Our villages, for the most part remain backward and bereft of opportunities. This is in spite of several initiatives by successive Indian governments to promote economic development and bring in better livelihood opportunities in the rural hinterland.
Lately, demonetization and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a huge spike in rural unemployment. The jobs scenario in rural India has been especially volatile since November 2020, with unemployment in rural India rising to 8.75% in June 2021, as against 6.85% in February 2021 and 5.8% in January 2021, as per data compiled by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
Notwithstanding various challenges, with the right training and support, several tribal women in the interiors of Khunti district in Jharkhand, are overcoming their hurdles and emerging as successful rural entrepreneurs.
Sushana Guria (27) of Koynara village in Khunti district has built up an enterprise selling lac. In the past, her family cultivated a few kusum (Ceylon oak / Schleichera trijuga) trees for lac on their 5-acre land, being Munda farmers.
Their farmland being largely unproductive, agriculture was confined to three months a year when they grew paddy, black gram and horse gram. Otherwise, her 7-member family, which includes her two children and husband, depended on their earnings from farm labor. The family had to survive on an annual income of Rs 25,000.
In 2017, Guria underwent a week’s training in lac processing along with 21 other women from her neighborhood at the Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums (IINRG), Ranchi. Torpa Rural Development Society for Women (TRDSW) and Edelgive Foundation facilitated the training. The exposure opened up a whole new world for Guria. She came to understand the technicalities of lac production.
Lac is the hardened resin secreted by the lac insect which feeds on the cell sap of host plants like the kusum tree or ber (Indian Jujube / Zizyphus mauritania). Kusumi lac commands the highest price in the market, followed by the bihan lac of the ber tree.
The training prepared Sushana Guria to cultivate lac scientifically, to choose the right host plants, use the right methods for pruning, choose the right pruning period, proper way of inoculation, harvesting and scraping. This ensured that she could harvest the best lac, and earn the highest possible price in the market.
In 2018, Guria planted three additional kusum and seven more ber trees on the family land. The very first year saw her earn a good income from the final produce. “A small loan of Rs 15,000 from the Gramin Bank helped us cultivate more kusum and ber trees for a steady income,” Guria told VillageSquare.in.
Four years on, Guria’s life has changed for the better. Now her family members play an active role in her lac business. She now grows 25 ber and seven kusum trees, and earns twice a year, since kusumi lac is harvested in January and February, while bihan lac is harvested in June and July. She has earned more than Rs 3,00,000 from her lac enterprise in the last three years.
Vegetable vending on the go
Cristina Herenj (25) belongs to a Munda tribal family of Patrayur village in Diyakel panchayat. Her husband, Deepak Topno is a carpenter, who also plies an auto part-time. Theirs is a 10-member joint family, including their children.
Herenj’s father runs a mini-mill for processing rice and wheat. Her mother and other members of the family work as farm laborers. However, the nature of the work done by all of them is seasonal, and hence does not guarantee a regular income.
Availing a small loan from her self-help group (SHG), and making use of the entrepreneurship development and micro-business skill training that TRDSW imparted, Herenj started a small eatery in Patrayur market. She operated on market days, which were twice a week. She then rented a room and stocked groceries.
Her eatery not only catered to those who visited the market, but also school children in the vicinity. But with schools and markets shut down under official orders because of the pandemic, customers dropped to a trickle. This compelled Herenj to close down. Her husband’s income also suffered since there were hardly any passengers taking the auto, while demand for carpentry work also ebbed away.
But rather than give up, Herenj borrowed another Rs 3,000 from her SHG, and started selling vegetables. She procured vegetables from nearby villages and sold them between 8 am and 11 am at the local market. Once there was some relaxation in the lockdown, she took to selling the vegetables by moving around the neighborhood in her two-wheeler.
She sold vegetables at the Jalthanda market on Wednesdays, Dorma market on Fridays, and Jamhar market on Sundays and Thursdays. Herenj now earns around Rs 15,000 every month. This has considerably improved the living conditions of her family, who have moved their residence to a central location. She looks forward to reopening her eatery too, once the pandemic is behind her.
Making masks to meet demand
For Jublina Kandulna (45) of Ambatoli village in Rania administrative block in Khunti district, working on the small family plot along with her husband Vimal Kandulna and other family members was hardly enough to make ends meet.
Keen to improve her lot, Kandulna enrolled in the TRDSW Entrepreneurship Development Program and learnt tailoring to supplement her income. Her microbusiness in tailoring brought an income of Rs 300-400 per day. The pandemic forced her to shut shop.
This was when her mentors at TRDSW stepped in. The government had issued a directive on the compulsory wearing of masks. But there were no masks available in Ambatoli village and the surrounding areas. Taking advantage of the opportunity therein, her mentors advised her to start making masks.
It was difficult for Kandulna to sell the initial lot of masks she stitched out of leftover cloth, since COVID-19 was yet to pose a threat to her community. However, with awareness drives, her masks were soon sold out at Rs 20 a piece, earning her Rs 400. As demand picked up, she stitched 50 to 100 masks per day to sell in villages and the neighborhood. Soon, all six members of her family had to be engaged in stitching masks.
The pandemic has seen Kandulna and her husband sell around 12,000 reusable cloth masks in 30 villages in Rania block so far by foot and bicycle, braving the forest terrain that is the hallmark of Rania block. She has been able to earn Rs 20,000 per month. Fully utilizing the demand for masks, she too has seized the opportunity, like Guria and Herenj.
Rina Mukherji is a journalist based in Pune. Views are personal.