For close to three decades, Chetna Gala Sinha has lived and worked tirelessly on women’s issues in the remote Mhaswad town in Satara district, western Maharashtra. In 1997, she banded together with a group of local women and founded the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, India’s first rural cooperative bank owned by women. That was the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has seen several thousands of women become entrepreneurs through microenterprise. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:
Mhaswad is in interior Maharashtra. How did you get here decades ago?
I was part of the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement in the 1970s and we worked in far-flung villages across Maharashtra. At first I worked in the slums of Mumbai, but the movement took me out of the city.
I settled down in Mhaswad, where we had earlier worked with Sharad Joshi [founder of the Shetkari Sanghatana]. Due to the severe drought conditions, there was a lot of migration, mostly by men, to the city while the women were left behind, entrusted with looking after the home and the land. The area also has a large population of nomadic communities where, again, it is the women who are responsible for earning a livelihood.
There were cooperative societies, but they did not address the needs of women. I found that the main concern of the women was to have some financial savings of their own. The challenge was to design a product that would suit this need.
You started the first bank for women in a rural area. Why did you look at microfinance as a tool for empowerment and not go the NGO way instead?
When I began working with the community, I had no idea I would start a bank. I did realise that the community issues of the women and their realities were very different from what we had assumed them to be. It was the case of Kantabai Salunke that proved to be the turning point. Kantabai Salunke, a blacksmith, told me she wanted to save her earnings, but no bank would open an account for her because they said her savings were too meagre. We realised that what was required was a bank that would open accounts for women to put away their small savings.
I had the expertise and knew that a financial product would be far more effective than an NGO, which is answerable to funders. I also knew that we could not have macro products brought down to a micro-level. We took a risk as we were aware that we may not get funding. There were also concerns as to how we would sustain ourselves. At first, the licence was rejected because the RBI said the thumb impressions of the women could not be accepted in lieu of signatures. Six months later, armed with the ability to sign their names, the women went back to the RBI, and we got our licence.
Soon we realised that it was difficult for women to come to the bank as it cut into their working day. That is how we came up with the idea of doorstep banking, where our team goes to the bank account holder’s home and helps her with her financial needs. Over the years, we have learnt from experience and improvised our services. We base our work on ground-level realities and the financial needs of women in the area.
You have been in this field since the 1970s. Could you tell us a little about your journey?
I believe that it is a constant learning experience for us. We often assume that women in the rural belt lack awareness. But that is not the case. They are very much aware. The idea is to understand their needs and empower them using tools that will work for them.
An example I always give is that of the nomadic goatherd who came to us for a loan to buy a mobile phone. When we asked her why she needed one, she replied that she was often away from her children for weeks on end and wanted to stay in touch with them. She also wanted to learn to use a mobile phone. Similarly, when demonetisation happened, most women were open to using digital technology. Clearly, they are aware of developments and what works—we only have to be instrumental in facilitating the process.
Sometimes, it goes beyond just a bank account or loan. Once we had given a loan to a woman who sold snacks from a handcart and who wanted to set up a permanent stall. When she set up the shop, she was informed by the authorities that she needed a licence without which she could not operate the gas cylinder and the shop. That was a lesson for us as well—that there are aspects other than the loan that need to be tackled. So we set up a helpline and three chambers of commerce for rural women. We also set up a business school and offer courses to support women entrepreneurs. Today, we have a dozen business schools—some run out of buses—that offer about 15 courses, and have trained some 200,000 women so far.
We believe that control over finances is crucial. We want to teach the women how to manage their finances. Many women whom we have mentored now run successful businesses, and we are working towards linking them to bigger markets. Recognition is also critical and powerful in empowerment. Our clients are, of course, most diligent and prompt about repaying loans.
Your thoughts on microfinance as a growing sector with positive results.
I feel that banks have not done enough research to understand how bankable women are. Microfinance has been a very effective tool for women to pursue other forms of livelihood and make their lives more comfortable. But it is rather limited and reaches only a small percentage of the people in need. The banking sector has to be more innovative with regard to rural India. We have to move beyond microfinance loans to microenterprise loans that really help women expand their businesses.
While the problem of agrarian distress is widely known, loan waivers are not the only solution. We have to look at it comprehensively and holistically. If you provide openings and opportunities for people in distress, there is a better chance at improvement. The distress is largely due to government policies. They have not designed the agriculture markets in such a way that the farmer will be helped. We need the market on the farmers’ side. The M.S. Swaminathan Commission had suggested to the Agriculture Price Commission that it should be farm cost price plus 50 per cent for produce. Why can’t these guidelines be followed?
Did you face much resistance in such a patriarchal environment?
We have an annual programme where we felicitate entrepreneurs. At this event, we make it a point to acknowledge and appreciate the many men who have supported their wives and daughters. Including the male fraternity is an integral part of the process, and they, too, share in the pride and dignity when they see their wives and daughters achieve success.
Mann Deshi is a model that has shown tremendous success. What has been your most gratifying aspect of the Foundation’s work and what are you striving towards?
No doubt, the many success stories of our women are what continue to make our work truly gratifying. It is the hard work and indomitable spirit of the women that gives us the energy to go forward.
When we set up the community radio station, we thought that the women would host awareness campaigns, advocacy sessions, etc. While they do that as well, we soon found that the women had a treasure trove of music to share. The poignant songs they sang on the plight of farmers were a window into their world. The deep connection they share with their animals and land is very telling.
Their art and music have enriched me in countless ways. Our vision is to empower one million women across the country through Mann Deshi by 2020.