Deccan Development Society: New face of women’s empowerment

Pastapur is an example of how the concept of Sanghams can inspire change.

A Radio Jockey at the age of 45. An illiterate, Dalit woman, who produces films with high-end cameras. A once landless lady who now ploughs her own 20 acres of land. Nearly 5,000 marginalised women changemakers from 75 villages have done all of this and more in the past 25 years. Pastapur, a village tucked away in the borders of Andhra Pradesh, is a vibrant example of self-governance and self-sustainability which rests in the hands of the poorest of the poor.

On air: Women who have never been to school are successful radio presenters now.

As its website explains, “The Deccan Development Society (DDS), is a two-decade old grassroots organisation working in about 75 villages with women’s Sanghams (voluntary village level associations of the poor) in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh.” The 5000 women members of the Society represent the poorest of the poor in their village communities. Most of them are dalits, the lowest group in the Indian social hierarchy.

As I sit with the members of the Sangham, an initiative of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), Chandramma, a 65-year-old Dalit woman, enthusiastically renders her tale of “miracles” in Telugu. “25 years ago, I was dependent on petty wages for every meal and every piece of clothing even after undying labour. Now, I am the owner of 20 acres of land which not only fulfills my requirements but also gives me the scope for an extra income. The Sangham has brought about a ‘miraculous transition’ in our lives,” she beams.

Pacchasaale assembly: Solving issues of poverty and hunger.

From margins of hunger to the centre of livelihood, every woman’s experience is a heart-rending tale of inspiration, struggle, innumerable sessions with the Sangham members, planning and execution of every minute idea which eventually led to the transformation. “In an area where people have to grapple with pressing issues like barren land, semi-arid conditions and frequent droughts, the farmers have been able to conquer and banish hunger,” says Dr P.V. Satheesh, director, DDS.

Every woman is a shareholder in the various plans undertaken by the Sangham. The cooperative’s USP is the integration of different carefully thought-over activities which tackle their problems effectively and help them pursue their dream of being a food sovereign community.

DDS has also been instrumental in training many women in filmmaking. They have produced documentaries on organic farming, seed sovereignty, bio-fertilisers, dangers of BT Cotton, critical farm practices and these videos have been screened worldwide.

Chinna Narsamma of Pastapur, has travelled around 18 countries to propagate her ideas through speeches, interactions with other farmers and through documentaries which she and a group of women produce in their village. She has never been to school.

Women at the Sangha: A repository of traditional knowledge.

Baby Mayuri, 12, who is Asia’s youngest filmmaker on biodiversity, says she wants to become a journalist focused on agriculture. “I like school but I would prefer shooting on farm lands and capturing my grandma’s activities on the camera any day,” she quips delightfully.

Sangham community radio, the first-of-its-kind in India, is another such initiative which educates its audiences in a staggering 200 villages today. “Radio has a great role to play in our lives”, says General Narsamma, the Radio Jockey at Sangham Radio. The women in villages sing songs for the broadcast depicting their love for farming, of expectations, victory, life and livelihood.

I, along with a few Irish visitors, took a tour around the radio station and we then recorded a song. Algole Narsamma edits the track and we sound like the next Indian Idol finalists! A sumptuous lunch was next on our agenda. The platters were spread with mouth-watering dishes made from millets as Anjamma explains to us the importance of millets as a nutritional replacement for rice.

Exploring livelihood options: Working together.

Millets are highly nutritious, can be easily grown in semi-arid regions and the fodder can serve as food for their cattle. We were served soup, roti, dal and five different varieties of dessert to end our meal – all prepared with millets as their core ingredient. DDS is also the proud owner of the only all-millet restaurant in India. Drop into Cafe Ethnic in Zaheerabad any time and be assured about having an organic, nutritious and a very delicious meal!

“Every woman here is a seed bank,” says Lakshmamma, coordinator of seed bank, Pastapur as she shows us the seed bank storage. Villagers don’t buy seeds from the government or retail stores anymore. They preserve enough seeds to sow their farms with a lush variety of crops throughout the year. Lakshmamma and Anjamma describe how they preserve their seeds with a mixture of neem leaf powder, cow dung and other manures which make the seeds last for over three years.

“We have about 85 different varieties of seeds in the bank. Our storage and farming methods are very traditional. Following traditional methods is going to be the trend again,” says Lakshmamma proudly. The satisfaction and pleasure in the accomplishment which has aided 5,000 other marginalised, poor women like herself shows on her face and in the way she passionately recollects her experiences of impoverishment, joining the Sangham, discussing ideas and problems, finding innovative and cost-effective solutions and explains how it was an uphill task to get people to trust them initially.

Back to tradition: Where every woman counts.

The crusade led by a group of determined, fearless women from the villages also resulted in yet another social uprising called the Pachhasaale (Green School) which educates school dropouts and those who cannot afford school tuitions. The so-called private schools with top-class facilities have a lot to learn from the structure and design of their school building. The classrooms are dome-shaped so that every child gets equal attention. They not only provide elementary education and prepare students for their Class X examinations like every other academic institution in the state but also impart soft skills like carpentry, book-binding, pottery, tailoring, making herbal medicines and basic agricultural techniques to every young mind in the school. This education system, which revamps the current structure and suits the farming sector, is imparted to around 150-200 students every year.

Dr. Satheesh, who has been witnessing this success story revolutionizing lives, stresses on autonomy and localized efforts, especially in a diverse country like India. “We should never discount the rich knowledge reserves of rural India,” he says.

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