“There is a silent economic revolution that’s taking place in Kumbalgodu and its vicinity,” says I.V. Lakshmikant, manager of Kalpatharu Grameena Bank in the Kumbalgodu village on the Mysore Road, connecting the cities of Mysore and Bangalore in the Southern State of Karnataka in India.
Lakshmikant is talking about the revolution that has brought several thousands of rural, uneducated women out of the confines of their homes and enabled them to gain considerable economic independence. What began as self-help groups in the area, has given the women an identity and a collective voice. Lakshmikant has additional reason to be happy about: the bank has 100 per cent recovery rate of the loans it has given these groups since it initiated the micro-credit finance program four years ago.
Here’s how the program works: before the bank gives them credit, it would like to ensure that the women have the means and the discipline to repay the loans, and more importantly, they can conduct the transactions independently. So it encourages them to form groups, elect their representatives and build common group savings for a few months. The group members meet on a weekly basis at a local community hall or anganwadi. The group leader, who is educated enough to read and write, collects the members’ savings and records it in registers. The members are told to borrow from the pool and pay back through regular, periodic payments, all the while keeping a record of the transactions. In about six months, when they have collected a sizable amount of cash, they approach the bank to open a group account.
The area supervisor of the self-help groups for the Kumbalgodu area, Mangala Gowri, attends the meetings every two months. This helps her to assess the members’ commitment. Once this fund grows and the supervisor has endorsed the group’s credit worthiness, the bank grants them loans.
Besides empowering the women by providing them the finances to start their own business, the movement has brought about perceptible social awareness in these once-meek-women, not used to being assertive.
Take Lakhmidevi, 25, the leader of Maramma Swa-Sahaya-Gumpu, (self-help groups), for example. She has been instrumental in the closing of arrack shops in Kanminike village on the Mysore Road, where she lives.
“The entire group of 15 members and our children protested before the arrack shops to put an end to the intoxicated men beating their wives and children. We refused to budge till they agreed finally,” says Lakshmidevi proudly.
The training the group has received from various government and non-government organizations on leadership and bookkeeping has boosted their confidence and self-worth, says another member of the group, Hanumakka.
Often, the women who manage the groups are anganwadi workers. Anganwadi, or the community crèche, is the fulcrum on which most of the government’s welfare programmes for women, like Sthree Shakti (‘women power’) and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), run. Anganwadis not only serve as playhouses for children aged six months to three years, they also double as health care centres for the local folk.
Being the hub of so many activities helps, says Mangala Gowri. “We know each of the families personally, their problems, background, everything. It helps us to identify the cohesiveness of a group, which is essential in forming a well-knit self-help group.”
The members have used the loan to start such new ventures as vegetable vending, tailoring, beedi rolling and agarbatti making, or merely to clear old loans, or buy consumer products.
Pillamma, 25, an anganwadi worker and the leader of the 17-member Lakshmi Swa-Sahaya-Gumpu in the Devagere colony in Kumbalgodu, says that the Rs.50, 000 loan they got from the Kalpatharu Grameena Bank came in handy for the members, some of whom were earlier borrowing money at the exorbitant rates of four to 10 percent monthly interest, compared to the two percent the SHGs charge. The new-found independence has earned them respect at home. “My husband doesn’t beat me any longer,” she says and “he listens to me these days!”
Kalpatharu Grameena Bank, as well as other regional rural banks avail 100 percent refinance from National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development at 6.5 per cent per annum and lend to self-help groups at about 12.5 per cent. The SHGs are free to charge their members any amount of interest acceptable to everyone.
Several NGOs provide the self-help groups with vocational training.
YMCA at Kumbalgodu provided training on silkworm rearing to some of the SHGs two years ago, said its secretary, John Kennedy. The “Navodaya Self Help Group” in Tagachaguppe village was able to get a loan of Rs.50,000. Some of its members utilised it to rear silkworms and send it to the neighbouring Ramanagaram, one of the well-known silk industry centres in the state.
When I tell the women that elsewhere in the country women SHG members have contested and won the “gram panchayat” (village-level local self government) elections, they brighten up. “Why not?” they say, “after all we have the support of our groups.”