Durgapur Study No. 2

On the Road to Self-reliance - A story of the tribal women of Durgapur village

ILO /  DANIDA Programme on Cooperative Development in Rural Areas

INDISCO Case Studies no. 2

Cooperative Branch
International Labour Office, Geneva



On the Road to Self-reliance

The ILO Village-level Pilot Project 

The Villagers organize their Manhila Mandal 

Support from Government 

Problems arise and are effectively dealt with  

The Women increase their Income-earning Capacity and produce Quality Goods

Future Plans and Prospects 

What has been learned from the Pilot Project 


The ILO has since the early days of the organization been particularly
concerned with the plight of  indigenous and tribal peoples and has adopted
specific standards to codify their rights. The first Convention (No. 107)  was
adopted by the ILO in 1957 and ratified by the Indian Government the
following year. This Convention was later revised, and in 1989 the International
Labour Commission adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 
(No. 169). This revised Convention recognizes the aspirations of indigenous and
tribal peoples to exert control over their own institutions, languages and
religions, and acknowledges their rights to manage their territories, natural
resources and the environment. Convention No. 169 has yet to be ratified by
the Government of India, which is, however, still bound by Convention No.

In addition to its standard-setting activities, the ILO has also been carrying out
technical assistance programmes for the benefit of tribal and indigenous peoples
since the early 1950s. The INDISCO Programme is, however, relatively new.
It was started in 1993 by the Cooperative Branch of the Enterprise and
Cooperative Development Department and is sponsored by DANIDA (the
Danish International Development Agency). INDISCO is an inter-regional
programme aimed at helping indigenous and tribal peoples promote their own
systems for employment and income-generation and safeguarding their
traditional values and culture through the promotion of grassroots cooperatives
and other self-help organizations. 

India was selected as one of INDISCO's main target countries in order to
support the ILO programme already in operation there. This programme was
aimed at assisting tribal peoples in four of India's States which have the highest
tribal populations in the country. Together the four States, Orissa, Bihar,
Madya Pradesh and Gujarat, represent approximately 55 per cent of the
country's total tribal population of  more than 53 million. The ILO had initially
commissioned a survey of these States  to be carried out by a group of national
consultants lead by Mr. M.M.K. Wali. The objective of the survey was to
explore the possibilities of initiating pilot projects in the states with optimum
tribal participation and devising appropriate modalities for sustainable
development of tribal communities. 

The survey of Orissa State was carried out by Dr. N. Patnaik, Director of  the
Social Science and Development Research Institute which is a local non-
governmental organization. I first had the pleasure of accompanying Dr. N.
Patnaik to the tribal areas of Keonjhar District in Orissa in 1992. This inspiring
visit not only confirmed my conviction that something needed to be done to
improve the working and living conditions of tribals in the area, but also gave
birth to the idea of initiating a pilot testing project.

The village chosen was Durgapur and the project finally got underway in
January 1993.  Since then Dr. N. Patnaik has functioned as Programme

Selecting one village as testing ground proved to be a sensible approach as
much more in depth knowledge of the area and the peoples' needs could be
gained. Furthermore, addressing the particular needs of the women, who are
always the hardest hit by the loss of land, displacement and environmental
degradation, was a wise and encouraging decision by the villagers of Durgapur.
The predicament of tribal women is indeed of major concern of the  INDISCO
Programme and continued efforts will be made to enhance their socio-economic
situation by improving their living and working conditions, facilitating their
access to resources such as credit, training and education and promoting their
increased participation in decision-making. 

As for the activities in the region since the testing project in Durgapur was
completed in  March 1994, INDISCO is now actively involved in Pilot Projects
in all four States. From April 1994 to date, the Orissa Pilot Project has
involved six villages - including, of course, Durgapur .

The story of the tribal women of Durgapur illustrates what can be done to help
tribal women and their families on the road to self-reliance. Due to the villagers
untiring efforts and dedication, the Durgapur  Pilot Project has been a success.
Members of the Durgapur Manhila Mandal have managed to increase their
income-earning capacity and, through their participation in education and
training programmes, have not only gained considerable status but also become
more confident and assertive. Dr. N. Patnaik must also be commended on his
tireless efforts to ensure the success of the project. Without his numerous
reports the compilation of this story on the  women of Durgapur would not have
been possible.

Jurgen von Muralt
Enterprise and Cooperative Development Department,
International Labour Office

On the Road to Self-reliance

So much has happened in such a short time", declares Devi, an enthusiastic
member of the Manhila Mandal, or cooperative society, in Durgapur village in
India. "Just two years ago we had to walk all the way to the local market twice
a week to sell the Sal leaves we had picked and we got next to nothing for
them. Today, we get a much better price for our leaves from the Manhila
Mandal in the village, and the leaves are even collected at our doorsteps!
Furthermore," she adds delightedly, "We not only sell the leaves but make cups
out of them too with the machines at the Mahila Mandal! This gives us an
additional income which is gradually increasing as we become more experienced
with the machines and can produce more and more!

There is no doubt that this additional income is desperately needed in an area
where poverty is rampant and facilities such as schools, health care services,
electricity and safe water are scarce. Devi, a mother of five, belongs a Mundari
tribe, called Bhumij. This is just one of the numerous tribes that populate
India's tribal belt. The Bhumij people speak their own tribal language but the
official language of Mahurbhanj District is Oriya. Although the Bhumij women
can understand Oriya they sometimes have difficulties speaking it. The rate of
illiteracy is also high in the district. Only about 12 percent of the women are
literate and 43 per cent of the men. However, as Devi points out, hardly any
of the women in Durapur could read nor write before the ILO Village-Level
Pilot Project started. Devi herself and three of her children have attended
literacy classes organized as part of this project. And she continues,"I will
never forget how proud I was when I could sign my own name instead of
thumb printing as I had done the first day I joined the cooperative."

Devi has spent all her life in Durgapur village in Mayurbhanj district in Orissa
which is in the Eastern part of India. She has seldom ventured far from
Durgapur, except when selling her sal leaves at the market in Dandiamunha,
three kilometres away. As a tribal she is, however, free to move around a lot
more than Hindu women who are quite restricted in their movements.

The countryside around Durgapur is relatively flat but the vegetation, especially
after the rains, is lush and green. Sal tree forests are scattered in patches
throughout the countryside and are interspersed with large open fields of sabai
grass and flat open paddy lands surrounding the villages. Rice cultivation is the
primary occupation of the tribal people, however, sal leaves are also an
important natural resource in the area and are available in abundance from the
forests. Sabai grass which is grown in great quantities is relatively drought
resistant. The local people use the grass for making ropes which are in great
demand at the local market.

Other important natural resources for the people of Durgapur are the Asan and
Arjun trees, which are used for Tasar silk-worm rearing, and the Mahua trees,
the flowers of which are used for brewing liquor. The Tasar silk-worm industry
is famous and has been monopolized by the indigenous population of the
district, who are very skilled in this work. 

Bamboo, known locally as "poor man's timber," also serves as a source of
income for the tribal people. Almost every household has a few bamboo groves
lining the backyard. The bamboo is sold to contractors who supply paper mills
in far off places.

Durgapur consists of 116 Bhumij households with a total population of 637
people. The households are grouped in five different hamlets within a short
distance of each other. The Bhumji are the most numerous tribe in the district
with a total population of 94,214. The entire district of Mayurbhanj is included
in India's Tribal Sub-Plan. 

According to a survey carried out by the ILO in September 1993 (1), all the
Bhumij households live below the official poverty line, which has been fixed
at 6,400 Indian rupees per annum per household. In Durgapur the average
annual income per household is 3,951 rupees which means that Durgapur can
be categorized as very poor. The per capita income of the villagers is estimated
at 988 rupees which is extremely low by any national or international standards.
With such a low per capita income the Durgapur people have had few other
concerns than how to meet their daily basic needs and how to survive.

Box  1:  The Tribal Sub-Plan

After Independence in India an increasing amount of interest was focused on the
development of tribal people in the country. In the India Constitution it is
stipulated that the "State shall promote with special care the education and
economic interest of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social
injustice and all forms of exploitation." One of the initiatives taken was the
formulation of a strategy for tribal development, the "Tribal Sub-Plan", which
has been in operation since the beginning of the Fifth Plan period (1974-79) in
areas of more than fifty per cent tribal concentration. The whole of Mayurbhanj
District consequently falls under the Tribal Sub-Plan.

Although the Tribal Sub-Plan has been in operation for nearly two decades there
was no perceptible change in economic situation of the tribal people of
Durgapur village before the initiation of the ILO Village Level Project in 1993.
All the 116 tribal households in Durgapur were living below the poverty level
and were steeped in illiteracy and ignorance. Lack of irrigation facilities
hampered agricultural production. Scarcity of water during drought periods
resulted in poor sanitation and health. Basic infra-structural facilities such as
schools, health centres and communication roads were lacking. Stringent forest
policies deprived the tribals of their use of the forest resources and credit for
consumption purposes and marketing services was conspicuous by its absence.
All these factors had contributed to perpetuating the state of poverty and
deprivation in which the tribal villagers were living.

(Source: M.M.K. Wali: Tribal People in India,  ILO, Geneva, 1993) 

The ILO Village-Level Pilot Project
So how did this project start? Devi pauses a while to think before answering "It
all started with a general meeting in the village in early 1993. We were all -
both men and women - called together to discuss how to make some money in
order to improve our standard of living and help develop our village. The
Bhumij men and women in Durgapur are not segregated and they usually work
well together, although certain tasks like looking after children and household
chores still remain the domain of women. But never before had we, the women,
been asked to participate in discussions with men and certainly not in issues that
concern the village!" 

"We were very shy during the meeting and none of us dared speak, but at least
we were there and felt for the first time that we had a say in the affairs of our
village. The meeting was held outdoors and as normal we all sat on carpets on
one side whilst the men sat on the other. When the meeting was over we got
together and talked about what had been discussed. At later meetings we
gradually became more daring. We wanted our views to be heard too!"

The Durgapur Village Development Committee convened several meetings in
order to discuss and propose an income-generating scheme that the villagers
could easily embark on with their meagre resources. The villagers pointed out
that although the women work very hard both at home and in the field they
never earned much money, if any at all. It was therefore suggested that an
income-generating scheme involving women and the work they do, would be
an appropriate starting point. 

Among the most popular small-scale cottage industries in the area are sal leaf
cup making; sabai grass cultivation and rope making and Tasar silk-worm
rearing. The climatic conditions of the area are most favourable for the growth
of sal trees, sabai grass and for the host trees on which silk-worms thrive. The
villagers had thus to decide between these three relevant alternatives as only one
activity could be initiated at a time for practical reasons. However, before a
final decision was taken, a feasibility study was carried out in order to assess
the pros and cons of the three options. Eventually, after analysing the report the
villagers decided to take up leaf cup making as their first own village income-
generating scheme.

According to the feasibility study, leaf cup making was, in fact, not found to
be the most profitable activity, but the villagers still decided to go in for it as
it would mean that all the women in the village could be involved and not just
a few. In addition to this, leaf and cup-making was considered less complex and
initially less costly than sabai rope production or silk-worm rearing. This would
mean they could start production straight away and would not have difficulties
learning the technique. The villagers second priority was sabai grass cultivation
and rope making, and their third was silk worm rearing.
Box 2:   Some of the findings from the feasibility studies on Employment and
Income-Generating Opportunities for Tribals:

Sabai grass cultivation and rope making
- The entire area of Baripada sub-division of Mayurbhanj district is most
suitable for Sabai grass cultivation. There are vast waste lands in the area which
are utilized by the local people for growing Sabai grass. Sabai grass is also
relatively drought resistant.

- People make the ropes by hand with the help of simple tools. With machinery
it would be possible to make a much better quality rope in a much shorter time.
This would make sabai rope-making a more profitable enterprise but would
involve a higher initial cost than, for example, leaf cup making, and the process
is also more complex. 

- With proper ploughing and application of fertilizer, an acre of land can yield 
15-20 quintals of sabai per year for 5 years. Two crops can be harvested every
year. However, due to financial constraints the farmers are not able to apply
fertilizer to the soil and bad seedlings are often used which results in a
maximum yield of one or two quintals per acre per year. Some cultivators
farmers also are forced to sell their seedlings due to lack of funds, others do not
have enough seedlings and the land is left fallow.

- Some people, who do not have their own waste land, earn a living as
agricultural labourers and if they can afford it they therefore purchase the grass
to make ropes. However, there is no proper marketing organization for sabai
grass ropes. The ropes are therefore sold to middlemen and the producer's
profit margin is therefore minimal.

Tasar silk-worm rearing
- Tasar silk-worm rearing is an age-old practice of the tribals in the area.
However, many forests where people used to rear silk worms have now been
catagorized as protected areas or reserve forests. This means that tribals no
longer can use them for silk worm rearing.

- Large areas of Arjun trees were planted in the area with assistance from the
Inter-State Tasar Project. Arjun trees are better host plants than the Asan trees
which are also still used in the area and the Sal trees, which were originally

- Due to drought conditions many of the planted Arjun trees have since died.
Others have been cut down by neighbouring tribals in search of firewood. This
has resulted in a steady decrease in cocoon production.

- Owners of Arjun tree plantations are also finding it difficult to get hold of
disease free cocoon seeds. The mortality rate of the worms is therefore high.

- Another serious set-back for the silk worm rearing industry has been that the
Tasar Marketing Cooperative Society has been unable to provide financial
assistance to the people for growing Arjun trees in their own waste lands.

- Of all the local cottage industries, silk worm rearing is potentially the most
lucrative. A plantation of 7,000 trees on one hectare of land can yield 13,000 -
16,000 cocoons per year which would fetch 5,000 - 7,000 rupees. Due to poor
quality seeds the present yield has been reduced to 1,600 - 4,800 cocoons per
hectare.  As silkworm rearing is labour intensive, this low yield tends to worsen
instead of improve the socio-economic conditions of the tribal people.

The villagers organize their Mahila Mandal

When it was decided that the leaf cup making would be taken up by the women, the next step
was to form a suitable organization for the scheme. The villagers suggested that a Mahila
Mandal should be formed with twenty women members and that office bearers should be
entrusted with various responsibilities. Shortly after the villagers elected a President,
Secretary and Treasurer and the leaf cup making operations commenced.

The Durgapur Mahila Mandal was registered under the Society Registration Act and after a
while the Society was able to acquire two leaf cup machines with the assistance of the ILO.
These were installed in a rented house in the village which was to serve as a workshed cum
office. Electricity was also installed in the house in order to operate the machines.

None of the woman had had any previous experience in operating the machines. Previously
they had only collected and dried the leaves and then stitched them together in pairs before
selling them at the market in Dantiamunha. Now the women could supply their Society with
leaves directly and at a much better price. But the women needed to learn how to use the
machines and they therefore engaged a man from Dantiamunha on a part time basis to train
them. At the initial stage, however, since both training and production continued  side by side,
little money was made by the women.

Two machines soon turned out to be inadequate as all the women in the village were eager
to learn this new trade. They therefore had to wait for their turn and this could take time.
Another difficulty was the shortage of raw materials caused by the increase in number of
workers. When the stock was exhausted the women had no revolving fund with which to
replenish their supplies.

Support from the Government

The District Development Authorities were approached for assistance and visited the village.
They were so impressed by what the members had done so far that they pledged a sum of
73,000 rupees to the Society. It was decided that half of this money would be given as a loan
and the rest as a subsidy. The women were, however, in desperate need of money straight
away in order to continue their production. Fortunately the District Project Administrator
understood the situation and agreed to release a sum of 10,000 rupees immediately as a
revolving fund. With this sum the Society's most pressing problems were solved. Two more
machines were purchased and installed in the workshed and a sufficient supply of sal leaves
was constantly kept in stock.

In the meantime many members had already completed their training and were able to turn
out standard products in a much shorter period. Some of the men helping the women were
also so eager to continue with the group that the women decided to let them stay. Afterall,
the more people working and being trained the more cups and plates they would be able to
produce and the more money they would earn. 

After a short time lapse the Society contacted the Baitarani Gramya Bank which had been
authorized to release the Government funds earmarked for the Society. The procedure was
long and tedious but eventually the bank released 18,000 rupees and the Society immediately
purchased two more machines and more raw materials. This resulted in more people being
involved in the production activities and a great increase in the amount of cups being

Problems arise and are effectively dealt with

When asked whether everything had always gone smoothly and according to plan, Devi tells
us that there have been some rough patches. "Things are not always as easy as they may
seem", she explains. "I remember one time when we were all very displeased with our
secretary. So she was dismissed and another member took her place. The problem was, the
new secretary was not able to perform her duties as well as the first one. Ah well, we can
all make mistakes", Devi sighs, "In the end the original secretary was re-instated!" 

There have been other problems too. Apparently some orthodox villagers did not like men
and women working together under the same roof. The male workers were not, in fact,
members of the Mahila Mandal but they had been allowed to work there as they brought in
extra income for the Society. They were, furthermore, considered to be quick workers and
produced excellent products. But, when some of the women's husbands threatened to forbid
their wives from working in the Society, a solution had to be found in a hurry. After
numerous discussions on the issue, the women finally decided that they would work during
the daytime and the men and at night. The working hours were divided into two daytime
shifts from 8 am. to 4 pm. for the women, and a night shift until midnight for the men.

Most of the men who worked in the cup making unit were, in fact, village youth who had
formed a club and wished to join in the activities of the women. It turned out that they
managed to contribute immensely towards increased production, and improved quali
ty and 
marketing of the finished products. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the women, the youth have
also initiated other projects designed to improve their village, such as improving the roads
and water supply for drinking and irrigation purposes.

The women increase their income earning capacity
and produce quality products

When the Durgapur women first started the cup making unit, twelve of the Society members
underwent training and were able to produce some cups at the same time. However, the first
cups produced were not good quality as the women had not yet mastered the technique.

After a short time the trained women became skilled at the job and were able to produce
quality goods at a much higher speed. More people, both men and women, joined the unit
and training and production increased. As time passed the workers were producing 150 bags
of 2,400 cups per month compared to the original output of 70-80 bags. Eventually the
eighteen men and women who were working on a regular basis on the three work shifts were
able to produce 200 bags containing 3,000 cups per month!

Within business circles in the area, word quickly spread about the Society's increased
production and high standard of products. Businessmen started to approach the So
ciety to
negotiate business deals. All of a sudden, from struggling to make ends meet the Society was
in a position to negotiate with buyers and increase profits for its members. Businessmen
started offering the Society reasonable prices for the produce in addition to free transport
from the workshed to the market and providing bags for the cups free of charge. From the
initial loss per bag, the Society was now gaining a total net profit of 7 rupees per bag. 

With the increased production of high quality goods, the Society's profits continued to rise
and the women were experiencing for the first time in their lives what it was like to earn
money. It had been a general belief that tribal women were born to toil and not get any
reward for their labour. But now the marginalization of women had become a thing of the
past. With the opening up of opportunities for women to increase their income earning
capacities, their status in the community risen and their economic situation improved.

Devi says the members now earn 24 rupees per day. "Although this may not sound like
much", she explains, "it is not bad when you compare it to the average wage of a male farm
labourer. Their work is really tough and they only earn 10 to 12 rupees a day. For a woman
it would be even less!". When asked what she spends the money on, Devi answers that most
of the money goes towards food and her children's education but she is also able to save a

"We did not used to have enough money to send our children to school and neither was it
a priority for us", she adds, "but then we had all these discussions at village meetings and
now we understand how important it is, especially for our children, to have a good

Literacy classes: Early on in the Village Pilot Project, the members of the Durgapur
Manhila Mandal, engaged a young woman to teach them how to read and write and do
simple arithmetics. The young teacher, with nine years of formal education, organized
classes in each of the five hamlets. The children were easy to assemble but the
women preferred to have lessons in their homes. After a year all the members
had learned to sign their names and some had even started reading books.

The literacy and numeracy classes have been a great help not only to members, but also
to the Society's office bearers, who are now much better equipped to maintain accurate
records of the Society's business transactions and accounts.

Future plans and prospects

In the last phase of the Village-Level Pilot Project the members of Durgapur Village
Development Committee suggested that a large cooperative society should be established in
the village so that larger development programmes like sabai grass cultivation, rope making
and Tasar silk-worm rearing could be taken up. The Deputy Registrar of the Cooperative
Society of the District was therefore consulted, he immediately liked the idea and promised
to help. Shortly thereafter by-laws for a new cooperative society were drafted.

The six leaf cup making machines in Durgapur provide gainful employment to only twenty
households in the village. A regular worker at the Manhila Mandal can earn approximately
480 rupees per month for an eight hour day which constitutes an important contribution to
the household economy. However, due to the shortage of machines other families do not get
an opportunity to earn as much. Moreover, when considering there are still 300 able bodied
under-employed adults in Durgapur, it would undoubtedly be a great advantage if the
villagers could embark on other income-generating schemes like rope making and silk worm

However, in the meantime, the ILO/INDISCO Pilot Project has been expanded to cover five
additional villages located around Durgapur. A larger cooperative, which functions as an
apex body, has also been established. This cooperative, named Ideal Multi-Purpose Tribal
Labour Cooperative Society (IMTLCS) comprises of representatives from each of the six
pilot villages. A total of ten members were selected, including the office bearers of Durgapur
Manhila Mandal and youth organization. The IMTLCS has powers to disburse loans to the
primary societies in the villages from the revolving loan fund provided by the ILO/INDISCO

Devi was right when she said that Durgapur village has seen many changes over a short time
span. Poverty has not been eradicated and many challenges still lie ahead, but the people
have gained confidence in their capabilities to improve their socio-economic conditions and
standard of living. The villagers have also gained confidence and trust in the project which
they consider as theirs and which they are determined to see continue and become totally

What has been learned from the Pilot Project ?

A number of important lessons have been learned by those involved in the Pilot Project.
These can be summed up briefly as follows:

(1)  Sociological knowledge of the project village and a full comprehension of the objectives
of the project by the target group has been a prerequisite for the acceptance and success of
the Pilot Project. Furthermore, it is essential that the target group  participates in the project
from the very beginning through village meetings and discussions. 

(2)  The tribal people of Durgapur village are known to be very accommodating and used to
try to avoid conflicts or confrontations whenever possible. For instance, instead of directly
refusing a request, they  would try to avoid it, or delay taking action. When common village
activities were called for, general consensus among villagers was also the norm. However,
with the inevitable changes in tribal life, attitudes and behaviour have also changed. Villagers
can no longer be expected to agree automatically when it comes to issues that concern the
whole of village of Durgapur. For this reason it is important that each hamlet is treated on
an individual basis especially when it concerns villagers' involvement in income-generating
activities or the  organization of cooperatives. In the case of  bigger cooperative
organizations or more complex activities such as the Multi-purpose Tribal Labour
Cooperative Society  (MTLCS) which involves all six pilot villages, the hamlets of Durgapur
should, of course, collaborate closely with each other.

(3)  Education and training are essential to the  Pilot Project's success and must therefore
continue to receive special attention. Educating adults has been a particularly effective way
of promoting the education of children. Tribal folklore, proverbs and tales have, furthermore,
proven to be a rich source of sound cultural values, and are particularly useful motivators
in educational and training activities.

(4)  Through work carried out in the village, several lessons were learned. Firstly, that it is
imperative that those working in tribal villages speak the local tribal language. Secondly, that
the workers have a clear understanding of  the socio-political dynamics in the village and
local community. And thirdly, that the workers understand the importance of setting good
examples so that villagers can see with their own eyes the actual benefits of their efforts.

(5)  Among the Bhumij tribe like any other tribal groups, women are relatively f
especially in economic activities. However, in contrast to men, women are easily exposed
to suspicion in sexual matters. A married woman cannot, for example, mix freely with
another man, no matter how innocently, as the husband would be put to shame. This pattern
of behavior stems from the custom that if a married woman commits an offence, it is the
man who must bear the consequences and shame. As a result  women are always obliged to
seek their  husbands' opinion or consent on all matters.

(6)  Unfortunately one often encounters negative attitudes towards tribals as a result of
prejudice and  stereotyping. The Pilot Project experiences have, however, been positive and
the active involvement of tribals has been regarded as an enormous asset to all stages of the
project. Their contributions and suggestions have been creative and  innovative and always
highly valued.

(7)  As Government and voluntary agencies have different working methods and approaches,
conflicts and tensions can arise. Working in the Pilot Project has illustrated the necessity for
the different agencies to work in close collaboration and harmony with each other. However,
it is above all  important to recognize and commend the hard work carried out by the
villagers and to ensure that they receive the credit and encouragement they deserve.

Endnote 1): Ms. B. Rath: "Tribal Women's Status and Participation in Income Generating
Schemes in Durgapur, Mayurbhanj District, Orissa", ILO, India, September 1993.