- In 1995, she organized Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan (BNGVN), or Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center in the village of Bahadarpur, Maharashtra which aims to instill self-sufficiency by being able to address the community’s problems within the village itself. People would identify their own problems and find the solutions themselves.
- Making women become productive, articulate, and confident in their ability to think for themselves, BNGVN trained women in production, marketing, accounting, and computer literacy.
In addressing the men’s problems in the villages, BNGVN helped create a village revolving fund that provided loans for farm inputs and emergency needs; they addressed health problems by building over three hundred private and communal toilets; and activated a village assembly to discuss and resolve local needs.
- In less than ten years, BNGVN has formed 1,800 self-help groups in two hundred villages across Maharashtra. Its microcredit program has caused to be distributed the equivalent of US$5 million, with a hundred-percent loan recovery rate.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her purpose-driven zeal to work tirelessly with villagers in Maharashtra, India, organizing them to successfully address both their aspirations and their adversities through collective action and heightened confidence in their potential to improve their own lives.”
India’s rise as an economic power has not erased the blight of poverty on millions of its citizens. While numerous organizations wage war against poverty, still a huge population remains either unreached or poorly served. More men and women, particularly the young, are needed to respond to this formidable social divide. Young, committed leaders like Nileema Mishra.
Nileema was born to a middle-class family in the village of Bahadarpur, Maharashtra. With a master’s degree in clinical psychology, she could have gone on to a comfortable life as an urban professional. But even as a child, Nileema was sensitive to the crippling poverty in her village. When she was only thirteen, she told friends that she had made up her mind she would not marry, so that she could devote her whole life to helping the poor. This was not merely a young girl’s romantic fancy, as subsequent events would show.
Five years after finishing her studies in 1995, Nileema returned to her village to organize Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan (BNGVN), or Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center, named after an Anglo-Irish missionary who devoted her life to helping Indian women of all castes. BNGVN did not begin with a development model in mind, except the conviction that the community’s problems must be addressed from within the village itself. Inspired by Gandhi’s vision of a self-sufficient, prosperous village, Nileema decided that her group would not work out of the priorities of donors, or compete for government projects. People would identify their own problems and find the solutions themselves. In her determined manner, Nileema repeatedly told village women who confided their problems to her: “Don’t despair, we shall find a way.”
And they did find the ways. Starting with a self-help group of only fourteen women, other self-help groups followed, engaging in microcredit and such income-generating activities as the production of food products and distinctive, export-quality quilts. BNGVN enabled these changes by training women in production, marketing, accounting, and computer literacy. Inspired by Nileema, the women went on to build a warehouse so they could procure supplies in bulk at better prices, and formed an association that now has outlets for its products in four districts of the state. Traditionally confined to the home, these village women have become productive, articulate, and confident in their ability to think for themselves.
But the men in the villages, too, had their problems. Driven by extreme economic distress, a shocking wave of farmers’ suicides struck Maharashtra. Nileema and her group responded by raising their work to the level of the village itself. BNGVN helped create a village revolving fund that provided loans for farm inputs and emergency needs; they addressed health problems by building over three hundred private and communal toilets; and activated a village assembly to discuss and resolve local needs.
The success of Bahadarpur inspired Nileema to expand her work. In less than ten years, BNGVN has formed 1,800 self-help groups in two hundred villages across Maharashtra. Its microcredit program has caused to be distributed the equivalent of US$5 million, with a hundred-percent loan recovery rate. But the most critical change has taken place in the villagers’ sense of themselves, their newfound confidence that they need not despair, that working together, they will find a way. For Nileema, now thirty-nine years old, the way has not been easy. She has had to battle frustration and failure, to find which approaches work best for each village. But she remains resolute and passionate about her work. Asked what gives her the greatest pride, she speaks of the villagers: “I’m very thankful to them. They are ready to improve themselves.”
In electing Nileema Mishra to receive the 2011 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her purpose-driven zeal to work tirelessly with villagers in Maharashtra, India, organizing them to successfully address both their aspirations and their adversities through collective action and heightened confidence in their potential to improve their own lives.
Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and friends.
First of all I would like to thank Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for giving me an opportunity to share this platform with all the eminent personalities in the social development field. I thank the Foundation for coming to our small village and understanding what we are doing and giving it recognition at an international level. I must take this opportunity to thank all my colleagues and supporters who form the backbone of this work. Without them this dream would have been a dream.
Today, I am getting appreciated for my work and what I have given to the society. But it would be right if I say, I have gained a lot from the village where I come from. I have learnt from them that they have lots of potential for growth. They have a strong wish for betterment. A little support and direction would help them to become self-reliant, while maintaining their self-esteem. They can make wonders for themselves. I believe that being educated does not mean I would have all the solutions for their problems and I would be better than they. We have a rich culture. People are wise. They certainly know their problems as well as its solutions. There is a selfish section of society which is not willing to find solutions to the problems of poor. So they expect the poor to remain poor. Hence the gap between poor and rich widens. This leads to various social problems. All the differences and discriminations are man-made. There are many stumbling blocks that have built inequality into our social systems. To bring back equality, the poor have to develop in every respect – economic, financial, as well as social. So change in the social systems is very important and that is what we in BNGVN emphasize.
I believe if a person’s basic needs get fulfilled, he gets ready for social reforms. So our main focus is on helping the poor become self-sustainable by establishing a strong social system in our village, which would enable villagers to be responsible and answerable towards the development of the village. Gramsabha, or the Village Assembly and People’s Participation, are the best solutions for village development. People come together and discuss the village problems by themselves; after all, they know the reality that surrounds them and thus are the best judges of own lives. They find solutions and bring progress for themselves. We in BNGVN just play the role of facilitators.
Further we have realized that it is not sufficient to work on a particular issue like women empowerment or sanitation etc. We believe that if we keep “family” as a focal point and work towards its development—“Family” being a part of the community –community development is inevitable. An “Ideal Family” is a base for “Ideal Village”. We have tried our best to inculcate this concept in our villagers. We have tried to bring out a culture where people will believe in unity and cooperation. The whole village is now working hard to be an “Ideal Village” in real terms. That is why we say, Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan works for “Development By the People, For the People and Of the People”.