Mrs. Thancy F. Thekkekara: Working towards a new Beginning

Currently the Principal Secretary of the newly established Department of Minority Development, Government of Maharashtra Mrs. Thancy Francis Thekkekara, has had a long and distinguished career. She is a dedicated officer who has worked consistently for the empowerment of women during her 6- year-tenure as Managing Director of the Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM). As required by the services rules governing the IAS officers, she has worked in different departments. Into each of these departments she has brought a measure of efficiency through her personal example of hard work and commitment. This efficiency is painstakingly cultivated in each department that she has handled through the introduction of a transparent system of review of programmes and initiatives by independent researchers and activists. She also makes it a point to organise consultative meetings and workshops with NGOs and researchers so that the policies that are formulated are responsive to people’s needs.

I first came in contact with her in a consultative meeting organised by the Health Department to discuss the health concerns of women. Subsequently, I have attended many of her other consultative meetings and undertaken commissioned research studies when she was the Member Secretary of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women and then Managing Director of MAVIM. Over the years I have been impressed with her commitment to make the system work for the people. In her work she has always sought to link research to the process of policy formulation and in order to monitor projects. This interview for Samyukta has been conducted as many of the case-studies included in it are studies that she commissioned when she was the Managing Director of MAVIM. It is an attempt to draw out her understanding of development needs and also to get a glimpse of her personal motivations.1

Veena Poonacha (VP): You have played a significant role in transforming rural Maharashtra through the Self Help Group Movement. It is a measure of appreciation of your work that the Chief Minister made you the Convener of the Task Force for the development of the micro-finance sector even after your transfer from MAVIM in 2007. I would like to begin by asking you about your ideas on women’s empowerment.

Thancy Thekkekara (TT): I believe in the empowerment of all human beings, this includes men and women. I feel that all human beings should have the right to live in dignity and the process of development should address the needs of both men and women. However in the current social setup, we need interventions on behalf of women because of the prevailing patriarchal set up. Patriarchy enables men to have the power over the resources in the family and society and therefore women are subordinated. Policies and programmes should therefore be geared for the development of women. It should recognise women’s entitlements to resources in the family and society and it should also enable them access to credit and ensure that they have a voice in governance. This does not mean that women are competing with men. It means that both men and women have a right to live in dignity. But since currently, women have an unequal position in society there is a need for development policies to focus on women, so that both men and women can live in dignity.

VP: The underpinnings of your ideas for development interventions are rooted in the ground realities of women’s lives and their unequal position in society. Could you tell me what were the factors that made you conscious of this need for a women centred focus of policies.

TT: Way back in 1982, as an Assistant Collector in Baramati, Pune District, I became aware of three important aspects of policies: 1) the laws do not necessarily change customary practices. For instance, despite the Anti Dowry Legislation, women also felt that they would not refrain from taking dowries for their sons. They felt that since their parents had paid dowries at the time of their marriages, there was nothing wrong in the custom. I realised that change could only come if there is a fundamental change in attitudes; 2) Gender neutral development policies inadvertently excludes women because of the patriarchal bias of the development workers. I found that very few women entrepreneurs got access to credit or subsidies for fertilisers, etc. under the various government schemes, such as the Small Farmer’s Development Agency (SFDA) scheme and the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) and schemes under the Agriculture Department. I could see women working on farms and small agricultural holdings but I found that even though the policies do not discriminate against women, the gram sevaks (village-level worker) tended to ignore women while identifying beneficiaries; And 3) I became aware of the need for flexibility in the implementation of policies. This was poignantly brought to my notice in 1989, when I was the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad. I found that a poor deaf and dumb woman with no education was given a loan to buy a cow under the programme. But unfortunately the cow died as the scheme had made no provision for the purchase of fodder. The woman was heartbroken as she had lost the cow and also left with a loan to repay. It is therefore not enough to enable women access to credit; they also require other supportive systems and we have to ensure that the economic activities initiated through loans are viable if we are to change their economic status.

VP: What you are describing about the need for credit facilities with other training facilities is also reflected in the important policy documents of the time such as the Shramshakti Report of the Commission for Unemployed Women and Women in the Unorganised (1988) followed by the National Perspective Plan (1988- 2000) to what extent would you say you were influenced by these documents in your subsequent work on the SHG movement.

TT: You are right in indicating the critical role of these documents in the formulation of government policies. These documents made the officers realise that development initiatives should be at multi-pronged. Where I was concerned it also emerged out of my experiences in the social sector. After a stint in the Atomic Energy, which gave me different experience, I was posted as Commissioner of Family Welfare in the Health Department. Looking at the mortality figures in the report of the Director General of Births and Deaths, I realised that most of the women were shown to have died during pregnancy or their deaths were shown to have occurred due to fire. Men were shown to have died of other causes. This also indicated that few women were taken to the hospital when they were ill and consequently their deaths were not registered. I was also upset with the Family Planning Programmes that targeted women. I found that many women died because these operations were performed on high risk women. Another issue that I found was regarding the promotion of women medical professionals in the health sector. The male dominated hospital administration decidedly favoured men over women doctors for promotions to senior positions. During my tenure in the Health department, we made several interventions to reduce maternal mortality. We introduced Matruvadevas (mother’s day) which aimed at focussing the attention of the health professionals on maternal health, zero pregnancy related deaths and during sterilisation. Efforts were made to sensitise doctors to prefer male sterilisation. This initiative was subsequently adopted by the Government of India for implementation in other parts of India. At that point of time, Maharashtra Government needed to confront the malnourishment of children in Melghat, in Amravati. We therefore introduced a scheme called Matruva Anudan given to each pregnant woman in the last trimester of her pregnancy. Through this scheme she was entitled to Rs. 800/- through which she could supplement her nutrition without having to labour in the fields in the last trimester.

VP: I became familiar with your work after you became the Member Secretary of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women. During your tenure the Commission was very proactive. You along with your Chairperson, Nirmala Savant Prabhavalkar facilitated the introduction of pro-women legislations in Maharashtra. An important aspect of your work was the ways in which you consulted and involved the various women’s groups in the policy recommendations that you made to the government. Additionally, you commissioned a number of research studies, to evaluate programme implementation.

TT: Yes I did commission a number of studies on the prevalence of sexual harassment in professional colleges. These studies did have an impact on the government and even today are cited in government circles. This indicates the level of awareness that the studies have generated. One of the important studies commissioned then was the plight of women prisoners in Arthur Road Jail. The study indicated that 90 women were crammed into a space that could only accommodate 30 women. The study resulted in the Government shifting the women to Byculla jail and they were provided with better facilities. Similarly, the study on mental health of women in Thane mental hospital has been incorporated into the medical education curriculum. These kinds of studies facilitate corrective action and provide the government with the necessary feed-back. I therefore believe that it is important to review programmes till the very end.

VP: I realise that this is what you tried to do when you took over the Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM). In your career so far, you are known for the ways in which you have sought women’s empowerment through the self-help group movement. For this movement is currently spread over 13, 000 villages of Maharashtra through MAVIM and will be extended to all the 43,000 villages of Maharahstra. What motivated you to take up this programme and how does it benefit women?

TT: When I was still the Member Secretary of the State Commission for Women, I was given the additional charge of MAVIM. One of its programmes, i.e. the Maharashtra Rural Credit Project (MRCP) programme initiated in the 12 districts of Maharashtra with funds from the International Fund for Agriculture Development to organise women into Self Help Groups showed promise. I realised its potential for change. I felt that although, it required multiple levels of interventions, the SHG programme had the potential of empowering poor women and making them self reliant. The programme interventions are as follows: 1) organising women into self-help groups and enabling them to save; and 2) establishing bank linkages so that they have access to savings and credit. The success of this programme depends on the training and sensitisation components. Apart from the training required to enable women to understand financial management, they require vocational training and also knowledge of their rights. The success of the programme depends on the motivation of the field staff and to ensure this success we had to undertake regular training and provide incentives. We therefore put a proposal to IFAD for another programme called Tejaswini to be undertaken in all the districts of Maharashtra. This programme aimed at upscaling the SHG movement in the State and also setting up second-tier grass-roots organisations –SHG federations so that the women’s collectives established at the village level could be become autonomous.

VP: Mrs. Thekkekara, the SHG movement has the potential of making women self-reliant by providing them with information and knowledge required for their development, while at the same time providing them with the necessary support structures to upgrade their economic activities and access to the markets. This programme indicates a shift in the development policies of the state from a welfare approach (wherein women are recipients of doles) to self-reliance through their own efforts. What are the antecedents of this programme?

TT: The concept of Self Help Groups for women’s empowerment is rooted in many experiments. One such important experiment is the Grameen Bank initiated by Mohammed Yunis in Bangladesh; the other is the Working Women’s Forum set up in Tamil Nadu with funds from IFAD. This shift in the development policies of the 1980s is reflected in the Shramshakti Report of the Government of India. Following which the Reserve Bank of India issued policy guidelines to banks on disbursing loans without collateral to the poor. The National Bank of Rural and Agricultural Development (NABARD) invested in the training and capacity building component of the programmes through banks and also organised about 500 SHGs. The success of the effort helped to crystallise the initiative this movement in different states including Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

VP: What do you think is the key to the success of the programme?

TT: The success of the programme depends on its training component. Concerted efforts have to be made to enable women to develop their innate qualities and articulate their demands. Women are in my opinion born managers. They are used to managing their household resources and also multi-tasking. What the programme does is to develop their innate capacity and provide them access to savings and credit. I have come across remarkable heart-warming stories of the ways in which the movement impacts upon women and the kind of solidarity that develops among women. In a particular village a woman with a drunken husband and very small children was on the verge of suicide as she was desperately poor. The SHG women rallied around her and financed her purchase of a sewing machine. They also ensured that she was able to earn adequately by getting her to tailor their sari blouses and petticoats. This woman is now one of the important leaders of the movement. Similarly there was a poor tribal woman called Mograbai in Nandurbar. She used to brew illicit liquor for a living. After she became a member of the SHG, she decided to give up this lucrative trade and is a vegetable vendor. This transformation came about because the women take an oath that they would try to prevent their husband’s alcoholism. Mograbai says “how could I take such an oath and then, go ahead sell liquor?” She adds that giving up this illicit business is the best thing that she did in her life. For she says, “now I am respected in the village and I feel proud when even the Sarpanch wishes me when I meet him.” Mograbai is enthusiastic about the various programmes that the SHG movement initiates in the village. She has participated in the planting of trees and in the cleanliness drive in the village.

VP: There is some criticism that involving women in the development activities of the village increases their work load. Women are already overworked. For apart from managing the home and family with its multi-varied responsibilities, women also are required to work outside to earn a living. This additional demand made on them to participate in village cleanliness drive, planting trees and constructing water tanks increases their work load. Would you agree with this assessment that involving women in these activities is an exploitation of their dependency on credit?

TT: I do not agree with such a negative assessment of women’s participation in community development projects in the village through the SHGs. Their participation in the public domain is necessary to change perceptions about women’s capacities. In a village where women undertook the clean village campaign, the Sarpanch said that “we should fall at the feet of the SHG women who have succeeded where we had failed to achieve over the years.” This recognition accorded to women’s work by the village community can facilitate their entry into the panchayat. It also enhances women’s self esteem and dignity as they see themselves as partners in the development process. What is also evident is that there is a difference in what men prioritise as important and what women leaders consider important. For instance, men may think that it is necessary to build roads, women, in contrast, will demand the regular attendance of the school teachers and the health workers. They will also ask that money be spent on the repair of toilets in the school. More importantly this participation of women in activities that impact on the larger community, leads to changes in gender roles in the family. Men are forced to participate in child care and other household chores when their wives attend meetings. It must not be forgotten that women’s access to credit helps to improve the overall financial situation of the family. Unemployed or under-employed men find occupation in the business initiatives started by their wives and this helps to improve the family environment.

VP: Mrs. Thekkekara, in the course of your career, you have worked largely in the development sector. Was this a personal choice? If so, why did you opt for those departments? And how did it impact on your career?

TT: To an extent it was a conscious choice. After the initial phase of my career when I was posted in the districts, I was absorbed into the secretariat. Here I wished to be in the development sector as I felt that I could make a difference to society. This decision has not necessarily affected my career growth as in the IAS; promotions are linked to the confidential reports of the seniors. It is true that working in the development sector is seen as a soft option compared to finance or the home department, but I have found it much more meaningful.

VP. Many years ago, I am aware that you conducted a study on the experiences of women IAS officers. What were the findings of the study? Has it made an impact on changing sexist attitudes in the bureaucracy?

TT: Things have changed a great deal since I was a young officer. In the 1980s, I was among the first batch of IAS officers to be posted in the districts. Earlier, women IAS officers were directly absorbed into the secretariat as there was a feeling that working in the districts was too risky. It is true that in Maharashtra there are very few women IAS officers, but now the picture is steadily changing; it is possible to see more women entering the IAS. Attitudes to women officers are also changing. We have had women officers like Chitkala Zutshi and Chandra Iyengar heading the Finance and the Home Departments.

However we still do not have a woman Chief Secretary. Other states like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu have had women at the helm of the administration.

VP: What made you join the IAS? Have you ever had regrets about your career choice, especially when you had the responsibilities of managing your home and children?

TT: I am a Syrian Christian Catholic and my family belongs to Vaikom in Kottayam district of Kerala. But I was raised in Mumbai and other places like Calcutta and Asansol also. In my community, the education of both boys and girls is highly valued and it was expected that we would all take up professions. I have two sisters and a brother and all of them have studied well. I entered the IAS because that was seen as an important career choice then which gave one a leadership role in society, to make a difference. It is true that when my children were young there were contrary pulls. I was able to manage my multiple responsibilities because of the supportive attitude of my husband. My husband is a businessman and has a factory dealing with rubber chemicals at Taloja near Mumbai.

V.P: How did you meet your husband? Did you have an arranged marriage or was it self-choice?

TT: Well, since my career was important to me, I took a long time to make up my mind to get married. We were introduced through our parents, but we met a few times and discussed the issues before getting married. I was able to manage my home and work responsibilities because of his understanding. Very often I was posted out and I would have to leave my two daughters with my husband. I was fortunate that my mother stayed with us and hence my children were taken care of. I would say that being married and with children has its advantages. When speaking about the importance of the girl child at village meetings, I always gave the example of my own two daughters and about how proud I was of them. When I visited a hospital, I saw a lady constable who had just delivered a baby girl looking sad as her in-laws were insulting her. I went home and got the baby clothes and silver jewellery gifted to my own daughter who was already two years old and gave them with some sweets to the lady constable and she cheered up immediately. I also spoke to her mother and told her that we must be proud of our daughters who can do anything that they want in life. When the women I met in rural areas and urban slums realised that I too was married and was a mother, they’d talk to me more freely. They felt that I could understand their problems.

VP: What are your daughters doing now and would either of them think of joining the IAS?

TT: My older daughter, Suzanna has done her Human Resource Management from the London School of Economics and is working. My second daughter Sharon is doing her MA from St. Stephens in New Delhi. They may not enter the IAS but they certainly have concerns about developmental issues and are also very conscious about gender issues.

VP: I have taken a great deal of your time, as I draw this interview to a close, I would like you to comment on the current concerns. What do you feel about the Women’s Reservation Bill—a matter of considerable discussion today? Do you think that the Bill will help to change the status of women in society? I would request you to also comment from your vast experience about the role of women panchayat leaders.

TT: I think that this is a very important bill and it should be passed. This is the only way that women who have long been silenced by society can find their voices. Women’s entry into Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies as a critical mass will make a difference to policy formulation. This has been our experiences in the local self government. There is a difference between what men prioritise as important development concerns and what women do. In the village panchayat we find that women prioritise education and health concerns, while men ask for roads and other infrastructural developments. Hence the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill would be a watermark in the history of our country.


1 The interview was conducted on 26 February 2010 and on 18 March 2010.


VEENA POONACHA. Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

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Is currently the Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hon. Director of the Centre for Rural Development and Project Director, AWA, Archives for Women at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

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