Three decades back, with very meagre social security, periodic hunger was normal in the villages on the fringes of the Manas National Park. The Bhoraal system prospered in this desperation of the people, mostly belonging to disempowered Scheduled Caste and OBC communities. For every one monn (40 kg) of rice borrowed; at the end of the credit period, the family had to return three monn (120 kg). The Bhoraal system was essentially operated by rich men in the area who would pool together resources and lend it to poor families at an exorbitant interest rate. With time the system evolved and played the role of money lending to families in times of need.
The lenders and their affiliates would come in hordes to families unable to repay back on time and publicly humiliate them threating to break houses and take away cattle. With an interest rate hovering 100-120%; for many families, the brink of disaster was just never far away. And most families had no choice but to turn to the Bhoraal system in times of need.
When SeSTA started collectivizing marginalized women of villages into Self Help Groups (‘SHG’) around the National Park, there were widespread rumours of malicious designs. Yet women in these villages not just defied those rumours but led a movement that has collapsed the age old Bhoraal system.
SHGs run on the simple idea of 10-15 women coming together and periodically saving money. Once they have sufficient savings, the pooled amount is used for inter-loaning in times of need amongst its members; at a nominal interest rate as set by the group. Given the agonizing baggage of the past and the novelty of a new system designed to help the poor, within a year 24 SHGs were formed and functioning in the villages of No 2 Chikajhora and Bishnupur in Chirang district. This was the year 2014.
Yet the Bhoraal system seemed to raise its ugly head, once in a while. Sadasi Das’s husband was forced to borrow an additional amount of Rs 10,000 from the system for their daughter’s marriage in the year 2015. He could not repay on time but was smart enough to flee on time, leaving Sadasi at the mercy of 40 men hostilely demanding repayment. He was not seen in the village for another three months.
“I shouted at them. But I was drowned in the sea of angry voices. They threatened to take away my cattle within a week if the entire amount was not paid with interest”, she remembers, her voice still simmering with anger.
An emergency SHG meeting was called the next day; Sadasi broke down. Women from other SHGs also came forward. It was no more an issue of an individual woman. The required repayment amount was raised. Another resolution was also passed in this meeting: no one would ever take any money from the Bhoraal system from now on.
With every exposure, with every training and with every new skill, the women (many of them had never been out of home except for going to the market or jungle to collect firewood) in these far-flung villages grew in confidence. Soon they began negotiating with bankers for group loans. The Assam State Rural Livelihoods Mission also supported these women’s collectives.
By the year 2019, this women’s movement had more than 3200 members and has completely demolished the Bhoraal system in 30 villages of the Boro Bazar block in the Chirang district of Assam.
“This is our small bank- a bank ran by women like us. And every village has a women’s bank,” beams Lata Mondal referring to their SHGs.
But that is only one part of the story. The confidence that these women have got by uprooting the Bhoraal system has spread to all aspects of their lives.
Access to easy finance, new skills and SeSTA’s strong support system has lit up the imagination of these women from some of the most marginalized communities in India. One can sense the vibrancy of these groups as women come out in large numbers as vegetable entrepreneurs, able paddy farmers, livestock owners, shop owners and even saree sellers on cycle.
“I borrowed Rs 1500 from the group and bought two goats. Now I have a herd of seven”, says Aarti Das.
“Imagine, this woman who could barely talk to strangers, today sell sarees on a cycle to strangers”, laughs Lakhi Mandal, referring herself in third person.
Be it improved piggery, horticulture, fisheries or cash crop vegetable; women are not just leading the way in these villages but have sparked an entrepreneurial fire for the entire community.
For many women like Sadasi, SHGs are not merely institutions of easy finance. In many ways they define who they are and how they live today.
“For twenty years, we were virtually landless. Our one acre land was baandak (indemnity) against a petty loan. I borrowed Rs 20,000 from my group and got my land back. Look at my vegetables on my own land”, says Sadasi Das with a tinge of pride.