Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Empowering Effect of Self-Help Groups on Rural Indian Women

Raakhee Suryaprakash

Image from Pixabay
Many of my ideas are shaped by secondary sources, e.g., hearsay, books, movies and lately newspaper articles, Internet, and Facebook shares. Recent researches caused many of my misconceptions to be blown out of the water. Case in point Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Weird but true, I always associated SHGs with the movie Mirch Masala and the milk cooperative Amul. Those women in the movie did get together and help beat the oppressor. So I deduced they were a self-help group after all I had seen the movie maybe two decades ago on DD. I learnt about the white revolution in General Knowledge class about how thousands of women from Gujarat carry pots of milk to AMUL and benefit together. The image of rows of multiple pot-carrying women from the Shyam Benegal movie Manthan, crowd-funded in 1973 by the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, and still used in the Amul ads stuck so that whenever somebody talked about SHGs I had that filmi montage of Manthan and Mirch Masala running in my mind!

Sadly I was disillusioned while researching the empowering effect of SHGs pointed out to me by various movers and shakers who go about quietly but surely transforming India, Chennai, and rural Tamil Nadu from the inside out. Now I am clear after re-reading the plot summary that Mirch Masala was set in pre-independence India and dealt with the actions of a group of women working in a chilli factory and Amul is a cooperative not an SHG.

A self-help group (SHG) is generally a village-based financial intermediary usually composed of 10 to 20 local women or men. Typically it’s a group of “micro-entrepreneurs” with similar social and economic backgrounds, coming together to save regular small sums of money, jointly agreeing to contribute to a common fund and to meet their emergency needs. They pool their resources to become financially stable. Members use SHG loans to pay off moneylenders, and for education and health needs.
SHGs are not to be confused with Nobel Peace Prize–winning Grameen Bank model. Grameen Bank is a Bangladeshi concept which requires potential borrowers/customers to organise into groups of five, which in turn are clubbed in groups of five to seven into centres that save and/or borrow from a micro-finance organisation (MFO). SHGs, an Indian construct, are groups of up to twenty individuals who come together or are brought together by an NGO and then tap a bank or MFO to fund their schemes. The SHG’s individual members and the lending institution have no direct. NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) estimates that there are 25 lakh (2.5 million) SHGs in India representing 3.3 crore (33 million) members that have taken loans from banks under its linkage program.

Now that the facts are straight let me list some of the successes. Banks have lent Rs. 21,000 crore to various SHGs in 2012-2013, 85% of these were in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The 2014 Union Budget provides a 1,400-crore-rupees loan subsidy for rural women SHGs funded from the Rs 2,600-crore budgetary allocation to the ministry under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). These loans to rural women are at par with crop loans to farmers.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) 2010 project reports share many SHG success stories. Despite lacuna in linkages between SHGs and agricultural activities, market linkages, capacity building, support in accounting, financial management, organisational development, and gaps during implementation of the gender focus in rural financial services these SHGs have transformed the lives of women. For example, in IFAD’s Rural Women’s Development and Empowerment Project, 90% of the beneficiaries reported increased access to and control over resources such as land, dwellings and livestock. Women SHG members in Uttarakhand’s Livelihoods Improvement Project in Himalayas, were even elected as gram pradhans (heads of the local governments at the village or small town level) in 170 out of 669 panchayats (village councils). “The country programme evaluation also found unequivocal advances in the self-confidence and assertiveness of self-help group members.” This is something I can personally attest to. Even though in some cases these Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) are the rubber stamps for their husbands or male family members in a majority of cases these women are empowered go-getters who make the most of all opportunities—aided by the omnipresent mobile phones these ladies’ networking skills easily equal those of their urban counterparts. And their generosity, enthusiasm, energy, hospitality, and warmth are matchless.

Of all the many happy “beginnings” listed in SHG case studies the most moving for me personally was the effect of Srinivasan Services Trust (SST) of the TVS Group—the winner of the 2011 TOI Social Impact Award in its Corporate Category—on the lifestyle of villages across Tamil Nadu and other states. Empowerment of women through SHGs is intrinsic to SST’s decade and half of work in rural development. The effect of the trust is such that it has facilitated myriad rural women entrepreneurs who are making a sustained and sustainable living. Success stories include a weaving unit owner, a rice mill owner, vendors of milk, rice, flowers, and garlands all averaging a monthly income between 8,000 and 10,000 rupees. Sustainable livelihoods include manufacturing baskets, mats, and furniture using “waste” banana stems and lantana wood—a plant harmful to the forest vegetation but found commonly in the Javadi Hills and collecting honey in the tribal belt that is of such good quality that it retails at more than Rs. 320/kg. Once poverty-stricken and desperately searching for daily wage work now these village women are empowered and are part of a community with inspiringly high school enrolment, nutrition levels for women and children as well as 
increase in agricultural outputs. Truly a blooming of rural India and women entrepreneurs!

Wikipedia entries on Self-Help Groups, Amul, Mirch Masala and Manthan.
My M.A. classmate’s P.G. diploma project on TVS’ CSR in Padavedu
Book Chapters:
M.K. Ghadoliya, “Empowering Women through Self-Help Groups: Role of Distance Education”
Malcolm Harper, “Self-Help Groups and Grameen Bank Groups: What Are the Differences?”