In rural India, women’s self- help groups or SHGs are promoted as the harbingers of empowerment for poor and marginalised women. During my fieldwork in 2013-14 among SHG women in the West Midnapore district of the state of West Bengal, I noticed that SHGs also serve as a means to make interactions between rural women and the state possible. A typical SHG consists of 8-10 women from the same village who pool in their savings every month. Members can then take loans out of this consolidated amount for their different needs: a wedding in the family, financing cultivation or running a small business. Members conduct weekly meetings among themselves to decide on the allocation of funds. Most of the existing SHGs were formed under state schemes, and governments try to provide benefits such as subsidised loans to these groups. Of course, the state’s support to these groups is also strategically self-beneficial in different ways. First, it enables them to make claims about their role in financially empowering women and contributing to ‘development’ and poverty reduction. Second, the state is able to reach the rural households and community much more through its everyday interactions with women.
In order to select the SHG groups that will receive benefits, state officials check the khaatas maintained by the SHG. The Bengali word khaata roughly translates to record books or notebooks meant for writing. At the time when SHGs are formed, state officials provided these record books to women. Each group maintains four khaatas: Meetings Resolutions Book, Savings Book, Cash Book and Loans Register. The meetings resolution book is seen as reflective of how participatory or not the SHG is. Members are expected to record the attendance and minutes of each meeting that the group conducts. Meetings are normally held weekly or fortnightly. The other three books record the financial status of the SHG. Only if the state and bank officials think that the khaatas have been properly maintained do they consider the SHG as eligible to receive benefits from the state and subsidised loans from state-owned banks. The reliance of the state bureaucracy on the written record therefore makes these record books important objects in the process of statemaking.
An important part of the training that the SHG women from receive from the NGO workers relates to teaching them how to maintain these records. However, this depends, first and foremost, on the literacy levels of the SHG women. Only those group members who have received a certain level of education are able to do what is required. For instance, Sumana Mahato of the Ma Saraswati SHG of Sal village told me, “I am the only one in the group who can read and write, so all the records are maintained by me. The other members have only just learnt how to write their names.” As a result, there is a hierarchy in terms of who can handle these objects of statemaking and who cannot. To conclude, khaatas as objects acquire a life of their own and form an essential link between the state and its female subjects. On the one hand, therefore, the state uses these objects to classify who is a legitimate receiver of benefit and who is not, while providing the women with the means to seek legitimacy through the very same objects.
Lipika Kamra is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.