Helping others to help themselves

by May 20, 2020 0 comments

SHG platforms have acted as effective responders to the pandemic in UP, showing the importance of localised and community-driven response

Suman Devi is a member of a self-help group (SHG) in Hasanpur Gram Panchayat, Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Ever since she heard the news on the television about the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for masks, she has been stitching the face covers for women in her own group, their children and the elderly in her community. Kajal, who belongs to the Nari Shakti Samuh in Bijnore, has been working to raise community awareness about the disease through her rangolis. She believes that it is a very effective way to make her community see the importance of frequent hand washing, adhering to the lockdown and social distancing norms. Like Suman and Kajal, today, all across UP, women in SHG groups have become an important part of the Uttar Pradesh State Rural Livelihood Mission’s (UPSRLM’s) COVID-19 response strategy. Further, their involvement has not been on a small-scale. This means, it is not limited to a few individual members of SHGs or a few SHGs and this movement has now rapidly spread across districts. The SHGs are now deeply involved with several aspects of the UP Government’s COVID-19 strategy. Take the production of masks for example. As the news of the pandemic broke, some members of SHGs, like Suman, began production to protect their own communities. But today we have thousands of SHGs across the State involved in mass production of masks. What began with just five SHGs, in one district, producing 2,000 masks daily, has now swelled to 12,683 SHG members of 52 districts, producing around 50,000 masks daily and the numbers are only growing each day.

While the SHGs are producing masks at scale, the district administration has been working to keep the supply chains of raw material going. In fact, the use of Khadi as a raw material for making of masks is now underway. Uttar Pradesh’s Khadi and Village Industries Board has pledged to give six lakh metres of fabric to SHGs to deliver 50 lakh Khadi masks, to be made and sold for Rs 13.60 each to various Government departments.

In another case, the Indian Army has placed an order to procure 2,000 PPE kits which are also being manufactured by SHGs. Estimates suggest that till date, more than 50 lakh masks, 25,000 PPEs and 7,700 litres of sanitisers have been produced through 4,000 SHGs. Meanwhile, the Government has been ensuring that its procurement is under due process. This has also meant an additional source of income for SHGs. 

The involvement of SHGs is not limited to making COVID-mitigation items only. They have been mobilised to roll out several awareness-building communication campaigns and facilitate the implementation of food distribution and delivery efforts during this crisis.

On the awareness-building front, a radio message was created to educate SHG didis (sisters) about precautionary measures against the virus, which also urges the women to further spread awareness regarding this in their communities. Further, existing ‘Prerna Canteens’ managed by SHGs — which were set up a couple of years ago by UPSRLM to ensure nutritional self-sufficiency in households — have been transformed into community kitchens and are working hard to ensure continuous cooked food supply to vulnerable households, quarantined people and front-line health workers.

This quick re-orientation of ‘Prerna Canteens’ to community kitchens during this crisis has taken place across 54 Village Organisations (VOs) which are a set of 12-15 SHGs. Further, a Samuh Sakhi selected from the SHGs is coordinating these efforts between SHGs and VOs. In certain areas where SHGs work closely with the local administration, members are providing meals to panchayat-run hospitals. There is now even a plan in place for a partnership of SHGs with private and other development agencies to ensure delivery of essentials and post-harvest procurement of agriculture commodities.

This very early success of the SHGs as partners in UP’s COVID response has been widely acknowledged by all stakeholders. In a radio address, UP’s Rural Development Minister Rajendra Pratap Singh thanked and urged the Samuh Sakhis  to continue building on their efforts.

Over the years, UPSRLM has been focussed on investing in and building this community institution as a mechanism to help them achieve several mission objectives, including enabling rural poor to augment their household income via sustainable livelihood enhancements and improved access to financial and public services.

SHGs have received book-keeping, financial literacy and even leadership training.They form the base of a three-tier organisational structure envisioned by the UPSRLM which organises SHGs into VOs and Cluster-Level federations. The mission has the ambition to mobilise more than 10 million women in the next 10-15 years in a phased manner.

Like other States, post the lockdown, the challenges UP faces are not likely to recede quickly. While these steps were necessary, it has also meant that economic activities around the country have come to a grinding halt and livelihoods of millions continue to be under stress. UP is no exception. Here, we are confronted by several challenges. These include: Assuring rations for an extremely large proportion of vulnerable rural households facing food shortages; providing for returning and stranded migrant labourers; and alleviating the impact of severe shock to agricultural, livestock, fisheries, and other supply chains — all of which have hit house-hold incomes hard. 

Estimates already suggest that over and above the residents — vulnerable populations, returning migrant labour, whose number is expected to be around 2.6 to three million — will need food and finances to help them re-establish their livelihoods. This means that the Government’s human resources capacity will be over-stretched for the foreseeable future.

Over the years, there has been growing evidence coming in from various States of how SHGs can function as an important mechanism which can be leveraged to implement Government schemes, build local community capacity and roll out policy interventions.  Further, in many cases, we have seen that their involvement has led to better health outcomes and successful financial inclusion efforts. They have been especially effective in driving behaviour change campaigns, often acting as role models and galvanising other community members.

In UP we have seen how the SHG platforms have acted as effective responders to the pandemic. This has also shown us the importance of localised and community-driven response. In the case of COVID-19, we are seeing SHGs drive behaviour change communication as well as quickly set up last mile delivery mechanisms to provide essential items that are needed to mitigate this socio-economic hardship, hand in hand with the State Government. 

(Writer: Sujeet Kumar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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