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A helping hand

Thursday, July 12, 2018
Pics courtesy: Swayamsiddha Foundation and The Granny Way

As the Maharashtra government seeks to encourage the growth of women-owned enterprises, Tanmaya Vyas examines how Mahila Bachat Gats have empowered underprivileged home-makers over the years

Three years ago, the Indian government launched Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao - an initiative to ensure the survival and empowerment of the girl child. However, long before this was introduced, women found ways to help each other and support their families, despite a lack of education; there are at least two such generations of women in the country.

A major catalyst for making these women independent has been the concept of Self Help Groups (SHGs), or what is known as Mahila Bachat Gats. A program prevalent in South East Asia and formalised in Bangladesh by their Nobel laureate economist Muhammad Yunus, India too soon adopted this. It has been running effectively for years together across India, and Maharashtra is one of the leading states to have implemented it. However, while there are many bachat gats in Maharashtra, many are not registered with the government and fall apart due to lack of guidance and petty disputes.

At a conference held last month organised by World Trade Centre, Subhash Desai, Cabinet Minister of Industries, Maharashtra State Government, stated that Maharashtra is the first state in India to have a dedicated industrial policy for women. The minister spoke of how the government is planning to enhance the share of women-owned enterprises to 20%, up from 9%, in five years; he also said that the government was open to developing industrial clusters dedicated to women entrepreneurs.

"Women have moved on from being known for 3 Ps—Pickle, Papad and Powder earlier to the 3 Ps of Production, Progress and Prosperity, and have scaled heights in the electronics, garments, jewellery and engineering sectors,” he said. Pointing out that the State Savings Group (Self Help Group) movement had been successful, he added that women in saving groups should take initiatives to setting up the industry and become successful entrepreneurs.

One of the oldest and most successful Mahila Gats, or cottage industries, is Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad. The venture, started in late 50’s with seed capital of `80, has grown into a strong

co-operative system, with 81 branches and 27 divisions pan-India. A remarkable entrepreneurial initiative started by seven Gujarati women staying in Mumbai, it has worked on the motto to not take donations from anyone, even if there was a loss. This legendary success story preceded the sprouting of many Mahila Gats. Today there are many non-profit organisations that have adopted Mahila Gats, providing them employment, opportunities and guidance.

The minimum requirement to form an SHG officially is 10 women. The major hurdle the women face is the process of registration with the government, as not only is the process long and tedious but also their lack of education creates problems.

This is where many not-for-profit organisations like Swayamsiddha Foundation work like mentors for these women, guiding them with basics such as opening bank accounts to induction and enhancement of skills and on-the-job training. Other organisations that offer life-changing opportunities for women are Anganwadis—rural mother and child centres—a concept introduced by the Indian government in 1985. Such centres are often part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing of conglomerates.

One well-known organisation is Swayamsiddha Foundation in Mumbai. A not-for-profit organisation, started by a few professionals, it has two major activities—Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Women Empowerment through Self Employment.

“We help women who come to us looking for support to start their own ventures and also a group of women who are willing to work for our ventures. They manage to earn decent money. Some of them are doing phenomenally well. One such Mahila Gat has a contract to run an MMRDA Canteen and the amount is in crores,” shared Vijay Joshi, Honorary Secretary, Swayamsiddha Foundation.

 “We have many such success stories, where the woman became self-reliant,” says Joshi. “One lady from Diva suddenly found that there was no income at home as her husband was diagnosed with a renal disorder. She joined us and we trained her with making of aggarbattis and phenyl. Today, her son is a computer engineer, solely on her income. But not everyone comes because of low income, some want to do something of their own and need support and guidance too.” Generally these women earn around `2,000-3,000 a month from one organisation and they are allowed to be affiliated with multiple organisations.

Another Mumbai-based not-for-profit organisation, The Granny Way, which was started one year ago, also generates opportunities for women in Kalyan-Dombivili and Bhiwandi. “We collect faded clothes and transport it to women in Kalyan- Dombivili area. They make cloth bags out of it, which are substitutes for plastic bags,” says one of the partners, Dr Anuja Pethe.  These women were sourced through Kailash Deshpande, an Electronics Engineer, who works in that area for the cause of waste management. Kailash’s friend’s wife, Dipali Patnekar, helps groups of women in generating opportunities. Sharing her experience, Dipali said, “Initially these women were making bidis for earning money, which would harm their health. When I got to know about The Granny Way through Kailash, I brought these women together and encouraged them to make bags. It keeps them occupied and earns them money of their own too.”

Opportunities across the spectrum are in abundance, ranging from basic utilities to higher-end services and products. The recent plastic ban has increased the demand for bio-degradable and eco-friendly products, giving a huge boost to organisations like The Granny Way in Mumbai and Visfortec in Bengaluru. More importantly, Mahila Gats have proven successful in not just employment generation for women but also making them believe in their abilities.

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