True grit and fearless persistence define Lilabati. She pursued her education despite no support from her family. When times were tough, she got going to secure her family’s financial security. Her experience of hardship inspired her to take on development work in her village that would help other women. She inspired women to come together to build a pond that would secure their water needs despite immense political resistance and threat to her life.
My name is Lilabati Mahato and I grew up in Dalkati, West Bengal with a brother and a sister. Our family was poor and my parents required us to work on our field. I was a curious child with a keen interest in school. I knew that education would help me make something of myself and end our family’s cycle of hardship. When I was in the 5th standard, my parents just couldn’t spend on my school fees anymore. As I was the best student in my class, my principal chose to fund my education till the 10th standard. Unfortunately, I was made to withdraw from school at 16 as my parents wanted me to get married.
Post marriage, I moved to my husband’s village in Dhobopuria. I settled into my new life reassured that my in-laws were supportive of my education. But as soon as I had my first daughter, the pressure to drop out of school started. I was driven to appear for my 11th standard exams, so I would cook and clean the house; put my little girl to sleep and cycle to school even as I was pregnant with my second daughter. I went on to study till the first year of college when my in-laws finally refused to take care of my little ones. They told me categorically that education would not help me raise my daughters and run the house.
2011 was the year that my pursuit of education came to an end. It was also the year when my in-laws told my husband that they couldn’t support our family anymore. We had to separate from them and find a house of our own. Without many options for survival, we became farm labourers. Our lives were hand to mouth, and there was no financial security.
A year later, my husband moved to Tatanagar for work. Our financial condition was so exhausting that I started a savings group (self-help group) with other women. Our savings increased gradually over the next few years. My husband would also send money every month. I then took a small loan from my savings group to rent land in the village for cultivation. We could now grow our own food and filling our stomachs stopped being a constant source of worry for me and my girls.
In 2014, a local organisation* came to recruit people from our village, who worked to promote new farming practices amongst farmers that save water. I was nominated for this position because I was the most educated in the village. I enjoyed learning how to prepare a field before sowing, how to keep moisture in the soil through applying mulch on top of the soil, how to nourish our soils with vermicompost and how to preserve groundwater.
I would demonstrate these techniques on my own land and then teach women in my group and in my village. Soon, even the male farmers started to come to me to inquire about how to transplant seedlings and make vermicompost so that less water is needed for cultivation. We were making progress in saving water as a village.
I also took up the position of getting women together to demand their right to work under the government employment guarantee scheme. This scheme (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) MNREGA entitled us to 100 days of paid labour from the Panchayat to build water structures of our choice. Since the water levels in our village were declining, we needed to build a pond that would store water and allow it to gradually replenish the ground water table.
Due to vested interests, the Panchayat refused to fund our village pond. They started to threaten village members who petitioned to them, but this did not deter me. I organised a march with 500 women from Gopalpur village till the Panchayat of Shahu Piur. I held meetings for women from various villages where I would convince them of the importance of demanding their rights. We met twice a month for over two years before they were ready to march. The Panchayat initially tried to intimidate us but then in the face of our resolve they had no option but to hear us out. This show of courage and endurance motivated other villages to demand their right to work from their respective Panchayats.
There was not a second where I felt scared about the challenges we were taking on as I had the support of women from my village. The Panchayat officials were quite agitated. They asked the women -
Who is this Lilabati, who had sent you on this march? We will root her out and take her head. The women calmly told them, “Forget her head, if you touch so much as the aanchal of her saree, you will see what we will do to you”.
The women got their pond and adequate compensation for their work.
I have been getting people from my village to come together to work on different projects for 6 years now. Earlier, I was too scared to demand for my rights. Guilt and shame were often used to put me down and discourage me from working. Today, no one says anything even if I come home after 9 pm.
Testimonial- “I want to put an end to the deprivation and indignity that women are made to go through. I want to help women earn a better living and emphasize the fact that women are strong and capable. They can achieve a lot if encouraged to do so. All I needed was some support, and this is all other women need too."