By Chitra Ahanthem:
As is happening in other parts of India, Manipur also has its plethora of self help groups (SHGs), which are instituted through NGOs working in various sectors. SHGs as the name indicates is a support group wherein the members of the group help each other through various mechanisms like organizing prayer meetings, charity drives, forging support systems for people who have gone through difficult circumstances: the loss of a loved one, physical handicaps, addictions and the like. However, most activities mentioned here are seen in urban areas and in Manipur, SHGs are often the domain of the NGO sector and are almost always a group of about 20-25 women who have availed service delivery from that particular NGO. The members often contribute a certain amount of money as per the group decision at time intervals: weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The amount thus collected is used according to the needs of the group members with the lowest rate of interest. But apart from the idea of keeping a fund corpus for needs of the group members, SHGs foster meetings among like-minded group members, thereby facilitating an emotional support system for people who often have no other means: widows, sex workers, drug users.
Having worked in the NGO sector for over ten years and seen a variety of NGOS go through their stumbling infancy period to them taking some steps; one cannot help make certain observations. Often, family members object to widows going of the house even though they won’t come forward to helping them financially and it often takes a long process to convince family members that they should indeed allow the women in the family (widows specifically) to step out of the house and get basic trainings on SHG formation, getting some skills to eke a living etc. Once the SHG comes through from this phase, it is a beautiful exercise to see women bonding, reflecting and sharing common pain. With time, one gets to see these same women who have been beaten by the vagaries of life get out of their own ‘victimhood’ and rally together to address issues faced by other women outside of their own group as well. This often heralds in a sense, a political awakening where they question their nature of existence and demand what is rightfully theirs.
Yet, most SHGs are woefully straight jacketed and cannot make much difference in the lives of the women apart from giving them a platform for emotional support and taking them towards the beginning of ‘empowerment’. ‘Beginning’ because almost all SHGs that one sees in Manipur are propped up by NGOs and have not managed to sustain themselves on their own. There is also the larger issue of whether the NGOs treat them as ‘clients’ or as equal citizens of a society, for there is a major difference between the two. In the case of the former, SHG members are to be given help only till the time there is project funding and that such help is centered around what the NGOs deign best: trainings for embroidery, making decoration items, making pickles and aggarbattis. Considering them as equal citizens on the other hand would mean asking the women in the first place what they want to take up. More often than not, the training given to SHG members and the subsequent activities that are encouraged by their parent NGOs not only fall into gender stereo-types where women are supposed to only do embroidery, food preservation etc but ends up adding more physical burden on them as it is only women who do house-hold work within their own homes.
The death knell of most SHGs in the state is also to do with the fact that almost all SHGs come out with exactly the same items to sell in the small market that the state has. Added to this is the lack of packing and marketing skills and a failure to be able to take in bulk product orders. Compare this with the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, which started in the year 1959 with a seed capital of Rs. 80 but today has an annual turnover of around Rs. 500 crore with Rs. 250 crore in exports and providing employment to around 42,000 employees. This group which is behind a most popular consumer product, Lijjat Papad is considered as one of the most remarkable entrepreneurial initiatives by women that is identified with female empowerment in India.
What stood out of the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad enterprise with a meager amount of Rs.80 when it started out with 7 semi literate Gujarati women was their understanding of market demand and the nature of buying and selling. Instead of going door-to-door sales, they concentrated on bulk buyers and ensured that orders were honoured. Thus, it was only natural that the group grew to the status of a Co-operative Society with major turn-over of income and profit. Contrast this with Manipur where at any given Mela, one sees the same product thereby failing to make earnings that even out investments for the SHG members. There needs to be a serious strategy re-think in terms of approaches for SHG functioning and their survival as independent and thriving units.