Leading a rural crusade, this microfinance banker trains women as barefoot professionals

Chetna Sinha-3

By Moin Qazi*

Mhaswad village is a mere blip on India’s vast geographic radar but it shines brightly  on the country’s development landscape.The lodestar in this parched village is an intrepid and passionate woman with a unique brand of determination. A woman of strong convictions, 60- year old Chetna Gala Sinha believes that emancipation of women can be best done by providing them tools to run businesses of their own and advocacy skills to enable them influence policies that impact their societies. Her work has transformed the lives of nearly half a million impoverished and dispossessed women and she hopes to help 1 million women by 2024. Mhaswad village, which has been a crucible for the revolutionary social experiments of Sinha, nestles in Satara district, on the placid banks of Manganga River, some 300 km (200 miles) southeast of Mumbai.

A highly discernible sign on the Indian development canvas is the emergence of bright brains from the best universities who are foregoing promising careers to commit themselves to issues address complex social and environmental challenges. These purpose-driven champions are aligning theory with grassroots realities and translating their vision into practices that are relevant to the local context.

Sinha’s work with marginalised communities is now a legend. Described variously as a social entrepreneur, a microfinance banker, an economist, a farmer and an activist, Sinha has lit a path that is relevant and resonant in this deep heartland. She has nurtured grass-roots social entrepreneurship that is redefining the way the world thinks about rural distress.

Sinha grew up in Mumbai where she obtained a post graduate degree in economics. She then moved to Bihar to work with landless labourers. She came in contact with the youth movement led by Jaiprakash Narayan and was inspired by his socialist philosophy.  She met her husband Vijay Sinha, a farmer from Mhaswad, during a farmers’ movement in Maharashtra between 1984 and 1985. She moved from Mumbai to Mhaswad after marriage.

Transplanted to a totally alien culture, Sinha initially found it difficult to strike roots. She spent time helping her husband on the farm and organising the local community on different issues.The world of inequities that surrounded her kept her restless and she soon found her bearings. With the ebullient spirit that was honed in JPs Movement in Bihar, she set her sights on toppling the status quo in her husband’s county. She followed through to tackle inequities and eradicate dysfunction in the local society. ”I found life completely different from Mumbai .

It opened my eyes to the plight of people at the grassroots level and the challenge of working for their benefit came with the idealism I had grown up with,” recalls Sinha.Her activist background and  academic grounding added texture to her understanding of the marginalized women’s local society. The general understanding is often flattened into homogenized monoliths and stripped of the nuanced differences that make each society unique. Sinha could spot the incongruitiesat the granular level, and that is why her responses resonate so well with local women. With her team, she has been able to create legions of local jobs for the neediest people in ways that are efficient and entrepreneurial, while also tackling a host of related issues, like food insecurity, emigration and climate change.

In 1996, Sinha founded the Mann Deshi Foundation to build women’s perspectives in the context of development, enabling women to claim space in the political, economic, societal and cultural systems. “We wanted to design our interventions in such a way that they would reinforce one another to create a system wide change”, says Sinha.

The foundation has been able to engaged in a range of interventions — infusion of technology, soil enrichment, efficient farm management, improved cattle development, functional literacy,  public health, human resource development, establishment of self-help groups particularly among women, self-employment opportunities and facilitating institutional credit. The women are reframing crucial questions on burning issues and about their experiences, issues and needs and are developing a different narrative this grassroots movement is mediated by frontline extension workers —all of whom come from the villages they serve.

For protecting our planet, we have to partner with women because they have to face the brunt of climate change since they are primary managers of energy, water, food and other essential services. Sinha has groomed women farmers of the region as guardians of nature and stewards of biodiversity, Mann Deshi  is facilitating harnessing of traditional  knowledge not only to conserve natural resources, but to develop new techniques to tackle the many threats to the environment – such as forest degradation and forest fires, human-animal conflict and changing weather patterns.. The famers grow traditional crops that have high nutritive value and ensure food   security – not just for human beings but for animals too.

One of Sinha’s first actions was to set up a bank for village women. She believed access to finance is an important piece in the development  puzzle  and has necessarily to be at the core of any economic strategy “Financial services are like safe water and clean energy –they are essential to leading a better life”, says Sinha. “When I set up Mann Deshi Bank, poor women had no place to save their money. No bank would accept their money; it was just too expensive to service them. We were the first bank for rural women in India. Today we are one of many women’s banks across the country”.

Financing is perhaps the biggest problem faced by small businesses. People need credit to enhance their financial prospects. Regular banks aren’t typically an option; they have several formalities, fees, and documentation that can be intimidating for women. Banks also find this segment unviable because they feel the costs of underwriting and originating these small loans is substantial.

Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank Is India’s first rural cooperative for women. It began with 840 women members, each contributing a share capital of Rs. 600. Today, it has nine branches, more than 28,000 members and a share capital of Rs 69 crores. It has enabled women to save, insure and to responsibly borrow – allowing them to improve their well-being and financial prospects and become financially resilient.

Chetna Sinha 4

“Financial inclusion is not just a low-interest bank account or a loan… you need to design your product based on the cash flow and needs of the population you’re trying to serve,” says Sinha. In another unique service for female entrepreneurs, Mann Deshi sends its representatives to local markets every day to provide doorstep baking .“Our staff goes to the markets as human ATMs,” says Sinha. “We provide women with capital at the time and place they need it most — on the road.”

Some of the more modern innovations include a business school, the Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce for Rural Women (MCCRW) in partnership with Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Mann Deshi Business School for Rural Women (MDBSRW) is a unique nursery, placing “professional” expertise in the hands of the weakest of the weak and the poorest of the poor:  the village women. The idea of starting a business school came to Sinha from an enthusiastic semi-literate woman called Kantabai, who kept pestering her for know-how about the vegetable business.

Set up in 2006, MDBSRW offers a menu of 25 courses, largely developed in-house. The business education programme enables  micro business owners to learn critical business and financial  skills and  get  training  as screen-printing, chutney-making, bag-making, tailoring, catering, among others. The courses are certified by the National Skill Development Corporation of India (NSDC). This ingenuity was recognised alongside Harvard Business School and Fuqua School of Business in a Financial Times’ ranking of the best B-schools. Mentors work closely with the alumni throughout the business incubation cycle. The alumni   are an eclectic mix of ages ranging from 19 to 50. They include a potter, a spice and noodle maker, a seamstress, a goat and sheep herder, a farmer, a homemaker and a bangle vendor. Most of the women trainees   are the sole breadwinners of their families.

A unique idea is the Business School on Wheels. It is housed in a   state-of-the-art bus that travels with computers and micro ATMs. MDBSRW also offers a ‘Deshi MBA’. It is a year-long course on business development. The course syllabus was developed with support from   Mumbai’s SP Jain Management Institute and acclaimed nonprofit Accion. With chapters of the business school in 12 centres equipped with 9 mobile buses, MDBSRW has unleashed an entrepreneurial wave in villages across Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka.

Mann Deshi serves as an umbrella platform for several community initiatives-cattle camps, mobile para-veterinary services, construction of check dams,  a farmer producer company, local radio station and sports talent hunts. The content for the community radio, Mann Deshi Tarang Vahini (MDTV), is created by local women.

Mann Desha has helped over four lakh women to set up businesses and access new markets. Traditionally confined to the home, these village women have now become productive, articulate, and confident in their ability to think for themselves. Sinha argues that rural women should be acknowledged for who they really are —a new generation of dynamic entrepreneurs, job-creators and economy drivers, committed to bringing a change in their communities.

Women have also been trained as “barefoot professionals”. Four years ago, Mann Deshi started a unique initiative to create a cadre of “goat doctors.” It had   created a simple “backyard poultry and dairy kit”—with disease management tools, vaccinations and other incidentals.

Vanita Pise, who sits on the board of the bank, doesn’t have any formal degree but she is one of the most successful products of the Mann Deshi revolution. She was among the fist clients of the bank. With the money Pise earned from selling the buffalo’s milk, she repaid the first loan within six months. Pise soon moved on from selling just milk and to manufacturing disposable paper cups and plates. The 44-year-old entrepreneur employs around 10 other women from her village and speaks to hundreds at community events on behalf of Mann Deshi.

“I tell the other women, look at me — I don’t have a fancy degree. If I can run a business successfully, so can you,” says Pise. In April 2006, she won the Confederation of Indian Industries’ Woman Exemplar Award which she received form Prom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.   A farmer herself, Vanita now runs Mann Deshi’s newest programme; the Farm to Market project, which serves as a gateway for primary producers to access resources, information and markets.

Radhika Shinde completed a 120-hour course in tailoring and set up a shop while continuing farm work.  She later added a cloth shop. Then, she took a six-day course in animal husbandry at a local agricultural research centre. “Once I came back, I started going to nearby homes to check their goats and to tell them about artificial insemination, sonograms. I inseminated 100 goats free of cost, and when these goats gave birth to healthy kids, people started trusting me. I started to get calls from nearby villages too.” Now she earns about 8,000 rupees a month—and hopes to save enough to send her 16-year-old daughter to college.

Chetna Sinha-2

Mann Deshi’s biggest contribution to the local economy is the cattle camps. Last year, the cattle camp or chavnni, was set up in January in collaboration with the Bajaj Foundation and two other organizations .these camps fodder, water and shelter to sustain cattle from surrounding villages where periodical and recurrent drought stare at them.  With the cattle shed, smaller tents – made out of cloth, straw, leaves and plastic sheeting – are built for families accompanying the scrawny cattle. People work through the day, chopping sugarcane and preparing wet fodder for the cattle.

The success of a mission depends on the charisma and the personal commitment of a leader who inspires the team and lets their creative aquifers bloom. It’s not just a matter of resources; it’s about designing policies that actually work on the ground. Sinha has been a quintessential experimenter who is reinventing every day, making incremental changes along the way. Her revolutionary work has been recognized at the highest forums. She has been awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar and Forbes Social Entrepreneurs of the Year Award (2017). She co-chaired of the World Economic Forum in Davos (2018).

From Mumbai to Mhaswad, Sinha has come a long way. She succeeded because she looked at the familiar problems with fresh eyes. Sinha’s work has several lessons for policymakers who can take a pause and think of changing the direction of their discourses.

Sinha has been able to advance a fair slice of the bottom population into the middle class. But the government can identify, adapt and successfully scale up such promising interventions instead of rolling out reforms after reforms that fall short of their goals and are abandoned as other promising ideas take their place. There is one lesson these positive and inspirational stories bring to mind: Be the change you want to see.

*Development expert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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