This is the story of a gang of 8 Rani Mistris living in Kharagdiha panchayat of Giridih District in Jharkhand. Tara Devi, Jamni Musammad, Bhulia Devi, Nunia Devi, Bhuvneswari Devi, Kurshi Devi, Gendia Devi and Rita Musammad come from impoverished economic backgrounds, and belong to the marginalised section of society. However, they have broken into the hitherto male bastion of masonry and are making a success of their new profession.
“Previously I used to earn about Rs 150 per day but now I am receiving Rs 400 for one day’s work,” said Bhuvneswari Devi, a sense of accomplishment evident in her voice.
Widowed a few years ago, Rita Musammad is currently staying in her father’s house, after she was forced to leave her in-laws’ home. “I have been the only earning person of the family, ever since my husband died a few years ago,” she said. Besides her two sons and a daughter, she needs to support her aging father and take care of all expenses of the family.
Tara Devi has had to take on the entire responsibility of raising her children. Thanks to her gaining skills as a mason to build toilets, she has been able to provide food for her 3 children (one son and two daughters) and her alcoholic husband, Lato Ravidas who is unable to provide any kind of support to the family. “I have started to earn more while working as a Rani Mistri and owing to this, I was able to successfully arrange the marriage ceremony of my daughter,” she said, smiling.
The district administration had previously conducted several rounds of Raj Mistri (mason) training. Yet, the speed of construction remained sluggish as there was a shortfall of trained masons. To ensure that there were sufficient masons available to continue toilet construction activity as a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-G) campaign, the district officials decided to create a pool of women masons, also called Rani Mistris.
Rani Mistri Training was organised in District Giridih of Jharkhand between 12th and 15th March, 2018 in 7 clusters covering a total of 26 panchayats.
When it was first decided to organise Rani Mistri training, most of the Mukhiyas (village heads) were not prepared to conduct the training. Persuading women to become Rani mistris was not an easy task, they felt.
“To convince women and members of SHGs (self-help groups) to get trained and work as masons was easier said than done, as traditionally it was men who worked as masons, also called Raj Mistris while women supported them as unskilled labourers,” explained Cheena Khan, Mukhiya of Kharagdiha panchayat in Jamua Block. However, he took on the challenge and decided to conduct Rani Mistri training in his panchayat . Two other panchayats namely Baddiha-II and Jagannathdih did the same.
On the first day of training, around 100 women turned up for the orientation of Rani Mistri Training. However, when it was disclosed that after the training, they would have to construct toilets in their villages, many backed out, firm in their opinion that women would have no place in the male oriented profession.
Nevertheless, 60 women remained to attend the training and it was Mr. Cheena Khan who motivated them and explained that if men can do the work, women could do the same. It appeared that some of the trainees were previously engaged in other construction activities – but as helpers. He explained to them that Rani Mistris while working as helpers would only get Rs 150/day. But if they worked as skilled labourers they would be paid the same as Raj Mistris which is Rs 400/day.
He also assured them that during the 4 day training they would be provided both theoretical and practical training which would make them skilled in all technical aspects required for constructing IHHLs. In this aspect, the district administration had the active cooperation of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS).
After two days of theoretical training, the trainees were divided into 5-member groups and taken to the site for practical training. The Mukhiya even arranged for one Raj Mistri per group to support the training. Food and water were also organised on site so that Rani Mistris would face no problems.
While Rani Mistri training was scheduled for four days by the District administration, in Kharagdiha it was extended to an additional day and within this span of time each of the groups had finished constructing one IHHL each.
Prior to the Rani Mistri Training, there were around 120 IHHLs being constructed in the entire panchayat. However, those who were keen on self-constructing their IHHLs were struggling as there was a lack of trained masons. After creating the pool of Rani Mistris, the women were continuously engaged in the field for constructing toilets.
As a result, more than 200 IHHLs were constructed by Rani Mistris at the end of which, the panchayat organised a colourful ODF celebration on 4th May, 2018. Now that their panchayat has achieved ODF status, the Rani Mistris are helping Baddiha-II to achieve its ODF goal within a stipulated time-frame.
“Our economic situation was so poor that my elder daughter could not continue her studies, she had to go work in homes of other people. But now that I am earning more than before, my daughter has been readmitted to school, and I am determined to see all my 3 children complete their schooling,” said Nunia Devi, a mother of 2 sons and one daughter.
“Previously, I did not have a toilet in my own house. But during the training, I not only learned about toilet construction but also about the positive impact that it had on one’s health. I am delighted that Rani Mistris are being given the opportunity to construct their own toilets first and then of other beneficiaries,” Gendia Devi, who is now a proud owner of a toilet at her home said.
The ascent of Rani Mistris to a living symbol of women’s power is nothing short of astounding. They have broken through from the shackles of poverty and are contributing positively to their district towards fulfilling the goal of becoming an ODF district. They have gifted themselves with a new dynamic role of fully liberated partners in the reconstruction of society and the development of culture.
By Akash Ganguly, ZSBP-Giridih