Paanchvi pass and married off at the age of 10 - these are not the ideal living conditions for anyone to thrive. But that has not deterred Phoolbasan Bai Yadav from leading tens of thousands of women in their fight against poverty and gender bias. She hails from the Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh, a state mostly known for its rich mineral deposits and Maoist activity. Nevertheless, she is determined to script a different story for the underprivileged women resigned to their fate.
Yadav's journey started in 2000 when her group of 11 women bid for bazaar theka, a contract to collect tax from the shops in a market. Not a job meant for women, as they were made to realise by the musclemen of the contractors. But they refused to give up and won the contract. Tasting blood, Yadav and her team started mobilising other women through self-help groups (SHGs). Around two lakh women and 13,000 SHGs now operate under the aegis of her NGO called Maa Bamleshwari Janhit Karya Samiti, and together, they work for women's employment, education, health and sanitation. Yadav also claims they had made 50 villages open defecation free much before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission took off. It is not surprising, therefore, that she has received several national and international awards for her work, including the Padma Shri in 2012.
Yadav has done it all without seeking any financial help from government or non-government agencies. It is because the pillars of her movement are self-sustainability, self-respect and discipline. "We started by contributing Rs 2 per head, per month and now have `40 crore, deposited in different banks," she says. The banks provide three-four times the money in loans against the amounts deposited and the capital is utilised for employment generation.
"There are no banks in Rajnandgaon where our SHGs do not have loan accounts," says Yadav, adding that they have won the banks' trust by timely repayment of loans. "If someone does not pay on time, we levy a penalty of Rs 5 or subject her to public shaming."
The team has set up 30 milk co-operatives in 10 villages and sell 3,000 litres of milk a day. Yadav dreams of creating a 'mini Amul' in Rajnandgaon, which is Chief Minister Raman Singh's constituency. She is also running a company called Maa Bamleshwari Producer that manufactures and sells organic fertilisers. More than 1,700 women are involved in this project and the company has sold around 500 tonnes over the past two years. Other activities include rearing goats, cultivation of elephant foot yam and dealing in forest produce.
"Our women are now earning Rs 10,000-15,000 a month," says Yadav. "It is quite heartening as we want to stop people migrating to the cities to look for livelihood."