A document by a government body is generally looked upon as a self-congratulating mouthpiece claiming all pervasive success of the government schemes. But this one - by Maharashtra's Directorate of Municipal Administration, on Self Help Groups (SHGs) formed under Suvarna Jayanti Shahari Rojgar Yojana (SJSRY, the Golden Jubilee Urban Employment Scheme) - is different. It doesn't claim a 100% success, and even attempts to bring in focus some of the best practices by these SHGs which would be sort of torch bearers for other such Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) groups.

The Central Government started SJSRY for the urban BPL population from 1 December 1997, closing down all the three earlier poverty eradication programmes viz - Nehru Rojgar Yojana, Basic Services Programme for Urban Poor and the Prime Minister's Urban Poverty Eradication Programme. The objective was to provide means of livelihood to raise the standard of living of urban BPL families through self-employment schemes and urban daily wage-earning schemes implemented by the urban local bodies (ULBs). In Maharashtra, 34 District Urban Development Authority (DUDA) and 247 Municipal bodies are running SJSRY for urban BPL families for last 7-8 years.

Since SJSRY's main focus is on women's empowerment, most of the success stories pertain to women's self-help groups. A study of over 200 cases brought forth some observations on how government schemes become accepted. Initially, there is tremendous misconception and misinformation about government schemes in the minds of urban poor. They feel scared to even climb up the steps of government offices, and instead quip 'who will listen to us poor?', and distrust the administrative staff. Often the officials visit the settlements, slums to look out for the beneficiaries eligible for SJSRY and hold group meetings. Initially, nobody responds but only through the officials' perseverance some eligible beneficiaries come forward to understand the scheme and its nitty-gritty. It is only once the beneficiaries become convinced, they forge ahead with confidence to achieve economic, social and psychological improvement.

So how do beneficiaries get to know about the SJSRY? Mainly by word of mouth, or when they see others like themselves participating, or if they visit a municipality office and happen to learn about this scheme. Often one of the beneficiaries 'takes heart' at a genuinely concerned official's relentless efforts to convince beneficiaries to join the scheme for their own upliftment. Such a beneficiary then convinces others and takes the lead to form an SHG - the first step towards availing benefits under this scheme. This happened, for example, in Sushinala Kinar Slum in Deopur, Dhule, which is inhabited by adivasi BPL families. Initially, the people, totally unaware about government functioning and schemes, would never go to the meetings held for them by SJSRY functionaries. A few women would come, but even they usually left in between the meetings. Still the official kept coming back.

Finally, Sarla Bai Malche and Parvati Bai Pawar felt that it is for their own good that the official kept coming back, and that they should at least try what he was encouraging them to do. Thus these two women took lead to form Eklavya Bachat Gat and Marimata Bachat Gat, Dhule, with 10 members each.

With more women joining the SJSRY, a number of ideas began to be thrown up in the fertile minds of members. The members of Marimata Mahila Bachat Gat, Jalgaon, spotted an opportunity to supply threads needed to tie currency notes - since banks have now switched from staple pins to threads. Women in the Balaji Mahila Bachat Gat, Badnera, Dist. Amravati formed a farmers' cooperative and started a savings scheme. Deciding to take a chance on owning their own farms, they also took a Rs.20,000 bank loan and bought 4 acres of land. They sowed cotton and pigeon pea and toiled hard to get a good harvest and profit. "When I see the flowering pigeon pea crop, I feel as if starlets have descended on our green farm", says one of the members. Prosperity, apparently, lends itself to poetry too.

Many other members started tailoring, making masala-pickle, papad and crisps, soap-detergent, a readymade clothing store, a provision store, and many other such standard enterprises. Now with cities needing to meet the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management rules, a new and substantial opportunity has also been noted. There are many SHGs under SJSRY in many cities that have come up with bell ringing vehicles for door-to-door collection of solid waste.

"We happened to see a TV programme on Bachat Gat (Saving or Self Help Group), and we also wished to form one. But we did not know what this Bachat Gat is exactly and how to form it. We went from pillar to post in many government offices but no one helped. Even the bank was not ready to open our group's account, as we did not come through any scheme. But we kept scouting for it and at last by chance happened to go to municipality for some work. There, one official - Yemu Nagdev - not only gave us the information about SJSRY but also told us all about Bachat Gat. And thus we 15 women formed our Bachat Gat and started saving Rs.50 a month. We decided to take up masala-making and selling, which earns the group Rs.1000 per day i.e. Rs.50 per day per member."

- a member of Adivasi Govari Samaj Mahila Vikas Bachat Gat, Kumbhare Nagar, Taluka. Tumsar, Dist. Bhandara.

"We women from Matang (a scheduled caste) do not even know the alphabets and our life was restricted to the hearth. Down in abject poverty and living in filthy slum, we were somehow surviving and struggling just for one meal a day. But SJSRY brought a ray of hope in our lives and now our group of ten women has a good business of making and selling broomsticks, baskets as also bamboo showpieces. Now we want to buy a three wheeler auto for collecting city waste."

- a member of Anna Bhau Sathe Swayam Sahayyata Mahila Bachat Gat, Malkapur, Dist. Buldhana.

"We were somehow eking out a living by cutting and selling grass. Once Angan Wadi Sevika Kusum Tai told us about SJSRY for people like us listed under BPL. So under her guidance we started our group saving Rs.100 per month. I took Rs.5000 loan at 2 per cent per month from our Bachat Gat to buy a buffalo. After feeding her for 8-9 months, I sold her for Rs.16000. Even after repaying Bachat Gat's loan with interest, I made a good profit, which would not have been possible had I taken the loan from a moneylender at over 10 per cent a month. Over the last three years, I saved enough through this business and kept Rs.10,000 in fixed deposits for each of my three daughters."

- Mangal Bai Lage, a member of Prasad Mahila Swayam Sahayyata Bachat Gat, Deolali Pravara, Dist. Ahmednagar.

"Through our Bachat Gat of 24 women saving Rs.50 per month, a member Nilofer Sheikh took Rs.5,000 for a Pepsi machine; Shanta Bai Deokar took Rs.10,000 for her mother-in-law's operation; Janabai Jadhav Rs.5,000 for her daughter's marriage after her husband expired untimely. This proved such a boon as now we are out of the debt trap of Sahukar. We then took over a ready grape garden for Rs.10,000 and all of us directly sold grapes in the market and earned Rs.13,300, thus making a profit of Rs.3,300."

a member of Adimaya Adishakti Mahila Bachat Gat, Tuljapur Dist. Usmanabad.

"Harassed by an alcoholic husband, Lata Kohle took a divorce and came to her maternal home with her two children. She joined a Bachat Gat and was living an independent life, but her ex-husband still would come and harass her - so much so that she wanted to commit suicide. But the Bachat Gat women rallied behind her and went to the police and forced them to take action by arresting the ex-husband."

Chaitanya Mahila Bachat Gat, Achalpur, Dist. Amravati.

While the business activities uplift the group members economically, they also bring about social upheaval through collective work. The members help each other in difficult times - like taking a member's seriously sick husband in her absence to the hospital, or marrying off the daughter of a member who died accidentally, or taking tiffin daily to a worker who became invalid during an accident at the workplace.

It was observed that these economically, socially and psychologically backward women become informed very quickly through Bachat Gat activities. Going over their stories, it can be seen that once they get motivated, they start treading confidently and then all their embarrassment, fear, doubts, etc. fall apart. Their success is also helpful in another uncommon way - the government departments managing the schemes don't have to make up tall claims of success, as has been the case repeatedly in the past. Now, they have real stories of success to tell, from which many others might be similarly encouraged to grow economically and socially.