Thakaraprambil Kochukuttan Omana – India / Kerala

Linked to our presentation of the Rural Agency for Social & Technological Advancement RASTA.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Starting her social work at an early age, T.K. Omana has made life better for hundreds of women, writes R. Madhavan Nair (Read on The Hindu).

Omana T K (India), Tilonia and Wayanad district are hundreds of miles and cultures apart. Yet, one informed the other to the extent that Omana took economic empowerment to one of India’s poorest districts.

Thakaraprambil Kochukuttan Omana – India

She works for the Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement.

When she was 18 years old, Omana T K (born 1959) ran away from home to work in an NGO in Rajasthan. Returning to Kerala eight years later, she sold off all her assets to set up the Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement in 1989. That was the start of a veritable revolution in the villages of the backward Wayanad district; today, it has several women’s self-help groups and sees active participation by women in village-level activities. She also established a highly successful rainwater-harvesting movement.

Omana T K (born 1959) comes from an impoverished farming family in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. The youngest of eight children, she grew up witness to the problems of peasant women. She did what she could at a very young age, including participating in the social forums in her neighborhood. What she was certain about was that social work was to be her life’s vocation.

This decision was met with considerable opposition from her orthodox family. She decided to take matters into her own hands when she was 18 years old: leaving her studies incomplete after her pre-degree, she took a train to Tilonia in Rajasthan, where she worked with Aruna Roy and Bunker Roy at the Social Welfare and Research Center (SWRC). (Omana’s sister, who was a nurse in New Delhi and knew about Omana’s interest in development activities, had told her about the SWRC.) Omana worked with the rural Dalit and Adivasi (tribal) women, teaching them to read and write, informing them of the basics of health, hygiene, and nutrition, and engaged in entrepreneurship development.

After working with the SWRC for eight years, she and her husband, an electrical engineer, decided to return to Kerala, where she began working in Wayanad, a hilly district that has been listed as one of the 90 most backward in India. Wayanad, which has the highest tribal population in Kerala, had once been a biodiversity hotspot. The influx of migrants during World War II led to largescale clearance of forested areas and put paid to biodiversity.
In 1989, Omana founded the Rural Agency for Social and Technological Advancement (RASTA: the abbreviation means “the path” in Hindi) in Wayanad. To start the organization, she had to sell all her assets in her native place. People hardly ever came across a woman in development work, and they viewed Omana with suspicion.

Omana’s first victory was her winning the trust of the women. Setting about weaning them away from domestic seclusion, her first step was to organize fifteen women in the neighborhood into one group. She introduced them to the concept of self-help and mutual help, a concept that spread as Omana applied them to similar self-help groups (SHGs). Today, thousands of women have joined SHGs – there is a definitive movement in Wayanad’s villages.

These SHGs work on the principles of cooperation: sharing knowledge, experiences, community labor, and human resources; mobilizing money; helping the destitute; and the conservation and protection of natural resources. Each woman deposits a fixed amount of money into the common fund each week, which is then invested in the group’s common account in the bank. Today, more than 20,000 families have collected about Rs 40 million in this common account through their daily thrift savings of roughly Re 1 each. The credit from this account funds various income-generation activities. No longer do they have to despair about emergencies such as crop failure or a wedding.

Omana’s drive towards the en masse economic empowerment of women is based on her belief that progress and lives of dignity are not possible unless women shake off traditional oppression. With the financial imprimatur came a wave of social participation and recognition. Rural women in Wayanad now actively participate in various decision-making forums, with even women from traditionally seclusion-prone Muslim communities in the area part of public meetings and functions.

Omana never saw the SHG as a mechanism for economic activity – its goal was to become a micro-level institution capable of catalyzing social change, combat poverty and gender discrimination, and edge towards decentralized and transparent governance. Over the years, much of the dream has been realized: in 1999, for instance, these women’s groups collected Rs 25,000 for the flood-affected in Orissa. The mobilization of women has also helped alleviate social evils such as dowry, alcoholism, and girl-child marriage. The SHGs are organized without regard to religion, class, or caste identities. On March 8, International Women’s Day, every year, thousands of these women gather to affirm their rights at massive public rallies and meetings.

Of equal importance is Omana’s work for the conservation of natural resources such as soil, water, and biodiversity through community-based action programs and the implementation of rainwater-harvesting technologies. Active in a water-harvesting campaign spread over 50 villages, she held puppet shows and street plays in 30 villages, informing 50,000 people about water conservation. Today, there are about 60,000 rain pits in these villages, and 50 community-based water-use and conservation-monitoring committees (Jala Jagratha Samiti).
Three watershed projects have been implemented, covering 6,000 acres and benefiting 4,890 families. The System of Rice Intensification, a technology that leads to an increase in rice production (which, in turn, gives women about 30 job-days per acre), has been developed and popularized in 10 panchayats, covering 100 hectares. A village-level seed exchange program has also been introduced to protect and propagate traditional seed varieties.

Water scarcity in the district had long forced women to trek long distances to fetch water. Rainwater harvesting structures today ensure potable water during the summers. Groundwater levels have also gone up, leading to increased agricultural production in the area.

More than 20,000 impoverished families – and tribal, backward classes, and Muslim women – are part of the development process. Omana has established 50 community-based organizations, led by local women, which have become vehicles of social change, sustainable development, and empowerment; almost 5,000 women have got employment through short training courses; about 300 women-headed families have received housing facilities; more than 3,500 households have been provided with hygienic sanitation through pit latrines (bringing about a major shift in lifestyle and health conditions); 9,500-odd people have access to drinking water through the help of a World Bank-aided project; and the women in the SHGs have emerged as local leaders, with 15 of them being elected to local government bodies.

But opposition throughout has been heavy. When Omana took the tribal women of Kerala to the National Women’s Conference in Rajasthan, political parties accused her of “kidnapping women”, and filed a petition in the police station. When Omana was arrested, the local women protested it, calling a press conference; at a public meeting, the tribal women who had gone to Tilonia shared their experiences, somehow attracting for Omana a whole sheaf of public support.

Later, the political parties again felt insecure when thousands of women joined the SHG movement under the aegis of a “development organization”. They saw their monopoly slipping. Even religious leaders felt threatened – she faced enormous opposition from Muslim leaders about women attending public events.

On the personal front, Omana has had to compromise: both she and her husband are development activists, which has meant that time spent with their daughters has been apportioned between work and opportunity. They have had to be entrusted to the care of village women when Omana has traveled out for long periods. For Omana, though, her larger family is of the highest priority. (See on 1000peacewomen).

She has two daughters and her husband Danesh Kumar, an engineer who has specialised in renewable energy sector, is also working with her. In 2001 she was honoured with Vijay Rattan Award of the India International Foundation for national integration.

links:

project;

a bit about Kerala by the Central Chronicle;

a study on dowry in Kerala;

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