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Nirmala’s native wisdom 'steered' resource-poor communities through COVID-19

By Moin Qazi* 
Warora is a small township in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. It is best known for the small village republic the great humanist Baba Amte set up for disabled people discarded by mainstream society. One of the closest villages to the town is Wanoja, a hamlet of three hundred families. Twenty five years back, it was a bootlegger's paradise, as unruly men and youth would swamp the village square and shops, heavily inebriated and spouting filthy vocabulary.
Today, as we battle COVID-19, this village stands out as a model of resilience. The spirit behind this resolute collective determination and grit is a diminutive woman, its governing head or sarpanch, Nirmala Geghate. During my early career in State Bank of India, I was posted as the manager of the local branch of the bank. I also happened to be part of the first batch of managers of commercial banks who were piloting the self-help group movement.
One of the first villages that I chose for our pilot experiment was Wanoja.
I suggested to Nirmala to accept my request to become our ambassador for self-help group movement in her village. Nirmala was at first taken aback. "Why me?" – she chortled with amazement. I said everybody in the village had vouched that she was the most trusted women. Nirmala was a demure housewife who certainly did not appear to be made for a leadership role. She hesitated for several days, but finally yielded to our gentle and persuasive prodding. The clinching factor was that her mother-in-law was quite supportive and promised to relieve her of a number of household chores.
Nirmala convinced neighboring women to band together and the first self-help group (SHG) took birth in the village. It was christened Savitribai Phule Bachat Gat, appropriately named after rural India's pioneering women reformer. All women in the group, barring Nirmala, were unlettered.
Nirmala persevered hard to teach her group members the nuts and bolts of managing the group. Every time she visited the bank for group's transactions she would take each women with her by rotation so that they understood how a bank worked. These women later started transacting independently.
Nirmala’s hard work paid off. The group prospered and had a multiplier effect in the entire village as several more self-help groups were formed. Nirmala's focus was more on collective enterprise. The number of businesses the women have set up in this long journey include a retail agency for farm inputs.
The most recent success story is the government support that has enabled each SHG member to set up an independent poultry unit. Thanks to Nirmala’s efforts, there are now around 300 poultry units with the chicks, poultry feed and shed, all funded by the government.
In the process of charting her SHG's trajectory and navigating the murky village politics, Nirmala was forced by her supporters to get into village administration. Panchayat Raj was already beckoning women to join governance and Nirmala couldn't remain insulated from political currents, much as she tried to avoid them. She represented her ward for two terms and finally became the village sarpanch, a post she is holding for the last five years. The socio-economic indices of the village speak for Nirmala’s efficiency and devotion.
All houses have independent toilets and water supply. They get filtered drinking water from a plant installed by a power generation unit which has adopted the village under corporate social responsibility (CSR). There is hundred percent literacy and all boys and girls attend colleges in Warora. No men drink. There is total prohibition. The village has very good recreation park for the children.
With the help of local bank staff, Nirmala ran sustained campaigns for raising awareness about banking. She instilled proper bank loan utilisation culture and healthy repayment ethics. As a result, borrowers in the village have such enviable credit histories that it will make lenders blush.
When students from the village returned from cities amidst corona scare, Nirmala  ensured they were medically examined
COVID-19 has not made any difference to life in the village. Nirmala has ensured that social distancing and other mandatory lockdown instructions are meticulously practiced. She has ensured that all the promised government relief reaches every individual. She has also organized supply of sanitizers, masks and gloves for the villagers. The women of self-help groups are making masks for local population and also supplying to neighboring villages.
The local industrial units are undertaking periodical sanitization of village under their CSR programme. All because they see in Nirmala a symbol of honesty and trust. Nirmala has made sure that her donors get enough value from their investment. She has provided prominent visibility and branding to them that has enhanced their social bottom line.
When students from the village, who are doing studies in Pune and other cities, returned home in the wake of the corona scare she made sure that they were medically examined at the civil hospital and underwent self- quarantine for the prescribed period. She has formed teams to ensure vigilance against the entry of outsiders during lockdown. She is also making sure that everyone wears masks and practices social distancing and proper hygiene.
“We have to keep our village safe from the viral infection”, cautions Nirmala to fellow villagers. At the same time Nirmala is ensuring that harvesting work is not hindered. "We have to take care of both lives and livelihoods", she says. Nirmala has activated the accredited social health activists (ASHAs), anganwadi and SHG workers who are now working as the footsoldiers in this fight and have turned into the eyes, ears and nose of the local administration.
The biggest beneficiary of Nirmala's empowerment is of course her immediate family. Nirmala's daughter Ruchi has done her Masters in Computer Applications from Pune and works for a software firm.
Women like Nirmala offer us plenty of hope as they combine their native wisdom and robust commonsense with basic state advisories to steer their resource-poor communities through COVID-19. They are all symbolic of the ingenious ways local leaders are supporting and lifting their communities.
---
*Development expert

Comments

Mayuri Ghotkar said…
This is just an inspirational post. She is my Aunty and we have been always appreciating her and her works. She is an true inspiration for everybody in her village and Of course we feel very proud for her. After reading this post, I am very grateful to you that you took this platform to introduce her fantastic works and you did this efforts so that everyone out there will get inspire and will get out of midset that villages are backward localities.
aarkp said…
Deep respect and admiration for the lady.

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