Print edition : August 04, 2017

Chetna Gala Sinha advising daily wage earners about small savings. Photo: Mann Deshi Foundation

Reshma Kewte, a "Mann Deshi" athlete. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Since 1996, a unique microenterprise movement helmed by the Mann Deshi Foundation has transformed the lives of lakhs of rural women in a remote, drought-prone town in Maharashtra.

Mhaswad is a small remote town in Satara district, Maharashtra’s sugar bowl. Located in the rain shadow region, it faces perennial drought, and agrarian distress is widespread. However, a unique movement involving several thousands of women has quietly gained momentum over the years in this region, breaking boundaries and turning rural women into successful entrepreneurs, goat doctors and athletes.

The movement, started by the Mann Deshi Foundation in 1996, uses development tools such as microenterprise to empower women and help them find alternative livelihoods. Run entirely for and by women, the Foundation has so far reached out to three lakh rural women.

The change began when Chetna Gala Sinha arrived at Mhaswad in the 1970s as an activist with the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement. She settled down in this town in the 1980s and subsequently set up the Mann Deshi Foundation to support poor rural women in a range of socio-economic activities. An economist, Chetna Sinha realised that the most pressing need of the women was an independent savings bank account (see interview). When the banks in the taluk turned blacksmith Kantabai Salunke away saying her savings were too meagre to set up an account, she turned to Chetna Sinha, who then worked on the idea of setting up a cooperative bank for rural women. Initially, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) rejected the licence as the women shareholders were unable to sign documents, but it finally granted approval after the founders taught themselves to sign (even as they told off the RBI official saying it was not their fault that they were illiterate).

Gender equality is an integral part of the Foundation’s mission, and a visit to its office bears testimony to this. The newly constructed two-storey building with the Foundation’s beautiful logo is abuzz with energetic women. Some work at the Foundation, while others come in for vocational training or to use the bank on the ground floor. “We believe it is very important to employ and train women in all kinds of work, particularly to break stereotypes,” says Vanita Shinde, the chief administrative officer. “You will see that with our goat doctors programme.”

Currently, the Foundation supports six major initiatives: the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, the Mann Deshi Udyogini (a business school for rural women), the Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce for Rural Women Entrepreneurs (CCRW), the Mann Deshi Water Conservation Programme, the Mann Deshi Champions (sports programme) and the Freedom Ride Project. According to Chetna Sinha, the sahakari bank currently has 80,000 account holders across its branches, including a few in Karnataka and Assam. In 2016, the Foundation spread its operations to Gujarat. In all, it has trained 77,000 women entrepreneurs and increased their annual incomes by Rs.49 crore.

Microenterprise, a winner

Chetna Sinha believes that microenterprise has been a highly successful tool in uplifting lives in rural areas. Women who want to run a tea stall or a small shop, who tailor saree blouses or prepare food products such as pickles need only a small amount of capital to kick-start their enterprise. Since banks rarely served such clients, the sahakari bank endeavoured to fill that gap and is today the second largest microfinance bank in India.

“The challenge is not so much in lending the money, but in promoting and marketing the business and in ensuring the quality of the product. We have developed a support structure which assists in non-financial issues as well,” says Chetna Sinha. “It is critical to understand finances, human resources, space management, marketing, distribution and transport. This is why we started business schools as well,” she says.

A microenterprise is defined as one with fewer than 10 employees and annual sales amounting to less than Rs.6 lakh. The loans required to set up the business are arranged through microfinance, a regulated and growing sector in the country. There are close to seven crore people engaged in microbusinesses across India, says a report from the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. “Growing at 11 per cent annually, microenterprise has the potential to pull millions of people out of poverty and generate tremendous employment,” says the report.

Sceptics charge that microfinance fixes interest rates that are much too high for poor people. India’s lending rates could typically be between 20 to 24 per cent, says the Ministry report. Those working in the sector point out that the loans are so small that the interest rate actually does not play a large part. “For the poor the fact that a bank is willing to lend money is enough. If not for the bank they would have to go to a moneylender who could charge from 36 to 60 per cent interest. More importantly, though the loan size is so small, it is paid back within 20 to 30 months. So the interest hardly builds up,” says Rajnish Dhall of Micro Housing Financing Corporation, Mumbai. “In fact their diligence in repaying the loan is really commendable.”

“Microfinance plays a crucial role in a developing economy as it helps a vast underserved population that is starved of capital from formal sources. The customer has the opportunity to use the capital in a genuine microenterprise but has traditionally been unable to obtain the requisite finance except from moneylenders who charge a usurious rate,” says an investment banker who works closely with microfinance. “It serves a double purpose—it provides an entrepreneur the ability to fulfil a social need and an opportunity to build a credible, scalable lending business.”

Wearing a nine-yard Maharashtrian-style saree, Radhabai Jadav, who looks well into her sixties, walks into the bank to deposit a small amount of cash. “This is the money I earn from a small tea stall on the highway nearby,” she says. “Some of it goes towards household expenses, but I make it a point to deposit a small amount every week. I feel secure.”

The sahakari bank, which began as a cooperative bank in 1997, has grown and evolved into a financial institution that serves close to three lakh women through its eight branches spread across Satara district, Pune and even in pockets of Karnataka. In the past two decades, it has lent Rs.50 crore in loans and Rs.100 crore in working capital. The bank charges 19 per cent reducing interest and has a 97 per cent repayment rate. The bank’s mission is to “increase financial literacy, income, assets and control of finances in [the women’s] personal and family life”.

“Most women find it difficult to make the trip to Mhaswad. It costs money and takes time. To solve this, we started doorstep banking. Our mobile bank goes to villages to help our clients bank,” says Vanita Shinde. “In these areas, there are so many issues that need practical solutions, so we keep developing and customising finance and credit products to support women entrepreneurs.”

Vaishali Pise’s success story explains the sahakari bank’s microenterprise model: “Three years ago we had nothing. Our handcart that sold vada pav at the bus station had been removed. We tried to find another spot, but it did not give us enough income. It was also a struggle because I had to prepare the food at home beforehand, which compromised on freshness and taste. Finally, the municipality allotted this corner to me; we were able to sell better and make more money as buses stop here. I approached the Mann Deshi Bank for a loan of Rs.10,000 to rent the shop behind the cart. Today, I have a handcart where we make pakoras and vada pav. We prepare food in the rented shop for the hospital nearby. From earning Rs.400-600 a day, I now make up to Rs.2,500 thanks to hospital catering. I have also begun to stock bakery products.” When Frontline asked Vaishali Pise if she had plans to expand her business, she said, “Yes, of course. One day I want to own a hotel on the highway.”

Rural B-Schools

Among Mann Deshi’s achievements are a unique B-School model that encourages women to not only set up and expand businesses but also earn an MBA. “It is much more than a school,” says Sunita Tarlekar from Mahud village. “While several women come to the Foundation for classes, our most successful ‘schools’ are mobile buses that go from village to village and teach vocational skills, besides imparting training in financial and computer literacy. The bus is divided into sections for tailoring lessons, beauty salon training and business and computer skills. Initially the villagers were a little apprehensive, but when they saw results and also that it did not interfere with their household chores and farming, it was easier for many women to join training.”

Unmindful of the blazing afternoon sun, a group of women sit happily in the shelter of the village temple, with the Mann Deshi bus parked nearby, learning to cut and sew, crotchet, embroider, make henna designs or understand beauty treatment techniques. “There is little work in the fields as there is no rainfall. I might as well learn something new to help my family. My neighbour told me about the bus. I wanted to learn tailoring. One day I will open my own shop,” says Sunita Laxman Madve from Pulshi village.

In 2016, the Mann Deshi business school reached 62,934 women across 953 villages. Of them, 50,606 took the business development course, and 37,448 women had either started or expanded their businesses. According to the Foundation, the programmes increased their individual annual incomes by Rs.13,200. Surveys showed that 44 per cent of the women had increased their assets by buying goats, cows, gold and machinery. The most popular businesses women chose to set up or expand were dairy, goat and poultry farming, catering, ladies’ shops, grocery shops and street stalls.

To support the businesses, the Foundation set up a chamber of commerce that mentors and provides advice on business problems. The mentors include successful entrepreneurs such as Priti Anilrao Dahekar, who runs a turban business. Earlier Priti used to work for a turban business, earning barely Rs.2,500 a month. She took a loan from Mann Deshi and started her own business. Today she earns upwards of Rs.25,000 a month, employs 15 women in her enterprise, and also helps with guidance and advice at the chamber of commerce.

While the bank and its supporting activities form the core of its work, the Foundation has also developed solutions for various crises that have cropped up from time to time in the region. In 2012, when the State experienced a severe drought, further crippling the already arid Mann region, in which Mhaswad falls, the Foundation set up a cattle camp where animals were given water, fodder and shelter. Eventually, drought-struck families moved in, and what began as a temporary arrangement lasted for close to two years. “We surveyed about 14,000 cattle and 4,000 farmers living in the camp. In spite of the heat and harsh conditions, it was better than the situation in their villages,” says Vanita Shinde.

“The songs they sang to keep their spirits up and the way they looked after their cattle inspired us to work on water conservation and search for a permanent solution to the crisis,” says Chetna Sinha. In the past five years, the Foundation has engaged professionals and engineers and worked towards restoring unused percolation tanks. Additionally, it has built six check dams. The immediate result has been that close to 400 hectares have been irrigated, benefiting as many as 21,660 households. A report by the Block Development Officer (BDO) credits the Foundation with increasing agricultural production with its water conservation efforts and also says the increase in economic activity has considerably reduced seasonal migration.

An Olympic village

Many years ago, Mann Deshi helped a young athlete by giving her a bicycle that would take her to school and for athletics training. That girl is Lalita Babar, the 27-year-old steeplechase athlete who represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“The Mann region is home to the shepherd community and we have seen that the girls are very strong and athletically inclined,” says Chetna Sinha. Realising that the energy of rural children could be channelled into sports and athletics, the Foundation set up the novel Mann Deshi Champions (Sports Programme). Since its inception in 2011, the programme has trained 1,000 athletes, of whom 32 have excelled at the State and national levels.

One of them is 19-year-old Reshma Kewte, who used to graze her buffaloes near the training field. “I would watch them from the fence. One day I asked if I could join them. I really liked the training and would go every day. My parents thought I was taking the cattle for grazing!” she said. Kewte is a long-distance runner and was placed sixth in the Pune International 21-km marathon. “I want to reach the Olympics,” she says. Prabhat Sinha, who is in charge of the programme, says they hope Reshma will get into the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. “Her parents have no idea about her athletic prowess. They are simple shepherds with little knowledge of this world. Her courage and commitment is truly outstanding.”

Another success story is that of Sarita Bhise, who is now a member of the Indian women’s field hockey team. Also from the shepherd community, Sarita Bhise would spend weeks away from home grazing cattle. When she went to school she would run the entire five kilometres to reach her classes. Her sports teacher spotted her and told her to approach Mann Deshi’s sports academy.

Then there is the case of a 14-year-old who asked the Foundation to give her a job during the holidays so she could earn a little money to buy a bicycle. It would get her to school faster, she told them. That was how the bicycle programme was born. Over 9,000 bicycles have been given to girls in the past 15 years. “We believe in holistic development,” says Chetna Sinha. “We learn from the community, look at specific areas of need and then work towards solutions. It also has a trickle-down effect. The girl who goes to school on a bicycle might start a business or become a professional. The athlete will also give back to her community. The women who run businesses have already impacted the community and it will only get better.”

Above all, it is the grit, determination and survival through harsh conditions that make Mhaswad’s women who they are.

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