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SIKHA ROY

India,

In the countryside of West Bengal, where arid conditions and landlessness combine to cause hunger and exacerbate attendant problems, Sikha Roy is organizing women who are daily-wage earners to exercise a legal right over unused land and then to farm it appropriately. With produce of their own, the women can feed their families, escape the manifold abuses they are exposed to as laborers, and stay close to their children and loved ones, thereby bringing new life to their villages.

This profile below was prepared when Sikha Roy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.

Additional information on this Fellow is also available in english, English and English.

Fellow Sketch

Sikha Roy is mobilizing women who are either “daily-wage earners”or landless labourers to exercise their legal rights and gain access to unused land to improve their socio economic conditions. 

Sikha has been defining and establishing land and property rights for women in the state of West Bengal by facilitating the provision of titles to groups and individuals. She helps women pool together their small, individual land holdings for collective commercial and personal farming purposes. In parallel, she operates income generation programs that teach multi-crop farming and the production of neem oil, equipping the women with skills to help them earn throughout the year. These programs also include the development of leadership skills, especially for those women who are part of the panchayat. Currently, Sikha’s work impacts 5000 women and 300 groups in the Bankhura district. In addition, Sikha has been working on land ownership rights of tribal communities in the Bankura district who have been living in the forests for more than 70 years. Through campaigns and activism she is helping them gain legal titles over their lands.

To create a supportive environment for these poor women and increase economic opportunities for them, Sikha is using government schemes, participatory research and capacity building activities to build awareness in village communities. Sikha’s organisation SRREOSHI (Society for Research and Rudimentary Education on Social and Health Issues), is building the capacity of villagers, local governments, and institutions such as the Land Department.  Her work involves the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), and the “My Home, My Land” scheme of West Bengal. The organization trains volunteers from various villages to develop leaders for their initiatives. These leaders take on the responsibility of operating a variety of programs including implementing MGNREGA, planning and delivering SRREOSHU programs, and participatory planning in the panchayat.

Sikha is currently working in partnership with local Civil Society Organizations, sharing and scaling her model to expand to other districts in West Bengal. Over 25000 people are served by SRREOSHI programs. The quality of life for rural women has drastically improved as a result of Sikha’s work.In the future, she plans to take her work across West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa and spearhead the practice of women’s collective farming in the state of West Bengal.   

Note: This was updated in December, 2013. Read on for the ELECTION profile

Fellow Sketch

Sikha Roy is mobilizing women who are either “daily-wage earners”or landless labourers to exercise their legal rights and gain access to unused land to improve their socio economic conditions. 

Sikha has been defining and establishing land and property rights for women in the state of West Bengal by facilitating the provision of titles to groups and individuals. She helps women pool together their small, individual land holdings for collective commercial and personal farming purposes. In parallel, she operates income generation programs that teach multi-crop farming and the production of neem oil, equipping the women with skills to help them earn throughout the year. These programs also include the development of leadership skills, especially for those women who are part of the panchayat. Currently, Sikha’s work impacts 5000 women and 300 groups in the Bankhura district. In addition, Sikha has been working on land ownership rights of tribal communities in the Bankura district who have been living in the forests for more than 70 years. Through campaigns and activism she is helping them gain legal titles over their lands.

To create a supportive environment for these poor women and increase economic opportunities for them, Sikha is using government schemes, participatory research and capacity building activities to build awareness in village communities. Sikha’s organisation SRREOSHI (Society for Research and Rudimentary Education on Social and Health Issues), is building the capacity of villagers, local governments, and institutions such as the Land Department.  Her work involves the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), and the “My Home, My Land” scheme of West Bengal. The organization trains volunteers from various villages to develop leaders for their initiatives. These leaders take on the responsibility of operating a variety of programs including implementing MGNREGA, planning and delivering SRREOSHU programs, and participatory planning in the panchayat.

Sikha is currently working in partnership with local Civil Society Organizations, sharing and scaling her model to expand to other districts in West Bengal. Over 25000 people are served by SRREOSHI programs. The quality of life for rural women has drastically improved as a result of Sikha’s work.In the future, she plans to take her work across West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa and spearhead the practice of women’s collective farming in the state of West Bengal. 

Fellow Sketch

Sikha Roy is mobilizing women who are either “daily-wage earners”or landless labourers to exercise their legal rights and gain access to unused land to improve their socio economic conditions. 

Sikha has been defining and establishing land and property rights for women in the state of West Bengal by facilitating the provision of titles to groups and individuals. She helps women pool together their small, individual land holdings for collective commercial and personal farming purposes. In parallel, she operates income generation programs that teach multi-crop farming and the production of neem oil, equipping the women with skills to help them earn throughout the year. These programs also include the development of leadership skills, especially for those women who are part of the panchayat. Currently, Sikha’s work impacts 5000 women and 300 groups in the Bankhura district. In addition, Sikha has been working on land ownership rights of tribal communities in the Bankura district who have been living in the forests for more than 70 years. Through campaigns and activism she is helping them gain legal titles over their lands.

To create a supportive environment for these poor women and increase economic opportunities for them, Sikha is using government schemes, participatory research and capacity building activities to build awareness in village communities. Sikha’s organisation SRREOSHI (Society for Research and Rudimentary Education on Social and Health Issues), is building the capacity of villagers, local governments, and institutions such as the Land Department.  Her work involves the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), and the “My Home, My Land” scheme of West Bengal. The organization trains volunteers from various villages to develop leaders for their initiatives. These leaders take on the responsibility of operating a variety of programs including implementing MGNREGA, planning and delivering SRREOSHU programs, and participatory planning in the panchayat.

Sikha is currently working in partnership with local Civil Society Organizations, sharing and scaling her model to expand to other districts in West Bengal. Over 25000 people are served by SRREOSHI programs. The quality of life for rural women has drastically improved as a result of Sikha’s work.In the future, she plans to take her work across West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa and spearhead the practice of women’s collective farming in the state of West Bengal. 

This profile was updated in September 2014. Read on for the Election Profile.

INTRODUCTION

In the countryside of West Bengal, where arid conditions and landlessness combine to cause hunger and exacerbate attendant problems, Sikha Roy is organizing women who are daily-wage earners to exercise a legal right over unused land and then to farm it appropriately. With produce of their own, the women can feed their families, escape the manifold abuses they are exposed to as laborers, and stay close to their children and loved ones, thereby bringing new life to their villages.




THE NEW IDEA

Sikha has grasped a timely opportunity for rural women in West Bengal to obtain and cultivate unused farmlands through village-level tactics that avoid conflict while effecting a profound change in local economic and political relations. While working for a rural development organization in the dry zone of West Bengal, it occurred to Sikha Roy that the lessons on nutrition for women and children she was teaching were of little significance to families without land or other assets with which to meet their basic food needs. Exploring the possibilities for women there to escape degrading and impoverished conditions, she devised a means that rests not only in lessons on health and agriculture, but in awareness of the law and ability to advocate for one’s rights.

Sikha has not foresaken her work on sustainable agriculture and nutrition in favor of an alternative approach; on the contrary, she uses it as an entry point through which to win the confidence of village men and women. She begins with discussions and simple activities on farming, health and self-help. She then forms groups of women who approach the local councils with carefully researched proposals that they be allocated land under little-known regulations intended to ensure its equitable distribution. These claims are opportune, as the government of West Bengal is in the final stages of devising measures to increase physical participation in local councils, as mandated by national laws introduced during the past decade. Once the women have obtained access to land, Sikha works closely with them to grow crops suited to the harsh environment, and ensure that the success of their legal claim is met with the fruits of their labor.

As more women stay close to home and work their own land, they and their children’s lives are improved, and their role in village affairs enlarged and secured. As cohesive groups of women are formed in more villages, they will have a deep and lasting effect in their regions, and in turn, the whole of rural India, where hundreds of millions of women subsist in similar conditions, and where in most places comparable laws for transfer of lands exist. But irrespective of specific regulations from one place to the next, everywhere, Sikha reminds us, women take pleasure and pride in producing and preparing food for their families; it is this simple but intrinsically human quality that makes her idea work.




THE PROBLEM

In West Bengal, as elsewhere in India, millions of people struggle to feed themselves and their families. Most have little or no land, and in many cases both husband and wife have to travel to get difficult and often dangerous work for little pay. Among these people, women and girls—particularly those listed on government schedules as belonging to underprivileged castes and tribes—suffer the greatest deprivations. Without regular work near their villages, women must travel in search of employment for three to six months in a year. They get jobs breaking and carting stones in quarries, or on road construction sites, for which they may receive 30 rupees per day, compared to 50 rupees that a man gets for the same work. At work sites they are often raped or otherwise sexually or physically abused. They may stay away from home for days and weeks at a time, or have to travel for hours each day. Meanwhile, their children are neglected and don’t attend school. Many of them, lacking the steadying hand of a mother, become rebellious. The performance of daily chores usually falls to the daughters, who also may be sexually abused. Upon returning home, the women are immediately expected to meet all their family responsibilities, taking care of the children, cooking meals and cleaning, while their husbands often spend their time drinking.

Laws exist that could provide small lots of land to these women, but these are not implemented due to ignorance and inert bureaucracy. Section 49 of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act of 1955 allows the state government to distribute unused land and ponds to certain categories of underprivileged persons. Similar laws apply in other parts of India. The West Bengal Panchayat Act, which regulates the local councils, or panchayats, provides that preference be given to persons belonging to castes and tribes on government schedules or persons who form themselves into cooperatives. A 1985 government notification indicated that among these, groups of landless women would be recognized. However, to date, lack of awareness about these regulations and the absence of any pressure to bring about change have meant that they have not been put into practice.

Beneath all the physical suffering and inactive laws are the deep prejudices and entrenched family and community structures that presume for women a position subordinate to men, and deny them the right to speak. Ultimately, it is to contribute to the destruction of this underlying problem that Sikha’s work is directed, and as India undergoes increasingly rapid change, she is seizing the opportunities available towards this end.




THE STRATEGY

Sikha begins her work in a village with instruction on farming, animal husbandry, nutrition and health; it is only later that she turns attention to obtaining rights over land. To start with, she gets together with groups of women and talks about crops that will grow in dry conditions, locally available herbal medicines, and the special nutritional needs of women and children. Where local youth clubs or civic groups exist, she sometimes organizes her first meetings through them; in other cases, she goes directly to some of the women. She learns about the particular conditions in the village, and suggests possible ways for women to get some extra income and set up self-help groups. From these discussions she identifies around eight to ten women in a village whom she can organize into a core group to begin advocating for rights to land. Among the group, at least one or two must be able to read and write, in order to record their findings when surveying available land around the village. This survey record is used when they enter into negotiations with the panchayat. The literate women are also needed to assist with subsequent training on appropriate farming methods, dietary issues, and marketing and negotiation skills, all of which will equip them for the tasks ahead. Once ready, the women contact the local government offices and prepare their joint ownership documents with which to lay their claim.

In some instances, it is possible for the women to begin planting small crops before actually obtaining legal title. In those cases, they have the advantage of being able to experiment early with suitable crops to grow and store. Sikha recalls that this is what happened where she pioneered her work in Jamshola, Bankura district; part of the Rarh dry lands. A village of 45 families, Sikha first visited it in 1998 and began her work there soon after. Following successful negotiations with the panchayat, the women there started planting in 2000. From some initial experiments with single crops, they diversified and now grow a variety of plants, including local strains of lentils, okra, millet and eggplant. Most of the foods they yield can be pickled or otherwise preserved, and parts of some plants can also be used for other things, such as ropes and firewood. The women in Jamshola are now producing enough food for their families to eat 200 days in the year, and Sikha is aiming for 365 days within the next year. The panchayat has since recommended to the District Magistrate to grant the women legal title over the land, the final hurdle in their becoming full owners. If handled inappropriately, the land claims could lead to conflict with men, but Sikha’s experience at Jamshola helps her manage these sensitive issues.

To begin, the men are brought into discussions from the start. It is made clear to them that the women, not they, have a legal right to make a claim over the land, thereby avoiding any misplaced sense of competition. At the same time, they are shown how their families stand to benefit from the women obtaining land and the relatively small upfront costs are also laid out. Additionally, under a 1994 national law, one in three members of a panchayat must be a woman. This allows women to negotiate deals with men over land in exchange for reaching agreements with them on other issues of concern. In fact, so far the panchayats have not only been passively supportive of the women’s claims, but have even given money received as grants to support this work. It is a happy arrangement for the panchayat, which with little effort has a way to prudently disperse funds received, to the benefit and approval of all.

With demonstrated success, Sikha has plans for careful and deliberate expansion. In 2002, she began work in three new villages in Bankura district, and has organized groups in those places that have begun with self-help programs, some planning, and negotiations with the panchayats. In 2004, she started surveying in three new districts, including two where claims may fall over ponds rather than soil. She has also recently initiated work in three more villages of Bankura, and two in neighboring Purulia, which she is visiting with women from Jamshola. This is the embryo of a plan Sikha has for rural women to become responsible for the spread of this work. Meanwhile, in South 24 Parganas district, she has begun land surveys in three blocks of five villages each. However, the work necessarily takes time, as Sikha needs to discuss and devise appropriate methods for using available land and water resources from place to place, and adopt suitable strategies when negotiating with the panchayats.

While at this stage Sikha is looking to take the work into nearby districts with the most widespread landlessness and subsistence labor, she observes that the same problems exist right across West Bengal and beyond. In fact, discussions she has had with persons from neighboring Bihar indicate that the difficulties faced by women there are even greater than West Bengal, although the same kind of regulations exist for land reform. Sikha has begun approaching partners there and in adjacent Jharkhand. And as the 73rd Constitutional Amendment of 1992 has mandated that the panchayat system be implemented across the entire country through state-level legislation, Sikha expects that the opportunities for similar work elsewhere will also open up, as India’s complex political and administrative machinery slowly moves to comply. While she intends to spread her idea into other countries of South Asia, her immediate plan is to spend the next five years consolidating the work in West Bengal before making serious efforts to spread it further. In particular, she is concerned to find more ways for the women to generate income from their produce, possibly through special networks for exchange and marketing of their products, from which they can both feed their families and also obtain a small surplus income.




THE PERSON

Having been born and raised in a village of Bankura district herself, Sikha has had a lifelong commitment to the rural women of India. From a young age, Sikha’s mother had a strong influence on her future direction. Her mother had been unable to study and felt strongly that village women had many talents and abilities but were disadvantaged relative to those in towns and cities. She pushed her daughters to become well educated; Sikha finished school in an industrial town where her father was working, and to fulfill her mother’s hopes went on to obtain three university degrees and a postgraduate diploma.

Despite having gone away for her studies, Sikha always felt the pull of the countryside, and after finishing university in 1998, she knew that she needed to return. She found work as a fieldworker with the Service Centre, the largest rural development nongovernmental organization in West Bengal, and became involved in a variety of programs that took her to remote parts of the state for about half of every month. These experiences helped her gain the skills, personal contacts and confidence that together crystallized into her current work. As she traveled through more than eight districts, she saw most women going long distances in search of jobs. Some would travel for hours each day, others would settle temporarily at farms, quarries or other places where they had managed to secure some daily employment. It was at this time that she met a woman from Jamshola village, who was going into the hills to break stones, leaving her five children at home with an alcoholic husband. With the entire responsibility for the family on her shoulders, she endured degrading hardships and abuses for a few rupees each day. Sikha went with her to the village, and found that almost every family there was in the same situation. She spent more and more time in Jamshola, where her current idea sprouted.

Sikha continues to be employed by the Service Centre, but plans to step out from under its umbrella when she can sustain herself and her work without need for others’ support. In the meantime, she promotes her ideas and experiences as widely as possible, writing for a range of local publications and in syndicated Bengali newspapers. She continues to support her mother, who still lives in their village.




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