Sangsay Mahila Seva Samiti (SAMS) Dairy at Bimbong in Sangsay is situated in the newly created district of Kalimpong, a hill station in the Darjeeling area of West Bengal. It is located at an altitude of 4,101 feet from the sea level. Its pristine beauty of the nature combined with the view of Himalayan snow-capped mountains on a clear day or during the winter months is breathtaking.
SAMS Dairy was a lifeline for around 40 families who are members of a dairy cooperative in Darjeeling which had a strike demanding for a separate Gorkhaland state for 104 days from June 13 to Sept. 27, 2017.
Every morning farmers brought milk to the dairy to sell and collect money at the end of the month. Ashok Lepcha said that during the three and a half months’ unrest there was no conveyance to take their farm produce to the nearest bi-weekly market in Kalimpong. They were fortunate that the SAMS dairy continued to function and they could get some cash in hand.
Daily, two women process the collected milk to separate the cream and make cheese. The whey that is left after taking out the cream and the cheese are taken by villagers to feed their pigs. Once a week, the cream is processed into butter for packaging and sale. The dried cheese is cut into long strips for smoking called Churpi in Nepali. Once dried it is also sold. When people walk on the mountain road to commute up and down, they chew a piece of Churpi like chewing gum for strength and not to produce saliva in their mouths. There are agents who take these products to the weekly market for sale to raise funds for SCN social ministries.
Helen Tirkey, SCN, is the coordinator of the social work. Sister Helen keeps one percent paid to the members towards a collective fund of the cooperative. This fund is used for the repair of the dairy and purchase of containers, spoons, and firewood.
The dairy was registered as a cooperative in the year 2000. It was situated at Middle Bimbong. In 2009, the dairy was shifted to the Sisters’ compound near the roadside. More than 200 families have profited from this dairy. Before SAMS Dairy came into existence people had to take their milk, walking up and down the mountain for 10 kilometers.
Sisters also help to run the Mahila Swayam Seva Samiti (Women’s Self Help Group) cooperative bank which has around 500 members. People deposit their extra income in this bank and take loans whenever they are in need of cash on a nominal interest. Usually, the women pay back their loans in installments. Recovery of loans has been one of the major struggles for the Sisters from the very beginning. The bank is no more taking new deposits or giving loans to women from the cooperative bank. The women are empowered so much that they manage their funds through their groups and channel it through a village council.
Seventeen self-help groups of the social center are registered with the panchayat (lowest local government unit). These groups have opened their savings account in the State Bank of India. SHG groups meet on every Sunday. They also meet as a group locally and at panchayat level with the cluster representatives once a month. The women avail themselves of various schemes which come through the Panchayat.
The social center is part of Nazareth Health Center. The social center has three animators, two of whom are women, Sophia Rai and Marina Lepcha who help in the dairy daily. Beena Rai takes care of the daily running of the cooperative bank. Once a week, the animators visit the villages to conduct classes on various awareness programs.
Nazareth Health Center has seven health workers, of which Bindu Chetri, a trained health assistant helps out in the dispensary. The other six work in twenty-two villages with 550 families, creating health awareness among the villagers through many programs such as health classes, immunization, meetings with NGOs, Panchayat/block to avail of government schemes, mobile clinic, medical camps, etc. Twenty SHGs are registered with the government and receive many benefits.
The dispensary has an average 350 patients a month. Occasionally, they have to admit inpatients. Deena Vazhaparampil, SCN is the only trained nurse. People of the area have such a trust in the treatment that is given at the dispensary even if an accident takes place near the town; they still drive to Sister’s dispensary for medicine day or night.
Though the hills were shut down due to the unrest, on world environment day, the self-help group women took responsibility to clean their area. The women installed garbage bins in each village with their group name. The whole area is litter and plastic free. The waste is managed locally by making compost and the non-biodegradable waste is burnt.
SCNs closely work with 22 villages on the two sides of the hills in Sangsay area creating social, health, political and educational awareness among 550 families. The women lead the way to make the whole area clean and healthy.
Written by Sisters Deena Vazhaprampil and Helen Tirkey