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The role of women in State-led development: A story of paradoxes

Read time: 1 min
9 Dec 2020
The role of women in State-led development: A story of paradoxes

[Image Credits: Savitha Sekhar, original image from Wikipedia / CC-BY-SA 3.0]

In certain parts of India, continuous struggle for power and resources has forced large sections of its people to demand autonomy and reject the Constitutional hierarchy forced upon them. Instead, they actively participate in overturning the power of various levels of government in their lives. This is especially true in regions with large populations of tribal or adivasi people, who feel disenfranchised, and resort to armed struggle against the Constitutional powers, in a process known as ‘insurgency’. One such area surrounds Lalgarh and Ramgarh in the western part of West Bengal, known as the jungle-mahal, or the jungle corridor of West Bengal. The people of jungle-mahal have taken part in armed struggles throughout the history of the state. At the turn of the millennia, this insurgency intensified against the erstwhile Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government. Notably, adivasi women in the area who were active in politics, got involved in the struggle.

In 2011, after the Trinamool Congress came to power, it desired to expand the government’s reach in the jungle-mahal by restoring its legitimacy in these areas. Instead of using arms, it tried to woo the people through welfare projects, a practice social scientists call ‘counterinsurgency’. Women of jungle-mahal, who had been traditionally marginalised within their households, had played an active role in the Maoist movement in the 2000s. The government wanted to win the trust of people by facilitating welfare schemes specifically aimed at women. One such scheme, ‘Muktidhara’, funded by the Union Government of India and facilitated by the Government of West Bengal, was born in 2013 after similar schemes tasted success in other Maoism-hit states. It promised to give loans to groups of adivasi women, called ‘self-help groups’ or SHGs, who would together venture entrepreneurial projects in their neighbourhoods.

In a study published in the Journal of South Asian Development, anthropologist Lipika Kamra focusses on the response of the adivasi women to Muktidhara. “My goal was not to measure the success or failure of these initiatives, but to understand the relations between the State and citizens that emerged in such a setting,” she explains.

Lipika, currently an Assistant Professor at the O. P. Jindal Global University, conducted this study during her PhD at Oxford University. She carried out field-work in two phases, from August 2013 to May 2014 and from December 2014 to January 2015, for which she learned to speak bangla (Bengali), the most spoken language in West Bengal. “A lot of santali women are first-generation bangla speakers, and are in their 20s or 30s. Everybody else in their family speaks santali,” she says, referring to one of the dominant tribes that inhabit the jungle-mahal. “When I made mistakes with bangla, the women would find it funny and want to correct me. So I learned the language while gelling with them,” she shares.

Lipika explains how in her research, she understands the ‘State’ through her respondent’s lens. The spaces and actors of the central and state governments, like the block development offices, local bureaucrats, and village-level workers, are thus all a part of the ‘State’. In her study, she used what anthropologists call the ‘extended case method’. In this method, the researcher studies one individual in as much detail as possible, and brings out the general socio-political realities through the lens of this individual. Lipika’s primary subject had studied further in school and was more confident in her approach to dealing with the State than her peers in her self-help group. However, she represents the typical relationship the women had with the State in the counterinsurgency context.

According to Lipika, all the women she met during her field-work talked about how, without an active role from the State, it is almost impossible to think about bringing any change in their lives. “The change starts with carving a space outside of the household,” explains Lipika. It does not necessarily mean working in the fields, which many had been doing much before the State’s welfare measures had started. “It means being involved in the public sphere, for example, the village or the block.” Through numerous interactions with the adivasi women, Lipika studied how the women interacted with the State by visiting block development offices and conducting meetings of the SHGs.

Lipika found that a lot of the SHGs were not too interested in the loans that were given to such groups. “The women actually want a codependent relationship with the State because it helps them make more claims. Otherwise, they feel like they are left in the lurch with a one-off loan,” explains Lipika. To them, participation with the State was important to have a role outside of the house, which gave them a sense of importance in society, and a bigger say within their households. It also somewhat freed them from patriarchal practices within their family, and enabled them to dream of better futures for their children compared to their own life trajectories.

The State also wanted to show that it was being more responsive to people because it was interested in rebuilding its legitimacy. “So when I did field-work, women were often called up to the block development office, they would write a petition and get a response even if the State was not able to fulfil all demands,” says Lipika. This behaviour of the State sits sharply in contrast to the neglect and corrupt development work in rural India. Such two-way interactions resulted in the women imagining a future consisting of constant engagement with the State, and in the case of Lipika’s subject, even direct employment by it.

The individual aspirations of the women and their zeal to continuously engage with it, however, sat in direct contrast to the idea of the State. While the State had imagined that the people would become self-reliant through loans, the women wanted a sustained interaction with the local State actors.

“The women who were targeted by such a programme did not see themselves as participating in that larger goal of establishing State power. For them, it was about how they can imagine change in their own lives,” explains Lipika.

As the findings show, the path of counterinsurgency has not been exactly what the State had imagined, and neither have the people’s lives changed drastically. Whether the adivasi women will continue to engage with the State, and whether the State will yield further by directing employment schemes for the women, is a matter that is left to be seen. Meanwhile, many political waters have turned, and with West Bengal heading for an election next year, the questions remain unanswered.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy. 

Editor's Note: There was an error in publishing time, it has been rectified, the error is rectified.