"I ran my home", she said with full confidence. "I lost my husband when I was only 30 years of age. But because I was already working at the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, and earning, I could educate my children, settle them all, and even build a house for myself."
This was the exchange with a woman in her mid-60s, present amongst a congregation of more than 1,000 women, rural and urban, belonging to marginalised sections of society from within the city of Jabalpur, assembled in a large auditorium for celebrating their accomplishments.
A slightly younger woman said, "I contribute to my home income, educate my children, and have some savings for a difficult time".
I asked one more... she confirmed the same spirit of self-reliance.
I wondered how these women became substantial income earners by rolling papads.
I got the answer from the event as it unfolded - Vivek Tankha (Co-Author) and I were the presiding guests at this annual event.
I saw a remarkable example of what honest and passionate leadership can do to bring workers, in this case, women, above the poverty line and make them bread earners, house owners, and bank account holders, with children educated and well-placed.
Women were earning good amounts thanks to equitable and productivity-linked distribution of profits earned collectively by nearly 4,000 women of Lijjat Papad's Jabalpur Branch, one of 81 branches of the firm which is headquartered in Mumbai.
Here is what got us so enthused to share this success story.
Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, popularly known as Lijjat Group, is a legendry Indian women's cooperative involved in the manufacturing of various fast-moving consumer goods. Its Jabalpur branch in Madhya Pradesh was established in the year 1974 with 15 members; today it boasts of a membership of 4,000 women.
Members are women essentially from families below the poverty line. The mechanism of membership is collaborative which is nomenclatured as cooperative.
Members constitute the work force of this collaborative effort. The remunerations are linked to the levels of their productivity. Each determines how many hours she will work. Members can take work home.
This branch alone has an annual turnover of nearly 43 crores.
This year, the Society generated a profit of nearly 8.5 crores, which, like in all previous years, has been distributed among the members. The collaborative effort is also wedded to the highest principles of transparency and trust. Each paisa of profit gets transferred to the accounts of all 4,000 members (presently) under the Central Government 'Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna' scheme in proportion to their productivity. (To date, more than 60 crores of profits have been distributed among members).
In addition, the Jabalpur branch also contributes and maintains EPF & ESI payments accounts - an additional social security measure to aid and support its members.
Lijjat Papad's Jabalpur branch is no less empowering than what we have seen in the best cooperative movements like Amul; but because of where it is located, it's an unsung story.
The mentor, Pushpa Berry, (81 years of age), has led this entrepreneurial and social revolution of a workforce of 4,000 women. Her selfless and meticulous management has enabled this large population of women to lead a life of dignity and self-empowerment. She is their pillar of strength. She has chosen not to live with her wealthy sons in Singapore; she wishes to work and serve her members till her last breath.
Pushpa Berry believes that any sick unit can be turned around with this kind of equitable, productivity-based, revenue-sharing model. No loans, no debts. All self-driven, and trusting. A hundred percent Mahatma Gandhi's model of Trusteeship...
India is full of such success stories. We just have to recognise them. I hope the Madhya Pradesh government will take note.
With inputs from Mr Vivek Tankha (Senior advocate, Supreme Court, Former Additional Solicitor General of India and Former Advocate General of Madhya Pradesh)
(Kiran Bedi is the first woman to have joined officer ranks of Indian Police Service. Recipient of Magsaysay Award (1994) for police and prison reforms, she has also worked as a UN police advisor. A tennis champion, she earned a PhD from IIT Delhi and is a Nehru Fellow. She's founded many NGOs and is the author of several books.)