From all the adversities that the global COVID-19 pandemic brought upon us, the marginalized communities remained the most severely affected. With many families losing their lives and livelihoods, their living conditions deteriorated. It meant a bleak future for the ones residing in the remote villages without opportunities to develop or get back on their feet.
Despite the desolation, the ladies of Amgachia village, Barrackpore, West Bengal have shown their determination to better their and their family’s conditions as they joined hands with the local SBSS teams working among them.
Ms. Suparna Das, a housewife who was severely affected during the pandemic shares her story of how she found new hope through her SHG Alho.
Suparana lives with a family of 5 members. Her husband, Soumitra Das is a cycle rickshaw puller. In the immense heat and humidity of Bengal, he pulls with all his might to put food on the table. With a soft twinkle in her eyes, 5-year-old Srishti (named changed) waits for her father every day to come back home and after a short rest, takes her out for candies and spends time with her. While Suparna herself toils away to complete the household chores and often attends to creditors visiting her frequently.
This was a scene from the daily routine of Suparna. During the pandemic, the family faced an immense financial crisis and even had to starve for some days as the regular source of income came to a standstill with Soumitra being the only earning source of the family. Before the pandemic, her husband used to earn 500/- rupees per day by transporting vegetables, and raw materials like cement and bricks to the market and also ferrying people from one place to another in his rickshaw. But during the COVID-19 lockdown, almost all these activities came to a halt. Due to restrictions on transportation and curfews, the local authorities had become very strict and everyone required permission to ply goods, etc. Suddenly Suparna’s family saw no income and expenditures rising like mercury. Empty boxes, pots, and pans dangled in the house with nothing to cook for 2-3 days at a stretch. More often than not, surviving only on muri (rice puffs) and cha (tea) for long periods.
Almost on the verge of losing hope and distress, Suparna was determined to undertake some action herself for her family’s survival. During this time, the CNI SBSS Barrackpore project team was sporadically visiting the village amidst the pandemic to know how the community was doing and to conduct relief work whenever the Government relaxed restrictions. The team was also helping families link up with special active Government schemes to assist people in the pandemic. The women were advised to continue to be part of their SHGs so that they could opt for loans whenever the banks invited them.
For Suparna, learning about these facilities was not something new, but she had never been a part of this movement of economic empowerment for women. After long and desperate discussions with the Barrackpore team, Suparna connected with SHG Alho which helped her get a loan of Rs. 30,000. She used the money to buy rations, medicines, and other essential items and additionally admitted her daughter to a Missionary school. She was also made aware and linked up with government schemes like Lakshmi Bhandar, Swasthya Sathi Card, etc.
Gradually, she was also advised to develop a Nutrition Garden in her backyard with the initial support provided by CNI SBSS. She underwent training and dedicated a small portion of her land to planting different perennial vegetables and fruits. In a few months, she got good produce. She and her family consumed a portion of the vegetables and all the excess was bundled up to sell in the local vegetable mart in the village. With time, all her summer vegetables began to sell well in the market. At present, Suparna can earn Rs.1200-1500 per week. Her husband also began getting hired for transportation within the village and nearby suburban areas through which he can earn Rs.400 per day.
Another positive change that happened was her husband, who discouraged her initially, now offers help when possible, encouraging her to supplement the household income. Her husband also assists her, at times, to transport the vegetables to the market for selling and occasionally sells them on his rickshaw. She also involves her daughter in gardening to learn and they are gladly doing this as a family activity.
With the money she earned, she began saving through her SHG. She has now repaid her previous loan and has applied for a higher loan of Rs.50,000/- for initiating the business of growing fish in the pukur (pond) in her courtyard. She also took part in the nutrition campaigns held in her village and gained strength from her SHG and other community women already part of CNI SBSS initiatives in the past.
Like many other women in Amgachhia village, Suparna was able to reap the benefits of being part of SHG and was able to stabilize the household income. In the future, she wants to learn more about growing the fish business as well as better marketing for her vegetables, in case she plans to expand. This is because forming SHGs at the village level is common but generating and sustaining self-employment remains a challenge for women who lack access to different types of markets. She also has a desire to buy an auto for her husband which would be more beneficial to reach faraway markets with their home produce.
In a time like the pandemic, the togetherness and small community movements have strengthened millions of households in India. In the rural areas of West Bengal, apart from addressing financial needs and economic support, SHG also provides social bonding among the members by sharing their problems and helping each other in times of need. This is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SHGs also became an asset for the village in supporting the existing institutions like the Church, village authorities, and local institutions to create awareness in the community on COVID-19 precautions, vaccination, and better nutrition and health through campaigns and meetings.