The profitability of marginal conventional agriculture has declined so dramatically over the last few decades that many farmers have been driven into economic and psychological depression.
The only alternative is daily labour jobs, which pay, on average, ₹300 per day—approximately $4.20 US dollars. However, the work is highly irregular and unfulfilling. Moreover, before the income from these labour jobs ever reaches the families waiting at home, much of it has already been spent on alcohol and tobacco.
In the villages, women do a lot of manual work, both in the household and in the fields during the main agricultural seasons. They carry large quantities of water in pots hoisted up to their waists or gracefully balanced on their heads. They also help prepare the fields, plant the crops, and are fully involved in the harvests. When the family does not have enough basic income from their agriculture, the women are forced to go for daily labour jobs, inevitably leaving the children and households to manage for themselves.
It is clear that additional income opportunities must be nurtured in the villages. Even though most villagers do not have access to sophisticated equipment or specialised education, there are many kinds of enterprises that can be started. Over the last five years, Amrita SeRVe has supported a vast range of income generation projects.
A Self-Help Group (SHG) is formed by 10 to 20 individuals, typically women, who agree to meet once or twice a month to deposit a regular amount that is decided upon by the members. Amrita SeRVe supports women in organising themselves into SHGs. Their monthly savings are paid into a joint bank account that is opened in the name of the SHG and managed by a group-elected president and treasurer. As these savings build up, SHG members in need of an immediate short-term loan are able to make a request at a group meeting. When approved by the other members, the loan is given at a small interest rate along with a feasible repayment schedule.
Benefits to this self-administered micro-finance scheme include both an absence of hindering bureaucracy and an increase of group earnings through interest collection. However, the real advantage of an SHG lies in the strength of the community spirit that develops over time. As these women pool their resources and get used to collective decision making on a financial level, thousands of SHGs mentored under the M.A. Math’s AmritaSREE project in Kerala have demonstrated clear signs of empowerment. These groups have grown into highly efficient and compassionate institutions, benefitting not only their members’ families, but their entire communities.
For Amrita SeRVe, the SHGs are a primary gateway into the community. Health workers join SHG meetings at least once a month to raise awareness on various health-related topics. In addition, each SHG is asked to appoint one health leader along with an educational leader to take responsibility for monitoring the health and educational needs of the other members and their families. The health leader encourages sick family members to go to the hospital, explains hygienic practices, and sets positive health-related examples. At the same time, the educational leader keeps an eye on regular school attendance and the continuation of studies of the members’ children. If anything is lacking in any area, it can be addressed in the group and collective solutions found.
It is through SHGs that Amrita SeRVe implements income generation projects. The women are encouraged and supported in every possible way to start an income-generating venture. The M.A. Math offers all of its affiliated and eligible SHGs dedicated seed money. The intention behind this boost in their common fund is to increase their lending base while making it easier to embark upon an income-generating enterprise. Village coordinators also deliver stories of empowered women and moral values adapted from India’s great epics for reflection and inspiration.