iMahal Interview Series:
Chhaya Datar
June 12, 2000

iMahal: We would like you to share with us some of your recent projects.
Chhaya: I was involved in two action research projects before coming to the US. One action-research project, under my directorship, was a community consultancy project for Rural Piped Drinking Water, Sanitation and Higher Education project, implemented by the government of Maharashtra and assisted by the British Overseas Development Administration. The project covers two districts and 189 villages in Maharashtra. It started in 1992 and continued through 1999. The second project aims at testing a model developed for enhancing productivity, with sustainability and equability as underlying principles, in dry land area, with reference to access to natural resources to poor women. The project has policy implications, as it aims to improve bio-resource literacy among land-less and poor peasant women. They can become self sufficient in three to five years and will not ask for Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) for employment in the future. This experiment may suggest that any income generation or credit activity in the rural area has to be tied to some kind of bio-mass generation/utilization which will ensure that the principle of access to common property resources is followed rigorously.

iMahal: You have used the term, "action research." Can you please elaborate on what it means?
Chhaya: Simply put, it is conducting live experiments leading to a recommended course of action. Governments and other organizations, such as the World Bank, approach us for conducting research on various social issues. We conduct a pilot study and document our research and devise an action plan that can be implemented on a larger scale. Many of our action research projects are done in hopes of translating our recommendations into government policies. My work in particular deals with education problems that women in rural areas face.

iMahal: Would it then be fair for us to surmise that these projects propose using natural resources to help the poor, particularly women, become self-sufficient? Doesn't new technologies, becoming cheaper and more accessible by the day, have a role in improving the living standard?
Chhaya: Yes, you are correct in surmising that, but only for your first question. We have to conduct our experiments to see what works for us in India. India cannot follow the same path as the West did to achieve the same standard of living. The western route involved a great need for technology and machinery that is energy intensive. India does not have such resources. Mahatma Gandhi once said this about India, and it still holds today: "To achieve this standard of living for its population England had to colonize the entire earth. If India wants to achieve the same standard for its vast population one has to imagine how many earths it would require to colonize."

We must remember that what works for the US cannot work for India. In this sense you can say that globalization may be hurting third world countries. The US is a consumer liberation society. Trying to implement these efforts in India is causing more harm than good. We need to understand the environmental issues before we implement any advancing actions. Our goal is to improve living standards by using land-based activities with equitable use of water and wasteland, instead of using energy-intensive technology. The natural resources need to be used in a manner that meets the requirements of present generations and yet does not compromise the ability of future generations. We must also reverse the existing power relationship between different social categories, such as caste, class, and gender.

iMahal: We would be interested in learning more about a couple of successful projects, that are really helping the underprivileged women in India.
Chhaya: Okay, how about if I share two stories with you? One about micro-credit or Self Help Groups (SHG) as they are known in India. It shows that women are clearly "bankable." And, the other on "Banking on Bio-mass," as we say it. The land and nature can be harnessed to make a living.

iMahal: That sounds good. Let's begin with the micro-credit or SHG project.
Chhaya: Over the years micro-credit groups or Self Help Groups (SHG) have evolved under the auspices of the World Bank and other donor agencies. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and SEWA in India have proved that poor women are bankable. Asset creation with ownership of women has been the priority of SEWA. The organization believes that the major factor, that leads women into the cycle of poverty, is the lack of assets in their name. Our project had three main objectives. First, to show that SHGs can become more effective institutions for resource-poor women to improve their livelihood opportunities substantively in the long term. Second, to deal with the structural cause of the poverty. And finally, to look into the micro-credit groups of women.

This project involved 25 people, 10 hectare of land, and $5 lakhs [$500,000] donated by the Canadian Government. We worked out the economics of the amount of money that would be needed to pay for the land, the water, and the labor or the women working on this land. We planted 25 variety of trees, of which we now have about 1500 trees standing. The leaves would be used to help raise goats and the wood would be sold for fuel. The goal was that after four years, the revenue generated from the land would allow the women to be self-sufficient-they would pay for the rent, and have an asset with which they can go to the bank for loans, if needed.

With this group, we also established something known as micro-credit group savings. Under this program, each woman would contribute Rs. 10 [about 25 cents US] per month of their earnings to a group savings account. This way they would have a larger chunk of money from which they would loan among themselves when someone needed financial help, such as to buy medicines, etc.
   ... through this program, we were able to turn underprivileged women into entrepreneurs ...
This helped the woman to get out of the hands of the money-lenders, who would often charge unconscionably high interest rates. It also proved that these women are "bankable" - quite capable of being financially reliable. Through this program, we were able to turn underprivileged women into entrepreneurs. This project was one out of 100 similar projects conducted. We have analyzed all the projects and have written a report on this model, outlining the approach and its benefits, not only to these women but also the society at large. We have devised an action plan for implementation on a broader basis. We are trying to persuade the government to implement these recommendations as a policy.

The aim of our final report was to show how women are willing and capable to improve their household economy through land-based activities, apart from being wage laborers on the land owned by others. The women can now earn their livelihoods with dignity, as a part of self-employment rather than acting as a wage labor for others. Also, we want the implementation of funding policy on such projects that provide access to resources for poor women.

iMahal: This is quite an accomplishment! We wish you continued success with this effort. We would now like you to share with us the story on what you called "Banking on Bio-Mass."
Chhaya: Let me begin with a bit of the background. There are many problems with land reform in India. Many villages depend for water solely on the rain from the monsoon. Because of inadequate rain, the underground water table is usually quite low. Watershed projects have been developed to help raise the level of water table that would allow agriculture to occur. The watershed approach helps environment regeneration as has been shown in many programs. Dependence on the monsoon rain alone, restricts the availability of work for landless laborers to an average of 80-90 days per year. Many of these landless laborers are women. For the remainder of the year, men are forced to go out of the village to seek work, such as construction. Most women usually stay back in the village. With some additional work, these women get only about 150 days of work per year on average. Our goal was to find a way to make the women self-sufficient. We attempted to devise a plan that would provide water to the wastelands to allow for plantation to occur. Since it was wasteland, this land was not fertile, and you could only grow items such as bushes, timber and trees, the things that do not require a lot of water. This project was known as the Women Access to Natural Resources. It was an employment guaranteed scheme and was funded by the government. This project was developed for finding employment alternatives for women laborers in India.



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