(September 25, 2022) When Nileema was thirteen, she made up her mind to never marry so that she can devote her entire life helping the poor. At that time, her school teacher father, and homemaker mother thought that it was just a kid’s dreamy plan. But little did anyone know how determined this Ramon Magsaysay (considered the Nobel Prize of Asia) and Padma Shri awardee was about this decision of hers at that tender age.
As time flew by, Nileema did not budge from the roadmap that she had set for her future – to transform the lives of those in need. Starting from her village Bahadarpur in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, her work gradually spread to 200 villages, across four districts of the state making them grab the international spotlight. However, being in limelight is something that Nileema shuns.
Nileema tells Global Indian:
When I was getting Padma Shri by the government, I requested not to give me the award because then people will start calling me for functions and events, and my focus would get diverted from my work. You start getting perceived as a celebrity which is not good for a social worker as he or she is meant to struggle for society not to be in the limelight. More than talking about your work they start focusing on you, which I did not want – Nileema Mishra
As humble as possible
When she started in 1995, instead of making a list of what to do, she had made a list of what not to do. Not applying for any award, staying away from media, and not asking for any government funds were some of the to-dos that she has stuck to, to date. Her impressive work got rewarded in the form of the Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership (2011), Padma Shri (2013), and other such honours without her ever trying to get those.
Talking about the downside, she adds, “People build such an impression of you after these honours that seeking help becomes very difficult. People start thinking that now the person is well-known and must not be having any fund crunch for her projects, which is incorrect.” Nileema has so far used all her award money including $50,000 (₹ 22 lakh) that she got from the Magsaysay foundation, for tribal upliftment and other such causes.
Triggered by poverty
Narrating a childhood incident Nileema mentions that she was deeply affected by a conversation between her mother and a woman which she heard as a child. “The woman told my mother that because she is unable to sleep empty stomach, she ties a towel around it to suppress hunger.” The little girl ended up crying while listening to this. “I frequently cried when I was a child seeing the plight of people around,” she tells.
I believe God has made every human being sensitive towards something or the other. Some are sensitive towards birds, some are sensitive to the environment, while I feel sensitive towards the needs and sufferings of people caused by poverty and social injustices – Nileema Mishra
Choosing the unusual
Nileema went on to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Pune University. After completing her studies, she worked for eight years with Vigyan Ashram, an institution formed to create solutions to problems in education under the guidance of its founder Dr. SS Kalbag. Moving around the country for different projects assigned by him, Nileema witnessed appalling poverty, making up her mind to finally do something as a solution to it.
She founded the NGO, Bhagini Nivedita Gramin Vigyan Niketan (BNGVN) or Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center, named after the Anglo-Irish missionary who devoted her life to helping Indian women of all castes, and formally registered it in 2000. At the time of starting BNGVN she did not have a clear development model in mind, but a very strong conviction that the villagers’ problems can be addressed from within the village itself.
A strong believer in Gandhi’s vision of self-sufficient, prosperous villages, Nileema was very clear from the beginning that her organisation would not work out of the priorities of donors, or compete for government projects. She wanted villagers (both men and women) to find solutions for their problems themselves while she stood by them as a pillar of support. Such was her passion that in the initial years she even sold off her mother’s ancestral jewellery to raise three lakhs for her NGO.
Making village women self-sufficient
Nileema’s devotion to working tirelessly with the villagers of Maharashtra has been inspirational. She was able to help change the mindsets of suicide-prone farmers of the state and enable them to address their adversities and aspirations through collective action and reinforced confidence.
Her leadership was like a ray of hope for the villagers. They started to believe in themselves and that they would be able to find a way out. The devout social worker formed a self-help group comprising of just fourteen women in Bahadarpur providing microcredit to them and engaging them in income-generating activities like the production of food products (snacks, pickles, powdered spices, etc.), sanitary napkins, clothes, and export-quality quilts. The success of this self-help group fuelled the formation of 1800 self-help groups in more than 200 villages across four districts of Maharashtra.
Her NGO, BNGVN also enabled income generation by training village women in skills like production, marketing, accounting, and computer literacy. Under Nileema’s guidance, the management skills of the village women improved so much that they built a warehouse to procure supplies of raw materials in bulk at lower prices. They formed a seller’s association and managed to have outlets for their products in the four districts.
The village women who were so far confined to their homes had become productive, articulate, and confident in their ability to think for themselves. The marketing team used to even go to Mumbai to sell products and had developed loyal clientele thereby making female consumers their friends.
Changing mindsets of suicidal men
While the goal was to make women self-sufficient, another problem that Nileema had to deal with that was plaguing the life of village men. Led by an extreme economic crisis, Maharashtra was witnessing a terrible wave of farmers’ suicide during those times.
To bring farmers out of distress BNGVN created a village revolving fund to provide loans for emergency and farming needs. BNGVN also addressed health and cleanliness problems by building more than 300 private and communal toilets and setting the foundation of a village assembly to discuss and resolve local problems.
Its microcredit program has helped in meeting the fund requirements of villagers, equivalent to more than $5 million, with a successful loan recovery rate. Villagers not just regained confidence in themselves but there has also been a sense of unity that if they work together, they will find a way out. However, bringing such a massive change and riding on such a huge success has not at all been easy for Nileema.
I have taken lots of risks in life and still struggling. I have fallen multiple times but have stood up again. People say that I have sacrificed a lot in my life but I differ. There has been only one goal in my life for as long as I remember, and that is to provide a solution to poverty. It is the only thing that makes me happy. Then how can it be termed a sacrifice – Nileema Mishra
Brimming with plans
Nileema has divided her 27-year development plan for villagers into three phases of nine years each. She is in her third phase now. What was supposed to be the biggest phase of development suffered due to the pandemic. “I have planned to implement my model into other states of India, starting with addressing the problems from four districts to straightaway 10 districts of Maharashtra,” she says.
The initial three years of this last phase are being considered the pilot phase by her as she is adopting lots of experimentations and new methods for the growth of villages. “I do not want to limit my work to just thousands of women but impact lakhs of them, moving ahead from my 25,000-women network of producers, marketers, and entrepreneurs and increasing it more than ten-fold.”
Her new project ‘Streedhan Mart’ has just been launched in September 2022. “I believe that it is more self-sufficient and sustainable than my previous model so that even in my absence it runs successfully, ensuring lakhs and lakhs of livelihoods in the coming years,” she signs off.
- Follow Nileema Mishra’s NGO, BNGVN on its website