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MP: A Decade-Old Tribal Self-Help Group Facing Closure Owing to Corruption

Kashif Kakvi |
Two major reasons are the non-payment of Rs 81.41 lakh in the last three years and a drop in profit margin owing to inflation.
A Decade-Old Tribal Self-Help Group

Bhopal: Four federations run by the women of the Baiga tribe providing employment to over 10,000 tribal women under the Madhya Pradesh government's flagship Tejasvini Self Help Group (SHG) scheme in Dindori are on the verge of closure.

Two major reasons are the non-payment of Rs 81.41 lakh in the last three years and a drop in profit margin owing to inflation. 

Between 2019 to 2020, these federations of SHGs have supplied millets (Kodo-Kutki) based nutritious breakfast (snacks, cookies, Kichdi, others) across 1913 Anganwadi centres of the district to over 49,438 children, according to the Women and Child Development Department's 2022-23 yearly report.

It came at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government is running an extensive tribal outreach programme after losing half of tribal seats in the 2018 assembly polls and introducing tribal-centric policies to uplift the community. Notably, on June 16, 2023, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, addressing the members of SHGs, pointed out that SHGs are a powerful medium to alleviate poverty for women.

The federations offered breakfast to Aganwadis after receiving orders from the Women and Child Development (WCD) department. The WCD launched this initiative to provide nutritious food to the Anganwadi children, curb malnutrition and stunting in tribal-dominated districts, and provide employment to the tribal women simultaneously.

These federations buy raw materials from the market or the SHGs and, after processing and packing, transport them to Anganwadi centres. 

But it has been three years since their payment is overdue, forcing them to take heavy loans of over Rs 60 lakh from local moneylenders, shutting down units and sacking employees. 

"All four federations are under debt of over rs 60-70 lakh," said a Baiga tribal Phoolmati Tekam, secretary of Tejasvani Malsuta Mahasangh, Gorakhpur. “Our profit margin, which was pegged to 7%  when the programme was launched in 2017-18, shrunk owing to inflation post-COVID-19. After COVID-19, the rates of raw materials like millet, oil and others have gone above the roof, affecting the cost of production and transportation. The non-payment of over Rs 12 lakh adds fuel to the fire forcing us to take a loan of Rs 17 lakh from moneylenders to run the operations,” he added.

Tejaswini rural women empowerment programme was launched by the Madhya Pradesh Women Finance And Development branch of the WCD in 2007-08 as a pilot project in six tribal-dominated districts, including Dindori, with an aim to link tribal women to employment. The SHGs began to shape into federations in 2013, and the department created nine federations in seven blocks of the Dindori district, linking 31,416 tribal women to employment and dividing them into 2,470 SHGs. 

Tejasvini SHGs were also involved in the business of Gond painting, manufacturing school dresses for children between standard 1 to 6, sanitary napkins and others. By 2019-20, their yearly turnover will cross over two crores.

But the state government's decision in 2019 to merge all the SHGs into the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NLRM) supported by the government of India turned into a bad omen for them. 

The shifting into the NRLM took away their yearly grant, other financial aid and technical and marketing help, which they have received from the WCD for over a decade, leaving them anchorless. 

NewsClick visited Dindori last month to meet with the members of these federations and tried to capture the work and hardship they have been facing owing to the non-payment of their supplies and inflation.  

"We took a bank loan of Rs 21 lakh in 2019 to set up a new unit to make cookies from millets and paid Rs 35,000 a month as EMI. We supplied everything on time. Yet, the payment of Rs 12 lakh toward our federation is due, forcing us to loan money from the open market, which surged to 17 lakh," said Phulmati Tekam, who became an ace young tribal entrepreneur from just a village girl.

Like Phulmati, Pushpa Kushram, another tribal woman who has become an entrepreneur with the help of the Tejaswini programme, is also going through a tough time as the payment of Rs 17 lakh is overdue.

Secretary Vikas Wahini Mahasangh said, "We have shut one of our cookie plants in Sagar Tola owing to the fund crunch. We have earned three awards for the best SHG in the district. Yet, we are on the verge of closure. Rs 17 lakh is overdue, and we have taken a loan of Rs 15 lakh from the local moneylenders who call a dozen times daily seeking repayment, and we feel ashamed."

Her federation runs two units, one in Sagar Tola and the other in the Gadasarai block of the Dindori district. They were forced to sack a dozen tribal women and shut down the production of Kodo-Kutki-based cookies owing to the non-payment.

"The state government is stressing the need to empower SHGs to alleviate poverty in rural areas. On the other hand, it's waiting for a decade-old federation to crumble," she added.  

When SHGs members held a protest against the non-payment in Bhopal after getting a cold response from the district collector on January 3, 2023, the directorate of women and child development wrote to the Dindori collector ordering to pay the overdue 81.41 lakh. 

The letter possessed by the NewsClick reads, "The federations in Mahendwani, Shahpur, Bajak and Kanjariya have supplied millet-based breakfast to the Anganwadi centres, but the payment of 81.41 lakh is overdue, and this is affecting their production and finances. Hence, clear the payment and this should not be repeated in the future." 

But it has been seven months since the letter was sent from the directorate, yet, the payment is due.

"Apart from non-payment, the SHGs have been demanding to raise the profit margin as they are incurring heavy losses, and their federation may crumble if it continues," said Yashwant Sonwani, project manager, Women and Child Development Corporation Dindori.  

Federations say they started from scratch a decade ago and built the federation brick by brick. "Our federation used to do the painting work on clothes. But we were forced to shut the operations in 2020 owing to the fund crunch," says Phoolmati Tekam. "We used to save over 40,000 a month, but now we are under a debt of over 17 lakh,” Tekam added. 

When NewsClick inquired about the reason for non-payment, speaking on anonymity, a senior official of the Department explained, “The federation receives written orders from the department. After delivering the breakfast at the Anganwadi centres, they took the receipt of the delivered supplies and submitted the same to the department for payment. But they were paid on the basis of the distribution of supplies determined by the presence of the children at Anganwadi in a year, not on the basis of demand orders they received from the department or the material they supplied." 

When asked why, he pointed out, "SHGs workers said that they received a message from a source that if they agree to pay 15% commission to a department senior official from their total yearly profit, they will be paid on the basis of supplies. When they turned it down, 20 % of their yearly payments were held back. They were working on a profit margin of 7% but were asked to pay 15% commission." 

Raseela Yadav (55), President of Tejaswini Vikas Wahini Mahasangh, Gadasarai, said, “Moneylender calls multiple times a day asking to clear the due. Besides, we were baffled when women who worked here came to the centre asking for work or when it started again.

When NewsClick met with Dindori district Vikas Mishra to enquire about the issue, he said, “The figures quoted by the federation did not match with the accounts of the Tejaswani district office. The mismatch led to the problem, and the department withheld the payment. We have formed a team to look into the matter, which will clear afterwards."

When enquired about the hike the federations have been demanding, he replied, "If we receive any proposal, we can look into that prospect."

Premwati Paraste, President of Tejasvani Malsuta Mahasangh, pointed out, “The SHGs and federations used to draw grants and financial support from the Women Finance And Development Department. But after we were shifted to NRLM in 2019 and in the transition phase, we manage on our own from funds to supplies."

"We built our federation with sweat and blood in the last 10 years. But if the current situation prevails for a longer time, everything will go astray," she said, seeking support from the WCD and NRLM to run the operations.  

NewsClick reached out to Deepali Rastogi, Principal Secretary of the Women and Child Development Department, over the issue. She replied, "I'm on leave but have passed on the complaint to the Commissioner, Dr Ram Rao Bhonsle."

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