It is just past 10 on a Sunday morning when Reventi, a young woman bent under the weight of one small child on her hip while another tugs at her sari, appears in the doorway of Ponnuthai Sappani’s home. The director of TNWC’s Vasudevanallur district office flashes a sparkling white smile and waves the family inside. Reventi enters, handing Ponnuthai a typed letter.
Ponnuthai scans the document, issued by the local court. The judge, she explains, is stalling on the young mother’s request that her husband be ordered to return. He had abandoned Reventi and taken up with another woman after Reventi reported being abused by him, including an attempted strangling and a stabbing. But she wants him back, because her children are hungry and because having him around made life more manageable than it is for a single woman in rural India.
Ponnuthai doesn’t judge (she made a similar choice years ago). Reventi must wait for another letter, she says. Reventi and the children stay for tea, enjoying the cool breeze of Ponnuthai’s ceiling fan. By the time they leave, it’s almost lunchtime. “Here, there are no Sundays,” Ponnuthai says, as she steps into her small kitchen to prepare some rice.
Indeed, there is almost no downtime for Ponnuthai or the other five Vasudevanallur employees, who work in an office below her apartment. Over the decades, the staff — like those at all TNWC headquarters — have become pillars for the community, a perpetually sought-out source of advice, support, document interpretation, interventions and tea.
“This began with a few of us saying that women’s rights are human rights, which was a radical notion here in 1994,” says Lidwin Singarayan, a nun and TNWC co-founder.
The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective was started in Chennai, the state capital, by Lidwin, Sheelu and four others. For many years, they received financial support from Catholic Aid India, which they used to pay staff and run a few campaigns. But, says Sheelu, their bottom-up approach of giving local chapters control doesn’t sit well with funders, and for several years now, the collective has been getting by on the occasional private donation and membership dues. Sometimes, staff members go months without pay.
As the organization grew, members started forming sanghams — neighborhood groups of approximately 20 women, who meet periodically. These became the basis for workshops on women’s rights, political advocacy campaigns, literacy training and more.
“I never left the house before I got involved in Women’s Collective,” says Tamilselvi Rajandran, from the village of Subramaniyapuram. The statement is echoed by dozens of TNWC members throughout Tamil Nadu. “I didn’t realize that what I went through, others did too,” said Kasthuri Durai Pandi of Thithampatti, another common refrain. “Once I did, I felt like we could do something about it.”
One of the first things the sanghams did something about was predatory money lenders. India has more than 300 million poor people, about a third of the world’s impoverished. Banks typically have no incentive to grant loans to this segment of the population, so when the poor need cash, they turn to unregulated money lenders. Borrowers can end up indebted to them for decades.
The sanghams set up a collective banking-and-lending system, similar to models created by the government in 1992. From there it was a short leap from collective lending to collective farming. Research shows that the obstacles for individual farmers are too numerous: lack of capital, little access to markets and no way to weather economic fluctuations, especially with the region’s recurring droughts and tired soil.
“The sanghams were a natural place for group ownership and commitment,” Sheelu says. Getting the land was the easiest part. Some pilot farms are on abandoned farmland, for which the state government has promised to process titles. In other instances, a TNWC member’s family leases them land in exchange for a third of the crop.
The farms all adhere to some basic principles: cash needed during the planting season comes as a loan from the sangham. They always plant nutrient-rich crops such as sesame, pulses and millet, a native grain dense in protein and vitamins, which some call Indian quinoa. The harvest is first offered to members at below- market rates and then sold locally. Profit depends on the yearly rains. All the collective plots are organic, even though the yield would be higher if chemical fertilizers were used. “This is a long-term project,” Lidwin explains. “We have to make the land healthy again.”
“Collectives such as these are not the socialist collectives of the past, which were very large in scale, constituted of forcibly requisitioned land, and where people had little say in decision making, little incentive to work hard and no ownership of their resources,” says Bina Agarwal, a professor of development economics and environment at the University of Manchester. She calls this alternative model “bottom-up collectivities” based on small, voluntary groups with participatory decision-making and checks and balances for accountability, such as fines for members who don’t follow agreed-upon rules.
Gender matters, too. The Deccan Development Society, a grassroots organization in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, tried collective farms with only men, then men and women but now only funds women. “When they have a solid organization, when women trust each other, they improve market access, and even if the price collapses one year on a crop, with good governance, they can withstand this,” Kenmore says.
The collective has had mixed results, admits Sheelu. When the weather has been good, the women have been able to sustain their families for about half a year on the food and income — a great success. But in 2011, for example, massive drought meant they were barely able to earn back their investment.