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When appearances can indeed be deceptive… Sushma, lean, thin, yet energetic activist

By Gagan Sethi*

I received a mail from Shabnam Virmani, about whom I have written earlier, introducing me to Sushma Iyanger, another young pass out from Cornell in development communications. Shabman told me in the mail that Sushma was frantically exploring to do work on issues of women and development. This is where our journey of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), now a well-known women’s organization in Kutch, began.
The year was 1989. Sushma, lean and thin, yet energetic, quietly walked into my office one afternoon, saying she was interested in exploring to work in remote rural areas of Gujarat. My first thought was: Was this yet another example of a person who has romanticized development work at the grassroots?
Yet, I threw a challenge to her. I had a request from the Gujarat State Handicrafts Development Corporation (GSHDC) to look at women and development, as women were the largest beneficiaries of the drought relief scheme in Kutch, where different types of handicraft works were being procured by GSHDC.
My initial recce had shown that the remote areas of Gujarat, especially Kutch, were more bothered about the basic issues of drinking water, healthcare, and literacy, and pumping in money by buying handicrafts from there would be actually counterproductive in the long run. Yet, here was Sushma who thought things could be moved.
Ravi Saxena and Annie Prasad, two senior IAS officers, also thought it was possible to go ahead by involving women in remote areas in developmental activities, especially handicrafts. They told me that time had ripe to set up a women and development cell. I agreed to take up the matter in right earnest, and asked Sushma whether she would take up the challenge. I saw a twinkle in the eye of this demure girl, who seemed to be almost undernourished! She told me straight: That’s what she wanted.
We went for a meeting with the local district development officer (DDO), Bhuj, and the project officer, GSHDC, reaching there early in the morning by train. The DDO had booked a room in the panchayat guest house to freshen up. When we entered the room the need was to head to the toilet.
When I opened it I was aghast. I had never seen a dirtier, choked, clogged toilet in my life. The smell could almost faint a person.
We looked at each other in dismay, sat down in disgust, but within in three minutes she was up, asking for a bucket. And, in the next 20 minutes we cleaned up the toilet with several buckets of water!
The Cornell girl had passed first her test of managing to survive. The KMVS was born as a joint programme of Janvikas, the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), the Gujarat Women Economic development Corporation (GWEDC) and GSHDC, with Sushma as executive secretary.
She was quite clear about one thing: “I don’t want foreign funds to start the programme.” Annie Prasad helped us negotiate a Central government grant from the Ministry of Education, and Janvikas got a small grant from Misereor.
Around the same time, Meera, a young Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) graduate, joined Sushma, and the two started work by staying in the remotest of the Kutch villages of Paschim Banni.
People living in the remote area had earlier never seen urban women travelling by chhakdas to approach them. Word went round that two policemen, disguised as women, were trying to enquire about what was happening!
Ever since, KMVS under Sushma’s leadership — and later mentorship – has grown into one of India’s most powerful women’s collectives, leading campaigns against alcoholism, for decentralized control of water, and improving women’s livelihood through exquisite brands like Khamir. It runs its own radio station and a helpline service for the women in distress. KMVS has empowered hundreds of women, including panchayat members.
Today, Sushma is a household name in Kutch as a woman who has ably addressed issues ranging from individual crisis to complex environmental issues, which the district faces today. Such beacons give hope to people that one person who is determined to make a difference and immerses in the life of communities can make a difference. Sushma and KMVS till today remains the best human and institutional development role model Janvikas has supported and learnt from.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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