Lives of women in villages in Saraiya block, Muzaffarpur district, Bihar was no different from lives of women in rural communities across the country. Married young, they remained confined to household chores, to looking after children, husband and elders in their marital home -having no voice within their families, or significant roles within the community. An independent identity, in any sphere of life, social, economic or political was inconceivable. Societal norms were deeply etched preventing women from exploring any avenues for their growth in any area outside their home.
It is in this scenario that Rajkumari Devi, 58 and a mother of three scripted her growth story moving out of the confines that have tied down women over generations to the choola- chaukhat ( home and hearth) and prevented them from taking a step into the wider world. Married in 1974 to Avdesh Kumar Choudhary from an agricultural family in Anandpur village, after finishing matriculation – Rajkumari too faced the unseen, unspoken familial and societal curbs on her very movements. Even a short trip to the market, with her head covered demurely in a ‘pallu’ would invite disapproval from people in the village. She was after all only a bahu. Yet a window of opportunity opened up for her and indeed the family.
The common family land had been primarily cultivated for tobacco. After a division of this land between Avdesh Kumar Choudhary and his brothers, Rajkumari found that her family’s share was only two and a half bighas. She decided to move beyond tobacco cultivation and diversify in order to optimise the produce from their reduced plot of land. She then planted a variety of vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs on the plot and was delighted to find that it flourished.
In this bountiful produce, Rajkumari saw a brilliant opportunity – to convert these into products for the local market. Using her existing knowledge of making ‘murabbas’ ( jams and jellies) and pickles, she turned out a variety of these and supplying them. The work grew slowly and Rajkumari was glad to involve other women in the community who were drawn to her work. As sales picked up, profits grew, contributing substantially to the family income – it became obvious that an alternate source of earning had opened up, the lives of women were opening up and a quiet process of empowerment was taking root.
Bracing in her new-found area of work, Rajkumari was lucky enough to ride a bicycle going round in the village, meeting people, talking animatedly about her work and motivating them. She earned the respect of all and began to be affectionately called “Kisan Chachi”, an inspirational figure who through her labour of love had not only created a flourishing enterprise but had immense knowledge of diverse aspects of cultivation. What has been heartening are the changing perceptions and attitudes towards her work within her own family. Her husband Avdesh Kumar says candidly, “At first I did not like what my wife was doing as it went against social norms. But as I watched my appreciation grew… Today I am proud of my wife and believe that in every family, there should be a woman like her.” Kisan Chachi has touched many lives. Geeta Devi, another rural housewife was emboldened to question and ultimately cross the limitations imposed by her family.
A woman who had never experienced a world outside her home, Geeta is today well known as a producer of lemons and an intrepid entrepreneur herself. In fact she has involved her daughter, Preeti after she completed her graduation, in the work. Thus a family enterprise involving generations has taken root. Kisan Chachi today has an enviable range of products – 23 varieties of jams and pickles that find their way not only to local markets, but to other states as well including metros such as Delhi and Mumbai. Rajkumari, however, sees her journey not as a personal achievement but as an opportunity for the entire community. Under the Swarna Jayanti Rojgar Yojana, 300 women have formed SHGs under Kisan Chachi’s guidance. She says with a quiet conviction “This is not only for me.
I support all the women fully so that they can flourish, build their future and be recognized in society.” Of course there have been accolades that have been hers alone. In 2006, Rajkumari was selected for the “Kisan Shri Award” by the state government that carried a cash prize of Rupees One Lakh. In 2010, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, on a visit to interact with women groups in the region, met Kisan Chachi and applauded her role in empowering women. In 2013, during a handicraft and cottage industries fair in Ahmadabad, Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, visited her stall and greatly appreciated her work. The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that in a day and age of glitzy products backed by enormous outlays and marketing chains, Kisan Chachi’s products make a quiet statement with their simplicity, purity and low production costs. The views expressed in the article are of Amritanj Indiwar.