It is 7 am on a December morning, with sub-zero temperature at Futsil village of Gangolihat administrative block of Pithoragarh district, almost at 6,000 feet above sea level. Pushpa Devi is already out at the milk collection center, located a kilometer’s walk from her home.
She checks milk samples for fat and solids not fat (SNF) content, records data in the accounts books of Kamdhenu Cooperative and then ensures transportation of procured milk to the administrative block headquarters.
This is a typical morning for Pushpa Devi and many others associated with the Kamdhenu Cooperative. The story of this cooperative is that of rural women running a dairy business, and becoming an autonomous and self-reliant institution.
Himalayan Gram Vikas Samiti (HGVS) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) working in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand since 1992. It has played a key role in facilitating institution-building in the geography, and in improving the lives of villagers.
The organization has been addressing key development issues through community institutions, in the domains of livelihoods, natural resources management, water and sanitation, and education. Living up to its motto, Jaag re Pahad – which translates as awakening the mountains – HGVS has focused on achieving self-reliance for community institutions.
Due to limited rural livelihoods, distress migration of men has led to an increase in female drudgery. Alcoholism is rampant among men, worsening the condition of women. Fragmented, inaccessible and undulating lands which are completely rain-fed, make agriculture unprofitable. Therefore, an alternate source of income becomes imperative. However, the capital requirement for starting new enterprise is still a constraint.
To facilitate savings and credit among women of this region, HGVS started self-help groups (SHGs). Strict adherence to bylaws led to a spur in savings and subsequent realization of venturing into new enterprises. Most women purchased cattle with the loans from SHGs.
“Initially women were mostly engaged in household work. HGVS formed two SHGs in our village. We started stepping out of the house for bank-related work,” said Shanti Devi of Kothera village. “Seeing this, other women also started demanding formation of SHGs. Today, we have seven SHGs in our village and the status of women is equivalent to men.”
An increase in cattle population led to surplus milk in villages. Traders in the nearby Gangolihat administrative block were opportunistic enough to dictate milk procurement price. Taking advantage of the difficult terrain, traders charged additional transportation charges.
In their monthly meetings, the SHG members discussed supply chain bottlenecks and decided to market the milk themselves. The members reached out to HGVS, which organized members of 14 SHGs from four villages to form a dairy cooperative.
At the meeting for SHG members it was decided that a self-reliant cooperative would be formed for milk marketing operations. A nine-member board was elected and Kamdhenu Swayatt Sehkari Samiti was formed. Equity was mobilized from members and the milk business was started in 2009.
The cooperative also started distribution of tea in 2013. The cooperative has also been working on breed improvement, fodder development and balanced diet for cattle. Currently the cooperative has 214 members with a cumulative turnover of around Rs 4.8 crore.
“People used to laugh at us when we started going to banks after the formation of SHGs. They said delivering milk would jinx our cattle,” said Shobha Bhatt of Futsil village. “Had we stopped that day, we would not have had the respect and financial status we have now.”
Business and beyond
Although women across the nation bear the brunt of household and agriculture work, they are still sidelined due to limited representation in decision-making and minimal interactions with markets. Kamdhenu Cooperative, through its well laid principles of self-reliance for women, has been a major contributor to empowering women.
An interesting fact about the cooperative is that, till now the cooperative has not taken a single loan or grant from any agency. The entire operation depends on equity collected from its members. The cooperative, apart from generating profits, has accumulated immense social capital.
The cooperative’s operations have generated local employment for local youth and members with high patronage. For example, members are employed on an incentive basis for procurement of milk at the collection center. It is also breaking other boundaries.
“It was difficult for people of SC community to become a part of village groups. After the formation of collectives, there has been a reduction in discrimination on the basis of caste,” said Phoolvanti Devi of Futsil village. “Also earlier, men used control household expenses. Now we have gained complete freedom over spending and savings.”
The cooperative helps marginalized families, from its profits. There has been a rise in flow of money in the villages and a visible shift in control over expenses to women. This has led to better education for children, and increased expenditure towards sanitation and hygiene. The women now raise questions in gram sabhas on other development aspects as well.
Since the formation of the SHGs, HGVS’ focus has been on self-reliance of the institutions. Norm-setting, clearly defined rules, effective monitoring and documentation have helped the collective become autonomous. The institutions were sensitized not only on income generation, but also on environmental and social issues.
Pushpa Devi, Shanti Devi, Shobha Bhatt, Phoolvanti Devi and many other members could have pursued a life of drudgery, dependent on remittances from their spouse and sons. But they chose to lead a life of collective efforts to gain individual freedom. The success of Kamdhenu Cooperative is an inspiration to millions of women striving for gender awakening, empowerment and self-reliance.
Dhruv Joshi is a rural development practitioner. Earlier he served in Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. He is an alumnus of Institute of Rural Management Anand. Views are personal.