Self Help Groups (SHGs) are village-based programs usually with agendas of empowerment, development of leadership abilities, anti-poverty agendas, using financial intermediation as a starting point to these goals. In this interview, Community Correspondent Neeru Rathod speaks of how she inspired 11 women in Sonpari village in Gujarat to speak out against corruption in their local SHG.
When Neeru Rathod went to Sonpari Village, in Sayala, she met and was inspired by an incredibly unconventional woman, Kankuben. She began spending time with her, hoping to make a small profile video. During this interaction, she found out that the SHG Kankuben was associated was functioning rather irregularly. While the SHG had successfully saved a lot of money, and had even bought a van with their savings, the women often spoke of how a certain villager controlled all their finances. On further investigation, Neeru found that the local teacher, the husband of one of the SHG members, had siphoned off almost one lakh (100,000) INR. The van the group had bought had been subsidised by that amount at the time of purchase. This gentleman has also kept for himself various amounts of money borrowed by the SHG at the block & district level of administration in Surendranagar, Gujarat.
The women said that they felt completely disempowered with the teacher controlling their finances, and the fact that they were uneducated aided his thievery because they were unsure of how to bring him to book. With the arrival of Neeru though, they were certain they wanted to take action against the teacher. “I was livid when I heard this story. The very purpose of the SHG had been negated. I knew I had to help them.”
First Neeru filmed testimonies of the women, including the teacher’s wife. Then, she took the footage to the teacher and asked him why he was cheating the women. “You won’t believe what he said to me – he said that the women themselves had instructed him to use the money in the way he had! I showed him the testimonies then, and told him I would go to the Sarpanch.”
Overnight, the teacher called the Sarpanch & told him that he wanted to ‘return’ the van to the women. The next day, he tracked down each individual woman at either her home or the fields she was working in, to return up to 7000 INR to each, in total refunding the women part of the one lakh INR he’d initially diverted from their savings.
“Sonpari is quite a small village, with a population of about 300-400 people. This man was a teacher, and he knew that I am a correspondent. He was afraid that if this news became public, then he might lose his job. Before I could even begin to take action, he made moves to rectify his wrongs. One of the women & I were most keen to take this case up to the authorities, but the other 10 women didn’t wish to pursue it. The Sarpanch even reprimanded me, claiming that my job seemed to be to induce conflict instead of highlighting issues.”
Neeru’s unswerving focus on delivery of justice is a well-known fact, especially when it is related to empowerment of women or her Dalit community. Born into a Dalit family with 10 other sisters, Neeru is noted for her stereotype-shattering work in human rights. In 2006 the NGO Navsarjan selected her to be a part of the Community Video Unit set up by Video Volunteers. Committed to highlighting human rights issues in one of the most feudal and caste-ridden regions of India, Neeru soon became an expert producer and committed video activist, seeking to set right the social issues that she was highlighting and leading hundreds of people in protest. She has conducted hundreds of village video screenings, speaking into a microphone in front of a huge screen late in the evening to thousands of men, shattering their ideas about what a woman and a Dalit can do. Her work has brought water, roads, electricity – sea change to villages in her district. She has also made videos on sensitive issues like the AIDS epidemic and single women in rural India.
When asked how working on this story was different from her prior work Neeru sighed with resignation when explaining the twist in this tale. “I know the Sarpanch might have supported me in different circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that Sonpari is a village famed for zero police cases. The Sarpanch’s argument for not following up on this story was that he didn’t want to ruin his village’s chances for winning an award for being a zero crime location. I just couldn’t get him to comprehend that his village was crime free only in his imagination, but was in reality a place that had simply turned a blind eye to corruption. Perhaps one day I can show him the truth. Till then, I will have to continue trying to curb corruption with my camera, one story at a time.”
Interview compiled by Radhika.