NRLM: Empowering Women, Inspiring Change

Arsheed Bhat

The National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), launched in 2011 by the ministry of rural development with financial support from the World Bank. The Mission aims at creating efficient and effective institutional platforms of the rural poor enabling them to increase household income through sustainable livelihood enhancements and improved access to financial services. In addition, the poor would be facilitated to achieve increased access to their rights, entitlements and public services, diversified risk and better social indicators of empowerment. NRLM believes in harnessing the innate capabilities of the poor and complements them with capacities (information, knowledge, skills, tools, finance and collectivization) to participate in the growing economy of the country. In 2015, the program was renamed Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana (DAY-NRLM).

Through support for a federated structure of community institutions, the NRLM attempts to address these seemingly insurmountable challenges. SHGs of an average size of 10 women, drawn from the lowest castes and poorest households, residing in close proximity to each other in a homogenous “hamlet” of a village, constitute the lowest level of this structure. Approximately 12 such groups are linked together in a “village organization” comprising the office bearers of the SHGs within a village. In turn, the leaders of approximately 10-20 village organizations constitute the highest level, a “cluster level federation,” that serves as an umbrella institution for its 1,200 to 1,400 members.

An immediate consequence of this federated structure is that no member of an SHG acts alone; she has a group of 1,200 women behind her. Yet, sheer numbers may be insufficient to overcome the age-old problems caused by the low social standing of women. Institutional changes that ensure a role for SHGs are required, and the government is slowly initiating such changes, vesting these “institutions of the poor” with responsibility for overseeing welfare programmes, local government institutions such as schools, and village governments. More importantly, NRLM also explicitly addresses the capabilities of rural women. In each village, “active women,” with higher levels of schooling and leadership potential, are identified and trained with the set of skills required to ensure the sustainability of SHGs—skills such as book-keeping, social and group management skills, business management, and financial literacy, that many of us take for granted. Once trained, members of this “community cadre” assume the responsibility of training other SHG members.

This federated structure of institutions of the poor bridges caste and geographical divides, bringing together women to confront social conflicts. They are not democratic; generally, the most active and outspoken women, with higher social standing and education, are nominated to leadership positions. But, in villages where these institutions are functioning well, the programme is changing the nature of civic society. The biggest change, one universally noted by women in villages across India, from Jammu to Kashmir, is in attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and knowledge. I have watched women who have previously never worked outside their homes, have never stepped outside their village without a male companion, and whose lives have been dictated and determined by decisions made by male relatives, take control of their lives. Women are learning to act collectively to challenge graft, monitor village government leaders, and to confront endemic problems such as absenteeism amongst teachers, and alcoholism.

The overall impact of the programme will depend on its reach, measured by the number of functioning SHGs and their membership, and its effectiveness. With regard to reach, data from the ministry’s Management Information System (MIS) suggest that approximately half (63%) of target households (those meeting at least one of seven deprivation criteria as per the Socio-economic Caste Census of 2011) are members of SHGs supported by the Mission. This relatively low percentage reflects variation across states in the year in which the programme was started. The percentage is significantly higher in state such as Jammu & Kashmir (83%).

But, enhanced reach does not imply that the programme will substantially improve rural incomes and the welfare of women across the country. Change, unfortunately, is never linear and age-old problems of discrimination against women, particularly those from scheduled castes and tribes, render progress slow. Teacher unions have challenged the authority granted to SHGs in some parts of India to monitor teacher attendance. In other states, elected village governments are contesting the authority of SHGs to work in areas that come under their jurisdiction. And, in many regions, old divides continue to render collective action difficult.

A first step towards ensuring impact is evaluating the programme’s effectiveness, and understanding the factors that constrain its performance at scale. While studies of small pilot programs contribute to our understanding of the determinants of welfare, the effectiveness of large scale programmes frequently turns on implementation constraints that rarely arise in pilot projects. Fortunately, we have a good shot at such an understanding for this particular programme due to the ministry’s willingness to conduct a large-scale evaluation study covering all the poor households. The evaluation, currently underway, is jointly funded by the ministry and is being conducted by an external team of academics.

Our ability to significantly redress age-old problems of discrimination against women, and enhance their welfare requires societal changes in norms and cultures; India’s experience shows that high rates of economic growth, by themselves, are insufficient to ensure such changes. It remains to be seen whether the visible improvements in civic society, engendered by the programme in some regions, translate to nation-wide changes. Our challenge is to ensure that they do.

Making woman the champion fighter against malnutrition in her home and in society, and recognizing the key role that enhanced livelihood plays in providing nutrition, millions of women across rural India have been made part of Self Help Groups and are involved in varied activities like organic farming, or as Mahila Kisans, Pashu Sakhis – thanks to the Rural Development Ministry’s Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM).

DAY-NRLM seeks to reach out to rural poor households and organise one woman member from each household into women Self Help Groups and federations at the village level and above.

“The Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihoods Mission focuses on poverty alleviation and on women. It focuses on sustained flow of income through farm and non-farm methods, and promotion of social capital through trained manpower,” said Sh. Sham Lal Sharma, Additional Mission Directotr (JK Rural Livelihoods Mission) National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Ministry of Rural Development, at an agri-nutrition conference here to take forward the Poshan Abhiyaan.

The NRLM focuses on the promotion of sustainable households among the poor through access to financial services and credit and the promotion of multiple livelihoods, he said.

It also focuses on Mahila Kisan Shashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) to promote agro-ecological practices in order to increase the income of women farmers. The MKSP has roped in good no of women so far. “The MKSP focuses on dietary change and dietary diversity,” he said.

Mean while women in Pendamic played a voitel role in J&K state by producing more than 10 lakh face mask & 2000 ltrs of Hand Sanitaizers. districts of Jammu division. “The women’s movement that started as a leap of faith some 7 years ago has proved to be an invaluable resource in these difficult times. In building social capital among the rural poor has paid off in spades,” NRLM is India’s flagship program to reduce poverty by mobilizing poor rural women into self-help groups and building community institutions of the poor.

Over the past two decades of the Bank’s association, India’s SHG movement has evolved from small savings and credit groups that sought to empower poor rural women, into one of the world’s largest institutional platforms of the poor. Today, 67 million Indian women are members of 6 million SHGs.

Ever since COVID-19 positive cases were reported in the country, public in general were cautious and started using face masks to protect themselves from the virus. However, considering the surge in demand, some outlets started selling the products at higher prices and there is shortage in supply of masks. Then women SHGs of (JKRLM) have started manufacturing masks and they are not eyeing huge profits despite the demand. The cloth masks manufactured by them are sold at a reasonable price of ₹18-20 apiece. The stitching of masks means that apart from doing their bit to contain the spread of the virus, these women SHGs are also earning during the lockdown.

Through a digital training programme, the SHGs will be equipped to create awareness about social distancing and steps to be followed in the community. They will also suggest practices for maintaining personal hygiene, sanitation and adopting cashless practices. UMEED, a programme spearheaded by the Government of J&K through the J&K Rural Livelihoods Mission Society, has collected more than 100,000 mobile numbers of community members. It is using the Mobile- platform to release voice, text messages and is also addressing the community’s queries regarding COVID-19.

The mission in J&K has started the progress of online training to community members on covid-19 to make behavioral changes among rural masses through SHG network.


Arsheed Ahmad Bhat is Block Programme Manager JK Rural Livelihoods Mission.

He can be reached at bpmdansal@gmail.com


News Desk

News Desk staff at The Kashmir Radar. Posting unbiased news as we believe in pure journalism!

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