As part of my personal involvement with the MCDF activities of MUKTI, I had decided that at some stage I would visit the Sundarban Delta region to see for myself how Mukti orchestrates the delivery of its services to the poor rural womenfolk. MCDF stands for MUKTI Community Development Fund and its mission is to make rural women who are organised into Self Help Groups (SHGs), self-reliant within a two year time frame, by providing them with much needed skills development training and extending micro-financing services in deep interior rural areas where banking is non-existent.
An opportunity arose during the long week-end 21 – 23 Jan’17 when MUKTI held its 5th annual general meeting at Purbasridharpur, a village in deep interior South 24 Parganas district WB, under Raidighi police station, approximately 90 kms from Kolkata.
On 21st Jan, I and MUKTI Founder President Sankar Halder left Kolkata at 8am bound for Raidighi where an MCDF branch meeting was scheduled. The AGM was to be held on the 22nd Jan, but I decided to take the opportunity to spend a few days in the general area of Raidighi and visit the various MCDF branches as well as check out some of the other facilities such as MUKTI Support Schools, MUKTI Book Bank and MUKTI Sustained Agriculture Office to name a few. We reached Raidighi in a little bit more than 3 hours.
The land is beautiful, however it isn’t difficult to notice that the locals eke out a very hard living. The soil has an abnormally high salt content and you can see the salt deposits wherever the soil is dry. The sea feeds saline water into the land whenever water levels rise.
In addition the entire Sunderban delta region is troubled by an increasing number of cyclonic storms every year that plays havoc with the lives and livelihood of the inhabitants.
Almost always this translates to family health impacts, unanticipated home repairs and losses in the fields necessitating a lot of re-work.
Daily transportation is also a big challenge. The many islands comprising the Delta are connected by small boats powered by Chinese diesel motors and primitive controls. The old boats are invariably overloaded carrying commuters, cycles and motor cycles.
As you can imagine, in many of these islands there are no cars, only cycles and motorcycles. Sankar and I did our trips to all the MCDF branches as pillion riders on motorcycles driven by MCDF staff Susanta and Raghunath for more than 150 kms over 3 islands with most of the terrain being dirt roads. Nor did I see any petrol pump stations, I was informed that some retail sellers of fuel would visit the nearest petrol stations across to the mainland and get fuel in drums in one of the boats and then on-sell to the locals on the islands.
The main form of motorised public transport is a 3-wheel ‘engine van rickshaw’, which is a large wooden platform mounted on a chassis powered by a small diesel engine. It has two headlamps mounted in a vertical line at the centre, and is entirely built in the local garages using mostly Chinese components. Where roads exist, these vans carry 12 – 15 people including children and are also used for transporting various forms of merchandise to and from the markets. Paved roads (such as the one seen in the above photograph ) are a rare find, and most roads are either earth tracks or brick-laid. Needless to say that the overloaded engine vans soon cause the bricks to split resulting in the brick-laid roads being full of potholes that are a grave danger to cyclists in the dark and in the rainy seasons.
Spending a few days in these areas soon made me realise that if we see great agricultural, poultry, bird and animal products from this region, the credit goes to the sincere and dedicated efforts of its people who work under glaringly adverse circumstances to make ends meet … and also in no small measure to their enablers such as Mukti.
Now coming back to our schedules, the meeting on the 21st January was to elect a new executive committee and governing members for the 84 self help groups (SHGs) being managed by the Raidighi Branch. Raidighi is one of eight MCDF branches in West Bengal. We reached Raidighi by 11:30am and walked into a hall full of village women. The air was filled with enthusiasm and excitement….and very significantly, hope. I would observe this sentiment in the next few days wherever I’d go to MUKTI MCDF meetings in the several islands. MUKTI appeared to have captured the minds of the rural women folk and instilled in them hope for the future of their families.
Those familiar with India would agree that it is indeed a very tall ask for an Indian village woman to obtain all ‘required clearances’ from family and elders to be able to attend a public meeting at 11:30am which is prime cooking and work time. Despite this I was glad to see some 120 women attend the Raidighi branch meeting, elect their office bearers, ask questions, discuss their issues, have a group lunch and leave the meeting. These definitely were no ordinary women. Entrepreneurship was in their blood.
After the Raidighi meeting of SHGs concluded we met with an enthusiastic team of branch managers and MCDF staff who are the backbone of its operation in the region. The spirit, commitment and dedication of the team was evident in the way they asked and responded to questions and indeed in their interaction with the women in the SHGs. MUKTI President Sankar makes it a regular task of seeing them at least once every month, answer all of their queries and clarify on the various processes of MCDF operations. In this and subsequent meetings at Purbasridharpur, Sonatikari, Kultali etc. I noted that after all the queries and clarifications were done, the final message for all the MCDF managers and staff was to attend their tasks with complete honesty and diligence. The bottom line was that in this type of work nothing can be achieved overnight, progress is hard-earned over a long period of time, and the dishonesty of one person can easily destroy the achievements so assiduously built up by the whole team.
Recent scamsters have had a heavy impact on the gullible rural folk and consequently they have lost a good deal of trust in dealing with micro-credit operations in general. Recent examples are Sarada and Rose Valley chit fund organisations. It was heartening to see that even under this type of adverse environment MUKTI MCDF commanded great trust and respect due to its history of dealings with the rural women, and I would say that this faith that they have on MUKTI’s ability to change their lives is MUKTI’s biggest asset and also its biggest responsibility.
As always, finding the funds for an operation such as MCDF presents a challenge. MUKTI is a not-for-profit organisation. It has to satisfy the business loan demands from the women in the SHGs on one hand, as well as cover costs for its employees and field staff on the other.
At present its only source of funds are its regular donors and some companies that it is pursuing under their corporate social responsibility. We spoke to the Manager of the local State Bank of India Branch and explored recent facilities that the Government of India has put in place such as rural low interest loans via the Jan Dhan Yojana coupled with life insurance. MUKTI has decided to pay the insurance premiums for all women in the SHGs and this is indeed a big step forward.
After attending the AGM on the 22/Jan we also visited the MUKTI Support School at Nagendrapur where a free 2-day coaching had been organised for final year students in that region. Overnight lodging and boarding had been arranged for the students and the specially invited teachers, some of whom came in all the way from Kolkata. Sankar pointed out to me that there were more girl-students than boys in the milieu. This again indicated the faith and trust that parents in the region place on MUKTI.
Over the next day we travelled ( on motorcycle and boat ) to the other branches in Sonatikari and Kultali to attend other branch meetings and everywhere I witnessed the great dedication of the MCDF field staff and large groups of enthusiastic rural women of the SHGs keen on achieving results for their micro businesses that will change their lives and those of their families. I said to myself several times ‘Something big is happening here’.
On the 23rd January evening, at the end of a gruelling day, and very tired indeed, Sankar and I started off for the 3-hours 90 km journey back to Kolkata. Traffic was heavy on the congested roads. A few engine-van-rickshaws, filled to the brim with kids and rural folk, whizzed past from the opposite side, the edge of their wooden platforms almost scratching the right side of our car. ‘That single headlamp at the centre’ said Sankar calmly ‘actually there should be a mirror near each edge of the wooden platform and they should reflect the light to the front. Then we can properly avoid the platform edges of the on-coming van’.
I thought to myself, this is in essence what Mukti was all about – restlessly innovative in finding affordable solutions for the well-being of the people.
Wasn’t it Henry Ford who once said ‘If you think you can do something OR if you think you can’t do something, you are always right’ ?
MUKTI has thought it ‘can do something’ and we all pray and hope Henry Ford will always be right.