Self-help groups have changed the life of women in Mahi panchayat in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. The women members of SHGs from five villages in the panchayat are not only becoming self-reliant but are also earning a social status by making pine needle products for daily use.

The project on pine needles was basically set up keeping the availability of pine needles and the rural folk in mind. It is a community-based tourism programme under the Asian Development Bank and the state tourism department.

The thrust of the programme is to work with the village people and provide them skill-based employment training so that they can earn a livelihood in their native place. The training programmes include homestays, handicrafts, tracking guides, etc.

Ghalayi village resident Anita Thakur, 38, who belongs to Swayam Shayatah Samuh, said the women make handicrafts in their free time. “After we got the training in February this year, our SHG of ten women has sold products worth Rs 35000.”

Anita, who is now an expert in making special pine needle serving trays, is teaching other women as well and has earned Rs 3000 through the training programmes.

Another woman Nirmala, 32, of Dedhghrat village, who belongs to Ujjwala self-help group, is the poorest among all the groups. Her husband is a daily wager; and there is no specific source of regular income. “I came to know about this programme about four months ago. I learnt the skill and am supporting the family financially. I can now pay the school fees of my children out of my own pocket,” Nirmala said.

She said a great morale-booster for her was when Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jai Ram Thakur not only appreciated the product but also bought two products from her. “After I became a member of this self-help group, I went out of the village for the first time to put up various stalls for selling our products. We got the opportunity to interact with local and foreign customers as well, which was a big exposure for rural folks like us,” said Reena Sharma, 38, a resident of Kalog village. She said this also helped the village women understand the foreign customers, their taste and preferences of designs and colour.

“We are running the programme in 19 panchayats, but Mahi panchayat is the most vibrant among them,” said SS Negi, community supporter and monitoring officer of the training programme.

It started at Mahi panchayat in February 2018 and the women SHGs are getting better response each day. They take the products to Panchayat Bhawan to sell them and they are getting good orders for their products. “Recently we bought products worth almost Rs 1 lakh from them and we have also given an order of Rs 1.14 lakh to these women, which they are completing,” said community organiser Ishu Chauhan.

The SHGs started with participation of ten women in the panchayat. The number has risen to 40 in the last few months, and the poorly educated rural women are now connecting through technology and are using WhatsApp to share all the details.