When we ask who really fails when the development sector fails? Grassroot champions Minaben Soni, Rajaratna, Sunitha Meti, Sahira, and Girija Keri came together to talk about their experience from the ground, moderated by SiraZ Hirani
SiraZ Hirani from Mahila Housing Sewa Trust, Gujarat, was the moderator of a session that was quite unique.
“We have all been listening to failure stories from the perspective of donors, practitioners and academics but according to me, if we really want to understand the failure, and we want to learn from it and improve our systems, it is important that we start looking from the end-user or beneficiaries point of view.”
He introduced the first speaker, Minaben Soni from Ahmedabad, a trustee of the Mahila Housing Trust, who works with many communities at the grassroots level. “When MHT approached me for the first time, I took the liberty of shutting the door in their face. The place where we were staying lacked several basic amenities. We had severe water supply issues and there was an instance where we had paid the money but still did not get water. I told them that several such people had approached already and there was no result whatsoever. I used to live in a city. Yet, I did not know whom to approach for a resolution of the water issue. That is when I challenged that if they were right, they’d take me to the corporator and I’d directly address my issues.”
Today, Minaben acts as a catalyst between the government and the people. “People are not able to access many facilities due to the lack of documentation or the failure to produce accurate documents. That is where we come into the picture, we get people registered to access their entitlements and government services. However, sometimes people do not understand the functions of the government and the latter fails to understand people.”
Rajaratna from Dharwad leads the Samara Society and she spoke about her experience with working to uplift the transgender community and address their issues. She started the organisation in 2010, and with the support of civil society, they initiated a project called Pehchan. “The programme was a success and members of our community were happy that they will not have to beg on the streets; they were happy about earning money,” she said.
She secretly pursued her Masters and an LLM degree and recognises that the lack of education is a huge problem in the community as many leave home at a young age. She says,
“My dream was to extend help to others in my community. I was teaching them to sign and read and when I saw their interest I approached the government and asked them for help. I suggested that we could start some kind of self-employment initiative and the government offered us Rs. 20,000. My aim is that the next generation of children in my community should not be ostracised. So, I educate the parents to accept the children as they are, to not discriminate against them, educate them, and to help them survive.”
And while Rajaratna admits that there are issues, she is a woman with a steely determination to learn, “We continue to fail till date, the government has plans but it is all on paper. They want to open a welfare fund but nothing has been turned into reality.”
Sunitha Meti is an organic farmer who was also featured among the grassroots champions. “I switched to organic farming in 2016 after my husband died. I was alone and was responsible for my children and had no choice but to continue cultivation. When I started, I took off with an integrated farming system. I looked up everything that was necessary. However, I ended up not getting any price for my products. So, in 2018, I began powdering the turmeric that I had grown with the solar-powered machine I had. Since then, I have been producing and selling my own turmeric.”
To recuperate from the impact of the pandemic, she received support from the state that was impressed by a single woman who had no land, who had the courage to take up organic farming. With the support of the district collector, she received help to put her organic farm in place and helped her procure four machines, which she used to add value to her enterprise. And while the pandemic was harsh, Sunitha, under the guidance of her entrepreneurial spirit, opened a shop adjacent to the NH18 to market her own products. Sunitha is now a grassroots champion who has extended the practice of organic farming to her community, and currently, she is training around 60 communities.
Sahira is an urban rehabilitation worker who works for the welfare of people with disabilities in Bijapur. “There are 21 kinds of disabilities. My primary role is to go door-to-door and inform people about the schemes that could be utilised by people with disabilities. I suffer from muscular dystrophy and while my family was supportive, they would hold me back when it came to reaching out to others. But that never stopped me,” she said
While people first respond with mistrust, Sahira has been working on earning their trust. “We would hold ourselves accountable to get them to believe us. The unique disability card helps us avail many benefits, however, people do not have Aadhaar cards. There are many disabled people who can not perform basic tasks, how can they avail of Aadhaar Cards?” Sahira has requested the concerned authorities to go to their homes to make an Aadhaar Card and while there has been a lot of to-and-fro, it has not yet yielded results.
Girija Keri from Koppala works with women to uplift them socially, by helping them access education and financial support. She believes strongly in the need for financial independence for women,
“I have always persuaded more women to join the workforce, but what women could do remained a challenge. Just when I thought of doing something, the government deployed the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in our village — the Sanjeevini project. With the support of three other women, we went from village to village, facing all circumstances, and struggled to convince women to form self-help groups.”
Girija was not deterred by their reluctance and got officials and elders of the village involved and even then the people were not convinced. However, they managed to form ward-level and gram panchayat-level self help groups. We received 50 lakhs from the government and with this fund, women started several self-sustaining activities. This has empowered them to lead an independent life and support their own families and children.”