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Malgudi to Malur: My journey from the storybook to the story

Anvita Ramachandran, a grade 12 student of The International School, Bangalore, traveled to Malur to meet the Buzz women as part of her school project. Read about Anvita’s experience that took theory out of the textbook and brought it to life in the by-lanes of Malur.

“15 minutes left. Tie up your papers.” I was writing my Grade 10 board exam for social science. My hand was aching after three hours of writing about the different vegetation found in the Himalayas and the consequences of World War II. As I approached the last question, I felt a sense of relief that I would finally close the chapter of social science for the rest of my life. I read the last question: ‘What is the basic idea behind Self Help Groups (SHGs) for the poor? Explain in your own words’. I ignored the last part of the question and focussed on recalling the facts I had learnt about SHGs in school: SHGs had 15 to 20 women belonging to one neighbourhood. The basic idea was that they could avail collateral-free credit and escape the clutches of moneylenders. I remembered the yellow coloured box about a fictitious rural woman called Swapna, and how she succumbed to the debt trap by paying exorbitant interest rates to informal sources of credit. As I tied my papers together, I did not have even the slightest idea of the importance or relevance of that answer from a macroeconomic perspective.

Later on, while casually reading about the role of women’s empowerment in development, I came across an interesting debate: does development drive down the gender gap or does women empowerment accelerate development? In other words is this process top-down or bottom-up? As I researched more into this field, I rediscovered the issue of rural women’s accessibility to credit and the ‘basic idea’ of SHGs in making rural women financially self-reliant. I decided to embark on a project that sought to evaluate the role of SHGs in empowering rural women and bettering their socioeconomic condition.

As we drove towards the villages where I would conduct my survey, I imagined arriving at a village with banyan trees, row houses and cows roaming freely, much like R.K Narayanan’s descriptions in ‘Malgudi Days’. The villages I visited were relatively close to Malur in Karantaka and were well accessed by road. I had expected to see a group of women gathered under a large banyan tree like a gram panchayat, but I was instead taken to the ‘Anganwadi’ school where the women had been asked to come. As the women assembled in the school, I felt like was I watching a three dimensional version of the picture of an SHG on page 51 of my Grade 10 textbook. But I later realized that my textbook had failed to portray the human dimension of that picture: each of the ninety women I engaged with over the next week had her own individual story to tell. They were not fictitious but real people with real problems and Buzz India had helped them find a real solution.

I was surprised by how well the women received us: one woman even went to the extent of offering us tea in her house and gave us bananas to have on the way back to Bangalore. The women were rather enthusiastic and eager to relate their experiences and voice their suggestions. As opposed to a typical subdued housewife, most of the women were confident in expressing their opinions though some needed a considerable amount of persuasion to answer certain difficult questions. Srimathi from Rampura was one such woman who had very little reservation and provided insight into her experiences. Though Srimathi had studied only till Grade 8, she insisted that her children be well educated and settle in a secure job: her son was studying computer science in college and aspired to get a job in the IT industry in Bangalore while here daughter had just completed her MBA. She strongly believed that her Self Help Group had enabled her to reap the benefits of low interest collateral-free loans and expand her cultivation of Ragi. She is currently the ‘Prathinidhi’ or President of the SHG and has stimulated the SHG in taking up community welfare projects such as buying uniform for the Anganwadi children and building a kitchen for the school.

Though the SHGs in these villages provide women a platform to discuss their social and economic problems and gain financial support, they still have limitations. For example, in Kudiyanuru three women were undergoing tailoring training to start a tailoring unit. SHGs have seen women taking up similar income generation activities resulting in greater internal competition and lower profits. The village has a small population and may not be able to support three tailors in the long run. It may, therefore, be in everyone’s best interest if these women took up different business ventures to provide the village with more diverse goods and services.

The issue of women’s financial independence and responsibility is deeply engrained in the constituents of development. For India to realize its true potential, it is essential that women be empowered at the grassroots level, while simultaneous policy decisions are also taken from the top. Women empowerment is a multi-fold process that requires support from the government and NGOs like Buzz India to bring about societal change. SHGs are one pathway towards this goal, but to receive the full benefits of women’s micro-enterprise, it is essential that we tackle the shortcomings of SHGs and obtain tangible results. The chapter of micro-finance is still open, and there is a long way to go in overcoming these hurdles. But the good news is that SHGs have passed the test.

Anvita Ramachandran

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