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Editorial Articles

Issue no 14, 01-07 July 2023

Empowering Rural Entrepreneurs through Cluster Level Federations

Sagar Kisan Wadkar

Naveen Kumar Singh


Self-Help Groups or SHGs are a grassroots informal organisations aiming at empowering rural women. SHGs normally include 10 to 20 members who pool their resources, work together to save money, and provide a helping hand to one another, and engage in income generating activities. In India, the Self-Help Group (SHG) movement gained traction in the 1980s and has since evolved into an effective instrument for reducing poverty and promoting women's autonomy. During the first phase (1984-2011), the emphasis was on promoting SHGs and instilling a 'thrift & savings' mindset among SHG members. The aim of the second phase (2012-13 onwards), i.e., the current DAY-National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) initiative of the Ministry of Rural Development, is on up-scaling and institutionalisation of SHGs across the Country. Under this Mission, SHG movement has also promoted social empowerment, with women adopting active leadership positions in their communities. SHG members take part in Gram-Sabha and in a variety of community development activities, such as organising awareness campaigns, pushing for women's rights, and carrying out social welfare programmes. Despite the fact that SHGs have demonstrated a tremendous potential for community empowerment, they usually require the guidance and assistance of professionals in order to attain their full potential. The provision of knowledge sharing, technical assistance, training, and mentorship to SHG members is a vital duty that is normally carried out by professionals working in mission management units ranging from the block level to the district, state, and national levels. Nonetheless, despite their important contributions, SHGs face a number of obstacles, including limited access to finance and financial services, lack of market links, limited government aid, member movement, and so on. The Self-Employed Women's Association was founded in 1972, which is regarded as the start of the Self-Help Group movement in India. Its revolutionary potential during the COVID-19 pandemic, played an important role in the improvement of rural communities by providing women with more agency.


Present Status: There are about 120 million SHGs in India, with around 88% of those SHGs being solely for women. Kudumbashree in Kerala, Jeevika in Bihar, Mahila Arthik Vikas Maha Mandal in Maharashtra, and Looms of Ladakh are examples of successful organisations. The Self-Help Group Bank Linkage Programme (SHG-BLP) launched in 1992, has evolved to become the world's largest microfinance programme. According to the Economic Survey of India Report 2022-23, the SHG-BLP consist of 142 million households working through 11.9 million SHGs. These households have a total of 472.4 billion rupees in savings deposits and 1,510.5 billion rupees in outstanding collateral-free loans. The number of credit-linked SHGs has increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8% during the past ten years (FY13 to FY22), while the amount of credit disbursed by each SHG has increased at a CAGR of 5.8%. Incredible as it may sound, SHG has repayment rates that are higher than 96%, which demonstrates both their credit discipline and their dependability. Currently, the emphasis is on scalingup and skilling of these SHGs and their village organisations (primary level) into Cluster Level Federations (CLFs) in order to create sustainable livelihood opportunities, boosting financial inclusion, and social empowerment. As per NRLM data 2022-23, the process of registering 29,944 CLF in currently underway. Out of this, around 6,386 CLFs have been successfully registered. The success stories of SHGs and CLFs show that the potential for collective action and grassroots empowerment exists, despite the difficulties that SHGs must overcome. The SHG movement has the potential to extend its reach and have beneficial impact on the lives of millions of people if it receives consistent assistance from experts, government agencies, and civil society organisations. The SGHs and village organisations first collaborated on their own, but eventually federated to form Cluster Level Federations (CLFs) with the goal of collaborating, pooling resources, and making higher-level collective ownership and collective decisions. As a result of this consolidation, their influence, access to finances, advocacy skills, and ability to carry out larger-scale operations have all grown. This article attempts to portray how the CLFs are unleashing opportunities for women and youth though the lens of "Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd.’’


Evolution of Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd.: The Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd. began as a secondary level SHG federation. It had about 2,300 SHG members at the time and was made up of 17 local organisation. This collaborative effort was critical in bringing together a range of government schemes and ensuring the participants' economic, nutritional, and livelihood security. Swabhiman chose to be incorporated as a cooperative society in line with the Bihar Self-Supporting Cooperative Society Act of 1996 as a consequence of its impact. Swabhiman now has 9,555 members.


Multitude of Business Activities: Swabhiman's operations cover a wide range of sectors, all of which have a direct or indirect impact on the lives of its members. It provides a wide range of services, including financing, insurance, stitching, agricultural equipment services, farmer training and information centres, goat breeding, fisheries, and poultry production, among others. It indirectly support extension of agricultural inputs, peasants education, and aggregation of agri-outputs. This multi-sectoral strategy guarantees a holistic approach to rural development and empowers its members in a number of livelihood fields. Swabhiman has hired a number of community specialists to assist project employees from the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (BRLPS) in handling a wide range of activities. This has allowed Swabhiman to manage a range of tasks more successfully. These professionals perform critical responsibilities in aiding with the implementation of various projects and offering support to members of the community. The following are some of the job opportunities offered by Swabhiman and such CLF cooperatives:


·         Credit Professionals: These individuals are responsible for serving as loan officers, credit analysts, and risk managers. They ensure responsible lending practises and offer financial support to the members of the organisation.


·         Experts in Stitching: Tailors, designers, pattern makers, and quality control professionals are employed to supervise the manufacture of garments, various stitching techniques the development of designs, and quality control.


·         Services Relating to Agricultural Machinery and Equipment: In order to support agricultural activities, businesses need to employ technicians and mechanics who are skilled in the operation, maintenance, and repair of agricultural machinery and equipment


·         Agricultural trainers, extension workers, and subject matter experts: They provide instruction, assistance, and information on contemporary farming techniques, crop management, and best practises to increase agricultural output through Farmer Training and Information Centres (FTICs).


·         Vets and Paravets: Animal husbandry specialists, veterinarians, and livestock breeders are all employed in order to provide expertise in the areas of goat breeding, healthcare, and management


·         Fisheries: Aquaculture professionals and fisheries managers with understanding of fish farming techniques, pond management, disease control, and marketing of fishery products are employed to assist the activities associated with fisheries.


·         Poultry: The administration of poultry, the selection of breeds, the upkeep of their health, and the composition of feed all require the expertise of poultry specialists, veterinarians, and the administrators of poultry farms.


·         Farm Input Supply: Professionals that specialise in agro-inputs make certain that seeds, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs are delivered in a timely and effective manner to support farming activities


·         Output Aggregation: In order to facilitate the aggregation and sale of agricultural produce, market analysts, market linkage experts, and supply chain coordinators with understanding of market trends, pricing mechanisms, and logistics management are engaged.


·         Management Practises: Administrative employees, accountants, and domain managers are employed to oversee the day-to-day operations, financial management, monitoring, and assessment of Swabhiman's activities. Additionally, there are domain managers who are responsible for the overall management of the domain.


The constant advancement of Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd. has substantially transformed the lives of individuals who are a part of it. Because it provided them with legal financing and insurance, they were able to invest in their businesses, increasing their standard of life and bringing them closer to financial security. Furthermore, the cooperative has encouraged social inclusion and participation in local government systems, allowing its members to participate in decision-making and speak on behalf of their own communities. Certain prerequisites must be met before attempting to match Swabhiman's level of achievement. Some of these include sense of ownership and belongingness, appropriate legal frameworks, institutional support from government organisations, economic opportunities for livelihood development, social acceptance and inclusion of marginalised communities, handhold support from domain experts, adoption technological resources, and a focus on environmental sustainability. Other CLF Cooperatives, if they fit these criteria, can work towards similar rural development objectives. Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd.'s journey can serve as a model for other cooperatives and selfhelp organisations, emphasising the importance of collective action in the promotion of sustainable development and empowerment. Cooperatives have the ability to make long-term, positive change in the lives of individuals and communities if they are effective in forming partnerships, building individual and collective capabilities, and promoting inclusive practices Conclusion The Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti Ltd. is an example of the outstanding job opportunities available via Cluster Level Federations (CLF) Cooperatives. Swabhiman has been able to give job opportunities to professionals from a range of various sectors as a result of the vast diversity of operations, which has contributed to the cooperative's capabilities to run efficiently and continue to develop over time. Swabhiman's success in implementing member-intensive interventions may be attributed to the organisation's dedication to standard management practises as well as the formation of committees specialised to various disciplines. Employing professionals with diverse skill sets allows the cooperative to function effectively, make optimal use of existing resources, and create the most potential impact with the activities it undertakes. The story Swabhiman Jeevika Mahila Swavlambi Sahkari Samiti demonstrated the potential avenue for the Self-Help Group (SHG) movement in India by registering their SHG federations as cooperatives. This approach can bring several benefits and opportunities like enhanced legal status, collective bargaining power, access to institutional support, risk sharing and resource mobilisation, professionalisation and governance, scaling up and replication and so on. Ultimately, the potential of SHG federations as registered cooperatives lies in their ability to enhance collaboration, strengthen their voice, access resources, and achieve sustainable development for their members and communities.


[The authors work as an Adviser and Project Officer for the National Cooperative Union of India (NCUI), New Delhi. E-mail: sagarkwadkar@gmail.com.)

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