Co-operative Model Offers Beggars New Livelihood (1997)

This document has been made available in electronic
Format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Dec., 1997
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol.7, No.3, Sept-Dec.1997,

Co-operative model offers beggars new livelihood
By Allie Irvine
An elderly woman touches her hand to her forehead, then
reaches out for alms.  Travelling from village to village,
from house to house, she made her living this way for over
50 years.

Today she is not begging, but remembering her life as it
once was. "I felt so bad inside," she said through a
translator. "I felt I was worth nothing."

Six years ago, the National Co-operative Union of India
reached out to her through its co-operative education

Using Government of India funding targeted at
underdeveloped states, the program aims at social and
economic development through the co-operative model.
Women who were beggars have been formed into self-help
groups to create income-generating alternatives.

M.R. Kaushal is NCUI's Co-operative Education Project
Officer in District Solan, which covers an area of 1,936
square kilometres and has a population of 382,268. The
project is headquartered in Solan, a town of about 15,000
on the road between Kalka and Shimla in the green foothills
of Himachal Pradesh.

In 1994 the government shifted the project from Shimla to
Solan, Kaushal explains, in order to reach the surrounding
poor villages. The objective of the project is to encourage
co-operatives as a tool for economic and social
development. It helps co-operatives strengthen public
distribution, credit, loan recovery, increase awareness,
and undertake social and economic development of members.

It reaches out through co-operative educational courses
attended by eight to ten people for five days for new
members, three days for members, one day for women's
development, family welfare and environmental protection.
Kaushal says their objective is to make people aware of
how to take advantage of government schemes for social
development - programs that were previously under-used or
abused. People from underdeveloped villages populated by 
people from schedule or backward castes are the project's
target audience.

Leaders of co-operative societies and panchayat members
or local leaders help to recruit participants in their
villages. There are blocks within the district, one having
ten primary agricultural co-operatives. There are two to three 
panchayats per block, and 20 to 30 villages in a
panchayat. Within Dharampur Block, 13 women's self-help
groups have been established with over 184 members. An
additional two groups are being formed in another block.

The project got a boost three years ago when a local
society member helped mobilise a self-help group of 23 women.
Dharampur Block is in the District of Solan. The
Bangala Self-help Group has been operating there for over
three years.

These women were largely illiterate, and alcoholism was
a problem in their community. They eked out an existence
begging from village to village.  Many of them also made
a living as snake charmers, or by selling sahi feathers.
When Co-operative Education Project woman mobiliser Sunita
Thakur first approached the village, some of the women set
their dogs on her.

"They didn't know or trust me," said Thakur through a
translator.  But she continued to approach different
women in the community over a period of eight months,
and gradually they accepted her.

"We didn't believe that anything could change," said one
self-help group member. "But she told us about things that
could help us."

Thakur discussed with the women how drinking and begging
would not improve their lives. She explored issues like
education, sanitation, hygiene, how to cook nutritious
meals and how to improve the overall living conditions
and health of the family. She emphasised the importance
of sending children to school.

Their husbands were reluctant to allow their wives to join
a self-help group. Initially, they resisted the formation
of self-help groups in their villages. Project workers
tried to assure the men, but it was the women who convinced
their husbands that they should participate for the benefit
of the family.

An immediate goal of the women's self-help group was to
find income generating activities that would free them
from begging. The project helped them identify
opportunities. They drew on the women's past experience
of travelling from village to village, and instead of
begging, the women began selling bangles and cosmetics.

Every morning they leave at 8 a.m. and return in the
evening at 6 p.m., walking up to five kilometres to
neighbouring villages to sell their wares. The women sell
independently, but they use their collective power to buy
in bulk. Today, they earn between 40 and 50 per day.

While their income has stayed relatively the same as it
was when they were begging, what has changed is their
sense of self-worth.

"I felt bad about myself when I was begging.  People would
scold me or ask my why I was begging if I was able bodied," 
said one woman. "Now, I can hold my head up in my village
and in my family."

Their newly enhanced self-identity shows in the way these
women keep their homes and entertain visitors. They pay
attention to aesthetics and offer guests tea and biscuits.
With their newly acquired self-confidence came the power to
change their circumstances. It was the wives who took
initiative in their homes to stop their husbands' drinking.
The husbands have also begun to sell items like 
chai glasses and shoes.

At home, the husbands are also pitching in. They carry
water and wood and help with the preparation of family

Today, the women understand the importance of sending their 
children to school. "It's important to keep my children in
school," said one woman. "I want them to get good jobs."

"My son now has his trucking license," boasted another woman. 
"I hope to be able to get a loan so he can buy his
own truck."

Many of the women had never been a part of an organised
group before they joined the project. The project helped
them to elect officers, draft by-laws and learn how to
run a meeting.

They elected a president, a vice-president, a cashier and
a secretary and group meetings are held monthly.

The women began investing ten Rupees per month. Today, that
amount has been increased to 20. One NGO has committed
20,000 Rupees to help develop the group further. After
three and a half years, things have started to improve.
The women have achieved self-respect. Business people who
once scorned them will now give them loans and credit.

Most of members were illiterate and had to use their
thumbprint as identification on their passbooks. Today,
many of them have learned to write their name. The group
still encounters many problems. Bankers don't trust them,
and banking procedures are inflexible and don't deal well
with the inexperienced women members.

The project has acted as an intermediary, reaching out
to the community.  Project officer Kaushal said it is
important that villagers and business people learn to
respect each other.

While progress is incremental, a small change has been a
big improvement in the lives of these women. Working for a
living has raised their self-esteem, and with it the
prospects for their children's future.

Many of the women have become involved with other
co-operative societies in the area. Within a year, the
group hopes to register under the co-operative societies
act themselves.

The co-operative education project is looking for new and
innovative strategies to improve the lives of villagers.
In November, they planned a workshop to train the women on
making crafts from recycled waste materials like
polyethylene bags, bamboo baskets and dhury. With an NGO
to provide expertise, the project will bring all 13 groups
together, giving them an opportunity to interact. The
women hope to sell products in the local market.

The possibilities are endless. One self-help group in Solan
now co-operatively markets the wool from angora rabbits.
Started in 1991, thirty members tend over 70 rabbits. The
rabbits are clipped four times a year, producing 300 grams
of wool per clipping which sells for 750 Rupees per

Their involvement with the co-operative model has also
given women ideas of their own. "I want to get a loan
to start my own business," said a self-help group member.

The staff involved in this project are genuine and
committed to the co-operative model. They continue to
work with the groups and attend their monthly meetings
to ensure the finances are kept in order. The project has
contributed to their sense of self-worth. This is evident
in the way they present themselves, the way they keep their
home, their strength to speak out (even to men in the
community) and their aspirations for their children.

The co-operative model has proved an effective tool for
social development in Solan. And by educating women about
working together, the principles of co-operation will
benefit a new generation.