M S Jayalakshmi: Rebel with a cause

A Brahmin priest’s daughter defied tradition to help empower Dalit women in rural Karnataka


Ashish Sharma | May 6, 2010

M S Jayalakshmi, the force behind the Grameena Mahila Okkuta or rural women`s federation
M S Jayalakshmi, the force behind the Grameena Mahila Okkuta or rural women`s federation

The setting swiftly transports you to the screen classic Sholay. In this landscape dotted with evocative rocky outcrop, you can hear the hair-raising thud of heavy boots punctuated by razor-sharp dialogue, all played out on a stereophonic soundtrack within the recesses of your mind. You shudder at the prospect of a close encounter with a Gabbar Singh, with a Sambha somewhere up there and an array of gunmen all around. But this is no dacoit’s den. This is verily an antithesis of a marauding robber’s tale. Here, in Yalagondahalli village in Kolar, the easternmost district of Karnataka, the narrative is not about exploitation but empowerment of the local populace. Here, the protagonist is not a fearsome bearded raider but an awe-inspiring genteel daughter of the soil.

The story dates back to 1980 when an 18-year-old daughter of a local brahmin priest employed at Tirupati temple in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh listened to her heart and answered the call of a new organisation working for the welfare of malnourished children. She had just finished her tenth standard in school and she would have to give up her studies to work as a volunteer. She would also have to brush aside massive resistance from her parents and eight siblings, not least because the job required her to live in a rural centre 12 km away from home and serve mostly children from dalit families.

Three decades on, M S Jayalakshmi still wonders what gave her the sense of purpose and the steely resolve to take the leap. Three decades on, having shifted course along the way to spearhead an organisation that works for the welfare of rural women, Jayalakshmi still lives in a rural centre away from her family, now husband and daughter, and serves others.

“Friends and well-wishers often tell me that with my experience I should have looked for better opportunities elsewhere for personal growth. Maybe being a local person I can see a lot of work still needs to be done. Maybe because I am not so educated I feel my work is not about personal growth but about the collective growth of my community,” says Jayalakshmi, in fluent English.

Grameena Mahila Okkuta (GMO), or rural women’s federation, which Jayalakshmi helped carve out of the parent organisation, Grama Vikas, in 1997, has grown to become the apex federation of 500 self-help groups with more than 8,500 members. Each member is an empowered rural woman, each self-help group a collective force of 15 or more women. This collective force multiplied 500 times gives the GMO a persuasive enough voice that the decision-makers less than 100 km but a world apart in Bangalore, the state capital, are often forced to pay heed to.
With the result that over the years these women have managed to infuse more accountability into the functioning of the gram panchayats, or elected local bodies in the villages, by forcing mandated meetings of the gram sabhas, which include all residents aged 18 and above. These women also successfully lobbied for a reduction in interest rates on loans given by district cooperative banks to self-help groups, from up to 12.5% to 4%. Perhaps the biggest success, though, came when they campaigned against arrack, or country liquor, and persuaded the then chief minister H. D. Kumaraswamy in 2007 to ban its manufacture and sale even as it contributed nearly half of the state’s annual excise revenue.
Such successes have surely ignited hope, but everybody here appreciates that a lot more needs to be done.

More than three-fourths of the federation’s members are dalits, an overwhelming majority of them are illiterate and all of them are grappling with the curse of poverty and the wrath of nature. Ironically, Kolar is better known for milk, silk and, hold your breath, gold!

Living in a drought-prone area with no perennial rivers alone means a constant struggle for survival. The terrain and the stinginess of nature sees to it that you won’t hit water until you drill 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet into the heart of the earth. Credit it to the ingenuity and the enterprise of a 16th century ruler, Krishnadevaraya, that water harvesting has been practiced here for centuries before it became fashionable in urban academic circles. As per an estimate, this district alone has nearly 4,500 of the 36,500 plus water tanks in the entire state of Karnataka.

Functional water tanks in years of normal monsoon spell two crops a year for the local people. But that source of income is under increasing threat due to mining of sand from these tanks. Sand is used for construction in Bangalore and elsewhere in the state and if contractors are not stopped they are sure to despoil these reservoirs.

“If you dig out the sand from these tanks, their capacity for moisture retention gets reduced. So such tanks are unable to store water for use through the year,” explains Jayalakshmi. She has been writing to just about everybody in the government and after years of protests she is happy to note that finally sand mining is going to be restricted to just a few designated tanks.

“I wonder if they really promised to restrict sand mining because of our protests,” Jayalakshmi adds, though, with characteristic self-deprecating humour, “We had heard that the sand being used for the buildings in Bangalore was not considered quite fit for construction purposes. Maybe the government is just trying to ensure quality standards in buildings.” Illusion is a luxury these feisty women refuse to indulge in. They know from experience that even their acknowledged successes call for regular reality checks.

Take the ban on arrack. Though initially it made a huge impact and succeeded in weaning away a majority of habitual drinkers, many of who also indulged in violence against their wives at home, a creeping surge in availability of illicit liquor threatens to fritter the gains away.

Similarly, though the reduction in interest rates on loans given to self-help groups was a step in the right direction it did not extend to the nationalised banks where a majority of such groups hold their accounts. “While big industries get tax holidays from the government, we don’t even get reduced interest rates on loans from nationalised banks,” rues Jayalakshmi.

And, even in the case of the panchayats, members of the Okkuta note with concern that elected women are more often than not members only on paper and in practice their husbands wield all powers. “Most of the elected women in panchayats are illiterate,” explains Jayalakshmi, “They do not know the rules and the laws. So these elected women are actually known in their respective villages as the members’ wives. Such notional empowerment is meaningless. Numbers don’t mean a thing. We already have cases where as many as 42% members are women. How does that help?”

What does help, as many members emphasise, is to pool resources and strengthen each other’s cause. When the cause is common, it makes sense to have a louder collective voice. V Manjulamma, of the neighbouring Keelaholali village, who joined just two years ago, is already one of the 11 board members. When she says her husband, a mason, tried to dissuade her from joining by reasoning that she could get all the information she needed from the television or the radio, one of her colleagues immediately suggests that her husband must have actually feared that she would learn about and exert her rights at home. Instead, once when Manjulamma fell ill the federation immediately offered her Rs 5,000 for treatment.

Lakshmamma, of Doddamadenahalli village, who has been a member right from the inception of the Okkuta and is currently the president, remains grateful to the federation for making her more aware of the world around her and her rightful place in it. She says she also became a better mother to her nine children in the process.

Kalamma, the current vice-president, who belongs to Honnsetthalli village, has been a member of a self-help group since 1994 and she joined the Okkuta eight years ago. She says she learnt making soap, chips, choir mats, spice powders and incense sticks, among other things, at the self-help group, where she typically began by saving small sums of money like other members.

Mangamma, 54, of Doddamadenahalli village, echoes the sentiment of her colleagues when she says whatever the cause, women should get together to take the fight to the authorities. Mindful of this, in 2001 the Grameena Mahila Okkuta joined forces with 140 federations across the state with a total membership of more than two lakh.

Since the federation steers clear of government funding and relies instead on aid from global donors, when Jayalakshmi is not writing in protest to the authorities or organising workshops she is busy writing detailed project outlines to prospective donors. It is hard work, but she knows the one cannot be sustained without the other.

Her husband, a former co-worker, heads and lives in the campus of the parent organisation, Grama Vikas, nearby. Their daughter, who is now in college in Bangalore, had to be brought up by her grandparents in Andhra Pradesh because Jayalakshmi and her husband could never set up a regular home.

Where does Jayalakshmi, officially the administrator and treasurer, find the strength and inspiration to carry on, that too after 30 long years? “Poor people have all the patience in the world,” she explains, “If you tell them to come tomorrow, they will come tomorrow. If you tell them to keep coming back for some work, they will keep coming back without protest and even reason for themselves that the official must have had some other pressing work. Besides that, how else do we change things except by persisting?”

Have governments become more responsive over time? “Governments pay heed only when they have no choice. Else, they just devise schemes to rob the exchequer in the name of poverty alleviation. That is what is happening in the name of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. And that is just one example,” says Jayalakshmi.

Over time, though, a significant shift has taken place. The Okkuta has helped more than 200 women to register land in their name. “Ownership of land is the key. We even help in paying the registration fees if the land is registered in the name of a woman,” says Jayalakshmi, “More than any improvement in delivery systems on part of the government, this signifies a change in attitude. It shows that women are becoming confident of living on their own terms and that the society too is slowly conceding them some space. Once this change gathers momentum, the rest will automatically follow.” Amen!



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