight that I can never forget. This little child who literally grew in front of my eyes was today explaining proudly to me that her work was widely appreciated in the forest department and that she was now due for promotion. She also told me how she was getting her sister trained in a beautician course in Mysore and how her younger brother was learning to drive a car. And she proudly showed me the scooter that she owned and was driving around. As I wished her well and bid her goodbye, Mahadevi asked me in her own childish way if she could give me another hug. That moment is something that I will cherish and remember for a long time
Development is indeed a long drawn and complex process and manifests itself in many ways. On one side, the Prakruthi Food Products unit was the culmination of a 2-decade effort and the beginning of something extraordinary. If this unit could survive and thrive, it could very well be the model that the Nation is looking for. I believe that India’s growth need not necessarily be driven by large urban based corporates, but should be by small micro economic clusters in rural India. Feeding the urban craze for millet based food products could very well be the driver of economic progress for rural India. On the personal level, it is people like Mahadevi who symbolize the growing empowerment of rural women. Not only was she moving up the socio-economic ladder, but was quietly participating in the larger construct of building a resurgent India. What more could somebody like me ask for and what could be more memorable and fulfilling than this!