By Jahnavi Reddy:
As part of my fellowship in 2014-15, I was placed in Rajgurunagar – a town in Pune district I was to work with an organisation called Chaitanya, which works towards women empowerment and has been working in the the region for 25 years now. A group of 15-20 women form a self-help group (SHG). Around 8-10 SHGs form a cluster at the village level. And close to 20-25 clusters form a federation at the block level. The federation provides financial and social services to all its members. The micro-credit disbursal and repayment procedures were also outlined.
I went to Chandus, a village about 10 kilometres away from where I lived in the block (area) marketplace. I waited for a woman named Krushnabai Karle, an employee of the federation and a facilitator of the SHG met me at the bus stop by an old sign with the name of the village written over it. After 15 minutes, I saw a woman walk by, in a hurry. She signalled towards me to come along with her. We were late by half-an-hour already. I ran to catch up with her, and we started walking on the long, winding road with the occasional house on its side, but mostly grass and hills and cattle and fields. I tried to make small talk. I mentioned the intern who worked with this village earlier to make myself seem less alien. She replied warmly but seemed preoccupied about being late. A man driving a tractor stopped next to us and they had a brief chat in Marathi. She gestured at me to get on it. She climbed on in her sari with the same effort as I did. The tractor took us into the village about 2.5 kilometres from the main road. We walked a little further from where her friend dropped us and entered a house with brick walls that hadn’t been painted or even coated with cement yet. But the place had a television set, a dressing mirror and a couch that looked new. Someone had spread a carpet for everyone to sit on.
Everyone kept staring at me and I kept smiling at them self-consciously. I figured I should introduce myself. Before I found my voice, Krushnabai Karle asked the women to do a round of introductions. Each woman said her name, the name of the SHG she belonged to, and her position as president/vice-president/secretary/member. The names of the two SHGs present were Bhairavnath and Gaurinath, names of Hindu deities. I immediately did a mental eye roll. Firstly, because it makes me uncomfortable when people are too open about their religious beliefs. I assumed these were people who spent money on rituals and worshiping deities and donations to temples. Secondly, they just didn’t sound good to me. It was like choosing a name for your team. I had met no one yet who would choose Bhairavnath. No one. It’s just not, um, cool. Now Daphne or Apollo or Venus would’ve been cool. That’s Greek and Roman mythology. It’s from elsewhere. The ‘other’ is always cool, isn’t it?
It was my turn now. I told them about myself, still quite self-conscious. Krushnabai then began to talk about the need for financial, legal and health counsellors and encouraged the women to attend training to qualify as counsellors in their village. Many of them seemed eager to do so. Then out came the cash. Each woman saves a monthly amount of ₹100. This was collected and given to the president of the group. Then began the repayments of existing loans, and a new loan was given for someone’s child’s school expenses. All of this amidst loud non-stop laughter and banter. Krushnabai kept talking about this new hair oil that made your hair darker. They had these detailed log books to enter all the details of their transactions. The math was done rapidly by the presidents and cross checked by Krushnabai. She ended the meeting with a prayer and left with her bag to the next meeting. There were 14 groups in this village.
It all looked like a well-oiled machine. I was told this is the oldest and most successful federation in the state. And no, it wasn’t amusing or awe-inspiring to see that these women understood the importance of savings, could access credit and were able to use it productively and repay their loans on time. It just felt right and normal. The federation requires that properties bought from their loans be registered under the woman’s name in order to ensure they are financially secured in the future.
Four women belonging to SHGs in Chandus have set up a dairy from a federation loan after being trained in dairy management. They say they don’t get enough milk from the village in spite of higher returns per litre because a lot of people prefer the other dairies run by men. They don’t trust these women to keep going for very long. I guess they all had to seek their husbands’ and in-laws’ permission before they joined a group. Maybe their daughters won’t have to. Absolute gender equality is a distant dream. But these look like good roads.
Do find out more about the SHG federation movement and its genesis in our country. It will not fail to inspire you.
About the author: Jahnavi Reddy is a 2014 cohort India Fellow who was working with Chaitanya in the areas of rural finance and literacy in Western Maharashtra. The federation mentioned above is the Grameen Mahila Swayamsiddha Sangh, which is the state’s first, promoted and nurtured by Chaitanya.