Grassroots , Gram Kosh & SHGs
SSVK has been working with the most depressed sections of the rural society for their all round development and mainstreaming. SSVK has been working to empower the most downtrodden and marginalised people, especially women, in one of India's poorest states, Bihar. SSVK's development work aims to build assets, reduce poverty, increase capacity for new livelihoods, strengthen local democracy and reduce injustice. SSVK, and its community network Lok Shakti Sangathan (LSS), work intensively with socially and economically depressed rural communities, particularly the Dalits, in Madhubani, Madhepura, Saharsa, Darbhanga and Supaul districts. Over the years the organization has geographically extended its coverage around mobilisation of identical target groups on right based issues to 14 other districts of Bihar(India).
SSVK’s operational area counts amongst one of the most poverty endemic pockets of North Bihar. Within this operational context it works with the most depressed communities with a historical legacy of marginalization which is reflected even in spatial terms as they reside on the periphery of the settlements in a hamlet at some distance from the village. Embedded structural inequity (class and caste) in a context of extreme ecological vulnerability (recurrent floods) has been responsible for their extreme poverty by limiting their access to, and control over, assets, education, health care and other constitutionally ordained entitlements. The communities tend to depend on agricultural wages or casual non-farm jobs for income, as a large percentage are landless, owning, if any, lower quality livestock. Even such opportunities are rendered scarce by the recurrent floods and the poor evolution of the secondary and tertiary sectors in the region forcing men to depend on seasonal migration to bigger cities or other states to secure their livelihood. Even such opportunities fail to meet their existential needs forcing them to take recourse to moneylenders who charge usurious rates of interest. Dominant social forces coupled with the drudgery entailed in meeting survival needs hardly allow these communities to organise and to resort to development initiatives collectively. Fatalism is a predominant characteristic of these communities who look upon their present state as a fate ordained for them by some superior force which in turn hinders any conscious building of social capital. Thus class and caste characteristics get strongly associated with lack of opportunities with scheduled castes being thrice as poor when compared with upper castes. Lack of education, poor health, inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation and poor hygienic conditions get further perpetuated by these high levels of poverty.
Given the profile of its target group, a core thrust area of the organisation has been its involvement with grassroots mobilisation, organisation, and facilitating mass activities to enable the most marginalised sections of society [the dalits (the scheduled castes) in particular] to access their rights and entitlements. In its perception the way to effective empowerment is one hinging on and oriented towards evolving autonomous community based organisations endowed with capabilities required for the actualisation of a spirit of self-determination and self-reliance. The organisation’s approach received a major thrust in the direction of activism through its extensive capacity building at the grassroots geared towards creation of a trained and informed pool of social animators, mostly from its target community. A significant fall out of this intervention has been the evolution of a strategic network of community based organisations (CBOs), under the banner of Lok Shakti Sangathan, a frontal organisation with an avowed aim to facilitate issue based interventions from time to time and advocate for desired changes in the policy framework. This network, now intensively spread over 1399 villages of Madhubani, Saharsa, Madhepura, Supaul and Darbhanga Districts and with a growing presence in 14 other districts (310 villages) of Bihar, has contributed greatly towards enhancing the self-esteem and self-worth of these families. Strategies deployed for mobilisation involve intensive animation inputs at the village level, periodic larger meets on entitlements related issues and mass contact programmes through `Padyatras”. Protest strategies involve petitioning, demonstrations, sit ins and legal redressal.
At the core of SSVK’s successful mobilisational initiative has been the strategically conceived “Gram Kosh” (a fund base at the community level created with contributions made by the community members themselves). Working with communities on the brink of survival with only indebtedness to fall back upon, SSVK realized rather early in its journey that harnessing and holding together the social capital inhering in these communities was only possible if they could have economic teeth of their own. Otherwise, the over powering poverty would hurl them back into the insular isolation of making both ends meet for their respective families. The idea of building their own reserve of funds through making small savings on a regular basis from whatever little they earned was mooted. Awareness drives were carried out to convince the target group members about the utility of this initiative. Special emphasis was laid on the fact that such a contributory fund would enable them to have their own reserve of funds, something they could immediately dig into in their moments of crisis without having to take recourse to the moneylender. As this was their own fund, it was important that they returned the borrowed amount at a premium so that their fund base could grow.
A small beginning was made from five villages of Lakhnaur Block of Madhubani District in the early nineties with the community members from these villages agreeing to make a regular monthly contribution of Rs 5/-. Members who could not make even this small contribution were given the option of contributing in kind in the form of grain with the rider that sixty percent of the annual contribution had to be in cash and the balance forty percent in grain. However, in practice these savings did not come on a monthly basis but as and when they could make this contribution. Care was taken to ensure that whenever a member felt capable to make the contribution, he or she cleared all the contribution due from him. Community members mutually agreed to levy a monthly interest of 2 % on the borrowers.
The movement for gram kosh gradually picked up as word spread about the benefits it brought to the communities practicing it. Early instances of perceived benefits had to do with the kosh coming in handy for meeting health contingencies and food security needs and for financing the travel of the migrants. As he movement spread and the fund base deepened, the usage of the fund also diversified. Groups with a sizeable fund base used it as a fall back mechanism in the struggles they waged for just wages and for pond and land related rights.
Over the years it became obligatory for the CBOs wanting to come under the banner of Community Organisations network “Lok Shakti Sangathan” to have a gram kosh of their own. Currently gram kosh is an essential constituent of the CBOs in all the 1709 villages spread over 18 districts which have come to be under the banner of Lok Shakti Sangathan. Approximately, 162’355 families & population cover approx- 8 Lacks stand mobilised under this initiative. It has contributed greatly towards enhancing the self-esteem and self-worth of these families.
As on date the Lok Shakti Sangathan (LSS) has a collectively generated internal resource pool of approximately Rs 1,87,80’150/- (Rupees One Crore eighty seven lakhs eighty thousand one hundred and fifty only). It has not only reduced the dependence of its target group members on the local money lenders but also enabled them to sustain many a peaceful struggle for their rights. The contribution of gram kosh has been in no small measure in enabling the LSS members to successfully peaceful struggle for laying claim to 947 acres of land and 52 acres ponds of 197 acres have been distributed and claimed by the poor and marginal people in the Kamla & Kosi region.1215 acres of land is in the process of possetion. Thanks to Gram Kosh the peaceful struggle for laying claim to another 1215 acres of land and pond area continues.
In order to further strengthen the fund base of the gram kosh as well as create income earning opportunities of its target group members SSVK has over the past couple of years also been encouraging its community based organisations to additionally get organised into self help groups of 10 members each so that they can partake the benefits of savings and credit operations being supported by the government, commercial banks, micro finance institutions and other agencies supporting such an initiative.
Earlier all the target group members were organized into a tola level organisation with a tola level savings fund called gram kosh for addressing the contingent and strategic needs of the target group members. Now in tolas where SHGs have come up, the basic unit of organisation at the tola level is the self help group. In order to keep the integrity of the existing CBOs, largely organised around entitlement issues, an organisational design has been envisaged which does not bifurcate the entitlement and the more sectoral initiatives as two different domains of management. Instead there is an apex body at the tola level called the village development committee (VDC) which is in charge of implementing and managing the savings and credit component in addition to its role of representing and working on other issues of concern to the CBOs. Its role with regards to the savings and credit initiative ranges from prioritisation of loanees to appraisal and approval of loan applications to disbursement of funds and keeping track of repayments and defaults, to working out a consensus on the interest rate to be charged and the amount to be charged as mandatory contribution from each beneficiary towards the gram kosh. Through this organisational design, SSVK has been able to maintain a balance between its overall thrust of continuing to work in a rights mode as well as sectorally respond to the developmental needs of its target group.