A Village Called Hunger

By Bill Abrams

I worked as a journalist for many years before joining Trickle Up, so it’s in my nature to ask questions. When I am headed for a village visit with our field staff, I usually bombard my colleagues.

So it was on a visit to Bumri, a village in eastern India with a population of 2,075 people.

How far is our drive? (Answer: about 80 kilometers from Ranchi, the capital of the east Indian state of Jharkhand) How many families live there? (365) What percent live in extreme poverty? (65%) What are the main livelihoods for people? (Farming on small plots of land, working as day laborers on farms about 20-30 kilometers outside the village, or toiling in mines even farther away) How is rainfall and irrigation? (Poor, with only enough rain to yield one season of crops, and minimal irrigation) How many women will Trickle Up and our local partner LEADS (Life Education and Development Support) help? (1,000 in Bumri and other nearby villages) What does the name Bumri mean? (No one knew).When we arrived in Bumri, nearly the whole village was waiting and women came rushing forward to greet us with bouquets and splashes of water from a ceremonial brass bowl. Two men pounded large drums. Children surrounded us. Women chanted in Hindi: “You came from America. We welcome you.”  (Later, they explained, “We don’t know where it is but we’ve heard the name. It’s very far away.”) We were escorted to a row of plastic chairs shaded by the eaves of a building, while a group of about 50 Trickle Up didis (“sisters”) sat on the ground in front of us. Around them on three sides and also looking down from the roof of an adjacent building were groups of villagers, mostly men.

My colleague Udita Ghosh Sarkar began the conversation by thanking them for coming, as they had taken off a day of work to talk with us. “Don’t thank us, we thank you for coming,” one of the women said. “Someone is listening to us. No one ever does that.”

Remembering my question from the car, Udita asked what the name Bumri meant. “Hunger,” came the reply, “Starvation.”I don’t know if they were being literal or ironic, but the name was apt. Most of the women were quite thin. One described her family’s daily diet of two meals of rice plus cooked leaves from a local plant that grew wild. She could afford only one egg a month and has never eaten chicken or meat in her life. She went to bed hungry three or four nights a month. Later, when I visited her home, she showed me a large pile of potatoes next to the bed in her two-room home; she had grown them on a small patch of land the local government let her use. She cooked them on a tiny coal stove inside her home.

One by one, the women stood up to tell their stories. I often find that women who are just starting in Trickle Up are quite shy (I’m often the only American they’ve ever seen and, at 6 feet, I am about a foot taller than most of the women). The women of Bumri were eager to talk.

Daily wage labor

The women are all members of Indian government-classified groups called “scheduled tribes and castes.”  Typical of indigenous populations around the world, they live in poverty, excluded from and discriminated against by the mainstream. They often have their own languages and tend to be illiterate in the majority languages (literacy rates in the Bumri area are less than 10%).

The women told us that they and their husbands earn money by walking 15-30 kilometers (9-18 miles) for daily wage labor. They would earn $2-$3 day but often there was no work on offer and they come back empty-handed. Sometimes exploitive bosses withheld half their pay, forcing them to return for more work another day – a form of bonded labor that is tantamount to slavery. Some earned money by walking 5 kilometers to a nearby forest to collect leaves and fruits to sell. During the hardest months of the year, many are forced to migrate away from the village to labor in brick kilns, large farms, and other places where living and working conditions are harsh.

Many told of illnesses that they couldn’t afford to treat with medicines or visits to a doctor. Instead they had to rely on the juice squeezed from the leaves of jackfruit trees, which sometimes reduced fever. More often they just suffered. Cataracts are common, as are water-borne diseases, burns, worms, anemia, joint pains, coughs, and irregular menstruation. Few children are vaccinated. The village had a high rate of deafness, due to coal dust from the nearby mine.All of the women gave birth to their children at home, as they could not afford pre-natal care. One woman, 25 years old, had 5 children – the first when she was 18 years old, meaning she had been pregnant or nursing virtually non-stop for 7 years. Few of the women have access to family planning or, in many cases, even know that birth control is an option that government clinics provide for free.

Few of their children go to the local school, which was about 4 kilometers away, too far for the smaller children to walk. It only goes up through the seventh grade. The women said the school’s teachers didn’t do much teaching, but the children did get a hot lunch. One woman hoped to one day earn enough money to send her children to a private school in the village, which cost about $25 per month (she would have to work for about 10 days to earn that much.)

About one-fourth of the women had husbands with disabilities, often due to an accident. Several of the women complained about alcoholic husbands, who drank away much of their meager earnings and could become abusive when drunk. Some of the women are widows and one broke down in tears as she described how difficult it was to feed her 3 children. “This is very painful for me,” she said. “If my children ask me for something, I can’t do it.”

There are few resources to help them out of poverty.  The government had provided toilets, as part of a nationwide effort to end open defecation (about half of all rural Indians relieve themselves outdoors, compared to about 8% in cities and 1% in neighboring Bangladesh). LEADS operated a health screening program that provided treatment for minor problems and referred people to a hospital three hours away for more serious ones. Along some of the roads in the village, there are young papaya and guava trees protected by small wooden fences; they had been donated by a local company and planted by the government forest service.

Planning for the future

Udita asked them about their plans for the future. They had just recently enrolled in Trickle Up and had not yet begun our 5-day livelihood planning process, but they were ready with ideas for their businesses. Raising goats and pigs, making soap, growing mushrooms, starting a small shop in their homes, raising chickens and ducks to sell their eggs. One woman owned a small house near a market outside the village and wanted to “open a hotel” – meaning that she’d rent out two rooms, in a sort of rural Airbnb arrangement. She figured that 250 people came on the two weekly market days, prompting my colleague Ashish Das to comment on the fact that she’d already estimated the potential market for her business. She projected that she could earn 150 rupees a day (equivalent to about $2.50). Another said she wanted to buy a sewing machine, to make and repair blouses, because there was no seamstress in the village.One theme echoed through their plans: Each woman wanted a business she could operate from her home or nearby. “We want to stay in our village,” said one. They wanted to be near their children. They were exhausted by the long walks for daily wage labor, often leaving home at 5 am and not returning until 7 pm. Taking a bus was not an option, as the cost was about 50 cents each way.

Over the coming months, Trickle Up and LEADS will help these 50 women plus another 950 in other villages in the districts of Ramgarh and Hazaribag to start a business, join a savings group (known in India as a “self-help group”), and gain skills and confidence. Volunteers from local villages, known as “CRPs” (community resource people) will visit them in their savings groups and homes 2-3 times per week to provide advice and encouragement. The CRPs, each of whom will support about 50 women, receive a small stipend; their motivation is to help their neighbors. “I’m always ready to work for the poor community,” one explained to me.

The backbone of Trickle Up’s program since we began in 1979 is to help women start businesses, raise their incomes, and save for the future. In the past several years, though, we’ve also put more emphasis on helping women gain access to government poverty programs that can provide rice and food, up to 100 days of guaranteed work, health care, and other supports. India is an increasingly prosperous country, and it has numerous programs to assist the poor. However, women in places like Bumri often don’t access their legal rights because they are not familiar with such programs, government staff don’t travel to remote rural villages, or corrupt officials and middlemen siphon funds and goods from poverty programs. As Udita talks with the women about that, Ashish whispers to me, “And to think that Ranchi, the state capital, is 90 minutes away.”

First steps

So one of the first steps we take with the women is to educate them about available government supports and help them sign up for them. Especially important is food, because it’s hard to think about planning for the future and starting a business when you are starving. They also can qualify for government-funded day jobs that can help them accumulate capital for their business and money for their family.

The women of Bumri and surrounding villages are just at the beginning of a 2-3 year process with Trickle Up, LEADS, and the CRP volunteers. Not everyone will succeed but, based on our years of history in many Indian villages, most can look forward to higher incomes, savings, more and better food, improvements to their homes, more education for their children and access to medical care. Through diversification of their livelihoods and strategies to earn the maximum value of their work, cutting out exploitive middlemen. The women will gain skills, confidence and greater respect from their neighbors.

Maybe one day, Bumri will even have to choose a new name.

Trickle Up is grateful to the MetLife Foundation for its support for the women described in this essay.  Our thanks too to LEADS and the Jharkhand State Livelihoods Promotion Society for their major roles in implementing this project.

Bill Abrams, President of Trickle Up since 2005, had been a journalist with The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and New York Times.