The intermittent drizzle makes it a lovely day to take the 110 km drive from Chennai to Chunampet in Kanchipuram District where the National Agro Foundation, a public charitable trust founded by the architect of India's Green Revolution, C. Subramaniam, is located.

S. S. Rajsekar, Managing Trustee, and son of CS, as the former Food Minister was widely known, says his father's ambition in his last years was to bring about “what he called the second green revolution to ensure rural prosperity. He said efforts were needed not only to make agriculture more viable but to ensure overall rural development to stem the migration from rural to urban India.”

Towards this goal, the NAF strives to improve farmers' yields and incomes through soil-testing, access to farm credit, better management of water resources and use of technology.

But its overall vision is to stimulate parallel economic activities at various levels in the villages. NAF operates in two clusters, in the Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts of Tamil Nadu, and its services have impacted over 20,000 people in this region.

At the Chunampet centre, a group of farmers, heads of watershed committees and other beneficiaries of NAF activities, gathered to talk to me. But the one who grabs attention with her articulation skills and confident body language is 38-year-old Dhanalakshmi, who proudly says she is “tenth standard failed”. She has no land and is no farmer. “I am a housewife and the leader of my group.”

She leads one of the 500 self-help groups (SHGs) formed and supported by the NAF. Surprisingly, the ongoing churn in the world of microfinance, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, that has encouraged lakhs of honest women who were regularly repaying loans to turn into wilful defaulters, has not touched these groups.

A natural leader

Dhanalakshmi explains how her group was formed with a weekly saving of Rs 150 from each of the 15 members, which would then be distributed as seed capital to the members at 12 per cent interest. NAF Joint Director, S.V. Murugan, says that once these groups had stabilised, put up a corpus fund, gained administrative experience and had adequate documentation, banks stepped in to give loans ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 3 lakh.

Unlike another income generation-cum-business plan of the NAF, which went bust when the agri-loan waiver was announced a few years ago, this scheme, where the members get mini-loans of around Rs 5,000, is working well.

“The repayment rate in my group is 100 per cent,” Dhanalakshmi says proudly. She herself had taken Rs 5,000 from her group and runs a saree business. “I buy sarees from Chennai and they sell very well here,” she smiles. Other members too have small business ventures running idli, vegetable or paan -cigarette shops, conducting computer or tailoring classes, and the like.

But the most successful venture is that started by Sudha, a member in her group, who runs a beauty parlour in her village, which is located about 3 km from Chunampet.

Taking off on the theme of how women have changed, are no longer cowed down by the men and demand services and some pampering for themselves, she says: “Today, just as women in the big towns wear men's clothes — pants and shirts — and go to beauty parlours for facials, haircuts and to get their eyebrows shaped, village women too want to look good.”

Beauty as business!

So Sudha's business is booming; she charges Rs 150 for a facial, Rs 20 for eyebrow shaping and Rs 75 “to get your hair styled the way you want,” says Dhanalakshmi, adding: “But the best business she gets is during weddings. Gone are the days when, during a village wedding in Tamil Nadu, all the female relatives would put flowers on the bride's hair. That was the concept of beautifying the bride in those days.”

But these days, smiles the feisty woman, who can stand up and speak confidently in a gathering of around 60 men: “A bride wants to beautify herself by going for the ‘bridal package' at Sudha's beauty parlour.”

The package is priced at Rs 2,200, and families are willing to spend this kind of money to give the bride a facial, waxing, hair-styling, pedicure and manicure, mehendi and make-up… in short, the works!

Sudha has a regular clientele of men too Pointing to the NAF team present in the hall, she says: “All these people who work with us will tell you that, earlier, men used to beat their wives in our villages. But those of us in SHGs don't take such beating any more…. because we take home money!”

Murugan explains how the successful functioning of several SHGs has saved them from the clutches of moneylenders, but adds that the NAF, which is a mere facilitator, has to keep a constant eye on them and monitor their activities.

“Only by doing this are we able to recommend progressive and well-functioning groups for bank credit, which can go up to Rs 1-3 lakh depending on the income-generating activity proposed by the group members.” Adequate training is given to the women to run their ventures.

But then, apparently, Dhanalakshmi is a born leader. The NAF training in handling cash, keeping accounts, etc., has indeed helped. But she recalls that soon after she “failed” in Class X examination, she participated in a village event “where some of us went and put a pottu (bindi) on the forehead of a woman, asking why she couldn't wear it just because her husband had died.”

Her punishment was a sound thrashing from her mother who was armed with a broomstick.

But, thankfully, this did not deter her from advocating, or directly intervening to fight for, equal rights for women, economic or otherwise! In the examination of life, she has passed with flying colours.

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