Imagination is the cradle of change, and this is what Nileema Mishra, the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership, has shown through a life dedicated to empowering the downtrodden women in India's rural areas.
When she was 13, Mishra boldly told friends that she would stay single forever so she could devote her life to helping the poor-she became aware of them while growing up in a middle-class family in Bahadarpur, a village in Maharashtra, India.With a master's degree in clinical psychology, she could have had a lucrative career. Instead she served her village, determined to give the destitute women and children a chance at a better life.
Now 39, Mishrahas remained faithful to her girlhood vow. In 2000, five years after finishing her studies and eight years of social work with the distinguished social reformist Dr. S. S. Kalbag, Mishra organized BhaginiNiveditaGraminVigyanNiketan (BNGVN), or Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center. It is a nonpolitical and nonreligious organization named after an Anglo-Irish missionary who devoted her life to helping Indian women of all castes. Under Mishar's stewardship, BNGVN has grown into a compelling engine of change in the village and beyond.
The organization evolved from a self-help group (SHG)built around simple computer literacy training to a vibrant network that has branched out from Bahadarpur and into the nearby regions of Shirsode and Mahalpur. SHGs are village-based financial intermediaries, usually comprising around 15 women, which are popular in India and other developing economies
But unlike other SHGs whose development agendas are often contingent on donor-designed models, BNGVN's groups learned and applied lessons along the way. Mishra's sole guiding principle had been Gandhian self-sufficiency: the villagers themselves must find solutions to their own problems. "Don't despair; we shall find a way." That has been Mishra's mantra to many a village woman who confided in her.
Found ways they have, as well as the means generated from various livelihood activities. To be sure, getting there had been a bumpy ride. Many women were reluctant to sign on with BNGVN's SHGs, having lost some cash in other similar money-saving schemes. But BNGVN's dedicated and committed volunteers never once lost sight of their goals. And with strong financial and moral support from Caring Friends, a Mumbai-based help group, they went on to set up shop in other districts. The effort had been a battle for credibility and confidence-building, every moment of which was well worth it.
Today, with more than 2,000 SHGs in 200 villages in four districts in Maharashtra, BNGVN is involved in microfinance; empowerment through SHGs and entrepreneurship; community sensitization toward "Gram Nidhi" (holistic sustainable livelihood approach), "Gram Sabha" (people empowerment and participation) and the "AdarshaGaon" (integrated village development); and need-based assistance through revolving funds.
BNGVN's activities have thus multiplied twentyfold: computer classes, sanitary-blocks construction (toilets for personal and community use), retail, child education, traditional quilt (godhadi) making, food processing.
The organization's centerpiece-if only because it has gained growing international attention and popularity-is the godhadi, which BNGVN now exports to Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany. The traditional quilts comprising layers of old sari and dhoti, have gone global, thanks to BNGVN's visionary direction for the local-and endangered-craft.
In an interview with the Indian Daily News & Analysis (DNA) earlier this year, Mishra said that the business has encouraged greater expertise in godhadi making among rural women. "We wanted to tap their talent, which would in turn impart good returns to illiterate rural women," Mishra told the DNA. "Austrian resident Anny Goldsmith, a fashion designer by profession, helped us choose the design to attract overseas markets. She even helped us in the marketing of our local godhadi brand."
Monthly, BNGVN exports almost 50 "designer quilts," priced between Rs4,500and Rs8,500 per piece. On the heels of the godhadi's increasing international appeal, the demand for the labor-intensive handmade designs has also been on the upswing in metropolitan centers like Pune, Nasik, and Mumbai. BNGVN reports that it has nearly 250 women engaged in the enterprise.
"At the start, the women didn't know how to make attractive godhadi," Mishra said. "With Anny's help, they have become experts. In a day, two women can make two quilts. The women keep ten percent of profits and the rest of the money goes to the purchase of cloth, stitching, transport costs, and so on. In addition, we also make 35 types of food items, for sale at reasonable prices. All of them are in demand."
The food items are marketed locally through BNGVN. Around 45 women involved in the enterprise have formed a cooperative that helps spread the gospel of entrepreneurship to the villages. BNGVN has helped the groups generate more income by making available raw material at wholesale rates, allowing thewomen to earn nearly four times what they used to make. With the steady help of Caring Friends, BNGVN has bought land to build a warehouse for storing grains bought in bulk.
Perhaps even more significantly, membership in BNGVN's self-help groups has expanded to include the youth and menfolk. Together they are reshaping their villages as a place of hope, inspired by Mishra's vision anddedication.
In the wake of a drought in 2002-2004, a wave of farmer suicides swept Maharashtra. Mishra's organization responded by setting up a revolving fund which the village tapped for loans for farm inputs and emergency needs, the construction of 300 communal toilets (to ease pressing health problems) and logistics for the activation of a village assembly.
The swift intervention spared hundreds of other families. In 2009 BNGVN, in collaboration with NGOs Agricultural Finance Cooperation Ltd. and Letz Dream, began disbursing loans of up to Rs100,000 per family. BNGVN assumed the sole responsibility for the recovery of these loans, at a yearly interest rate of 14 percent. This initiative, costing nearly US$5 million, has benefited more than 100 farmers, who have since gone on to avail themselves of better farming options toward improved farm yields. Notably, BNGVN has reported a 100-percent loan recovery rate.
BNGVN's democratic approach to microfinance institution imparts timeless lessons in genuine self-empowerment. By recognizing that every person wishes to improve his or her economic status, that the economically deprived will always need money to build and rebuild their lives, and that aid given in times of great need is the noblest intervention, BNGVN has shown what even Harvard-trained economists especially of this generation know: that for any development agenda in any country to succeed, it must always include the poor.
BNGVN takes its cue from member groups: the villagers determine what they need-say, irrigation or farm inputs-and BNGVN assists them in acquiring their needs and taking responsibility for them.
When asked which aspect of her lifelong work makes her most proud, Mishra points tothe villagers: "I am very thankful to them. They are ready to improve themselves."
Nileema Mishra's extraordinary journey through BNGVN has helped lift an entire village out of the mire of debt and despair.In electing Mishra to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Foundation's board of trustees gives a nod to her iron will and zeal in transforming the lives and livelihoods of the poor and, in so doing, setting an example for all the young people in the region.
BNGVN has laid out a 27-year development blueprint for the locality, in the course of which it hopes to work its way toward establishing an integrated model village. Ultimately, BNGVN, by vigorously helping promote the can-do attitude among villagers, helps create more places of hope where dreams of a better future stand a good chance of coming true.