I have always wanted to help others. Even though we were not well off, I wanted to help those struggling more than us
Entering the local bank, Bibi Jan approaches staff holding an application for a loan, with confidence. She fills out the forms and challans with ease and attaches the documents required. In the process, she leans over and helps the few people around, whom she sees struggling to read and fill out the forms. She thinks back to two years ago, when she would not even be able to leave the house.
Bibi Jan, the convenor of a self-help group in Theertha village of Kundgol taluk in Dharwad district, has come a long way. In her journey, she has been resolute in bringing others along with her, including over 1,000 farmers and a 14-member team of women. The millet processing unit run by the self-help group that she leads, has created, enriched and saved livelihoods in the village and surrounding areas.
“The lessons I have learnt are innumerable,” says Bibi Jan, recalling the challenging road that brought her here. Change first began in her life in 2019, when she heard that the local self-help group needed a leader. Her desire to apply for the role was quickly quelled when her husband was not on board with the idea. “In my community, it is rare for women to go outside the house and do things on their own,” she explains.
It took a great deal of convincing, from her and the social workers, for her family to agree with the idea. It is fortunate that they did, eventually, because the achievements of this convenor’s work have been exceptional.
Elaborating on what motivated her to lead the self-help initiative, Bibi Jan says, “Most women in our village are dropouts who have studied till middle school. Women do not have knowledge about agriculture or about making a living on their own.”
The Bibi Fatima Women’s Self-Help Group (SHG), supported by NGO Sahaja Samrudha, has empowered hundreds of women by providing them with the training and resources to be self-employed and self-reliant. Many women who were earlier farm labourers have now become agripreneurs with their own businesses.
A community millet processing unit with six machines has been set up by the SHG. The team collaborates with farmers to source millets. In fact, the profits have been so consistent and significant, that over 300 farmers have shifted to millet cultivation, and now sell their produce to these units. The unit is almost fully run on renewable energy, with three solar-powered milling machines, as well as solar lights and fans, which were provided by SELCO.
“There is a stable demand for millets, compared to other products,” Bibi Jan says.
This move came at a crucial time for farmers in the taluk. “We (the farmers) were once content cultivating cash crops like maize, cotton and chilli,” recalls Ishwargouda Patil, a local farmer. Cultivators would make an income of around Rs five lakh per annum. However, climate change, severe drought and erratic rains began to lead to heavy losses. “We were devastated, not knowing what to do with the land,” says farmer S P Dyammappanavar, adding that the introduction of millet cultivation came as a godsend.
Hundreds of women, too, who were once engaged in farming had migrated to the garment industry following setbacks in agriculture. Through the self-help group, these women were able to return to the fields — this time, to take up non-chemical farming.
“Bibi Jan’s work has helped my family of four become financially stable,” says Aisha, a 27-year-old member of the SHG. Her husband, who works for the gram panchayat, often receives salaries 2-3 months after the due dates. “Now I am able to manage my family with my income,” she says.
Apart from promoting millet cultivation, Bibi Jan has also embarked upon a new venture of bringing back traditional food items to plates. Her team sets up stalls at fairs and food festivals, showcasing North Karnataka cuisine and drawing huge crowds. The Kisan Swaraj Sammelana held in Mysuru saw the group making a profit of over Rs two lakh in a matter of three days.
She was instrumental in establishing a community seed bank, which stores more than 120 varieties which were on the brink of getting extinct, says Krishna Prasad, founder of Sahaja Samrudha.
Reflecting on her learnings, Bibi Jan is grateful. “I have always wanted to help others. Even though we were not well off, I wanted to help those struggling more than us,” she says.
In part, her courage to stand up to social norms stems from her upbringing. She admires her father’s unflinching determination to ensure his daughters had an education. “His stand emboldened us to break all conventional barriers and move ahead. We faced a lot of humiliation from our community. But, our goal was to be well-educated, so we ignored these happenings,” she explains.
Having realised the value of her work, her husband Moulasaf, says, “I am very happy that she has achieved so much and has helped put food on the table for so many people.”
A BA graduate, Bibi Jan believes this new challenge has helped her truly put her education into practice. “I had nearly forgotten all I had learnt. Besides, I never knew how to keep accounts and manage the books. I have had to learn, and I am glad I did,” she adds.
The boost in confidence that the self-help initiatives provide is invaluable, she says. “Earlier, I would be so afraid to speak to officials and people in high positions. But now, I have the knowledge and the boldness to sit on par with them and have a conversation,” she enthuses.
The transformation has inspired many like her. Similar self-help groups have been re-energised in other districts. Even in her village, women have begun to step outside their homes, social convention and comfort zones to take part in and lead community initiatives.
She hopes her life will continue to motivate many others, including her daughter, who is currently in Class 10, and her son who is studying PUC.