STORY OF THE MONTH
Bimla Bisht (38): from farm-work to management, and why working for a women’s cooperative is so important to her local community.
In the small village of Reetha, a little way down the road from the Chirag main campus, the women’s cooperative is thriving. With over 100 members they trade in a large range of fruit and vegetables, selling them at market for profitable prices and ensuring that those who grow what is sold get back the money they earn. During my time interning at Chirag in the sticky monsoon months this summer, I was invited to join two other visitors in attending a routine meeting held between members of the cooperative and Chirag staff from the livelihoods department. Around the small sparsely furnished room sat a number of female members, cross-legged, patiently waiting for their visitors to open the meeting. Based on my first impression of the group, I’d have had trouble pointing out which of the ladies was the cooperative’s chairperson. Throughout the meeting, Bimla Bisht remained quiet and collected, seldom contributing to the discussion led by the visiting males. Her young son sprawled dozily across her lap, and as she listened intently and amusedly to the impromptu maths lesson that was taking place across the room between the visiting Ernst & Young employee and the local women, she rocked him and brushed away the flies that landed on his face. Once the meeting was over, I asked if she would tell me what a day in her life looks like, and how her work at the cooperative fits in with her role as housewife, farmer and mother.
When my day starts with a 5 am wake-up, so do my chores. In the busy hours before the rest of the family leaves for school or work (or in my husband’s case, both, as he teaches at the Chirag primary school), I spend my time cleaning the house, trimming the grass and tidying the land outside, before preparing breakfast rotis for everyone. I have four older daughters, one of whom works at the B2R centre, and the younger two are in their final years of study. My youngest child, my only son, is five years old, and is in his first year at the Chirag school.
Once my husband and children have been fed and have left the house, it’s the animals’ turn, so I head down to the animal shed to tend to our cows and hens before locking them inside for the day. I then collect water for the house, and prepare food for the family’s lunch. Chores done for the morning, I leave all household business behind me for a few hours and make the short walk to the cooperative’s office at Reetha, just off the dusty village square. On an average day I might spend three or four hours working there, but when a particularly large amount of fruit comes in, or there’s more grading and packaging to do than usual, I’ll end up staying longer – perhaps until around 5pm.
Though I belonged to the Reetha cooperative before, it was always as a producer, selling on the goods that I grew at home. Belonging to the cooperative helps us local women to get good prices for our products, and is very valuable for giving us more control over our own trade and financing. When the children were younger I worked as a nursery teacher in Balwadi primary government school where they attended. But now my daughters are nearly grown and have become more independent of me, so about a year and a half ago I started to look for work from within the cooperative itself in order to better my knowledge of the trading process and improve my practical skills: now, I have to grade the fruit we receive, make arrangements for packaging it, and use my written skills. Deciding to change job was a natural progression as our family grew up and changed, and becoming chairperson has brought some very positive changes to my lifestyle! As well as the more flexible working hours, I now earn slightly more than I did before – 300 rupees per month for my part-time role. All this means I’m able to save more, and look ahead to my children’s schooling and future lives.
Being so involved with the committee also has its social benefits, and I have made some good friends through working closely with the other women. I enjoy the strong sense of community which I get from dealing with local people on a daily basis – both in this job and also through my role as treasurer of the Nav Jyoti Self Help Group (SHG). One of the primary objectives of the fruit and vegetable cooperative is to raise the economic status of the poorer women in the area, and in being part of this cooperative our women are more capable of having some financial independence. In some families, it may be the case that the male members are reluctant to support the women, and spend the family income as they choose. Being a member of a cooperative is therefore not merely a way for a woman to develop a career in animal husbandry or trade, but also to belong to a developed network of women who can offer support to their peers.
Perhaps because of the number of cooperatives and SHGs working in our area, I believe that women here have a relatively large amount of freedom. It’s the weather which poses the greatest threat to their livelihoods: if the harvests are bad, they can’t produce goods, and if they can’t produce, they can’t earn.
Sadly, the rural farmers in these parts face a constant and increasingly challenging battle against dramatic changes in the climate which can ruin their crops and cause poor harvests. But as Bimla explained, belonging to the cooperative is one way for local people to get the most out of the goods that are produced, while gaining financial independence and empowerment in the running of their small farming businesses.
While most of us would run out of hours in our day, farmer, housewife, mother and businesswoman Bimla Bisht coolly shows how all plates can be kept spinning at once, and in the process has flourished as a working woman in her community.
Anna lives and studies in the UK. She was an intern at Chirag for six weeks during the summer of 2012.