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Smiling on...

Rasheeda Bhagat

There has been a sea change in the attitude of men towards women's groups and micro finance. Earlier they were sceptical and hostile; now the husbands take their wives on their bicycles to attend late evening meetings!

She is the epitome of confidence as she takes a seat next to you in the car, and gives the driver directions to proceed to her village Pullucheri, about 15 km from Madurai. As you turn off the main road, it is surprising to find a brand new, well-laid road over which the car cruises all the way to the village interior.

To the comment that there isn't a single vehicle on the road, 52-year-old P. Chinnapillai, a veteran of three awards of Rs 1 lakh each, including one from the Prime Minister of India, chuckles and says, "Well, a few months ago, there wasn't even a road here. I got this 3-km road laid for my village. Earlier, there was no bus service but now a bus comes to our village twice a day."

As she takes you proudly around the village, you realise that the road is only one of her several gifts to the village. These include a renovated village school building with a new kitchen where the noon meal is cooked, construction of a drain, a bridge (made from Rs 2 lakh from the local MP's fund) and 10 houses from a State Government scheme for Dalit families. "Next I want to get a Balwadi for my village... . It will cost just Rs 1 lakh, if 1,000 people contribute only Rs 100 each, it can be done," she says.

It is easy to see why this feisty woman could get so much done for her village. But Chinnapillai was not always so commanding of respect. In fact, in 2001, when she was selected for the Stree Shakti award to be presented by the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, she was petrified to fly to Delhi for the ceremony. "They told me in the village I would get a heart attack on the plane and I begged to be taken by train... and it was so terribly cold in Delhi. But he (K. Narender, Chief Executive of Kalanjiam Foundation) came with me and everything went off well."

That is an understatement, considering that when she touched Vajpayee's feet after receiving the cash award of Rs 1 lakh, he returned the compliment by touching her feet! So how did that feel? "It was embarrassing because he appeared like a god to me," says the woman, who later got Rs 2 lakh through two other awards. Of the Rs 3 lakh award money, she has kept half, and given half to the movement.

Needless to say this village woman has earned every bit of the recognition she has received. For 35 years, she worked as a grassroots level leader organising agricultural labourers into small and big groups so that their their voices were heard. Ten years ago she came into contact with the Kalanjiam Foundation, a subsidiary of the Madurai-based DHAN (Development for Humane Action) Foundation, that has, through the micro finance route, transformed the lives of 2.1 lakh women in the villages of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry, and has just entered the States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

Explaining its philosophy, Narender says that though it promotes self-help groups (SHGs) — "we call them kalanjiams, which is the Tamil word for an earthen pot and denotes prosperity" — it is different from organisations that collect the savings and do the lending. "We don't do that. We don't handle the money. All the money in our community programme is handled by the groups themselves. That is the unique feature of DHAN and we call it the enabling model. We enable and facilitate the community to manage their own finances by organising them into SHGs (20 members), cluster level associations and then federations, which are independent people's organisations. Every federation has 200 groups and is present at the block level, where we want these women to become a force to reckon with at the block development level and make demands on the mainstream system."

He says DHAN sees micro finance as an instrument and not an end toward this goal. But before they can do so, they should have substantial strength. "DHAN's primary focus is to make the community manage its own resources; whether micro credit or water resources. After linking to the mainstream they should go into policy advocacy. The objective is to downscale or demystify the whole concept of micro finance or water conservation and management. We provide them an enabling environment by collaborating with the banks, Government agencies and so on."

Since 1992, DHAN has organised 2.1 lakh rural and urban poor women into 15,000 groups of which 13,000 SHGs are linked to banks, a substantial achievement. Almost 180 branches of banks, including nationalised banks like SBI, Canara, IOB, Bank Of India, RRBs (Regional Rural Banks) and even private banks like ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and ABN Amro, have lent to these groups.

Over the years the attitude of bank managers to the creditworthiness of rural poor women has changed substantially. C. Arumugam, Senior Manager of the Tallakulam Branch of the Canara Bank in Madurai, admits that barely eight years ago, he was hardly open to the idea of giving credit to SHGs. "At that time my mind was full of the IRDP and how it had failed. In 1996, for almost six months, I kept asking a DHAN Foundation Director to leave my room whenever he came to meet me."

But slowly, as he watched the DHAN's — kalanjiams — gather numerical strength as well as economic confidence, he started lending to a few groups. "I admit it was with a lot of hesitation that I started lending first to a few groups. I attended a few of their meetings, watched how they disburse credit, maintain accounts and have economic discipline, slowly I got confidence. Today I have 430 accounts and have disbursed nearly Rs 1 crore to these groups in the last three years," says Arumugam. And he can barely stop smiling as he offers coffee to Amavasi, the President of one of the federations, who is seated opposite him across the table, a picture of confidence. Her confidence comes from the fact that today women like her are trusted clients of the Bank... . and his cheer from the fact that repayment rate for the money advanced is 100 per cent!

And Narender smiles too as he says that in the "last 10 years, the bankers' attitude has changed substantially and there is a remarkable difference in the way they look at these women's groups. That is a major success of this programme."

So what about the attitude of the men?

Whether it is Chinnapillai or Amavasi, they all chuckle as they recall how barely 10 years ago their husbands and other male relatives were not only sceptical but also hostile over their joining the kalanjiams. "They would ridicule our meetings and were often angry that sometimes we were not available or free to cook and serve food for them. But today they look at us with respect," says Amavasi.

Not surprising, considering that these women are today bringing home that precious commodity called money. Money that can send their children to better schools, enable the entire family to eat regular and more nutritious meals, pay for basic health care and buy television and other electronic gadgets.

Narender agrees that there has been a sea change in the attitude of the men. "Ten years ago many women would tell us, "our husbands are against this concept, so how do we join the group?" But today, husbands have started bringing their wives to the meetings on their bicycles and even wait for them if the meeting is in the night. We also have 1500 `people staff' who are employed by the groups."

Quite often the loan obtained by the woman is used for a family business and the focus is always on family approach. "Even though we encourage the woman to start her own activities we don't discourage the husband and wife working together. It's her decision and we can't bring gender into the picture," he says.

That brings one to question why not men's SHGS?

He says that DHAN does work with men' groups in the water conservation programmes. "Our focus from the beginning has been working with the poorest of the poor, and in this group women are more vulnerable." But even thought the challenge is to integrate women in the development process, in housing and other activities men are brought in. Typically a housing loan is around Rs 40,000 and both of them have to work to repay it, and quite often the husband is a co-signatory."

In families where there is alcohol addiction, Kalanjiam helps with de-addiction programmes and

about 200 husbands have gone through a de-addiction programme — a loan of Rs 1500 is given for a de-addiction programme — and 60 per cent have been rehabilitated. "Ultimately the idea is to give not only credit to women for income generation; she has to build assets too, and for this to take place, plugging of all leakages is necessary. We found alcohol to be a big leakage in several families and have addressed this issue," he adds.

With expenditure on health being another huge burden, this issue is being addressed with some of the older federations starting health and health insurance programmes. "We have life, health and asset insurance and have links with 10 insurance companies like LIC, ICICI Prudential, AMP Sanmar, HDFC Standard Life and Birla Sunlife."

Poor women and health insurance?

To your incredulous look, Narender's response is a smile. "The insurance companies have their targets and we have the numbers! So we tell them, "reduce your rates, pass on your margins to these women and we'll help you". Hence the substantially low premiums which the women can afford."

The result is that 80,000 of the 2.1 lakh kalanjiam members are covered under both life and health insurance. With alcohol addiction bringing greater health problems, the husbands are also covered.

Some of the federations have even started their own five-bed hospitals and many groups are linked to PHCs and referral hospitals. "In 10 Federations a pilot health care project has been started with ICICI Bank's support. We want to demonstrate how the SHGs can manage a health initiative."

With water being the lifeline of the farm sector, in some places like Ramnad district, kalanjiams are involved in tank and pond conservation efforts, and sinking in on bore wells," he adds.

So is politics next on these women's agenda?

"We don't talk about politics. But we ultimately want these women to put demands on the mainstream system. The route they choose is entirely up to them," he says.

Picture by the author

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