Field Notes Society

Beesis help women in the informal sector survive in tough times

Safety net: No member’s name can be repeated within the cycle. Everyone patiently awaits their lucky turn.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

It is salary day at Anju’s Beauty Parlour in Mumbai. A group of 20 women gather around after a hard day’s work and count the money they have earned.

After carefully totting up salary, bonuses and tips, each woman lays down roughly ₹2,500 on the table.

This is the beesi each member contributes to for 10 months a year. Later, lots are drawn and one lucky member each month gets to take home a lump sum of ₹50,000. No member’s name can be repeated within the cycle. Everyone patiently awaits their lucky turn.

Ingrid Carvalho, veteran beautician at the parlour, began depositing money in the beesi 32 years ago, and it has helped pay for her children’s extra tuitions over the years. The ‘beesi’, called a ‘chit’ south of the Vindhyas, is the most common type of savings for people in the informal economy. The name stems from bees or the 20 people required to take part in the savings system.

Sometimes also called a ‘kitty’, Anju’s salon runs three different beesis a month. The smallest collects deposits of ₹500 a month, netting ₹20,000 for the lucky winner; while the other two yield ₹50,000 each. The massive popularity of the beesi among the staff forced the older beauticians to expand from one to three schemes some years ago.

Even as the country reels under yet another cash crunch after 2016’s demonetisation, at Anju’s you see just how deeply

Safety net: No member’s name can be repeated within the cycle. Everyone patiently awaits their lucky turn.

Safety net: No member’s name can be repeated within the cycle. Everyone patiently awaits their lucky turn.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

working class women depend on readily available liquid cash to survive.

Why are these women still using communal savings despite government finance schemes like the Jan Dhan Yojana? Because even though these seem to be inclusive of working class women on paper, on ground there is very real hostility from bank managements.

According to Vibhuti Patel, chairperson and professor at Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), there is “considerable middle-class bias against poor women” in most banking institutions. Despite their good repayment records — 94-96% loans paid back — bankers still treat them with suspicion. This, along with their lack of financial literacy, makes the women avoid banks.

In the absence of formal support structures during a financial crisis, the beesi steps in. “They have created their own informal network,” says Patel. It is easily the most common form of savings for women in unorganised sectors such as beauty salons or domestic service.

No institution can be bothered about their small savings. “Most banks say the administrative cost (of catering to working class women) is too much,” says Patel. So these women do what women everywhere have always done. They come together and help each other survive.

Lucky draw

Anju Khan, 49, has worked in the parlour for 30 years. She says she has always preferred the beesi to a bank. “We collect this money with a lot of tension,” she says, adding that otherwise they end up spending everything they earn. Khan looks forward eagerly to seeing her name on the chit. If she is lucky enough to have her name drawn in the fourth or fifth month, she relaxes for the rest of the year. The ₹50,000 can be used for household expenses or gold jewellery.

Shilpa Jadhav, 30, who lives in Mumbai’s Khar Danda slum, is a domestic helper and earns roughly ₹10,000 a month. She deposits ₹2,500 each month into a fund managed by her uncle. After the lump sum is paid out to one member, the rest is evenly distributed as a monthly dividend or interest among the others.

If anyone has an urgent need for cash, the lump sum is given to her unanimously. When it was Jadhav’s turn, she used the money for her son’s tonsil operation.

Members almost never default on the monthly contribution. Jadhav says this is because the group doesn’t have any “outsiders”. Beesis succeed because of the trust between members of a community, who are empathetic to one of their own whose son needs urgent medical care or whose daughter’s school fees must be paid.

And if a woman misses an instalment, the fine isn’t too harsh either. Most importantly, the women get privacy and a degree of agency, away from the prying eyes of husbands and parents-in-law. They welcome the modicum of financial independence this offers.

Lend a hand

There’s another aspect to it. Within a beesi, a woman who is relatively better off often uses her lump sum to give loans at easy rates to other needy members. Khan and Carvalho are among the older women who use their money to lend a hand to the younger women in the salon who are struggling to make ends meet. This, in turn, becomes a major source of liquidity and earnings for the women.

Microfinance institutions, like banks, have proven mostly unviable for the needs of the poor. “The monthly interest of microcredit at 2-3% a month is considered very high,” says Patel. Their “institution-centric” approach focuses on increasing the volume of credit given at high interest rates in order to bolster their performance charts. This, in turn, creates massive debt among the rural and urban poor. Lost in all the noise about expanding the formal banking network is an acknowlegement of the age-old beesi or chit. “From the time monetisation came in,” says Patel, “women have been using such informal networks because of their easy accessibility and the lack of paper work.”

This ease of access is more important for the women than the far higher security and interest rates they can get from formal bank savings. “What is the use of money in a bank when I need to pay the monthly ration bill,” is the common retort.

Working class women have always forged resilient alliances that ensure economic survival in the face of government apathy. At 80, Tuljabai Sagar still works as a domestic help. Belonging to Juhu’s Pushpanagar slum, she earns around ₹11,000 every month. She puts ₹1,000 into a beesi. The ₹15,000 she gets once a year is what she uses to buy small things for home, gifts for her grandchildren, or to finance a small trip for herself. For Sagar, who lost her only son a few years ago, it’s the beesi that’s her safety net.

Names have been changed here to protect identity.

The Mumbai-based writer and feminist hopes to break patriarchy one word at a time.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 3:28:55 AM |

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