Abstract: As a hard-working bank employee, a loving wife and mother, a dutiful daughter and daughter-in-law, Mangala Lohiya has been called to fulfil many roles in her life. Despite the difficulties of juggling her multiple roles, Mangala found time to write articles, stories and poems, and more importantly, to lend a helping hand to those less privileged than herself. Having won the National Award for Literature in 2001, in Indore, she is today a recognised bilingual writer in Hindi and Marathi, with her by-line in newspapers like Lokmat and Ajanta. She has also received the Nari Ratna Puraskar from the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1999, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) award in Maharashtra for her success in forming Farmer’s Clubs in three consecutive years from 1994-1997, the Kamgar Shree Puruskar by the Manushbybal Vikas Academy in Mumbai, and the Kalpana Chawla Puruskar by the Akola Municipal Corporation (in 2005) in recognition of her service to the community.
Keywords: Marathwada region, family, dowry, women’s roles, women in agriculture, Rural Development
This recognition for her achievements has not been easy. Mangala, a woman of considerable energy, grit and courage, has had to struggle hard to move out of the confines of her home to work in the community and also write about her analysis of women’s situation in Indian society. The question that arises here is: what propelled a woman brought up in a conservative family to rise above the limitations imposed by her family and society to reach out to others? She could have, like any other middle-class woman with a secure job in a bank, continued to live a cocooned life. Yet she chose to move out of this safe world, to make a difference in society. Mangala says, it was her own experiences of poverty and economic insecurities early in her married life that enables her to empathise with the sufferings of other women. It moves her to lend a helping hand to others. She also hopes that her service to the community will shower blessings on her family and children. As she expresses in Hindi, “Mendi legathe lagthe, mendi laganawale ka hath lall hotha hai (the hands of the woman who applies mendi on the hands of others will also become red).
In her endeavour to serve the community, Mangala has displayed initiative and resourcefulness. She has been able to tap all the available resources of the community in Akola in order to help others. For instance, when she heard that her neighbour, a young, physically handicapped woman, needed a new pair of corrective shoes, she did not listen passively, instead she sought to find ways to help her. Using her location as member of the Lioness Club she got the young woman the much- needed corrective shoes. Mangala’s concern for this young woman, however, did not end with the gift of a pair of shoes; it went beyond to ensure that the woman got vocational training and was able to earn a living from home. Similarly, when her domestic help discussed with her the dire straits that she was in, Mangala did not just offer her a sympathetic ear, but went about getting the poor woman a dole through the government welfare scheme.
Today Mangala is the Development Officer in charge of the Women Development Cell of the Vidharbha Kshetriya Grameen Bank. This position has enabled her to participate in the process of organising women into Self Help Groups (SHGs) and establishing savings/linking them with the bank. By doing her job with sincerity, Mangala has organised more than 30,000 women, in the Districts of Akola and Wasim, into 3000 SHGs. By establishing savings/credit linkages with the bank, Mangala has been able to ensure that these women have been able to move out of poverty level to a position of relative economic stability. As a result Anusuyabai Lokhande, a tribal woman has the confidence to get her son admitted to a medical college in Nagpur. Ansuyabai proudly says that he is in the second year of his studies. Similarly, Jyoti Sanjay Busari, a physically handicapped woman, who was married to an unemployed man by an unkind stepmother has been able to start a small-scale business of stitching school uniforms and built a four-room house. She and her husband now supply school uniforms to all the schools in the Vidharbha region. To Jyoti, Mangala is like the mother she never had. Therefore, whenever she is in need of any emotional counseling and support, she immediately approaches Mangala. Jyoti has two daughters, whom she wants to educate well; she decided, on Mangala’s advice not to try for a son and has had a tubectomy operation. To understand the influences that shaped Mangala as well as the evolution of her ideas and work, it is necessary to look into her life and the constraints that she has sought to overcome.
Childhood and Family Influences
Mangala was born to a fairly affluent, rural Agarwal family in Parbhani, located in the Marathwada region in Maharashtra.2 Her father, Kundanmalji Parsawat, was a self-made man, with an abiding love for higher education. He sought to transmit this love for education to his twelve children. Kundanmalji had a rather unusual background. He was born to a poor family and was (as a child) adopted his mother’s sister, the wife of a rich farmer. This change in his economic circumstances did not however mean better opportunities for himself. He grew up feeling unloved and neglected. It appears that the adoptive mother resented her own childlessness and the cultural pressures that forced her to adopt somebody else’s child. She therefore exercised emotional and financial control over him. Therefore, while he was heir to a lot of property and lived in affluent circumstances, he was not allowed to study. Kundanmalji was forced to work on the farm.
This denial of his educational ambitions, gave him a life-long love for knowledge and a determination to educate his own children. He hoped that at least one of his nine sons would one day become a lawyer. Since none of them had a similar desire to study law, he turned his attention on his daughter Mangala. Born on 19 December 1955, Mangala was the seventh child in the family. She was the one child who identified herself with her father and wanted to fulfil her father’s desire to see one of his children become a lawyer.
Mangala’s mother, Rajkunwar Devi Parsawat, was a housewife. Her life centred around the rearing of her large family of twelve children, her domestic responsibilities and the needs of maintaining kinship ties with her extended family. Rajkunwar Devi was also very conservative. Subscribing to the orthodox values of the Marwadi Agarwal community, she had decided views about women’s roles. Rajkunwar Devi expected her daughters-in-law to remain in strict seclusion. This cultural norm was so strictly imposed that the eldest daughter-in-law had to cover her face entirely before other men, even the male cook in the kitchen.3 She was equally strict about the upbringing of her three daughters. She insisted that all of them became proficient in housework from a very young age and did not see the need for girls’ education. While Mangala’s sisters learnt to conform to their mother’s wishes, she could not do so. It was therefore entirely with the support of her father that she could break away from the orthodoxy of her upbringing and dream of higher education and career. Mangala says, ‘without her father’s support, she would not have been able to study beyond high school.’4
Her Early Life and Education
Mangala grew up as a small town girl in Parbhani. Surrounded by a vast rural hinterland in the Marathwada region, the economy of Parbhani was geared to meet the requirements of the rural population. Mangala’s father had inherited 70 acres of well- irrigated land from his adoptive parents. The crops that grew on this land included plantains, sugar cane and millet. He had also augmented his income through his business acumen and became rich by the standards of the district.5 Despite his wealth he never forgot his humble origins and remained committed to the service of society—a value he instilled in his children.
As a young girl, Mangala had attended the Bal Vidhya Mandir School along with her sisters. Subsequently, she was sent to the NVS Marathwada High School, a co-educational institution, where the medium of instruction was English and Marathi. Mangala was a bright student and she participated in various cultural activities, such as elocution, dramatics and debates.
After passing out of school, Mangala studied Sociology and Political Science in Shivaji College. In college, she actively participated in the National Student Services (NSS), which required students to take up some kind of community services. As a part of the NSS work, Mangala would help to clean the neighbourhood surroundings and teach slum children to read and write. While in college, her Hindi teacher, Mr H.M. Gore, recognised and encouraged her flair for writing. Mangala says that it was his encouragement that gave her the confidence to pass the Hindi Sahitya Ratna course and write in the local papers. Much against her mother’s wishes, Mangala studied law in Nanded and subsequently worked as a legal assistant to an Advocate in Parbhani.
Marriage and Motherhood
Her achievements were indeed commendable, as she was the first woman in her family and immediate kin circle to acquire professional qualifications. Her father was justifiably proud of her; he wished to get Mangala married to an educated boy. This was only criterion by which Kundanmalji selected a bridegroom for his daughter. Mangala got married in 1981. Her husband Ashok Kumar Lohiya lived in Akola. 6 Although, highly qualified with M.A. and M.Com degrees, her husband was unemployed and his family was in dire economic straits. Ashok Kumar’s father earned his living by selling lottery tickets on the footpath. The family lived in a small one-room tenement and had barely enough to eat, as the family income per day was only Rs. 20/- to Rs.30/-. Earlier, Mohanlal Lohiya had worked as a small- time wholesale trader in grains. Having incurred certain business loss and the dowry expenses incurred of his first daughter’s marriage, he had been forced to scale down his business. 7 The problem of dowry seems to have been the bane of the Agarwal-Marwari community. Dowry was also given at the time of Mangala’s marriage. Apart from the gold and cash given at the time of her wedding, Mangala’s father used to send Rs. 500/- every month to augment the income of her marital home. In order to become economically self-reliant, Mangala started working as a junior advocate with a Senior Advocate. Her husband continued to work with his father on the footpath.
Remembering the early hardships of her married life, Mangala says that when she was expecting her first child, she had a craving to eat vanilla ice-cream. Her mother-in-law asked Ashok Kumar to buy her the ice cream, but he would not do so, as he felt that in a joint family, it would not be correct for one person to eat something, which could not be eaten by others in the family. Mangala went to her parent’s house to have her first child. After the birth of her first daughter, Sampada, Mangala felt that it would be better for herself and her husband and child to stay with her parents. Ashok Kumar agreed and he started working with his brother-in-law in the medical stores that his father-in- law owned. Mangala soon realised that her husband was not happy living away from his parents and therefore she returned to Akola to live with her in-laws. She also told her father that she did not require any further financial assistance from him. By this time, her father-in- law had purchased three cycles with the money given as Mangala’s dowry. He used to hire out the bicycles and earn an additional income. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law who was working for the Central Bank of India informed her that the Regional Rural Bank (sponsored by the Central bank) was recruiting. She, with her brother-in-law’s help, applied for the job and got a bank officer’s job in 1984. In course of time, she rose to the position of a Branch Manager. 8
Mangala was the first woman from the Agarwal community in Vidharbha to qualify as a lawyer. Consequently the community, wishing to honour her during the Agrasen Jayanti celebrations, asked her to deliver a lecture. Mangala readily accepted the assignment, but subsequently had second thoughts as people would ask her about her family and her husband’s job. How could she tell them that he was unemployed and reduced to selling lottery tickets on the foot path with her father-in-law? She therefore refused the invitation. Hearing the reasons for her refusal, Suhasini Goenka (the wife of the Late Shri Jammanlal Goenka who was at one time the cabinet minister in Maharashtra) was upset. Suhasini Goenka persuaded her husband, Jammanlal Goenka, to help Mangala’s husband get a job in the Janata Bank of Akola.
Climbing out of Poverty
A shrewd woman, Mangala cultivated the Agarwal community network to move out of poverty to a position of economic security. It was through the support of the community that she was able to move out of the one-room tenement that she lived in to her present home. The Agarwal community organisation has decided to build houses for the poorer members of the community on a no profit, no loss basis. During the first phase of this project, Mangala could not avail of the scheme, as she did not even have Rs. 5000/- to pay the initial registration fee. Fortunately for her, the scheme was extended and when the offer was made again the second time, she was able to buy her present home for Rs. 50,000/- paid in installments.
By this time, she had her second daughter Shraddha and son Arpan. She was able to manage her home and work because of the support of her mother-in-law Kashi Devi. Her father too ensured that she had a live-in servant to help her with housework.
Reaching Out to Others
A woman full of life and energy, Mangala was rarely content leading a life confined to work and domesticity. As a lawyer, she was ever ready to help others with their legal problems and to mediate in marital conflicts. Subsequently, working in the bank, with a steady income, she had the economic stability to think beyond the needs of her family. She therefore sought to reach out to others. However, in the early years of her work, her ideology was rather conservative. It comprised organising cultural programmes for women through the various social work/charitable organisations she was a member of. One of the earliest activities that she introduced, Agarwal Mahila Mandal, Akola, was painting classes to young girls. This in fact was an attempt to fulfil her desire to learn to paint.
She however firmly believed that women should be economically independent and therefore, whenever she met any young woman who was idle, she set about ensuring that the woman received some kind of vocational training in sewing, embroidery or making soft toys, etc. and helped her to become self employed through the purchase of a sewing/ embroidery machine through one of the numerous social work organisations/clubs that she was a member of.9 Especially concerned about the physically handicapped women, she sought to ensure that the physical immobility faced by these women was mitigated through gifts of corrective shoes, crutches or even wheel chairs donated by the various charitable organisations that she was a member of. Additionally, knowing full well the hardships caused to poor families because of dowry, she sought to arrange marriages without dowry among the poorer members of the community.
Widening Horizons, New Directions
At present, Mangala works as a Development Officer at the Vidharbha Grameen Bank. Chance played an important role in showing her the direction of her work and making her a catalyst in the on-going revolution in the country. When Shri. Vilas Punde was the Chairperson of the Bank he placed her in charge of the Women’s Development Cell and asked her to take up the directive given to the bank to develop credit linkages with poor women. Since poor women generally do not have collaterals to make them credit worthy, the idea was to organise women into Self Help Groups (SHGs). This suggests that either a Non Government Organisation (NGO) or (as in this instance) the development cell of the bank operates as a catalyst and organises women into a SHG. The catalyst provides the necessary training to the members of the SHG to deal with finance as well as develop skills to improve their earning capacities by starting some micro-enterprises. Additionally the SHG members are encouraged to save and access credit to either start a new enterprise or upscale their existing enterprises. It is hoped that the fall-out of this process of economic upliftment would in the long run bring about the social transformation in the region.
In order to enable Mangala to work effectively, she was sent for training at the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF) in Pune, the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) in Mysore and the Bankers Institute of Rural Development (BIRD) in Lucknow. In the course of her work, Mangala has promoted the Suvarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar (SGSY), a poverty alleviation programme initiated by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.
Formulated through the restructuring the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), the Training of Rural Youth for Self- Employment (TRYSEM) and the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA), this SGSY is primarily aimed at the Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Apart from facilitating savings, the scheme has a strong credit-cum-subsidy component along with training in bookkeeping, product costing/pricing, marketing and technical skills.
Finally, it is hoped that the synergy of the group formation will enable the poor to participate in the process of socio-political transformation of their communities.
Assessing Her Work
The importance of Mangala’s role is that she has defined her job in the bank as going beyond battling with figures in a ledger to that of a social activist. She has, from a sincere commitment to social change, worked with genuine interest and dedication. This was evident from the discussions I had with various groups of SHG women. The women were appreciative of the change that Mangala had brought in their lives. For instance Kashili Warla has been able to buy a sequin machine, while her friends Rukmani Sanghade and Prelata Lalchand Agarwal have taken to knitting and machine embroidery. Similarly, Savitribai Gawli, a poor tribal woman, has been able to start a dairy business with the buffaloes that she purchased, while Rajani Harish Chandra Pawar has been able to set up a general store. The range and scope of the activities that women have been able to initiate through Mangala’s support is impressive and it includes 1) manufacturing of chilli powder and pani- puris; 2) making garlands in temples and pandal decoration;3) repair of coolers and television sets; 4) running general stores and vegetable vending; and 5) poultry/dairy farming. This process of collectivising has enabled women who had not stepped outside their homes for over fifteen years to come out and interact with their neighbours, increased their personal savings and stopped the scourge of money lending.
Until now she has single handedly organised 3000 SHGs in Akola and Wasim. This suggests that she has been able to make a difference to lives of approximately 30,000 women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds including the Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and tribals. Her work also has had a cascading effect for she is called to train others in the formation of SHGs. She has undertaken training in SHG formation for the Anganwadi teachers, the municipality and the banking sector.
Mangala has also used her legal expertise for women. She has, for instance, helped Sangeeta, a divorced mother of two daughters, to get maintenance from her husband Baskar Lakshman Lokhande. She is attached to the Department of Labour in Akola to work for the development of women and family. The uniqueness of her approach is her attempt to include the physically handicapped in her work. Anita Lalbondre, with 80 per cent handicap is a member of the SHG. Through the loans that she has been able to access, she has been able to purchase a sewing machine and become self-employed. This has given her a measure of self-respect and authority in her family. She does not perceive herself as a burden any more and is able to assert herself in the family. Mangala however has had to pay a price for her social commitments. Her husband did not like her staying out of the home after working hours and wanted her to give up her house. Mangala has been fortunate in her mother-in-law who stood by her and encouraged her to continue working for the greater common good. Today however she is in the happy position of being appreciated by her family and the community.
1 The interview was undertaken with funds from the Indian Merchant’s Chamber (Ladies Wing) in 2007.
2 The Marathwada region of Maharshtra State is a less developed region with a large SC and ST population. It was historically a part of the Nizam state, which was (during the British period) called the Hyderabad state. After the reorganisation of states in 1956, Marathwada was made part of the Bombay state and in 1960 became part of Maharashtra.
3 Mangala says that these cultural norms were relaxed considerably by the time they grew up and her other brothers got married.
4 This was truly path breaking, because even in the 2001 Census only 43 percent of women are literate in Parbhani and until 1991 it was only 29.41 percent. The sex ratio in Parbhani is also adverse; it is only 954 per 1000 males.
5 The Agarwal community is an affluent business community in India, with very decided values about gender roles.
6 Akola is a part of the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra. Like the Marathwada region, this region is also a historically backward region with a large tribal population.
7 In order to avoid paying dowry for his other daughter, Mohanlal was forced to get her married to a widower with children. The menace of dowry continues to haunt the Agarwal- Marwari community. Mangala has worked within community organisations to arrange for the marriage expenses for the poor girls in the community.
8 The Grameen Bank is today called the Vidharbha Grameen Bank.
9 She is the Ex-President of Agawam Mahila Mandal, Akola; Member of the Lioness Club, Akola; Secretary of Women Rehabilitation Group, USA; Member of the Agarwal Mahila Sanghatan, Maharashtra; Member of the Agarwal Samuhik Vivah Samitee; Member of the Rashtriya Mahila Mandal, Akola; Ex-Secretary M.S. Agarwal Committee; Ex President of Lala Lajpat Mahila Mandal, Akola; Ex Secretary of Sharada Mandal, Akola; Member of the District Urban Development Agency, Akola; Member of Prakruti Sansthan, Nagpur; Secretary of the Akila Barathiya Mahila Sammelan, Akola; Vice President of ABMM, Amravati Region; Founder Member and Ex President of Avishkar Mandal, Aurangabad; Director, Akola Gramin Bank Karmachari Patsanstha; Life member of Shraddha Dyandeep Mandal, Mumbai; Life member of NAWPH, Amravathi; Advisor of Priyadarshani Pathishtan Mumbai; Life Member of Manushbybal Vikas Academy, Mumbai;
VEENA POONACHA. Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.