Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi are inseparable. Together they are even unafraid of taking on the government to help their community. These women live in the village of Badai in the district of Kangra where it was once unacceptable for women to step out of their homes. However, now Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi travel far distances to many different Mahila Mandals (Village Women’s Groups) and give advice to the Pradhans (presidents) on how to mobilize their community. They are a source of inspiration and smiles for other rural women.
However, the formation of this Mahila Mandal had a shaky start. Although it only took 25 paise to join the Mahila Mandal back in 1965, Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi had to go home to home to convince the women to pay their chanda (fees). This effort was in vain as the Mahila Mandal soon became dormant due to a lack of interest and experience on how to conduct meetings.
After 1986, CORD began forming new Mahila Mandals in villages and reviving old ones. This was a blessing for Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi because they had a second chance to create a forum for the women. They took the initiative to become leaders in their community. Magni Devi became the President of the Mahila Mandal and Pukrdi Devi became the Secretary. In order to prevent the problems of the past, CORD trained the women on how to properly facilitate meetings. A CORD worker was always present at their meetings in order to provide support and a network system for the women. They raised the chanda to two rupees in order to raise funds and meet the needs of theircommunity. This often meant buying the necessary supplies for weddings. However, today the Mahila Mandal meets more than the marriage needs of the villagers. They have become a strong body that takes on the government, unruly citizens, and corruption, all while managing their own households.
One such problem was the way in which government land, used for the benefit of all villagers, was being occupied by a few individuals in the village. The Mahila Mandal discussed how this land should be rightfully used and unanimously decided to journey to the Patwari’s (government official who keeps track of government land) office to find out who it belonged to. When the Patwari revealed that the land belonged to the government for use by the community, the women immediately began planning its use. They started using the land for plantation work which benefited the whole community and not just a few individuals. Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi never relied on others to do their work. They always took the initiative to deal with problems their village was facing on their own.
Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi have become so empowered that they have even approached large NGOs (like the Red Cross) and government officials for extra funding for their Mahila Mandal projects. Their illiteracy is no barrier even when communicating with educated officials. For example, when Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi found out the Deputy Commisioner of Dharamshala was a woman, they decided to make a request on behalf of their village. Mattresses were needed so they asked the commissioner for the funds to purchase them. The Deputy Commissioner, impressed by the strong demeanor of the women, was surprised that they were asking for so little and told them they should ask for more. Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi heeded her advice and brought the subject up at their next Mahila Mandal meeting. The women decided it was time to improve the condition of their local school. The Deputy Commissioner agreed and soon another wing was built under the close supervision of the Mahila Mandal so that no corruption would take place. The women also felt it was time to build a Mahila Mandal bhavan (meeting place). This action demonstrated the seriousness with which the women conducted their work.
Although Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi ran the Mahila Mandal with zeal, they often did not have the complete support of their village. But this did not bother them because they would always have the support of their Mahila Mandal. The work of the Mahila Mandal has spanned many topics and reached many people. They have not only helped individuals in their own village but have supported tsunami victims, earthquake victims, and Kargil War victims when possible.
However, before helping others they first had to help themselves. The Mahila Mandal formed two Self-Help Groups (SHG): bpl (below poverty line) and non-bpl. They have three main activities of growing vegetables, producing dairy products, and the keeping of bees. They also decided to receive training from the government on how to make smoke-free stoves for which they receive 500-600 rupees per stove. Through the SHG, the women even took out a loan for one lakh rupees to cultivate their vegetable business. In taking a loan of this size, these women have defied all stereotypes about rural women being timid or hesitant. These are women with grand ideas and even grander personalities; they go about their work with a sense of humor and charisma.
This persistence together with their humor was particularly evident when once they were to receive prize money for being the best Mahila Mandal, a prize which they are awarded frequently. Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi went to Block District Officer (BDO) to receive their check. When they arrived at the office, the BDO said that he had already given them the check. He claimed that since they were old, they must have misplaced it. Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi demanded to see their signatures on the paper that registered their acceptance of the check. The BDO did not let them see those records and requested that they go home and look for it. Magni Devi and Pukrdi did just that. However, as they went home, they noticed that some of the other villagers started talking about them and saying that they had stolen the money. This became fuel for Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi since they were sure of their innocence. They went back to the BDO’s office with a letter they had devised. In the letter they stated that they had not received the check. Due to the humiliation they were receiving from their own villagers, they were going to poison themselves. The BDO would be the responsible party for their death and that information would become public. As soon as they submitted the letter, the BDO reluctantly gave them their prize money. With a sense of wit and humor, they made sure that justice prevailed and that the Mahila Mandal received what it deserved.
The accomplishments of this particular Mahila Mandal are a testament of the strength and potential of rural women. Although Magni Devi and Pukrdi Devi are old, they still take an active interest in their village. When asked what influenced them to do so much, their response was that “It is my village and I care about the welfare of it.”