Before COVID, Shamli’s Frontline Relief Worker Had to Fight the Men

In western Uttar Pradesh, a women's self-help group is taking the lead in spreading awareness about the coronavirus and ensuring that much-needed relief supplies reach the right hands.

Shamli (Uttar Pradesh): Her bronze sari with red sequined flowers gleamed in the afternoon sun. It was calculated to have just the right amount of drama without making too much of a statement. Sudha was in a commanding position in her village, Nala, in the district of Shamli, as she set up a desk at the front porch of her house, to begin distributing COVID emergency relief kits.

Her superior position was enough to set off competitors and jealous neighbours. This was Uttar Pradesh, where men ruled. But in the last two and a half years, Sudha had fought enough of them as head of a women’s collective across 14 villages. Now that seven hundred people of a total of 6,000 in her village were completely out of food, Sudha was in a unique position to help. As she sat down, back ramrod straight, ready with her list of most-deserving candidates, she acknowledged how far she had come from the time she started out by being labelled a slut and a pimp.

Yeh madam ban rahi hai gaon ki  – She’s becoming the madame of the village,” said one woman. “Aur dekhna ek din aise hoga yeh gaadi me bhar ke sab ko le jayengi saath me aur ganda ganda kaam karwayengi. Wait and watch, she will take all the women away by the car-full and make them do really dirty things.”

It all began with a knock on the door from women social workers attached to the government. They had come from Hyderabad and were asking women to form self-help groups or SHGs so they could apply for small loans and start small businesses. “Job lag gayi hai meri – I’ve been selected for a job,” Sudha said excitedly to her husband, Angrez Singh.

Angrez Singh was a man’s man. The way he sat with his chest out and surveyed the territory in front of him spoke for itself. “Naukri nahi karani hai – I will not have you work,” was his firm reply. But Sudha had a stirring within that she was unable to suppress. The women from the National Rural Livelihood Mission re-kindled a fire that was burning inside her ever since Sudha was a little girl. Growing up in the district of Bulandshahr in UP, she would close her eyes in front of the gods in temples and pray to them, asking to be made a working woman or a woman who travels and gets to see the world outside. She was married off instead when she was just in class ten, and in her new home in Shamli district, the only role she was expected to play was that of the good wife with her head covered at all times, face never to be exposed to people outside. After having three children and settling for the prescribed role, a knock on the door from the government proved to be a godsend.

Sudha prepares COVID kits for distribution (left) .Outside the house (right), she keeps her head covered. Photo: Revati Laul

Mai aapka sar neecha nahi honey doongi – I will not do anything to take away from your honour,” she assured her man. He relented. With her initial loan, Sudha started a beauty business – women could buy makeup and she also provided parlour services in her home. Other women were even more audacious in their choices. Kavita became a mechanic, inspired by her husband who found out that making LED lights at home was a very profitable business.

In the last two and a half years, the SHG groups’ economic independence was threatening to overturn the entire village’s economy. Social activist Ashvani Singh who has worked with Sudha for the last year and a half explained. Women in rural Shamli mainly get work as agricultural labourers on wages that are much lower than their male counterparts. “If the men are paid 300 rupees a day, then women get anywhere between 120 to 180 rupees for the same work,” said Singh. If they stopped doing this work, the landowners would have to pay men more, upsetting their calculus entirely.

The more they asserted themselves, the more trouble the women were in, when the lockdowns part 1-4 put their battles temporarily on hold.  Five days before the first lockdown, Sanjo, a Dalit woman who was part of Sudha’s group, was emptying the trash, when a man from the most dominant caste in the area – the Jats – told her that as a Dalit woman, she could not put out the garbage where dominant castes did. Sanjo, now armed with her new woman-centric strong coat, spoke back: “If you can throw your kachda here, so can I.” For this, she was shoved into the drain because even though her words were menacing, her frame was slight.

Sanjo put up a fight against a Jat man and for this she was beaten up. Photo: Revati Laul

Covered in muck, she got out and yelled back at the Jat man – “Kuttey – you dog.” This was too much for his caste ego so he ended up hitting her on the chest with bricks. The women rallied around in support and charges were filed with the local police. However, in an ugly twist, the Jats surrounded Sanjo and threatened to decimate her family unless she retracted her charges. Which she did. Sudha was planning to take further action, when India went into lockdown mode. Sanjo was so battered and bruised she could barely stand. She and her husband were both brick kiln workers and with those being mostly shut, they had nothing to eat. There were many others in the SHGs in similarly precarious positions.

At this point, Sudha, having created a network both with the government and civil society groups, asked NGOs to come and distribute rations.  A lot was at stake. Feathers had been ruffled in villages across Shamli, starting with the pradhan or head of her own village. There were two opposing narratives here, instead of one, which in itself told the story of how assertive these women had got.

Narrative one – in which Sudha and her groups said they were up against a powerful and irate man. A spark was lit when these women were in a meeting where a social activist made a rousing speech:  “We must start be resolving our own basic issues – over roads and electricity, water and rations. Only then will we seen as a force to reckon with. Otherwise anything we say about resolving other women’s issues will seem like a cruel joke.” Sudha and the SHGs in her care immediately put this to the test. They demanded that a road be built in a part of a village that had been so badly clogged with sewage and silt that it was impossible to get in or out, especially when it rained. In their version of events, their request kept getting blocked by the village pradhan – Pravin Kumar. They were forced to by-pass him and go up to the district magistrate.

Narrative two: In Pravin Kumar’s version, he had the road built. “Budget government se hamari li, gram panchayat humney karaya, usme samuh kya karega? The money came from the village coffers, their group had nothing to do with it.”

Shamli gets relief for now. Photo: Revati Laul

Now, by calling in an NGO, Sudha was taking on the pradhan again, just by the sheer optics of it. Helming a COVID relief operation that was a private initiative challenged Pravin Kumar’s role as the patriarch-provider. D day was tense. Men playing cards in the street, commented as Sudha got into a car with an NGO person. “Bhundhi thuthdi,” a slur in the locally spoken Braj bhasha – “the woman with the ugly face.”

As the truck full of potatoes and rice, masalas, dal, sanitary pads and condoms rolled in, Sudha and her associates pored over lists. Who to include and who to leave out? The social activist Ashvani Singh who was native to Shamli put Sudha’s operation in context. He had seen relief being distributed in other villages with a dominant caste Jat man at the helm. “It was calculated to add to his vote-bank. The poorest, the migrants, those whose votes didn’t count locally, were left out.” Far worse was the patronising language used, said Ashvani, “Bhaiyo bhukke logon ke liye khana hai. Yeh iske liye khana hai jo bhukka mar raha hai bilkul. This food is for the wretched and hungry, it’s for those people dying of starvation. Words that break the spirit of those being given rations.”

Now, with Sudha at the helm, care was taken to draw up lists of the most deserving without fear or favour. All those who got rations in the last round were struck off the list, even when they were members of SHGs. A brawl broke out.  A frail looking woman with white hair and a fierce manner threatened to call the police. “I will have the lot of you arrested if you don’t give me some!” she shrieked. Sudha stormed into the house, past her desk, to an inner room and slammed the door. Her face was flushed with anger. “I cannot take this anymore,” she said in an outburst. Her sons and daughter and husband rallied around.

Relief supplies being distributed in Shamli. Photo: Revati Laul

Angrez Singh was by now very proud of his wife’s achievements, so he pitched in and fended off the angry woman. And followed it up with another surprise. He put colas and namkeen on a tray and served those who were waiting. There was so much humility and acceptance in his act, that Sudha finally melted. Her trademark smile was back. She marched back into the arena, glasses in place, register in hand, to call out the names of the next people on the list. Her pallu covered her face, presenting to the world a strange paradox – a woman in charge who was also, the mythical unchanging, submissive, good wife.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. This story is the result of a Laadli media fellowship, but the facts and ideas presented are the writer’s responsibility.