Padma Venkataraman is not against alms, but she believes that providing an opportunity, a platform to grow – even if it means going an extra mile - is a better option. She is the elder daughter of the former President of India, R. Venkataraman.
Padma started the concept of micro-credit for the leprosy-affected, even before the word gained popularity. “I saw beggars afflicted with leprosy asking for money. I would have given them money but they would still remain beggars. My conscience bothered me for not helping those poor people. That was when the concept of loans dawned on me,” says Padma. And she became proactive. She chose a (leprosy) colony in New Delhi and involved its residents (eight in number) in agriculture and pisciculture. Her study, done for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, got her the funds. “Initially it was a tough task convincing people to stand on their own feet and to believe that they can deliver,” says Padma. The residents rotated the money among themselves and their businesses slowly developed, so did Padma's confidence and involvement.
Her concept of micro-credit was adopted by other leprosy colonies all over India. The economic activities also broadened. The leprosy-affected started taking up cattle rearing, carpentry, clothes marketing and other jobs according to their skill.
“Repayment is 100 per cent,” says Padma. “The repayment timing is flexible as these people frequently fall sick,” she adds. “The journey is simple – opportunity – training – confidence,” notes Padma as she proudly narrates the success stories.
A carpenter from Chengalpet, who had lost his business after the disease, approached Padma for a loan of Rs. 1,000. He had the ability to carve beautiful patterns on whatever he made, despite his physical disability. He slowly improved his business and even employed 12 villagers. He not only repaid the money quickly but began to save as well. People, who had earlier shunned him, now call him home to do carpentry work.
A leprosy-affected lady, who is now cured of the disease, had become a social outcast. Padma got her a sewing machine. Today, she has many students under her, whom she trains. She is now opening small tailoring units in other areas.
Many people with the disease, who had once faced discrimination, have now established an identity for themselves. People's attitude too is changing towards them as is their acceptance.
“Once the economic activity flourishes, integration will automatically take place,” says Padma, who is happy that the change is not merely economical but also social.
“When people ask if leprosy is contagious, I tell them, ‘Look at me. I have been working with them for 20 years.'” says Padma.
After two decades of service, with the support of donors, Padma is now working for 10 government homes and 30 colonies for the leprosy-affected. She also supports the Bindu Art School and Rising Star Outreach in Kancheepuram district. People with this debilitating disease paint and draw at the school, which has a strength of 27. Padma puts their art works on sale in various countries and the money is shared among the artists of the School.
The Rising Star Outreach educates the children of the leprosy-affected and thus puts an end to begging. “With projects such as micro-credit, women self-help groups, school for their children and a mobile clinic, we are working towards holistic development,” says Padma, who does not have an organisation of her own. “I only act as a catalyst,” she adds.
Padma also worked for the welfare and development of the women after returning from Vienna. She was a member of UN's International NGO Committee on Status of Women and UN Women Guild. She formed a welfare committee in India 15 years ago at each of the leprosy colonies. The committee comprised five members. She made it mandatory that two of the members should be women. She also ensured that the women took active part in the loan transactions and other functions of the committee.
Talking of women empowerment, she says, “Women all over the world have issues. It may vary according to economy, culture and religion. We talk against domestic violence, but when a TV serial shows a husband beating the wife no one questions it. This attitude is regressive,” Padma laments.
“Women empowerment is interpreted in the wrong way; it is not a war between men and women,” she says, adding, “We tell women to do higher studies and become CEOs of companies, but we fail to tell the men that women are their equal. Hence the struggle continues.”