Technologies | Resources
Voices from the Field
Katherine Hay, February 1999.
The goal of Development Alternatives (DA) is to create sustainable livelihoods. But when we talk about sustainable livelihoods, whose lives are we referring to? Over the last few months I have had the opportunity to travel across India and meet many of the villagers participating in DA projects. We talked about their experiences with DA, but they also spoke about family, community, and their hopes and fears. This report is not an exhaustive list of what a sustainable livelihood should constitute - but rather, highlights some of the components and issues which emerged from these villagers' accounts.
For a livelihood to be sustainable it must, of course, meet individual and family needs. The villagers consistently pointed out how DA projects were better enabling them to survive on a daily basis. This was both directly (as a salary) or indirectly (through increased capacity to support themselves).
Before working with DA, most of the women I spoke with had worked as general labourers. Aditi works in DA's weaving scheme in Sathanur. She says that before getting this job she was dependent on sporadic jobs that paid about Rs 15 per day. Of her current job, she says, "In a month we're paid by how much we weave. We usually earn between Rs 700 and 800 per month."
Sharadamma is from Borankanive village. She used to earn Rs 20 for a day's labour. She says,"I alone had to earn and feed the family [and] I was not getting work regularly... I used to collect cow dung and sell dung cakes to earn my livelihood." She now earns about Rs 700 a month selling vermicompost.
Farida also produces vermicompost. "Before that", she says, "I used to prepare agarbatti sticks [incense]. I used to prepare around 1000 sticks a day and get Rs 25..." In the past, she adds, "We did not even have a mat to offer to anyone who visited our house. People used to hesitate to visit us. We used to sleep on gunny sacks. Today, we have purchased mats and proudly offer it to the visitors... Earlier, we had nothing to eat. People used to offer us stale food, sometimes three days old. We had no choice other than accept it. Today, the situation has dramatically changed, our family eats two square meals (a day), with dignity and pride, from our own hard earning. Today, people talk to us with respect."
Reducing poverty through meaningful work is one of the cornerstones of creating sustainable livelihoods. Economic returns aside, dignity and a sense of accomplishment are some of the non-monetary or social returns of such work.
Sense of Ownership
Many villagers highlighted the issue of resource ownership. For example, in Azadpura, DA has built 49 homes using appropriate building technologies. Discussing their experiences, the village women said, "When DA first came we used to think that when our own people could not do much for us then what will these females do. But... due to the new houses, we got employment. We now have the urge to keep them clean too. Names are written outside the house which gives us a sense of belonging... If somebody says our house is not strong enough we will fight with them! We will say, "NO!" our house is very strong!"
The idea of ownership was sometimes expressed as a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Farida, for example, had been working as a labourer since her childhood. When she joined the vermicomposting project, she says, "everybody [in the village] ridiculed me. I attended the training programme and decided to give it a try. I used to attend every DA meeting and I was keen to start the production. I slowly started taking vermicompost to different villages and started promoting it. There is nothing which is difficult in this. If we work hard we can earn more. If we do not work hard we will not be able to earn as much. From the profits we have earned we have purchased two cows and two buffaloes." Farida's average monthly earning from vermicompost is Rs 1150. She states, "My parents feel proud of me. They tell me that I am no less than a male. They think that I am working harder than their sons. Vermicomposting is the biggest achievement in my life. I am feeling that I am getting the returns of my hard work in this venture."
Whether talking about their homes, the village check dam, their employment with DA, or their micro-enterprises, a sense of ownership seems to pervade DA's most successful ventures.
From Vulnerability to Resilience
Meaningful work that meets social and economic needs is critical for survival. Making this work secure is vital for one's mental well-being. Thimmamma, a spinner in DA's weaving project in Sathanur, highlights the importance of building security into projects. She is visibly worried about her job as she says, "Recently, there was no raw material so I did not earn... I can manage to earn Rs 500 to 600 per month if there is regular work. We need more looms and continuous orders. That way, I will always have a job." A number of women indicated that lack of access to fair credit also creates insecurity. Kadar, a paper maker, says she is currently spending Rs 500 of her Rs 750 monthly salary paying interest to a local money lender. Some DA projects are in the process of creating or supporting micro-credit facilities and cooperatives.
The relief of having a steady and secure income helps to ease the overwhelming stress of vulnerability. As a group of handicraft producers at Azadpura elaborated, "We used to earn cash each day and spend it on our food the same day. We used to borrow money also. But now we do not have so many problems since we have a steady income."
Beyond a regular and steady source of income, other factors also build a sense of security. For example, when I asked some paper makers what they would do if they lost their jobs at DA, many seemed unperturbed. They stressed that their training in the paper making process had given them options. "It's very simple", they explained, "we will continue making paper in our kitchens at home!" Others mentioned that having learned accounting, reading and writing, they could start their own business or get another job. Strengthening people's capacities in a range of fields, increases their real as well as perceived opportunities, and decreases feeling of dependence and vulnerability.
Natural Resource Base
When we say that sustainable livelihoods must fulfill community needs, this includes both future and present community members. We can have no security if we degrade the environment. In every community I visited, villagers highlighted their reliance on the natural resource base. In some cases they talked of declining forests, while in others it was soil quality. Many people talked about access to water and the problems of inadequate rainfall.
Sita lives in a small village in Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh. Her family has 4 acres of land where they grow peanuts and maize. She is perhaps 70 years old. As she talks about her life she keeps coming back to the issue of water. "Water," she says, "is the biggest problem. It will solve all the other problems. I want the water problem to be solved so that my children and grandchildren will be happy. They should have water so that they can eat and live well." Since DA has built a check-dam in the village she says, "The water level of wells has increased. We are getting water due to the check-dam only."
Similarly, in Karnataka, Farida reflects; "Firewood is not easily available everywhere like the olden days. Now we have to go a long distance to get the fire wood... around four kilometres... We will leave other jobs that day and go and collect firewood."
A number of DA projects regenerate local resources and increase biological diversity. Others base production on renewable energy and some reduce energy use or resource consumption. No projects should degrade the local resource base or generate a net loss of biodiversity.
Equal Wealth, Equal Work
At a community level, sustainable livelihoods must promote equity in access to wealth, resources, and knowledge, as well as in the sharing of reproductive and productive labour. Equity can be very difficult to nurture as most communities are characterized by matrices of inequity along numerous social cleavages, including age, race, gender, class, caste, ethnicity and religion.
Certainly, one of the sites of inequity repeatedly highlighted during my visits was gender inequity. Many women spoke of beatings from alcoholic spouses, abuse from in-laws, and unequal burdens of domestic labour. Most of the women had been forced to marry as children - often between ten and twelve years of age.
Aditi is a weaver in the Sathanur project. At the age of twelve, she was married to a male relative. She says, "Our husbands are drinking a lot and that is a big problem. We try to stop them but they say it [labouring] is a very physical kind of work. They say they will die if they don't drink. It's bad if they drink but it is even worse if they don't have money for drinking. My husband forces me to give him the money I make which he then uses for drinking. On the average, I get Rs 800 -1000 per month out of which my husband takes about Rs 500 for drinking. I have to manage with the rest. My husband keeps telling me not to work and he does not like me to buy things, but I know I have to work to make both ends meet. So I keep going. But it causes problems... He gets violent and beats me."
Economic empowerment alone, does not make livelihoods sustainable. In some cases, the social context is so inequitable that social returns are almost negligible. Thimmamma, a spinner in Sathanur, says, "Though I am working now, but there is no difference at all at home in terms of respect. Nobody listens to me." Likewise, Mumta notes, "Although we are working these days, still no one in our homes or in the village listens to us. People coming from outside think that have learned a good deal and we are now earning but we know the truth. The money is simply disappearing. The only advantage we have now is that our finances are a little better but our life has not changed in any way."
Frankly, some of the women paint a rather bleak picture of struggling to survive in the context of domestic abuse, powerlessness, and alcoholism. If we are to learn how to create sustainable livelihoods it is necessary to share both success stories and challenges. Obviously, it will take more than a steady income to make these women's livelihoods sustainable in the fullest sense of the term. The entire community has to be involved as full participants in strategies to promote equity. Inequity is difficult to address as it is often socially sanctioned. The scope of the challenge though, cannot be a reason for inaction.
Without downplaying the power and persistence of inequities, change is possible. I was reminded of this by many villagers. For example, when DA first established the appropriate technology centre in Orchha, villagers used to associate only along caste lines. The DA staff broke down these boundaries in simple ways - for example, by encouraging everyone to eat together. As Sudha Yadav, who works in the paper unit, confirms, "We are all brothers and sisters here now."
Many of the villagers emphasized that breaking down caste barriers was very positive. Tara Devi, a lifter in the paper unit, recalls, "we learned here how to stay with others without bothering with class and caste. We learned how to communicate properly with others and how to recognize good and bad. We were even educated out here ...I have changed a lot now. Now I can talk with everyone properly and feel very confident. I am not scared anymore. No one is jealous here of anyone, nor do people fight with each other."
Change is occuring in other arenas, including gender inequity. As Sudha states, "A lot of progress has taken place". She adds with visible pride, "I am the first woman in my house who has come out for work." Many women highlighted the importance of education in affecting change. Halda, a sorter in the paper unit, says that before working at DA, "I used to stay hungry for 3 or 4 days. My in-laws didn't give me any food. My husband drinks too much alcohol and does not do much work. My time passed with great difficulty." Now, Halda now earns Rs 750 per month and says, "I have become more confident now. Previously, I used to feel scared of coming out of the house but now there is no problem." She attributes much of this change to the literacy classes. As Sudha reveals "a lot of progress has taken place due to education. The same people who used to initially use the thumb in place of the signature have made a lot of progress now."
A Woman's Strength
I was repeatedly struck by the women's ability to succeed despite tremendous obstacles. Teja is one such woman. She was married at the age of 10 and has four children; her husband has deserted her. Before she began working at DA she did odd jobs, including loading trucks and weaving baskets. She recalls, "to fill up the stomach One has to do all kinds of work." She began working at DA making compressed earth blocks. She quickly became quite skilled in her work and is now a trainer. She tells me that she is now very powerful - "even in front of the male staff."
The women I met were determined to provide a better life for their families. Many took the smallest opportunities afforded by DA and developed them into an adaptive strategy. I am convinced that DA's success in creating livelihoods, is largely due to the strength of these women. As Farida expressed, "The wish to live better is the driving force in me. I have my inner spirit pushing me to move forward and achieve something even when I don't have financial strength. This spirit is making me move forward even when other people are trying to ridicule me and pull me down."
In the drive to create sustainable livelihoods, DA has had many successes and faced many obstacles. The intent of this report is not to assess any particular project or to create a comprehensive list of what constitutes a sustainable livelihood. Rather, the intent is to stimulate discussion on the notion of sustainable livelihoods in the context of these voices from the field. My sincere thanks to all of the villagers who shared their stories with me and answered my many questions with patience and good will. They have provided insight into their lives and in doing so reminded us all here at DA of what it is that we are working for.
Technologies | Resources