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Following the introduction to my new family, I was to start my internship with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) the next day. Abi, my co-intern, and I arrived in good spirits, ready for organizational integration. We immediately set out with Sateesh, who is responsible for the Agoli Block Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs), to visit the Vishnu Nagar and Jashti villages. Our mode of transportation was an open-door jeep, which lacked seatbelts, but came fully equipped with a driver who had relinquished any sense of danger probably at birth. For anyone who has not traveled by open-air vehicle through a desert before, the best way to simulate the experience would be to turn on your hair drier and blast your face for two hours.
The Marwar region, located in the western portion of Rajasthan, occupies areas of the Northwestern Thorn Scrub Forest and the Thar Desert. It is known as an arid and inhospitable region, yet paradoxically is the most densely populated desert in the world. Climatologists typically define a desert as having an annual rainfall of 250 mm or less; the Marwar region receives somewhere between 100 to 500 mm. To make matters worse, its water table is falling at around 1 to 2 m each year, and up to 5 m in some areas.
Enter JBF, its genesis is based on the principle of developing “a persuasive alliance with the people of Marwar to make the region water secure.” Their modus operandi is to educate and mobilize rural communities around water issues, such that by providing them with financial support and engineering expertise, disadvantaged communities can empower themselves to achieve local water sustainability. JBF’s straightaway success encouraged generous grants from foreign development agencies, which has been used to employ over 100 people and facilitate the installation of over 250 projects in only five years.
Ironically, our project has little to do with JBF’s core operations; rather, we have been instructed to develop a system for encouraging micro-enterprise businesses within their SHGs. These groups are bodies designed to build social and financial capital in disadvantaged communities; they have been integral to the microfinance movement within India since the 1980’s. Originally, they were established to allow the poor access to basic monetary systems, including savings and credit, by dispersing the risk amongst many women. Over time, they have grown into social empowerment tools for their members, and they are currently regarded as mechanisms which could facilitate diversification vis-à-vis alternative livelihoods and income generating activities (ALIGA). JBF has been establishing SHGs for about two years and presently operate a total of 54 groups. Predictably however, they are unsophisticated and wanting in comparison to their counterparts to the South, who have been operating in earnest for over 15. Both Vishnu Nagar and Jashti are among the A grade JBF SHGs, yet nonetheless appear woefully behind the progress in the rest of India.
However, even possessing this knowledge cannot dampen the sense of advancement, ambition and optimism radiating from the women within these groups. Not all possess this glow, but presumably the ones that do will pass it on to those yet to fully comprehend their own potential. The Vishnu Nagar women have recently bought a mechanised flour mill for the bajra (a grain similar to, but coarser than wheat) grown in their fields. It allays the necessity of traveling four km by foot to purchase flour from Agoli; minuscule, but demonstrative progress.
The Jashti women have adapted the SHG model to their pre-existing wholesale embroidery business. Some women in the group have been practicing their craft for 25 years or more. The results are impressive and symbolically Indian. Upon asking one of the men if he has noticed any changes in his wife Meenakshi since the establishment of the group, he tersely replies “she has become more talkative,” which spawns an eruption of laughter from the group and one abashed lady. Although a couple questions later, her self-confidence replenished, she brazenly elucidates her desire “to be the owner of a shop at the Mehrangarh fort [in Jodhpur]” … and moreover, to have husband work for her! In the end, she gets the last laugh.
Our task at hand appears overwhelming at this stage of the internship. However, hopefully by the time we have crossed the last “t’s” and dotted the last “i’s”, some of these women will be on their way to achieving their dreams and escaping the poverty trap.