Kohoka village, Chattisgarh: To supplement income during the off-crop winter season, Bhiranwan Bai Verma began chipping away at rocks. A private stone quarry outside the village paid 5 paise for small pieces and up to Rs7 for larger chunks—but with just 10-15 pieces per hour, she earned less than Rs3.

Last year, the 55-year-old Bhiranwan and nine other women banded together to form a self-help group under the name Saraswati Samoh, which literally translates into devotees of the goddess of learning.

“We sat together," recalls Bhiranwan. “We wanted to do something."

So, they secured a mining licence from the local administration in Rajnandgaon to quarry stones in the middle of a rice field in her village. In a wide, 3-acre hollow pit several metres below the ground, the group members hammer away all morning—but it’s less of a grind now. They’ve hired five male labourers to remove the top red soil, scoop out water during rains and load stones onto trucks transporting them to make roads and buildings. Even after paying daily hires Rs1.50 per broken stone, the group still makes a 50 paise profit.

Helping themselves:Bhiranwan Bai Verma (left, blue saree) and other members of the Kohoka Gaon District Rajnandgaon Women self-help group, which has secured a mining lease, at work in their stone quarry in Kohoka village, Chhattisgarh.

Chhattisgarh sees great promise in women’s groups as this one to help meet a dual demand: provide year-round employment and encourage greater involvement in decision making.

The idea has advanced across the state, with more than 75,000 self-help groups in operation.

“In many ways, self-help groups have increased women’s participation in the democratic process, and many of them are today panchayat leaders, apart from creating employment opportunities in villages," said Dinesh Srivastava, special secretary of the state’s women and child development department.

Bhiranwan is a latecomer. At least nine self-help groups had earlier obtained leases to quarry stones in adjoining plots spread over a 17-acre area.

Within Saraswati Samoh, Bhiranwan says each member earns Rs1,500-2,000 monthly, depending on how many hours worked during the week; family members also pitch in to earn extra income. The money is then deposited in a bank for use by the members in times of need, such as an illness or marriage.

About 7,000 self-help groups operate in Rajnandgaon alone, where more than half of the 1.2 million people are women. Among them, at least 24 of the 60 mining leases doled out are run primarily by women groups who mine stone, brickmaking clay and murum, a red earth used to build roads. The remaining mines closed down due to internal disputes or because they’ve moved onto employment through other government-promoted schemes, such as serving mid-day meals in schools, running fair price shops, or even cultivating rice on government-sanctioned land.

With a large number of people still dependent on rain-fed agriculture and irrigation facilities non-existent in the region, most villagers still find it hard to get employment for more than four months in a year and season migration remains high, according to the state’s 2005 Human Development Report.

“Migration was very high in this region five years ago, and now it’s almost nil," says Sanjay Garg, the current district collector at Rajnandgaon.

District authorities say incomes generated by self-help groups—coupled with the government’s school mid-day meals and 100 days of work under the employment guarantee programme—is helping curb migration. Parents can now find jobs doing road work or tree planting, without having to travel far. As a result, their children’s attendance in schools has gone up.

As part of a larger measure to give communities more rights over minerals in local areas, the government has handed governing and financial control of sand mining to villagers, generating business worth Rs5 crore each year.

As a former collector of Rajnandgaon, Srivastava took the first steps in organizing self-help groups and brought bankers closer to lending money to villagers with the campaign Ek Glass Thandaa Paani (One glass of cold water).

Later, in 2004, he involved 9,500 women groups to cook meals for schoolchildren in Bastar, one of the poorest region in the state. Earlier this year, his work in organizing 9,500 self-help groups to feed some 150,000 people even drew accolades from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But critics say that is not always the best use for the self-help groups’ savings. According to Alok Pandey, coordinator of Participatory Research in Asia (Pria), only about 5% of self-help groups function. The other issue, he says, is that collective funds are used as a cushion in times of crisis, rather than genuinely increasing the income base of members.

“There is an urgent need to provide leadership training to these leaders and make them vigilant about their roles," he says. Pria assists in planting fruit and wood trees through self-help groups and under the government’s guaranteed employment programme.

Still, women miners here say it’s better than having nothing to bank on. Members of groups that have existed for more than five years say they have now savings of up to Rs30,000, on top of the Rs25,000 loan they’ve already repaid the bank. They say that they can now buy equipment such as hammers, axes and metal rods with their own money.

They are also paying Rs10,000-15,000 annually in mineral royalty to the government. What’s more, some are even lending out money to the needy, and at 2% interest rates, it’s far lower than the village lenders. “It’s hard work," says Bhiranwan. “But at least we have the money when we need it," she adds.