It’s a balmy Tuesday morning in Orissa as we make our way to the village of Bebari, nearly a three-hour drive from the state capital of Bhubaneswar. For the last few miles, the road is nothing but thick red clay, and several times we pause to give way to cows, the cowherds clucking their tongues to clear up the jam.
A year has gone by since I’ve been to Orissa, and I’m delighted to find myself here once again with Jeevika’s programmes officer, Judith, our in-country coordinator, Priya, and Manu and Madhu, directors of our partner NGO in Orissa, Jeevan Rekha Parishad (JRP).
Today is our first day heading back into the field to visit our projects.
Come and learn from bees reads a poster on one of the first buildings we see in Bebari. But today we have come to not only learn from bees, but from the women who keep them. After receiving a two-year extension from DFID, Jeevika and JRP have continued the Madhu Network Project, which supports 300 traditional women beekeepers in 10 villages across Orissa.
The first woman I sit down with is named Basanti. With Manu kindly offering to translate, I learn that she is 40 years old and has four children – a son and three daughters, ranging in age from 8 to 20 years old. While her children are all studying, Basanti herself has no education.
“There was no school at the time,” she explains. “There was only jungle when I was a child. My parents taught me some letters. That is all.
Originally from the Ganjam district, Basanti has lived in Bebari for 25 years, and was married at the age of 15. “Earlier, there was nothing. We were just housewives. Now we have started beekeeping.”
Basanti even tells us she had the first beehive box in the village. And since two Self-Help Groups (SHGs) were formed in Bebari six months ago, she has become president of hers.
There are typically three kilograms of honey in a harvest, with each kilogram earning 200 rupees in local markets. Basanti uses the extra income to buy household items, for the treatment of her son when he was suffering from fever, and “also for the study of my children.”
“Earlier no one was giving us a single rupee for our activities. Now we have our group and our savings. We are very happy to be working together in a team for economic activities. It is increasing day by day, so we will not stop.
“Now you all have come. We need to assess our other needs and other programmes. That is our future plan. We are very happy many people are coming to our village now.”
In addition to meeting household needs and expenses, each member of the SHG also currently saves 20 rupees a month in their collective savings account. Hearing this is a necessary reminder of the hundreds of millions of rural people living at the ‘base of the pyramid’ that is today’s modern India.
While those at the top now earn and spend at European rates, women like Basanti still find tiny amounts of money to be a worthwhile return on time and effort. Indeed, I think back to what she had said earlier in our conversation:
We are increasing day by day.
I already look forward to the updates – and to seeing Basanti again – when we’re back in Orissa this time next month.
Please consider supporting Jeevika with a small donation as we work to support Basanti and other women beekeepers like her in the communities of village India: