Pioneering work in women’s empowerment brings windfall for Naveen Patnaik

Odisha CM was ahead of the curve in appreciating the potential of giving helping hand to women who are among the key factors behind his repeated electoral success

Debi Mohanty | February 13, 2024

#Naveen Patnaik   #Odisha   #Women   #Gender   #Development  
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik greeting SHG-led millet-based entrepreneurs during a meet in November 2023. (Photo courtesy: @mission_shakti)
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik greeting SHG-led millet-based entrepreneurs during a meet in November 2023. (Photo courtesy: @mission_shakti)

One day in 1997, during an interaction with a group of rural women, collector of Odisha’s Ganjam district, Santosh Satpathy – a Jharkhand cadre officer who was on deputation to Odisha – and his colleagues, could clearly notice the enterprising spark in them.

The women expressed their desire to take up some economic activities, preferably agro-related, and contribute to their family’s income. But, the problem before them was capital.

Though in emergencies, the local moneylender was their only hope, what scared them was the exorbitant interest rate – 120 percent or even more at places.
“The Collector had a plan in his mind for such families and was determined to give it a try,” recalled one of the officers present in the meeting.

After a few rounds of deliberations, an action plan was drawn up. As a pilot, 58 women self-help groups (SHGs), each consisting of 20 members, were formed.

Each week, every member had to deposit Rs 10 or Rs 5. Back then, even Rs 5,000 used to be a huge amount. The sum deposit was the group’s capital, from which the members would borrow at an affordable interest rate. Maintenance of register and book of accounts was a must.

“This is a pure mathematical modeling,” the officer said. “A year after, when asked how many of the groups had doubled their group’s capital, all stood up. For us, it’s an eye-opener.”

Subsequently, the number of SHGs grew. The administration helped the groups set up the block-level network and also facilitated market and bank linkages.

Incidentally, NGOs and civil society had tried the idea of women empowerment through SHGs in Odisha in the 1980s under the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) scheme. The movement remained largely unorganised, though.

However, the Ganjam experiment clicked. Later, it was replicated in other districts of Odisha.

Naveen enters politics
In 1997, former chief minister and Odisha’s tallest leader, Biju Patnaik breathed his last. After initial reluctance, his younger son, Naveen, who was not quite familiar with the politics and people of the state, joined politics. He headed a freshly formed outfit, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

In 1998, he contested and won the Aska Lok Sabha seat vacated by his father’s death. Aska is under Ganjam, his home district. His uninterrupted innings as Odisha’s CM began in 2000.

To be fair, it was a tough time. Ravaged by the late October 1999 super cyclone, Odisha was trying hard to limp back to normalcy. There were other challenges, as well.

However, the reticent Patnaik set out on fixing the issues confronting the state, calmly. He was aided by some of his trusted officers.  

Besides the post-cyclone rebuilding process, a string of reform measures across sectors to revive the state’s economy were undertaken. Though the health of the state’s finances was not in a good shape, Patnaik, pushed for five new special initiatives which included, among others, reduction in infant mortality rate (IMR) and Mission Shakti (for economic empowerment of women) in 2001.

His father is regarded as a true champion of women’s empowerment. Biju Patnaik was behind the first legal measure in the country to reserve a third of seats for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).

“It (women’s empowerment) gelled well with Biju-babu’s political ideology and therefore a natural choice for the BJD,” said the state’s former chief secretary, Jugal Kishore Mohapatra, who served as secretary to the chief minister during 2000-2004.

Mission Shakti began its journey. A thorough blueprint was put in place, best practices of successful models, such as SEWA (Ahmadabad) and Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, were put into practice. It’s said, the Sewa model was brought in by the chief minister’s sister, writer Gita Mehta, who according to an ex bureaucrat, was passionate about the idea.   

Many former IAS officers, considered close to Naveen Patnaik in the first decade of his rule, said that the CM discussed with them a number of times on the subject-women empowerment. “Naveen-babu’s commitment towards empowering the women is total,” recalls one of these bureaucrats.  

Cut to the present. With 6 lakh SHGs involving 70 lakh women across Odisha’s all blocks and urban local bodies, Mission Shakti is an incredible success story, today. In 2021, Mission Shakti was made a separate department.

Unlike in the past, even the rural women are more vocal today, have their own identity. They have cash at disposal and a say in the family’s decisions.

Over the years, the ambit of operations of SHGs has expanded- from farm-related activities to banking operations, public distribution system dealerships as well as technical jobs.

Even during the Covid Pandemic, the Mission Shakti women were at the forefront. They reportedly prepared 1.5 crore meals for people, stitched 4 million masks and distributed ration material to 8 million families.

“A remarkable social and economic empowerment of women is a reality today,” agreed activist and former Odisha information commissioner, Jagadananda. “It’s no more a social movement, but a fully fledged government programme with a department in place,” he added.

Politically, too, the Mission Shakti women have played an active role. Standing solidly behind Patnaik, they have helped the BJD win every state election. BJD’s women fortress has been a constant worry for the opposition parties.

“Possibly, he (Patnaik) saw the promise of political capital quite early in this mission,” thinks Mohapatra.

Take the case of 48-year-old Sarita Das (name changed) who lives with her daily wager husband and daughter in Bhubaneswar’s largest slum, Salia Sahi.

One day in 1998, when her husband suffered a snake bite, Sarita did not have the money to even hire an auto rickshaw to carry him to the hospital. Left with no option, hurriedly, she borrowed Rs 400 at 60 percent annual interest. It took her six months to repay the loan.  

By her own admission, things improved after she joined an SHG in 2003. Her group makes sattu for anganwadi children, package dry food items for pregnant and lactating women and adolescent girls etc.

Each of them earns at least Rs 5,000 a month, that too by spending only a few hours daily. At times, they receive additional work orders and make a few extra bucks as well. Most importantly, they avail loans from the group at 18 percent interest.  

“We don’t have to borrow from others anymore, it’s a huge relief,” declared Sarita. “Life has changed a lot because of Naveen sir. He has looked after us like a true guardian,” she said.   

Across Odisha, women, particularly the poor women, express with gratitude that Patnaik has ensured them food. The Re 1/kg scheme is often described as a political masterstroke.

“It’s cemented in their mind that Patnak is doing everything for them. They are enamoured of him and feel at home with him at the helm of the state,” explained Sahu.

“On the flip side,” Sahu observed, “Though he raised women's reservation to 50 percent in PRIs, political empowerment of women has not been achieved as the husband/brother of the woman PRI member calls the shots.”

Critics felt that by prioritising political gain through the SHG movement, its potential as a tool of entrepreneurship and empowerment has been substantially compromised. They also raised concerns over the findings of the National Crime Record Bureau’s (NCRB) report which says, in 2022, Odisha stood fourth among all states in the rate of total crime against women.

Senior BJP leader and Bargarh MP Suresh Pujari argued that the process of real empowerment of women gained momentum during the Vajpayee government and became a national phenomenon.

Claiming that his party had the blessings of Odisha’s women voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls (BJP’s tally rose to eight seats from one in 2014), Pujari said, “Once we proved that we are a qualitative opposition, the barrier (BJD’s women vote bank) will disappear.”

Activists, however, are concerned with the increasing involvement of SHG women by political parties in different events. “Unless the trend is checked the purpose of the mission will be defeated,” said Jagadananda.  

Women’s Empowerment

•    Aska Lok Sabha MP (from 2019) Pramila Bisoyi is from the SHG movement
•    Mission Shakti Scooter Yojana seeks to provide crucial mobility support to 2 lakh Mission Shakti federation leaders and community staff. Under the scheme, the SHG members will get full interest subvention on bank loans up to Rs 1 lakh for purchase of scooters. The government will pay Rs 528 crore as interest for the loans over the next five years. On the inaugural day last October, 15000 scooters were distributed.
•    Budgetary allocation of Rs 2,554 crore under the overarching Mission Shakti programme during 2023-24
•    In January 2023, Naveen announced interest free loans of Rs 50,000 crore for SHGs over the next five years. “Women’s empowerment is not a slogan, but a non-negotiable code,” he said.
•    In 2022- 23 credit-flow to SHGs crossed Rs. 11,000 crore.




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