Saraswati Das lives in the village of Darpashila in the district of Birbhum, in Bengal, India. There are two women named ‘Saraswati’ (the Hindu goddess of learning and culture)- so we’ve always called her ‘Choto Saraswati’ (younger) to distinguish her from the ‘Boro Saraswati’ (elder).
Saraswati lives in a tiny thatched house, which hardly even has a courtyard, let alone any place to dry the hay/straw from the fields. She owns no land of her own, but she works on other’s fields as a manual laborer and takes up any other work that is available. She even leased a small patch of land from a neighbor so she could grow a few vegetables- and this patch was carefully covered with an old mosquito net to prevent marauding chickens and goats!
Saraswati, like most of the other women in this village, never managed to go to school. She married young- had children and acquired a husband who never really did any work at all, although he was quite happy beating Saraswati whenever he felt like it.
Yet, in my two decades in working in Bengali villages, I have rarely come across a more cheerful person. She always has the widest smile and the warmest countenance and on meeting her, one’s own petty problems seem to vanish. When we worked on herbal health, Choto Saraswati became the group head- and she could make, demonstrate, explain the herbal remedies with a clarity that was truly remarkable. I once asked her how she could remember the recipes- and she said, that she had developed a habit of going over the pictures of the herbs and their uses before she went to sleep. Since we worked largely with illiterate women, much of our ‘awareness-raising’ materials were in pictorial form.
I recently ‘retired’ from my village development work, but was lucky enough to find a colleague who was willing to continue the work I had started as well as employ certain members of my village-based team. Srikanta Mondal is an agricultural scientist with decades of grassroots experience. He has embarked on an asset building programme where livestock will be provided to women- cows, goats, hens and ducks- and he is confident that in four years time- if the funding can be consistent- the asset worth of the entire village will come up to a consistent and steady level, allowing the women livestock owners sufficient cash for expenses such as their children’s education and other expenditures such as health.
I was very impressed at how scientifically Srikanta Mondal and his organization, Manab Jamin went about their work. In the first three months, village-development Block Officers of the Livestock Department, visited the villages and vaccinated all the cows, goats, hens and chickens in the villages under the Manab Jamin programme. For some villagers, it was the very first time they came into contact with these government officials who are paid (fairly high salaries) to work at the grassroots level.
It was only AFTER this step was taken, that Manab Jamin distributed the livestock. Once again, this was very democratically done. The entire village sat and chose the most deserving recipients. The first animals to be given in each village- were one cow and two goats. An essential part of the livestock development programme is that once the cow has calves the first calf will be given to another person in the village, and the same applies to the baby goats. Each time, the baby calves and kids will be given away, and the decision will be conducted in the same democratic manner.
You can only imagine how delighted I was to learn that the recipient of the first cow given in Darpashila was Choto Saraswati. There could not be a more deserving recipient. I think this decision was unanimous. Saraswati will also learn about how to look after her cow, whom she has named ‘Sonamoni’ (heart’s delight) including growing fodder- perhaps on leased land- and some classes are being conducted on financial literacy so that once the savings begin, these will be deposited in government-aided savings schemes rather than dubious privately run chit funds that have been so detrimental in destroying poor people’s hard-earned, hard-saved money.
~ Chandana “Mamlu” Dey
|Chandana relaxing in London - Photo Credit: Tonusree Basu|
Chandana Dey is a Founding Member of the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Gender, Culture & People-Centered Development; and Former Editor, Social Science Press, New Delhi