Selvi had to discontinue her education after 8th grade when her father suffered severe financial losses and worked as a farm labourer to support the family. She didn’t want her children to face financial hardships, so she joined a savings group to secure their future. Selvi’s earnings as a small farmer depended on access to water from a village water tank whose supply channel had been encroached by rich farmers. She mobilised a group of small farmers like her to prevail upon the rich farmers. Despite political pressure and threats, she succeeded in convincing them to release water. Selvi has powered on to become the treasurer of a federation of 3000 small farmers in Kallupatti.
While growing up, we had three acres of land and relied on rainfall for farming. My father suffered huge financial losses when I was in eighth grade. My younger sisters and I had to discontinue our studies and work as farm labourers to make sure we had food to eat.
I got married at the age of 16 and was fortunate to have a supportive husband. We raised a family with two sons. Our financial condition wasn’t comfortable and local money lenders demanded high interest rates. Yet, I was determined to ensure a good education for my children. I came across women’s groups* in my village who would save each month and give each other small loans. I then joined a group of 15 women.
I never missed a group meeting as we would discuss our household and agricultural problems. Some of us took loans for our children’s education, while others borrowed to buy agricultural inputs or water. We would get invited to federation level meetings at the block town. A federation is a body comprising of all group members in a block. My husband pushed me to attend these meetings regularly. At these larger meetings, we discussed ways in which we could ensure access to water on all our farms. Water was a luxury available only to the rich of the village. They used it for both agricultural and domestic use, while people like me had no water even for our crops.
Our village was suffering from drought conditions for many years. People were resigned to their fate, but I really wanted to do something. Persuading my village members to fight for access to water from the village water tank was a challenge that I took upon myself. Some of the supply channels from this pond were encroached upon by a few rich farmers. At one of the federation level meets, I met an executive council member, Palamiraj. He helped us draft a petition and put our case across to the district administration. Enraged, the rich farmers approached a local politician. Palamiraj motivated us to go and speak to this politician as well. The politician decided to call all of us to his house for a meeting. After several hours of discussion, he asked the rich farmers to clear the channels.
“This was the day that I realised the power of being united. When all of us put pressure, the rich farmers were forced to clear the pond channels. As a result, over two hundred families in my village now have perennial access to water”
The meetings at the block and the district level have been very helpful in improving my knowledge of agriculture and banking systems. I spoke to several women in nearby villages about the value of being in a group. In 2008, I was appointed as an executive council member in the federation, as the office bearer for Kallupatti, one of the nine clusters in our federation. Our cluster now has 30 groups and 500 members.
In the executive council of my federation, I was the only woman among ten men. I was a little reluctant to participate, but my husband encouraged me to take the opportunity. Through this position, I gained more knowledge about low cost agriculture practices and life insurance.
By 2014, the number of groups under our federation across clusters rose to 142. Towards the end of 2014, the federation members asked me to become their treasurer. I was hesitant to take this responsibility for over 3,000 farmer members! But the federation members and my husband convinced me to take on this opportunity- they told me about how I could help several others small farmers in my block who didn’t have access to water, quality education and healthcare.
As a federation leader, I wanted to support our farmer members with better water saving practices. I visited several villages to learn about their water management practices. During a visit to a nearby block, I saw farm bunds. This structure helped farmers store rain water on fields. They even told me that the bunds increased water levels in their wells. At that time, constructing ponds was the only way I knew to capture rain water. As there was a government subsidy to construct farm bunds, I promoted the construction of bunds through the federation.
My journey as a group and federation member has provided financial support for my sons’ education. Both my sons have now completed a diploma in engineering. I’m happy that almost all women in my village have joined a group. I seek a lot of inspiration from the stories of Chinnapillai who empowered over 60,000 women farmers in Madurai by starting a successful banking system to solve their debt issues. In the future, I want to get the different federation leaders of my district to work together. This will give us more leverage to advocate people’s needs to the administration.
I believe that integrity and transparency have helped me grow as a leader. I make sure that the disadvantaged women of our federation get loans based on their need. Bye-laws are strictly followed. This ensures that the federation members see me as a law-abiding leader. I feel that women should work together to boost confidence and bring about change in their villages. Our strong value systems will be the reason that our communities will look up to us.
Dhan Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Tamil Nadu