Power to the women

AS the morning sun filters through the red brick building, the place comes alive with the laughter of the local children. This is a school for Dalit children run by the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in the remote Gangwar village in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh. The 150-odd children are mostly dropouts.

Once known for poverty and hunger, small villages in the district now have a sense of security. Barely three years ago, the villagers were neck deep in debt. Year after year, they were begging and borrowing from moneylenders who had a stranglehold on the village economy.

Today, it is a different story. The change came from within: from a group of illiterate women whose voices remain unheard and faces unknown. The women now laugh all the way to the bank and the moneylenders have become extinct. What is noteworthy is that the much-trashed social workers and the much-mocked Government schemes seem to have worked here.

Undoubtedly, there were sniggers when poverty alleviation schemes were initiated. From their creaky monsoon-streaked houses and muddy roads, people had seen enough. Rather a modicum of freedom and moderate dollops of money doled out to set themselves up marked an impressionable change in attitude.

Change from within ... women now laugh their way to the bank.

Change from within ... women now laugh their way to the bank.  

A vivacious Devi, of Fatehpur village, Rayalseema district, swells with pride while pointing to a pucca road that was laid three years ago, which the former U.S. President Bill Clinton was to inaugurate during his 1999 India visit. He did not eventually make it but his impending arrival was enough to trigger enthusiasm among the villagers. They were egged on by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that realised that infrastructure development was the key to the success of other activities in the area. Today, the road laid by the villagers is a path to their economic freedom.

The surrounding districts of the twin cities — Hyderabad and Secunderabad — now resonate with several such tales of reform and financial stability. The entire population has not made it to the Above Poverty Line (APL) but the voluntary organisations learnt from the failure of Government schemes and super success of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to write their own script.

Women were motivated to form small Self Help Groups (SHGs) and avail of loans at no or low interest rates to start income generating work and build a savings corpus. The simple lending and savings schemes described as "micro-financing" or "micro-credit" in officialese, is seen as the viable solution to livelihood where poverty is the overriding factor.

Studies show that poor households use Rs. 4,000-5,000 annually as credit from informal sources like friends, relatives, neighbours, and traders/money-lenders. But now the Government, through institutional development of rural banks and with the help from voluntary groups, is trying to provide and improve the availability, access and delivery of micro-credit to the absolute poor characterised by deficit budget households.

The State is already in the forefront in the micro-financing sector. Besides Orissa and West Bengal, the State is also a part of a seven-year project of the World Bank, which aims at treating poverty issues. According to Mr. Pulok Chatterji, former director of the Centre's micro-credit scheme, Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (RMK), "wherever this sustainable scheme has made inroads, money lenders have become a thing of the past." And the villages in Medak, Rayalseema and Ranga Reddy districts to name a few, testify to this. The State boasts of nearly 500,000 SHGs with 7.5 million household memberships.

According to the Secretary (Planning), the focus has now shifted from social empowerment to money for self-generating schemes. "Experience shows that wherever economic needs have been taken care of, groups have automatically turned to social activities with a tremendous spin-off benefit."

The micro-credit scheme has given women a fresh lease of life.

The micro-credit scheme has given women a fresh lease of life.  

For instance, when P.V. Satheesh of DDS first came to this cluster of 75 villages in Medak, there was a lot of opposition. "But we played on `our activities, your advice' in this water-starved semi-arid tract." Afforestation programmes, an alternate Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) model, multi-crop cultivation, traditional seed banks, construction activity were initiated to reverse the economy and loosen the grip of moneylenders.

SHGs were formed in 1999 offering space to women to come together and derive moral support from each other to seek interest-free loans to enhance their family's income capacity. They set the repayment terms as they gradually shifted their focus from purely consumption needs to skill and income interface.

With partial international funding and RMK's capacity building measures, NGOs are trying to provide succour to the poor. Unspoiled by success, they continue to take on the challenges of development. Now 5,000 Dalit women network with DDS to run the special school, besides a community-owned radio station, a seed bank that stores three different varieties each for 12 crops for two extra seasons, raise nurseries and run a vermicomposting business.

Though micro-financing is considered to be in its infancy in India, it has already given a fresh lease of life to thousands of people in the villages. Yadamma said, "My family was in debt due to my husband's drinking habit. My neighbour took me to one of the SHG meetings and that changed my life. I took a loan of Rs.5,000 and started a business with milch cows. After repaying the loan in last three years, I have now taken another loan of Rs.10,000 for my daughter-in-law to start a grocery shop."

As Dr. B.R.J. Rao of Advance Rural technology Hyderabad Input Centre (ARTHIC) said, "women are more trustworthy and SHG was an innovation that attracted more people. Repayment rate is 100 per cent as it is a matter of prestige for each individual to return the amount taken."

Like a drop in the ocean, micro-financing has perhaps just begun to lead to benefit realisation for the poor in India.

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