Abstract: The Self Help Group (SHG) Prerna (loosely translated to mean inspiration) led by Mahadevi Kudal is a group of 5 physically handicapped women in the Panmagrul village of Akalkot Taluka in Maharashtra. Panmagrul is a village with a population of about 7000 people with several families living below the poverty line (BPL). It is located in the Sholapur district of Maharashtra, one of the bigger states of India. This article aims at providing an overview insight ito the dealings and functions carried out by this SHG.
Keywords: Self Help Group (SHG), women’s organisation, handicapped women, panmagrul village, Gram Panchayat, female sex ratio, female literacy rate, Swayamsiddha Scheme, rural women’s development, gender discrimination , marginalised sections
Sholapur is one of the major districts of Maharashtra and is located close to the Karnataka border. The geographical area of Sholapur district is 14,878 square kilometers with a population of 38.5 lakhs as of 2001. The major occupations in the district are farming, sugarcane production, handloom factories and dairy farming. It has 11 blocks (or talukas) and 1150 villages. Akalkot is one of the talukas of Sholapur with a geographical area of 1390.3 square kilometers. There are 34 villages in the Akalkot taluka. Panmagrul is one of them. One of the disturbing features of Sholapur district is the skewed sex ratio. It is 935/1000 for the district and about 953/100 in Akalkot taluka and 920/1000 in the Panmagrul village. The sex ratio as depicted in the 2001 Census for the state of Maharashtra is 922/1000. Besides the sex ratio, a difference is also noticed in the literacy rate between males and females in Sholapur. While the total literacy rate is 71.2%, the male literacy at 82 percent is much higher than 59.8 percent for females in the district. The literacy rate for Maharashtra is about 77 percent.
Panmagrul, linked by road to Sholapur and the village, has basic infrastructure such as electricity (albeit erratic), wells for water, one primary school, one high school, a co-operative bank, a post office and a public calling office (PCO) cum subscribers trunk dialing (STD) facility. What it lacks is a police station and a primary health centre or a government aided hospital. It does, however, have a privately run clinic.
The SHG Group
As a part of this Swayamsiddha scheme, Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM), the nodal agency for women’s empowerment under the State aegis, formed several SHGs in various villages throughout Maharashtra. The village Panmagrul has 35 SHGs. It may be noted that the 35 SHGs cover about 20% women in the village, all belonging to BPL households. Of the 35 SHGs, 11 have been formed by MAVIM, of which 8 were formed under the Swayamsiddha scheme. Prerna, the handicapped women’s SHG is one of the eight. Prerna has 5 members; all of them physically challenged one way or the other. The Group is led by a feisty and energetic Mahadevi Kudal (36) who is a dwarf, measuring no more than 2 ½ feet in height. The other members are Mahananda Shahane (30), partially blind; Rupali Parit (21), partially handicapped in the legs; Jayashree Belle (27), totally blind and Zubeida Hature (35), totally handicapped in the legs.
Usually, SHGs are formed by persons (mostly women) who share common social and economic characteristics. Therefore, usually one finds SHGs comprise people belonging to the same religion, caste and income group. In this case, however, the physical handicap of the members is the most important unifying factor and therefore, the Group is heterogeneous as far its social characteristics are concerned. So we have members from various castes and even religions. As far the economic status is concerned, all members belong to BPL families with annual family income less than Rs. 20,000/-. Incidentally, all the members are unmarried and live with their paternal families. Most of the families of these women depend on fluctuating agricultural incomes which vary according to vagaries of Indian monsoon, given the poor irrigation facility in the village. It may be noted that Sholapur receives very little rainfall, the annual average being 620.57mm.
How it all began…
The group Prerna was formed in November, 2003 by MAVIM through its sahayoginis employed and trained by MAVIM to form, develop and monitor SHGs. The idea of forming an exclusive handicapped women’s group germinated in the mind of the sahayoginis when they found that the other women SHGs displayed some resistance to accepting handicapped women in their group. The initiative for this was taken by Mahadevi who, along with the sahayoginis, went around the village talking to other handicapped women, persuading them to join the group. Usually, the minimum number of members in an SHG is 10, especially if the SHG has to be linked to a bank for financing. However, in this case, the rule was waived because of the special nature of the group.
Like all other SHGs, MAVIM, imparted training to the members of Prerna in the several areas: It also diligently supervised the progress of the group with continuous monitoring and counseling. Some of the areas in which training was imparted to these women were:
- Conceptualiise and Formation of an SHG: This training was imparted as one in the list of training programmes designed for an SHG. This type of training was more critical in the early years of SHG formation as there was lot of apprehension and myths associated with an SHG. However, now this training is not very critical. Therefore, though this training was imparted to the members of the Prerna group, the task of the sahayoginis was much simpler as the members were already aware of other SHGs in the village.
- Maintaining Group Accounts: This was important as maintaining a proper and updated account is a prerequisite for the subsequent bank-linkage programme. Not all the members in the Group are literate; therefore the accounts are maintained by those that are and the remaining are explained the accounts orally. It was interesting to note that all members of the Group knew their individual savings, loan taken, interest burden, etc. by heart!
- Leadership: This training package includes communication skills and negotiating with government officials and bankers.
- Functional Literacy: Under this, women are given ‘chair’ based training in that the women are introduced to various departments and the officials based on their functional roles. For example, they are taken to the agriculture department and introduced to various officials who handle various portfolios; they are introduced to the Block Development Officer (BDO) the key officer in development administration of a particular ‘block’ or taluka. A BDO is principally responsible for deployment of development staff in their various activities in the execution of the development plans for rural development in the block, including sanitation, non-conventional energy, and anti-poverty programmes. As a part of functional literacy, the women are also taken to the courts and made to witness court proceedings. In a nutshell, the women are educated on who are the relevant officials to contact in case they face any problem.
- Gradation of the SHG: Each SHG undergoes a process of ‘gradation’; once an SHG gets an ‘A’ grade it becomes eligible for loans from the bank. There are various parameters on which an SHG is evaluated for it to make it to the ‘A’ grade. Some of these parameters are regularity of meetings, repayment behaviour of the members, presence of members in the meeting, maintenance of proper and updated accounts, etc. The women are made aware of these parameters so that they can work towards getting their SHG to make the ‘A’ grade mark.
- Gender Sensitiise: In this, women are sensitised to the various types of gender discrimination at various levels starting from nutrition and diet to the status of women at home. The objective is to make these women fight gender discrimination in their own homes and other homes where they are aware of the existence of gender discrimination.
- Establishing Village Level Committees (VLCs). A VLC is essentially a committee of all SHGs in the village. Forming a VLC is another effort towards increasing interaction among women across SHGs, within a village.
- Inter-cluster Meeting: To encourage women from various villages to interact with each other, they are trained to hold inter-cluster meetings. Such meetings provide the women tremendous learning opportunity and also broaden their horizons about problems as well as their resolution.
- Familiarity with The Panchayati Raj System. Governance in the rural areas is a three-tier structure. At the village level, there is the Gram Panchayat. Above that is the Panchayat samiti and finally there is the Zilla Parishad which is at the district level. The members of the SHG are familiarised with the system of governance as well as the various officials in- charge of various departments and their roles.
In addition to the above mentioned training, members of Prerna were given training in entrepreneurial skills to help them set up their own small enterprises. Since these women were handicapped, MAVIM also educated them on their privileges. As a result, these women became aware of Handicapped Association (an association of handicapped people in the State) and became members of it. With the membership of the Handicapped Association, these women now are able to avail of concessional fares for travelling as provided by the Government. They are also drawing a monthly allowance of Rs. 250/- to Rs. 350/- per month as provided by the Government under the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana
Lending and Borrowing:
The loans that the women of Prerna have availed of were extended by the Sholapur Gramin Bank which made an initial loan of Rs. 25,000/- to the group (Rs. 5000/- per member). It may be mentioned that as per the government guidelines, banks financing SHGs are required to make a minimum loan of Rs. 25,000/- to any SHG. Till date, the bank has extended loan worth Rs. 60,575/- to Prerna of which Rs. 56,688/- has already been repaid to the bank. While the bank lends money to the SHG at 8.5% per annum, the money is available to each member at the rate of 2% per month or 24% p.a. When asked if they found the interest rate too steep, the members unequivocally answered in the negative adding that the alternative source of credit from informal sources like the money lenders at anything between 5-10% per month is much steeper. Besides, the interest so paid by the members is added to the resource pool of the SHG and is distributed as dividend among the members. Apart from loans from the bank, the members also borrow from their own savings pool. These are generally small amounts and are again lent at the rate of 2% per month. It may be mentioned that the interest rate of 2% per month was consensually decided by the Group. The bank had no role to play in it. One of the highlights of the group is that most of them have repaid their loans and their balance sheet also reveals that no fine has been imposed on the group ever for default.
Group cohesiveness and healthy interaction among the group members is essential for the success of any group. Healthy group dynamics are also critical for good repayment behaviour of the members. Two members of a group have to act as guarantor for the borrowing member and often, the peer pressure acts to ensure timely repayment of the loans. The collective behaviour of the members decides the financial health as well as the continuity of any group. This particular group is fairly cohesive and this is reflected in the fact that the group made it to the ‘A’ grade within the first six months of formation and was eligible for financing from the bank (usually a group becomes eligible for bank financing only after a year of its formation). The Group savings reflects the total savings made by each member since the inception of the Group. Each member has been making mandatory saving of Rs. 50/- per month which becomes the corpus of the Group. This saving becomes the base on which the bank has made lending to the Group. Thus, on a base of Rs. 8250/-, the Group has made borrowings up to Rs. 80,000/-, almost ten times the savings.
Impact of The SHG on Members
Microfinance, administered through SHGs, is known to be empower women and there is worldwide evidence to support the same. In fact, microfinance is considered to be an important tool for developmental change. We examine if this indeed has been the case with Prerna women. Has the formation of SHG empowered the member women? If yes, in what ways? To seek answer to these questions, we examine the impact of SHG programmes on women with respect to their participation in economic development, social development and their entry into the governance system.
The primary objective of setting an SHG is to economically empower its members by providing them the seed capital to start an income generation activity. This objective has been amply served in the case of the members of Prerna. Mahadevi Kudal used to earn Rs. 20/- per day (for two hours supervision) tending to her brother’s flour mill. After becoming a member of Prerna, Mahadevi first took a loan of Rs. 750/- to travel to Sholapur to get herself a certificate certifying her handicap as that would enable her to avail of other concessions and schemes, as mentioned previously. Once her Group got linked to the bank for financing, she borrowed Rs. 5000/- in the first instance and used the money to pay the outstanding home tax and get a water connection for her family. She repaid the loan in 10 months with the interest charge of 2% per month. She took the second tranche of loan (again Rs. 5000/-) to set up a ‘sherbet’ (cold drink) shop which fetches her net income of Rs. 1500/- per month during the summer season. To supplement her income, especially in the winter and non-summer months, she has also started knitting activity in which she knits sweaters, mufflers, shawls, etc. The wool, knitting needles and other things for this purpose were bought with the money borrowed from the bank. Each subsequent installment of loan has been used to plough money into her existing activities. She says that besides augmenting the family income, the most important benefit of joining the SHG has been that she and her family don’t have to depend on the usurious money lenders in the village to meet their credit requirements. She is also forced to save Rs. 50/- per month to pay to Prerna. However, she doesn’t make any additional saving and has not acquired any tangible assets.
After Mahadevi, Mahananda Shahane has taken the highest amount of loan through Prerna. Like Mahadevi, she took an internal loan of Rs. 750/- from the Group to get herself a certificate for her handicap. With the first loan of Rs. 5000/- through bank linkage, she got into the business of retail trading in readymade garments. She makes a trip to Chadchar, a town in Karnataka to get clothes from the wholesale store and then sells it in the village for a margin. She makes about Rs. 500/- to Rs. 1000/- per month by way of income; during festival season, her earnings go up to Rs. 2000/- to Rs. 2500/- per month. One salutary effect of becoming financially independent on Mahananda has been her increased propensity to save. Besides the Rs. 50/- per month mandatory savings, she puts aside Rs. 50/- in the Recurring Deposit scheme of the post office and also contributes Rs. 100/- per month towards a village chit fund which entitles her to revolving fund periodically. Like Mahadevi, she too has no tangible assets.
For Rupali Parit, joining the SHG brought a long-sought relief for her family in the form of a motor connection to channelise water from their well to their fields. Her first loan of Rs. 5000/- from the Group was used for this purpose. The second loan of Rs. 5500/- was used for buying a sewing machine to enable her to stitch clothes like blouses, frocks, etc. which she sells in the village. On an average she makes about Rs. 600/- per month from this activity which is a meager amount considering that her educational expenses come to more than Rs. 600/- per month. Her monthly contribution of Rs. 50/- towards Prerna is borne by her family.
Jayashree Belle took loan from the SHG just once and good part of that money was used to build a pit toilet in her house. The remaining money she has used to make and sell some savouries which are a part of a wedding trousseau. Naturally, income from this activity (Rs. 500/-, Rs.600/- per month) is forthcoming only during the wedding season or at the most during festivals. Like Rupali, often her monthly saving contribution of Rs. 50/- to Prerna comes from the family.
Of the five women, Zubeida Hature has benefited the most, economically, from the membership of Prerna. She used her share of the bank loan (Rs. 5000/- ) for goat farming and now makes gross income of Rs. 12,000/- to Rs. 15,000/- per month. Of course, she is generously helped in this activity by her family as she is unable to supervise her goats given her handicapped legs. Unfortunately, this writer couldn’t meet Zubeida because she was hospitalised with some illness during the writer’s visit to Panmagrul. Therefore, the information gathered on her is from secondary sources.
Impact on Self and Society
One thing that was reiterated by all women in the Group was that joining the SHG has given a shot to their confidence levels. These women, who mostly confined themselves to their home and housework and rarely moved out, pride in being able to augment their family’s income. Membership of the Group and more importantly, the training imparted to them during the formation of the Group, has increased their mobility within as well as outside the village. For instance, the members make trips to their bank (located in another village) albeit in twos, something they wouldn’t have thought of previously. They also report an improvement in their nutritional status. Like one member put it, “At least now we can think of applying ‘ghee’ (clarified butter) to our ‘rotis’ (bread)”. One luxury that some of them report is that they are able to keep food grain stock for the entire month rather than buy it on a daily basis. They also are more aware of their rights as physically challenged and take advantage of the privileges made available to them by the Government.
Of course, like with anything else, the impact on members differed considerably given the differences in individual creative responses to the opportunities made available (Table 3). For instance, Mahadevi exudes more confidence than the rest and is known to be quite vocal in the ‘Gram Panchayat’ meetings. She also has the reputation of being an efficient ‘recovery agent’ having once recovered an amount of Rs.30,000/- in one day from villagers who owed money to their bank! She is also known to aid the sahayoginis hold monthly meetings of the SHGs in resistant households. Mahananda, who would rarely venture out in the village by herself makes trips to Akalkot all by herself. This, she attributes totally to the confidence that she has gained after joining the Group.
All of them report an improvement in their standing in their own families (in terms of their importance and the respect they command) ever since they have joined the Group as the family members seek comfort from the fact that in case of emergency the girl of the family will be able to arrange money for them at a short notice. Their contribution to the family kitty, even if small and irregular, has further buttressed their status at home.
It is interesting to note that all of them attribute the positive change in their personality to the training received by them rather than the economic independence that they have got because of microfinance. This suggests that it is not money/finance that empowers, it is the training, the intervention by the NGO that truly empowers. Their empowerment is rooted in attending the monthly meetings, speaking to officials, bank officials rather than in their economic independence.
The women also seem to show (some more than others, naturally) more awareness about the civic conditions in their village and what needs to be done to improve the same. While these women of Prerna haven’t done anything overtly for the village, they did (along with another SHG in the village) come to the aid of neighboring villages that were ravaged by floods in September, 2005. They got together and made 500 bhakris (a type of bread) for the affected villagers and braved to go to the villages to distribute the same. While this sort of community service or feeling of empathy may have nothing to do with the membership of the SHG, the SHG provided a rallying point and also the wherewithal for the same. The RBI, in its recently issued (April, 2006) guidelines to banks on comprehensive packages to be provided during natural calamities, has suggested that SHGs be used by banks in the rehabilitation efforts of villages affected by natural calamities. The aforementioned initiative of Prerna lends some credence to the feasibility of the idea. However these women have not been able to participate in the governance system. Though they are now more aware of the governance structure and the hierarchies associated with it. Though the women are not in the governing body of the village (Gram Panchayat), the Gram Panchayat has appreciated their initiative in enterprise and financial independence and felicitated them publicly in the village on the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8th) in 2006. To the women it was yet another step towards entering the mainstream.
It is evident that Prerna has helped handicapped women of Panmagrul not only to seek financial assistance but also in creating awareness and engendering them in the mainstream of the society. Representing one of the most marginalised sections of the society (poor, women, handicapped), these women have shown the power of the SHG movement in helping them widen their choices in life; if not totally transform their lives. Training has increased the credit absorptive capacity of the women. The experience of these women draws attention to an important fact: it is not enough to make credit available, it has to be supported with training and constant follow-up. This ensures two things: proper utiliise of the credit and its timely and full repayment.
However, some concerns remain. The foremost is the seasonal nature of the income being earned by these women from their individual entrepreneurial activities. One way out would be to start a group-based income-generation activity such that it would fetch stable and regular income to the women. Given the special nature of the group (the handicap of the women), the enterprises that can be effectively run by them becomes limited. Within the limited options, the women have to consider what they can run. The women are mulling on this idea and it is being discussed in the group. Two ideas that were being discussed were that of a grocery shop within the village or a shop to sell animal- feed. Since the demand for both are perennial and not linked to seasons, it should help in smoothing the income of the family over the year.
Another area of concern is the fact that despite getting linked to the mainstream financial sector via the SHG, none of the women have opened individual bank accounts yet. The fate of the women, in a way, seems to be linked to the fate of the SHG where matters of financial inclusion are concerned. SHGs are often known to splinter. In case that happens to this group, all the members will be excluded from the formal financial sector again. Currently, both the Ministry of Finance and RBI are keen on including the marginalised sections of the society into the fold of the financial sector. Financial inclusion moves have been made on a war-footing. SHGs provide a good conduit for ensuring such financial inclusion and it will be unfortunate if we are unable to leverage on the advantage that SHGs offer for financial inclusion of the marginalised sections of the society. One of the mandates of the SHG formation should be to ensure that all members individually open at least one savings account in a bank. This will help women retain their relationship with the formal financial sector even if they stop being members of the SHG or the SHG were to splinter for some reason. This is very important.
The other issue is that of the inadequate absorptive capacity of the village economy. While the policy makers are pushing the idea of financial inclusion, from what one observes in the village and this group of women, it is not mere finance that they are seeking but avenues for using the finance. Not having a bank account or not having recourse to credit is not the main problem. For instance, of the five women in Prerna, some have not borrowed more money despite their ability to do so is because there are not enough viable enterprises that they can plough the money into. With poor irrigation, water and electricity supply, the opportunities for enterprises is very limited. And given the low literacy levels and poor industrial/service sector development of the region, paid employment opportunities are very minimal. It is clear that the Government has to step up its investment in social and economic infrastructure in the region, if microfinance is to deliver the development objectives that it is set to deliver.
Plenty in a Name
The name Prerna for SHG did not come out of the blue. In fact it has a very interesting history. The first group to be started by MAVIM in the village was called Jhashichi Rani (Rani of Jhansi, a brave woman warrior from Indian history), the next was also named after another warrior woman, this time a Goddess, Durga mata. Taking inspiration from these two SHGs, Prerna (inspiration) was the name given to the third SHG formed in the village (the subject of this case study). Seeing the progress of the three groups the fourth group was formed and it was christened ‘pragati’ (progress). The success of the four groups increased the faith of women in the village, so the next SHG that was formed adopted the name ‘shraddha’ (faith). The growing strength of the SHGs meant that the movement was like a banyan tree providing shade to all, thus the sixth group was ‘sauli’ (shade/guardianship). By the time the sixth group was formed there was growing awareness among the women about the importance of education and hence, the next group was called ‘Sharda mata’ (the Goddess of learning). Finally, a feeling of being capable permeated the ranks of women and the 8th group (the last one so far under the Swayamsiddha scheme in the village under the aegis of MAVIM) is called ‘samarth’ (capable).
The Power of Unity
Symbolism has its value, especially if it acts as a force that binds. Recognising the power of symbolism Mr. S.D. Madake, the branch manager of the Sholapur Gramin Bank (at Karajgi), hit upon the idea of a uniform for all members of SHGs. Thus, we find women in Panmagrul village wearing a combination of yellow and red saris whenever there is any occasion or to the SHG meetings.
Mahadevi, stunted in physical growth (a dwarf) has big ambitions. A vivacious, friendly and gutsy woman, she recounts how she was able to overcome her inhibition and shyness after joining Prerna. The transformation in personality was so wonderful that she is now known to speak boldly in the Gram Panchayat meetings and contribute her bit to the political dialogue in the village. When quizzed about her plans for the future she says that she would like to become the ‘sarpanch’ (the head of the village government) of the village some day. Small in stature, she stands tall among all other women.
DR. TANUSHREE MAZUMDAR. Has a doctorate in Economics and is presently working with the Indian Institute of Banking and Finance.