An Inspiring Women’s Co-Operative

The Story of ‘AALO’

Sukanta Sarkar

Banshihari, a very common Block of Gangarampur Sub-division in South Dinajpur District is a typical rural area with predominantly agrarian landscape in North Bengal. About 46 percent of people are agricultural labourers: 30 percent of people are directly involved in agriculture and about 3 percent in cottage industry while 21 percent move elsewhere in search of work. To be precise they are migrants moving from Bengal to Kerala to Karnataka for sheer survival. Banshihari's nearest town is Buniyadpur. No doubt it is a big town. Currently there is a municipality. There are a high school, a college and a doctor’s chamber. There is a market also in Buniyadpur. The town is very busy. But Banshihari represents one of the most backward villages of West Bengal. Some marginal farmers have some parcels of land to cultivate but they do not produce enough cereals for the whole year. It is not difficult to understand the financial status of people in this block! So Banshihari is not like any rich village of Bengal full of rice, full of cows and ponds full of fish. The men of Banshihari mostly spend their time outside their home in search of job and money to maintain family. Most women always remain busy with house work; this is how Banshihari's life has been going on in monotonous routine .It was supposed to continue like this for a more uncertain time .But, little by little, the picture started to change for the last 8 years. The very ordinary, poor and proud girls of the village changed the socio-economic face of Banshihari. Today, it is their work that has crossed the boundaries of the district to become the 'model' of the state.

‘AALO’, a Women's Cooperative Credit Society was established in Banshihari Block on Women's Day on March 8 in 2014. A handful of female teachers, including the Assistant Headmistress of Banshihari Girls' High School, brought together 150 women from different villages of the Block. A few bureaucrats of the Block and Sub-division shouldered all the responsibilities from the planning to government assistance. Although there were a few agricultural credit cooperative societies in the district, there was no credit cooperative society, not to speak of Women's lending cooperative society! In the beginning, 150 women became members by depositing 100 Rupees each. Rs 10 lakh was given by the cooperative department. AALO started journey with this 10 and a half lakh Rupees. However, all ‘Starts’ have a 'beginning’, in this case too, the 'start' actually started a year ago from 2013.The then Inspector of Cooperative Societies SubhashisGuha of Cooperative Department came to Banshihari after his transfer from Calcutta. He visited every village of the block only to see stagnant life not running with time. Development requires creating and increasing economic activity but, where is the logistics to support economic activity in Banshihari! Cultivation is the one and only economic activity in Banshihari. Then most people are landless.

 Men work in the village as agricultural labourers for some time of the year, but for the rest of the year they have to be outside in search of work. Women stay in villages. Barring domestic chores they have nothing else to do. Shubashis started thinking about utilising the unused and certainly neglected human resources. But with mahilas (women), especially in places like Banshihari where the minority community women are in significant numbers, for a man who is not a native, mobilising women even for a noble cause is too difficult to imagine for urbanites. After a few days, Shubashis told GargiLahiri, the then co-principal of Buniadpur Girls’ High School, about his plan. Initially she hesitated but Gargi ultimately came forward with some of her colleagues in the year 2013. Shubashis and Gargi started contacting the women of the village.

But what will be done by loosely organising the women of the village? What is needed for development is achieving financial independence through small, cottage and micro enterprises. The basic condition of any kind of business is money. It is not possible for women from economically backward families in a backward place like Banshihari to pay even 1000 rupees. With the formation of Women's Cooperative Credit Society village women can now develop small and micro businesses individually or in groups by taking loans. For seven-eight months, after visiting the villages of Banshihari, campaigning from door to door, talking to women several times in the yard, overcoming their inertia, finally in 2014, the first Women's Cooperative Credit Society of the district AALO started the path of light in Buniyadpur. And AALO Mahila Cooperative Credit Society got registration in 2015. Within four years, the number of members increased to about 3,500 and the amount of deposit totalled Rs2 crore 10 lakh. Today membership has gone up with increased deposit.

 AALO's activities have now expanded across Jordighi, Daulatpur, Ditol, Shivpur, Ganguria, Sherpur, Khushipur, Andharamanik and Banshihari proper. AALO members are doing various kinds of work; they take loans for medical treatment, children's education, home repair. However, most of them are doing some kind of economic work with loans and members are encouraged to borrow from AALO for such work l. AALO also arranges training for its members in arts, handicrafts, tailoring etc. The women who once used to take care of households only are today running small food processing units where at least 10 women are involved in production. Another 8-10 women get job for selling the products .Then some women by taking loans from the Co-Operative do the business of making imitation ornaments at home. As some of them are making clothes alone by learning tailoring, many are making school uniforms and hospital staff uniforms. Special mention must be made of AALO’s members managing sanitary napkin production unit. This unit was launched at the end of 2016. 3 lakh sanitary napkins are produced per month. 14-15 women are associated with it. They market it through a Tripartite Agreement signed with Manjusha, District Health Department and AALO. They supply sanitary napkins to hospitals, schools and colleges in the block. Some also go to local drug stores. Now AALO is the Ambassador of the district administration in promoting women's menstrual health awareness.

At least 30 members have been trained in kitchen gardening with the help of Horticulture Department, Government of West Bengal. They are doing commercial Rose cultivation on 10 bighas of land starting from Ginger cultivation in sacks. Milk collection centre has also been constructed. Catering unit is running well. Food is supplied to various government offices and other institutions on various occasions. Apart from this, the members are literally self-reliant today by taking personal loans to set-up and run Beauty Parlours, Boutiques, Animal Husbandry, Incense, Cottage industry producing jute items-- bags, crystal bags, carpets etc. Encouraged by the success of AALO, women's cooperatives have been formed in most of the blocks of the district such as Pritilata in Kushmandi block, Pragati in Gangarampur, Disha in Balurghat, Navdisha in Tapan Block. AALO was declared a 'model' in the state for women's cooperatives in the year 2016. In that year state Cooperative department decided that Women Cooperative Lenders Association like AALO would be established in every Block of the state and the instructions had been sent to every office of the Cooperative Department in the state.

Social development comes from economic development. Researchers from the Institute of Development Studies (IDSK), one of the leading sociological research institutes of the country, conducted a survey in 2016 to observe the impact of AALO on women in South Dinajpur district and based on the research paper published, it was found that AALO members are more advanced than women who are outside the ambit of AALO. They significantly stand at the top in socio-economic indicators in terms of Institutional Birth, Access to Newspapers, Opinion Making, Drinking Water, Sanitation, Literacy etc. Members of AALO are ahead of others. Apart from this, AALO members are working in Banshihari Block as a supporting force of the government in several other projects including prevention of women and child trafficking, prevention of child marriage, menstrual health awareness, inclusion in voter list and community-based forestry.

A recent survey report shows, the migration of the male population for livelihood from the villages of Banshihari Block has been significantly decreased because of AALO’s activities. This Women Cooperative has created a number of working areas and generating job opportunities for not only local female population but few hundreds of men are also getting job from AALO. According to a Block level government official, ‘7-8 years ago at least 21 % male population of this Block had to migrate elsewhere for job; today it has come down to 10 to 12%’.

Three and a half years ago, the pale, backward-looking, obscure Banshihari has really changed. Presently people of Banshihari are always active. Shopping in bazaars has also increased at a significant rate. It is an established fact that most of the people of Banshihari have work in their hands and rice in their stomachs. The main architects of this transformation of Banshihari are the house-bound shy women. A successful co-operative movement has brought the light of self-reliance and self-respect to the faces of those forgotten people who never thought they would be able to live with dignity and honour.

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Vol 56, No. 24, Dec 10 - 16, 2023