Indian women cook their way to self-sufficiency

IT is 11 a.m., and about 30 women are crowded into a small room. Some are stirring hot lentils, others are chopping tomatoes; some are grinding coriander, mint, and green chilies into a chutney, others are rolling out rotis (unleavened bread), baking these on hot skillets, and tossing them into large hemp baskets. There is a loud hum of chatter, laughter, and jokes. Most women are constantly wiping their faces with the edge of their saris in the steamy room. This is the catering section of the Annapurna Mahila Mandal, a grass-roots organization of self-employed working-class women. It is located in Dadar, a Bombay suburb bordering the mill areas of the city. While the women in the room are cooking food to be delivered to office workers, the majority of Annapurna's 18,500 members cook and serve food in their own homes for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who live in the city of Bombay.

Bombay has more than 300,000 workers who come in from the rural areas in search of work. Most cannot afford to bring their families to live in the city, and they live in rundown chawls, ramshackle buildings with a minimum of facilities. Here they share space, dormitory-style, with other workers. One of the first things they do on arriving in the city is to find an annapurna (in Sanskrit, the word means ``goddess of food''), preferably from their own village or caste, who can provide them with home-cooked food at reasonable rates, trying thereby to create in an unfamiliar and rough urban environment whatever little they can of the rhythm of their village lives.

Prema Purao, the founder of the Annapurna Mahila Mandal, is a tall, imposing woman and a veteran trade unionist. She speaks with authority and compassion about these women with whom she has worked all her life. ``During my trade union work, I found that these women, who were usually wives of textile workers and had themselves been textile workers in the past, had been cooking for other workers for many years, fulfilling a need for good food at cheap prices. Besides, they could feed their own families on the food they cooked. They worked very hard, sometimes cooking two shifts a day for 15 to 20 people,'' she says.

``During the textile strike of 1973, these women continued to provide food to the workers, even though many couldn't pay,'' adds Ms. Purao. ``So I thought, why not start a self-employment program for them. Also, often they had to support their families because their husbands were drunkards or beat them up or abandoned them for other women. So I wanted to start something concrete, something that would help them directly.''

In 1975, she set up the Annapurna Mahila Mandal and is now its executive secretary. Purao found that the major problem faced by these women was a lack of cash to buy supplies. The women gave credit to the workers for a month, so to buy food supplies they went to moneylenders to borrow money and were charged exorbitant rates of interest, up to 120 percent a year. Since the women were illiterate, the moneylenders and grocers kept the accounts, often inflating the numbers to keep the women perpetually in debt.

Purao decided that the women needed to shake off their dependence on moneylenders. She approached some government banks for loans and negotiated to get these at 4 percent interest.

BUT then another problem arose. The women were not willing to go to the banks; they were afraid. ``Who will respect us at the bank?'' they asked. ``They will laugh at us poor women and send us away.'' The moneylenders also tried to scare them, saying that bank investigators would come to their houses and they would have to pay taxes. But after some persuasion, 14 women, mostly long-time trade union members, agreed to get bank loans.

When these women went to the public taps to fill water or to the bazaar to shop, other women would point to them and say, ``Look, here are the women who went to the bank.'' When they saw that nothing drastic had happened to them and that, in fact, they were able to pay off the moneylenders and were busy giving TV interviews, the word spread. The next week, 26 women showed up to go to the bank with Purao. Now 18,500 women have joined Annapurna and have taken loans amounting to $20 million.

Many Annapurna members say joining the organization has given them a great sense of security and confidence.

``We have many difficulties in our lives; we can't live well, and getting this loan makes a big difference,'' says Rukmini Phule, who has been an annapurna for many years. ``Now we have no fear of the moneylender, our anxiety is less and we can share our problems with other women. Before, I got money from the moneylender, less money at very high interest - 150 percent. My husband is a millworker. Sometimes he gave me money and sometimes he drank it away, and I had to somehow feed my five children. Now I have steady income and have learned many new things.''

PREMLATA GAZNI, a cheerful, bustling woman, is manager of the kitchen at the catering center. She handles the stores, plans menus, mediates personal disputes, and supervises the cooking. She used to work in a textile mill but was laid off. She has three children.

``My earlier dhanda [work] was daru [selling liquor],'' she admits reluctantly. ``I belong to the bhandari caste and we are liquor sellers, and I also sold liquor. My family suffered for two years, we were heavily in debt, nearly starving. Then this lady asked me to join. I was hesitant. I said, `I do this daru dhanda, how can I cook?' She convinced me and so I stopped selling liquor. Now when people ask me if I like this work, I say, `Why shouldn't I, I'm so good at it.'''

Ashalata Towri, a woman with an impish smile, adds shyly, ``Earlier, lots of women did this work but they were badly hit during the textile strike. Many sold their jewelry, utensils, and clothes just to continue feeding the workers. Many were deeply in debt, and some even ran off to their villages to escape the moneylenders. But now with the association most have recovered and are doing well. We feel very secure. We are no longer tied to the house, we are free to go out. Everyone knows we are annapurnas.''

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