Rural women in UP’s Gonda employ male migrant workers who returned, emerge changemakers

Women associated with self-help groups in Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district provided employment to about 70 male migrant workers who returned from cities and were jobless. The acknowledgement has motivated more women to come forward.

Saurabh Chauhan
| Updated: July 2nd, 2020

Meera Devi, member of a self-help group (SHG) in Bishnupur village, was the one who came up with the idea of providing work to the migrant workers in the nursery. Photo: Saurabh Chauhan.

People of different villages in Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district were worried about livelihood as the nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus began. A few women took matters into their own hands, stepped out, and planted some five lakh saplings. The saplings are yet to bear monetary fruit but the male migrant labourers who had returned from cities, and were jobless, benefitted from this.

In Gonda, as many as 50 women are associated with ten self-help groups (SHG) in four developmental blocks – Itiathok, Mankapur, Chhapia, and Haldharmau. They have been involved in planting saplings of teak, sahjan, guava, mango, jamun and roses since 2018.

These women worked part-time at nurseries, but when other activities came to a halt due to the lockdown, all of them focused on this full time. “The lockdown rendered my husband jobless. This nursery work was our only source of income,” Sunita Devi of Binhuni village of Itiathok told Gaon Connection.

Women linked this project to MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) so that they could get government funds to purchase saplings and bear labour charges.

“For a month, we earned Rs 200 per day as MGNREGA wage. A government official told us the profit from the sale of these saplings will also be divided among us,” she said.

Most women in the area are farm labourers barring a few involved in stitching and other handicraft work. The lockdown hit them hard. “We earned Rs 10,000-15,000 each from this nursery business last year. Since this was the only source of livelihood, we planted more saplings,” said Vinita Pal, head of a self-help group in Bishnupur village of Haldharmau in Gonda.

“Some migrant workers arrived from Mumbai and Gurugram. They asked for some work. Since we had increased the plantation, we required more helping hands. Hence, we agreed to employ them,” said Meera Pal, another member of the self-help group.

Bishnupur village grabbed headlines on June 26, 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged their work and spoke to Vinita Pal. Modi, a few days ago, had spoken to a select few who created employment opportunities for themselves during the lockdown.

When Gaon Connection spoke to Bishnupur’s retired schoolmaster Mithilesh Srivastava, he said, “These women were into this business for the last two years but it was limited to only ten of them.”

“Nobody realised it could be a source of livelihood for those who came walking, hitchhiking from big cities, with empty pockets and shattered dreams,” said Srivastava.

The acknowledgment and support from the local officials have motivated these women to expand their work. Photo: Saurabh Chauhan.

From ridicule to respect

A narrow road leads to Bishnupur village in Gonda. The nursery is established on a nearly one-acre land, easily visible from a distance. Few women were working in the nursery under the guidance of Deepak Kumar, a local villager who had worked in Mumbai as a gardener years ago.

“Initially, these women were laughed at. A local district administration official, however, encouraged them. Even I was sceptical about it yielding any profit. I wondered if it would push them into debt,” said Kumar. “The women group pay Rs 50,000 per month as rent to the landowner of the nursery,” he said.

During the lockdown, 1.50 lakh saplings, including roses, were planted in the nursery, and women and migrants worked together to yield success.

The migrant workers who returned to this village had no hope of getting work. The situation was grim and the government had not pushed forward the MGNREGA scheme.

“I used to get Rs 11,000 in Mumbai before lockdown. When I reached here, I was jobless with no money in hand. I was in a state of depression. I had gotten married in October last year,” said Kumar.

During the lockdown, 1.50 lakh saplings, including roses, were planted in the nursery. Photo: Saurabh Chauhan.

Locals suggested he should work with self-help groups like the other five-six migrant workers in the village. “I had heard about the nursery but was not sure whether I would get work there,” he said.

All of the ten SHGs employed 60-70 migrant workers during the lockdown. “They were paid from the account of SHG,” said Vinita Pal. “Bishnupur Nursery planted 1.50 lakh saplings and it would not have been possible without the help of migrant workers,” she said.

These women, ridiculed initially, have emerged changemakers in the locality. Not just in the village or the panchayat are they now respected more, but in their families too, they feel. “My relatives called me to congratulate. Those who were given jobs during the lockdown are grateful. It feels good,” said Meera Devi.

The success of these women has changed the perspective of men towards them. Pal Ravinder Kumar, Mohit and Anil Pal of Paharapur village of Gonda used to work in a plastic box-manufacturing firm in Mumbai. They have been jobless since they returned from the city in May, spending over Rs 10,000 each.  

“I borrowed Rs 10,000 from my friend in Mumbai to come home. Now, I am not able to return it. I read about this self-help group and it is quite inspiring,” said Pal Ravinder Kumar, 22, who got married a year ago. He said, “My wife told me to work with these groups when I came back from Mumbai. I snubbed her.”

Pal is now motivating his wife and other women to form such a group and work on some ideas. Gonda District Magistrate Nitin Bansal said, “There is a lot of rural livelihood schemes. We are motivating people to come forward. The government is ready to assist them to become self-reliant.”

Pal’s wife Sahalini said, “I asked my husband to work with Kamalpur SHG to earn some money. Since he had been working in a factory in Mumbai, he felt it is below him. But now, he is the one motivating the women to form a similar group.”

The nursery is established on a nearly one-acre land. Photo: Saurabh Chauhan.

Towards self-reliance

Anila Devi of Binhuni village of Gonda has been waiting for the government to purchase the saplings. “So far we only got the daily wages. We will earn more money once the saplings are sold. The district administration has assured to buy these plants,” she added.

A government official said the district has a target of planting more than 50 lakh trees in this monsoon season. “We purchase plants from different nurseries and all the saplings prepared by the SHGs will be purchased at a good price,” said the official. A rough estimate suggests five lakh samplings have been purchased for around Rs 10-15 lakh.

The acknowledgment and support from the local officials have motivated these women to expand their work. These villages have more than 300 migrant labourers who have returned from big cities.

“Our effort is to reach out to them and provide them work. We will approach the women first. More self-help groups will be formed,” said Vinita Pal.

Another SHG member Reema Devi said, “We don’t know how long this [COVID-19] situation will persist. It will jeopardise the existing livelihood system. A self-help group is a stable source of income.”

Women in this area said that they had been working as farm labourers, and so were their spouses. “But farm work is not a regular source of income. Paddy is being sown these days but after 10-15 days, we will be jobless again. It is better to start such work [like the SHGs did]. We work farms for daily wages, here we will work for ourselves.”

Uttar Pradesh has more than 3.50 lakh self-help groups across 75 districts. Almost 4,000 of these have less than five members.

The state government has just completed the skill mapping of migrant workers, including women, to provide them jobs under rural job schemes. The head of the State Rural Livelihood Mission, Sujit Kumar said more women will be employed in the coming days through SHGs across the state.