One of the proven ways to improve women empowerment in rural India has been the Self Help Group approach. As SHGs graduate towards micro-enterprise activities which are sustainable, women are experiencing economic empowerment.
A number of business houses, NGOs as well as the government are currently involved in SHG formation. There is provision of financial support in terms of subsidised loans to SHGs for venturing in to micro-enterprise activities under various government programmes like Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana, Prime Minister Employment Generation Programme and others.
Yet, surveys reveal that many such enterprises have not provided sustainable or decent livelihoods. This may be due to non-suitability of the enterprise activity to the area or incorrect choice, failure to market the produce or service, lack of cohesion and co-operation among the members. Enterprises which received some type of formal support, particularly in marketing and credit requirements on an average performed better in comparison to stand alone enterprises. This is where CSR comes in.
Empowering women and encouraging their entrepreneurial spirit has become a vital aspect of CSR for business houses like the Tata Group, HUL, Vedanta, Hindalco, Jindal and many others. The CSR projects are mostly carried out in the surrounding areas of the main operational regions, particularly in villages situated closer to the factory location.
For instance, in the case of Jindal Steel, the CSR activities are concentrated around Hisar (Haryana), Jajpur (Odisha), Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh), and Gurgaon in the Capital region. They have partnerships with non-profit organizations and specialised agencies in most cases.
Some companies like Tata steel, have supported the formation of more than 500 rural enterprises in agriculture, poultry, livestock and community entrepreneurship over the last two decades. It continues to work untiringly towards furthering empowerment by facilitating the formation of around 200 women SHGs every year, who are encouraged to venture into income generating activities.
Business houses can provide the necessary guidance towards the setting up of micro-enterprises by groups of women belonging to SHGs as well as individual women who want to operate an enterprise as a sole proprietor. Studies have shown that improper selection of the enterprise activity as well as the inability to market the product or service affects the viability and continuity of the enterprise over time.
Some enterprise activities like the setting up of a food processing plant or a dairy would require bigger investments due to larger scale of operations. The size of the business may then range from small to medium scale. In these cases, the corporate can also enter in to partnership with a large group of women to operate the enterprise jointly and could follow a social enterprise model.
The ownership could either be a co-operative model where many SHGs are federated and organised by the corporate who acts as a ‘Godfather’. The corporate could subsidise the initial investment either through an endowment or a soft loan. Or, the enterprise could be developed as a joint partnership, with the corporate having joint ownership (holding a maximum of 49%) along with the SHG federation. In this form of enterprise building (in a dairy, food processing /coir processing or any other small/ medium scale unit), the women members are directly involved in the production and therefore would also be wage earners.
SHGs can take up enterprise activities that have either a ready local market or those that have demand in accessible urban areas. According to the suitability of the area or region, specific clusters could be devised, where large number of SHGs can join together and engage in activities like dairy, poultry, fruit and vegetable processing and so on. Here, involvement of the corporate may be a necessary condition right from the incubation and planning stages.
Intensive Dairy Development supported by Cairn India and IFC at Barmar in Rajasthan livestock breeding has been the traditional subsistence strategy in Western Rajasthan for the poor/ marginalised sections of the society in rural areas with limited or no land resources. But the milk production in the state is very low due to the extreme climatic conditions, and majority of the milk produced is retained by the communities for their own use.
The widespread hostile terrain offers limited opportunities for selling the surplus milk. Also, the milk from the marginalised community is not accepted by the upper castes. The collection of the milk is localised and largely managed by private vendors whose traditional milk fat analysis system ensures that the community is unable to derive full benefit from the sale of milk. These reasons in turn had resulted in low prices and lack of incentive to rear/keep animals for commercial purpose.
A case in point is Cairn India. The company decided to support an intensive community-based dairy development programme in western Rajasthan. By design, the programme targeted women, who otherwise had no opportunity for economic emancipation. This project not only enabled them to participate in income generating activities but has also empowered them as organised SHGs exploring other livelihood options. They have also benefitted from the introduction of technology for transparency, accountability, and fair price realization.
Fair wage and fair price
Home-based workers generally receive work from big companies through sub-contractors/ agents at piece rates. There is no fair wage and fair rate for any work. Fair wages can become a reality if the corporate houses provide forward linkages to such home-based workers which could potentially enable them access to bigger markets. Organisations like Dastkar have helped many women engaged in hand embroidery and other crafts, who were earlier at the mercy of middle-men.
Businesses cannot exist in an island of prosperity without caring for the well being of those in the neighbourhood. Corporate houses can provide the push for furthering the progress of women by improving employment opportunities and increasing their participation in economic activities.