Executive Council Meeting – May, 2016

Every day on reaching the AVAG office, I peep into the training-cum-workshop multipurpose room; curious to know what is the day’s new activity with residents of the Bio Region of Auroville. On Wednesday last week, the room was occupied by a group of 30 women; The recently appointed members of the Executive Council (EC) of the Udhayam Federation. AVAG development worker, Iyappan, was conducting their second meeting.

The members of the EC meet regularly, at one month intervals, to discuss their experiences with the Self Help Groups (SHGs) each of them are responsible for. They individually visit the different villages under their care and find out what are the needs of the women. They discuss the on-going activities such as auditing when the groups are paying annual subscriptions and women’s day celebrations.

The agenda of this meeting included devising methods of providing additional funding for the most deprived women in their groups, the physically handicapped, widows and orphans from the villages. They also discussed issues faced with the mobile banks set up by the Indian Bank to make transactions for SHGs in India. They discussed the AVVAI loans scheme for education of girls and gave the AVAG staff feedback on the recently conducted Summer Camp.

Council Meeting

This meeting was followed by a special group discussion. The women were divided in three groups and the topic of discussion was : How different was your lifestyle fifteen years ago; as a person, for your family, your village, the society. How is it now and how will it be fifteen years from now? The purpose of this discussion was to encourage free and open expression amongst the women, and also to analyse changing lifestyle trends.

Discussed below are some of the observations made.

Fifteen years ago, the average group member could not even sign her own name, an indicator of the poor literacy rate. Today the same women keep the books of their joint bank accounts. Traditionally, the village women had no experience of banking. Financial independence was a dream only a few even dared imagine, for bank accounts were a luxury of the rich men. Education in school was not compulsory and priority was given solely to the male child. Most girls wound up their academic careers before reaching the 10th grade. These trends are changing, albeit very slowly.

Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to fulfil the daily, basic needs of their families like food and clothing since their income level was lower. The women worked only in their own villages, mostly in the agriculture sector; on the family land or as serfs. Social and familial norms did not allow them to go out to work. Therefore, they had less exposure to the on-goings of other villages and communities. The woman’s place was limited to the kitchen, in the shadow of the men in their lives. They were not to sit in front of men as a sign of respect. The woman first fed her husband and children before eating the leftover food.

Group Discussion

On the other hand, the women observed that the prices of goods was significantly lower in the past. Informal barter systems still existed between villages.
The appearance of the mobile phone is a recent development. The impact of mass media and communication was not felt as strongly before. The number of vehicles on the road too were less. The prominent mode of commuting was on foot or bicycles. Now every household has 2 to 3 motorcycles. Consequently, the air pollution has increased noticeably.

In the past, children were more obedient of their parents’ wishes and rules. Now, children have a mind of their own, the values of respect are slowly getting lost. At the same time, the average daughter-in-law’s relationship with her mother-in-law has improved. This equation was based on fear as the strict family structure led to a dominating and over-bearing mother-in-law. This communication gap is slowly closing. There was no awareness of family planning before. The use of contraception is becoming more common now. The women claimed that the rate of female infanticide has reduced over the years. This argument was countered by Anbu (Director of AVAG) who pointed out that the method of sex selection has simply changed with the advent of technology, but the biases against the female child persist. The women claimed that child marriage has reduced. This point too was countered by Anbu who reminded the women of the young age they are intending to marry their daughters at. Fifteen years ago, there were barely any women representatives in politics, now there is soon to be 33% reservation for women in the Lower House.

Another striking development is the rise in alcoholism among the youth. In the past, mostly only older men drank. It was considered to be disrespectful if one appeared drunk in front of the elders, or smoked in front of them. Today, children as young as 12 years indulge in alcohol. The social ban on alcohol has disintegrated. The communities have gone from having a handful of drunks to just a handful of non-drinkers.

They discussed the changes in the natural environment. Earlier the water bodies were maintained collectively by the villagers themselves. They made sure that the surface water was clean for consumption, the rain water harvested and the run-off minimised. Now the water bodies are government maintained but there has been a lot of encroachment and unregulated effluent discharge. Fifteen years ago, there was no market for bottled mineral water. Drinking water was obtained from the village pond or well. Now people are forced to buy clean water from big companies. The women expressed the fear that perhaps in the near future they would have to start buying clean air to breathe.

Since more people were involved in farming before, the agricultural land available was more. The cultivation of millet, vegetables and fruits has now dropped drastically. Farmers have shifted to white rice and cash crops. Most of the land is becoming non-agricultural and eaten up by rapid urbanisation. Monetary value of land has increased but at the cost of the life of the land.

This is the price the people have payed for job mobility, which has increased in recent times. With this has increased the problem of dowry. Dowry is a long standing social evil in India that pressurises the bride’s family to pay the groom hefty sums of money and/or expensive gifts at the time of marriage. This practice leads to many families falling into the clutches of money-lenders and living a lifetime of indebtedness. In the past, dowry was a practice of the elite sections of society. It is a display of material wealth and power. However, over the years, this pressure has spread to economically backward sections as well.

Group Meeting

The increase in freedom for girls to commute for work, education etc. has been accompanied by a decrease in security for them. Safety issues for women on public transport etc. need more attention. Some of the women blamed the changes in fashion trends by exterior influences of the media for the deterioration of women’s safety status. Other women wondered whether what the woman wears should have a bearing on her safety, if it is not the clothes on the women but the male gaze that has changed.

This in-depth discussion displayed the women’s keen observation of their surroundings. It opened the eyes of many to what perhaps only a few were noticing. Such a discussion plays a significant role in shaping the way the women view their own cultural and economic history. It also helps them to develop shared goals for the future that they must design for themselves. It is an important first hand account of the players on the scene of a changing rural Indian context. Much of the changes in their natural landscape are directly or indirectly influenced by changes in lifestyle on the urban front. The role of media in closing the gap between rural and urban culture should not be ignored but responsibly used.

Lastly, these observations are testimony to AVAG’s efforts to create thinking communities that actively participate in self-development. The women not only are developing educated and rational views of their world but also believe in their collective power to shape the future.