Mayurbhanj Mahila Association changing lives

By 8.00 am, the courtyard of Kathibudhi Sahoo’s home in the village of Bandhamundi is covered by a layer of gold. Bent over, combing her fingers through the paddy, she looks up and smiles. ‘This is how my family survives’, she says as she spreads out the paddy to dry for her next lot of puffed rice, or mudhi, as the people call it in Orissa. Kathibudhi is a member of the Mayurbhanj Mahila Association (MMA)—an all woman collective of Mudhi producers in the district of Mayurbhanj in Orissa in India. The cooperative was formed in 2002 when a small group of 10 women came together on an experimental basis to sell their mudhi collectively. 

 

KATHIBUDHI SAHOO

Being a part of the staple diet in the area, mudhi is consumed in every home and hence, also prepared in each home. Everyone was skeptical when the cooperative first began, the women included. Today, there are 120 women who are members of the cooperative and rely on the income they earn from producing mudhi and selling it to people all across the state of Orissa through MMA.

Before joining the cooperative, Kathibudhi used to work as a domestic help in the homes of slightly affluent families in her village. She used to make mudhi for these families, labouring for 6 hours each day for a sum of Rs. 10—her daily wage. In 1999, she joined a Self- Help Group (SHG) in her hamlet, Indira Mahila Mandal. Along with the other members of the group, she would save some money each month. The group also acted as a platform for the members to discuss issues pertinent to the lives of women. That was when she and some of her friends realized that this skill of theirs, the art of making mudhi, could yield better economic returns for all of them.

‘My Father-in- Law taught me how to make mudhi. Her Mother- in- Law has kept ill for a very long time now and has not helped out in the kitchen. She says that her Father-in- Law has always been a big support for her. Growing up in the village of Pakhadhar near the town of Balasore 70 kilometers from Bandhamundi, life was a struggle for Kathibudhi. The youngest among her seven brothers and sisters, she was always pampered at home. Her name, ‘Kathibudhi’, is a common pet name for the youngest girl child in a family. She says that she feels ashamed that no one addresses by her real name—Binoti. When the officials were surveying the village for an update in the electoral rolls, her Father-in- Law put her name down as Kathibudhi. She says that perhaps she lost some of her identity through that. Yet, she considers herself a very lucky person to have married into this home. At her paternal home, she never got a chance to attend school. In the struggle to feed the family, her parents, daily wage earners did not emp asize on sending the children to school. She says that she wants her two daughters --Tanuja and Namita- and son, Debabrata to study. Tanuja is studying to take her matriculation exams this year, an important step in the life of every student. A few years ago, she was unable to pay for the education of her children. Her eldest daughter, Tanuja, was staying with a relative in the town of Balasore. There were complaints that the girl was not doing well in school so she was brought back home. Still unable to pay Rs. 100 a month on her daughter’s education, Kathibudhi thought that she would have to drop out of school. But the girl, determined to study, told her mother that she would borrow money from people in her village to pay for her monthly tuition fee. Since joining the cooperative, Kathibudhi has never delayed the payment of the fees for her children’s’ education—Rs. 250 every month for the three children.

Her paternal home was also rife with violence. Growing up in a village of daily wage earners, a lot of men in the village spent their daily wage earnings on alcohol. Bandhamundhi, on the other hand is a peaceful village where families in have always had strong organic ties. Her husband, to date, gives her all his earnings to run the home, never spending any money himself. Narendra Sahoo has been earning his own living from the time he was a boy of 8. All these years of physical labour have taken a toll on his health. At the age of 40 now, he is unable to put in more than 2-3 days of work each week. He works with a group of men on a tractor that transports bricks. Given his health and the seasonality of the brick kiln industry where work stops during the monsoon, he manages to earn about Rs. 200 each week.

They do not own any land and belong to the fishing community. Although the village Bandhamundi is located on the banks of the river Subarnarekha, many people who were dependent on the river for their livelihood as fishermen and women cannot work there due to a drop in the population of the fish. In the absence of skills, they are forced to supplement their income from fishing by working as labour. This is how this family also survives. They take some land On lease each year and have to give half the paddy produced from it to the owner of the land. The paddy cultivated from these fields feeds this family of seven for four months each year.

Things were always difficult for the family financially. Before she joined the SHG in her village, the family would have to borrow money from the local money lender to survive. At that time, she was paying Rs. 900 a month as interest on aloan of Rs. 9000 from the local money lender. With the SHG, she could borrow at a rate of 3% per month. She took loan from the group to pay off her older loan and repaid that amount in monthly installments to her SHG. But she was still not earning enough money to lift her family out of the poverty they were living in, very often having to eat only two meals a day. In 2003 she took the leap of faith to join the cooperative in order to bring about some changes in her life.Since then, she has always had money to feed the family.

In 2006, she took a loan of Rs. 30000 from the bank to construct a pucca house. She withdrew Rs. 20000 for the construction and has repaid Rs. 9500 so far. Recently she discovered that an official at the bank has made a Fixed Deposit of Rs. 10000 without her knowledge. She says that had she known to read and write, this would not have happened. With the help of the cooperative, a meeting was organized with the Chairman of the bank where she raised this concern before the Official. She told the Chairman that she has been repaying her loans regularly, putting aside a part of her earnings from Mudhi to repay her monthly installment.

She has displayed a similar discipline with her mudhi production too. She has been one of the most regular suppliers to the cooperative from the 100- odd members. On an average, she has supplied the cooperative with 125 Kgs of mudhi each month, well over the cooperative norm of 50 kgs per month. At a price of Rs. 15 per Kg, she ahs earned an average of Rs. 1875 every month with a profit of Rs. 1000. Looking at the records maintained by the cooperative, there is one exception in her ledger—August 2006 when the area received a very heavy monsoon. The bamboo and mud hut that they lived in was barely enough to protect her family from the rains, making it impossible to collect firewood And roast the rice to make mudhi.

After joining the cooperative MMA, she has also become more active in the community. Previously, she used to be caught up in work outside the home as well as domestic chores. Now though, she does manage to find some time for her family as well as contribute to the SHG and her community. She says that she feels an increased sense of respect for herself now that she is earning her income from home and not labouring at someone else’s. Being at home also permits her some time with the children where she can act as a parent and guide.

During the village level meeting of the Gram Panchayat, the Palli Sabha, she was an active member of a group who were advocating for the equal participation of women in the system of local- self governance. 10 representatives are nominated to be responsible for all development schemes implemented in the village. Men have traditionally held these posts. After the women protested, the Palli Sabha said that they would allow for 2 women to be among the representatives. Kathibudhi and the rest of the women would not compromise of this stand. The meeting turned violent and she was even hit on her head by a brick after which she was unconscious for two hours. After refusing to relent, they Palli Sabha finally accepted the proposal and 5 women were nominated to the body of representatives. She expresses her discontent at the manner in which political parties function, serving their needs before those of the poor.

When asked about what she looks for from the future, she smiles—a smile of hope. She realizes that with the deteriorating health of her husband, soon she will be the only earning member in her family. She says that as a parent it is her responsibility to provide her children with the best possible education so that they have to opportunity to make something of their lives—giving them a fair chance. She hopes that they grow up to be good human beings and that she has instilled in them the discipline to work hard. And she hopes that they do not have to struggle they way she has. She says that her life has become more secure since she has joined the cooperative knowing that she will always have her income from mudhi and the support of the other women members to fall back on.

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