Eight years ago, Angurwati Rana was just a quiet, unlettered housewife in Uttarakhand’s Diyori village. She looked after her home and children, worked in the fields and, like all the other women around, kept her head down. Since her wedding day nearly 30 years ago, she had left the village on just a few occasions, always chaperoned, to visit relatives in neighbouring towns.

Angurwati still lives in the same village, but her world today is dramatically different. She can now decipher most letters of the Hindi script. She often travels alone, for work meetings, across the district and beyond. She knows how the panchayat is supposed to work. If a woman is abused by her husband, she can tell you the laws that promise her justice. And when other women in the village need any medical help, she is the person they turn to.

“I am not a doctor, but I’ve been trained a bit in local herbal medicines. And women feel comfortable telling me about private health problems that they can’t speak of in front of men,” said 48-year-old Angurwati. After listening to the symptoms of their illnesses – most often gynaecological problems – she encourages them to visit the nearest doctor or hospital without fear. “Earlier, women just ignored these health problems because they were afraid of being mistreated by male doctors. But my colleagues and I make sure there is no mistreatment so that women feel more confident in seeking medical aid.”

Angurwati speaks as one of the three chief members of the Nari Sanjeevani Kendra in Khatima tehsil, a block-level women’s health centre launched by local members of the Mahila Samakhya programme.

Mahila Samakhya, which roughly translates as “equal value to women”, is a central government programme launched in 1989 under the department of education of the ministry of human resources development. The aim of the scheme was not just to improve literacy among rural women but also empower them to solve their own problems through the formation of village-level collectives.

Mahila Samakhya may be one of the least known schemes sponsored by the centre, but in the past 26 years, the programme has expanded from three states to 130 districts in 11 states across India. It has been described as one of the most successful grassroots movements in the country, mobilising lakhs of marginalised rural women like Angurwati.

Despite all its successes, however, the central government may shut this programme down after March 31, 2016.

‘Save Mahila Samakhya’

Nearly six months ago, state-level directors of Mahila Samakhya were informed by the national office that the centre would stop funding the programme at the end of the current financial year. Not only will this move jeopardise the futures of 2,000 staff members across the country, it could also spell the end of a scheme whose funding, according to senior MS functionaries, has already been growing consistently smaller and irregular in the past decade.

The centre, however, hasn’t announced a complete closure of Mahila Samakhya. Senior  Mahila Samakhya members claim that the HRD ministry and the ministry of rural development are in the process of discussing a merger between Mahila Samakhya and the National Rural Livelihood Mission, a move that many fear will completely compromise the autonomy and unique methodologies that contributed to the success of the women’s programme.

While negotiations are still going on in private meetings between ministry officials and Mahila Samakhya seniors, members and supporters of the programme have been consistently registering their protest against the government’s intentions for the past few months.

In September, rural women in Bihar carried out a massive “Save Mahila Samakhya National Postcard Campaign”, sending more than one lakh postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding an explanation for the government’s decision to do away with the “most successful” women’s empowerment programme in India.

In October, a new forum called Friends of Mahila Samakhya sent a letter to the HRD ministry listing out the various tangible and intangible successes of the programme and urging the government to expand it instead of closing it down. In November, the forum also started an online petition to gather more support against the proposed closure and potential merger of Mahila Samakhya with the National Rural Livelihood Mission.

“The government’s rationale behind this proposal is unclear and there has been no public debate or discussion on this so far,” said Malini Ghose, a member of the National Resource Group appointed by the HRD ministry as an advisory body for the programme. “If there is a merger with the NRLM, the Mahila Samakhya programme as we know it will cease to exist, because the focus of NRLM is completely different.”

Beyond literacy

The National Rural Livelihood Mission does centre on women, but mainly focuses on low-level skill development and setting up small projects to enable self-employment among them. This, say defenders of Mahila Samakhya, reflects only a fraction of the work that the Mahila Samakhya programme has accomplished in the past 26 years.

“Mahila Samakhya was designed for the empowerment of the poorest women through the formation of village-level collectives in which they discussed their situations and made decisions about their own lives,” said Revathi Narayanan, who served as the state director of Mahila Samakhya Karnataka from 1996 to 2002.

As  Mahila Samakhya expanded from state to state – it has a presence in 44,446 Indian villages today – it acquired a reputation for giving voice to the most marginalised sections of women and for taking the idea of empowerment beyond just literacy or livelihood. Women who join the programme are given an education on their own rights, the laws that support them, the functioning of local institutions and government bodies and other issues that impact their lives. “The Mahila Samakhya programme brought about a conceptual shift in the understanding of women’s education – that it is not as much about literacy as about access to information and building self-confidence,” said Ghose.

It is the only rural [government] programme, she says, that deals with issues like domestic violence, through the setting up of Nari Adalats. According to a 2014 independent national review of the Mahila Samakhya programme, conducted by the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, there are now 481 Nari Adalats or women’s courts set up by Mahila Samakhya members, and they have cumulatively dealt with more than 30,000 cases so far.

Similarly, Mahila Samakhya women have established women’s health centres, set up savings and credit groups and have been closely involved in the smooth functioning of government-run schools for women and girls, such as the Mahila Shikshan Kendras and the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas.

“In some states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the government has handed over Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya to Mahila Samakhya groups to run,” said Dipta Bhog, an independent education and gender consultant who has done trainings, evaluations, documentations with Mahila Samakhya since 1991. “Because MS groups are so embedded in the community, their ability to bring girls to schools and bridge connections between the community and school centres is excellent.”

Towards independence

The starting points for mobilisation in the Mahila Samakhya structure are the facilitators, or sahyoginis, who move from village to village bringing groups of women together. These groups – of at least 25 members to begin with – then form collectives, known as sanghas, which meet at regular intervals for training in and planning their various activities. Once a sangha is empowered, the Mahila Samakhya structure allows it to eventually register as an independent, self-reliant federation. Today, 32% of the 55,402 sanghas in the country are already under autonomous federations.

A Mahila Samakhya sangha meeting in Karnataka.

Some, like the Mahila Samakhya sangha in the village of Rudrawadi in Karnataka’s Gulbarga district, have continued to function independently even without forming any federation. “We had the Mahila Samakhya programme in our district right from 1989, but it closed two years ago when we became able enough to handle ourselves,” said Lakshmi bai Rajwad, who has been in Rudrawadi’s Nari Adalat for past 16 years.

Along with 25 other women, Lakshmi bai works for six hours a day helping women negotiate or seek legal help in cases of domestic violence, property disputes and abandonment by their husbands. “As former sangha members, we also go around making sure schools, anganwadis and panchayats work properly, and that all girls in the village are enrolled in schools.”

The IIM-A review of the Mahila Samakhya programme offers many more noteworthy statistics: 56% of sangha members across India belong to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes; 30,090 sangha women have contested village panchayat elections, of which 12,905 (43%) have actually been elected – compared to districts with no Mahila Samakhya presence, places that have sanghas find more female representation on school management committees. In a country where women are generally excluded from the public sphere, 86.4% of sangha women actively participate in gram sabha meetings.

Internationally recognised

Since its inception, Mahila Samakhya has operated at a much smaller scale – and with more meagre budgets – compared with big-ticket central government schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Its impact, however, has been noticed by both national and international agencies.

Various agencies of the United Nations, including UNICEF, UNDP and UNESCO, have frequently featured case studies of Mahila Samakhya interventions as “best practices” in their publications. The central government itself has often highlighted the success of the programme in its compliance reports to international conventions like CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women). At home, the government has made it a point to harness the strength of the  Mahila Samakhya programme to its advantage.

“By the early 1990s, the sangha women were working on education of women and girls, women’s health, the environment, they were getting elected to panchayats and making sure that government schemes were being implemented properly. So much so, that government officials sought their help for various programmes and trainings,” said Revathi Narayanan.

“The Mahila Samakhya programme is a landmark in showing how feminist values can be translated on the ground, even within a government programme,” said Kalyani Menon Sen, a member of the National Resource Group who worked as a national consultant for the  Mahila Samakhya programme in the 1990s. “Whenever people claim that the women’s movement in India is dominated by urban middle class women, I laugh. What makes you think Mahila Samakhya isn’t a women’s movement?”

‘Not a target-driven programme’

Why, then, does the government want to cut off the funding of the Mahila Samakhya programme and, possibly, have it subsumed under a scheme as different as the National Rural Livelihood Mission?

This isn’t the first time that the centre has been at the verge of cutting off the autonomy of the programme, whose continuation is decided during every five-year plan. In the beginning of the 12th plan period (2012-2017), instead of sending Mahila Samakhya funds directly into the accounts of the state  Mahila Samakhya societies, a decision was taken to start routing the programme’s budgets through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a much bigger scheme run by the HRD ministry.

In the past two years, this indirect routing of Mahila Samakhya funds has led to delays in the money reaching staff members at the ground level. “But the planning commission was keen to merge programmes with smaller budgets into larger government programmes,” said Dipta Bhog.

Mahila Samakhya was not only a low-budget programme, but also one whose benefits and impact were not always measureable in numbers. This is perhaps why, in the middle of the planning period, the centre is now discussing the merger of the programme with a more target-driven scheme like National Rural Livelihood Mission. This move will take Mahila Samakhyas out of the purview of education and under the wings of the rural development ministry, with a focus on livelihood alone.

“The government and the bureaucracy need to understand the larger vision of a programme like Mahila Samakhya,” said Bhog. “It did not begin as a target-driven programme. It worked bottom-up, recognising freedom, flexibility and diversity in the selection of issues by poor, rural women. It has become more output-oriented over time, but nothing compared with the present day data-driven discourse. It still carries an overall culture and commitment to work on issues that women bring up in their communities.”

According to Narayanan, a programme like  Mahila Samakhya deserves more support rather than less, because it has been steadily working to reverse patriarchal mindsets and gender discrimination that has prevailed in India for centuries. “The impact of MS goes far beyond the numbers that people want  to see. If the government nurtures it, it will have a positive effect on many other programs for women and girls,” she said.

To best understand the intangible benefits of the Mahila Samakhya programme, one only needs to listen to the words of Angurwati Rana in Uttarakhand. “Thanks to our sanghas, women in my village now travel independently outside the village. In each home, women have more power than they used to. And the men do less atyachaar (oppression) on women because they are a little scared of our unity.”