By Moin Qazi*
The self-help group movement has been one of the most powerful incubators of female entrepreneurship in rural India. While there were several young semi-literate women who had homegrown skillsets, absence of capital and regressive social norms prevented them from taking a full plunge and setting up their own independent business. A membership of a self-help group, however, enabled these women to access finance, build confidence and get social support to set up their own enterprises.
Most of these women had no formal business training and it was purely within the SHG milieu that they honed their raw skills. This meant that they could not think of any unique businesses that could leapfrog them to more profitable avenues. Tailoring was the most common skill that most women learnt from their mothers. But here also those who could use their creativity to distinguish themselves from the regular clutter and develop some niche market could succeed.
One woman who fitted this mould and finally used her talent and aesthetic instincts to build a successful trajectory with a unique brand of honesty and determination in the face of tremendous financial odds was Chanda Buradkar. She was wedded into a family in a village called Wanoja in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra.
Chanda adapted to her new home as naturally as a fish takes to water. She was lucky to have a very hardworking and supportive mother-in-law named Shantabai. The two seemed to share a unique chemistry as they used their mutual strengths to take charge of their new journey. Shantabai was a tenacious woman who worked hard on the farm and was a paragon of honesty. Chanda had a sharp intellect and was highly creative and was a good seamstress. While Chanda’s husband and father-in-law devoted themselves to farm work, Chanda and Shantabai operated the family flour mill. With the help of a small loan from the bank, Chanda bought a sewing machine on which she tailored garments to supplement the family kitty.
Chanda and Shantabai were among the first members of self-help groups launched in the pilot phase in the 1990s. While they remained wholeheartedly active in the self-help groups, they both preferred to continue independent businesses. Chanda was the first beneficiary of a group loan of Rs 2.5 lacs which our bank extended under the Integrated Rural Develoment Programme (IRDP). It was the government’s first foray into microfinance-based lending under the povery-alleviation programme. It was a group of five borrowers bound by a contractual joint liability. The group couldn’t gel very well on account of its heterogeneous composition and absence of mutuality of goals and interests. But it was able to repay the entire loan during the stipulated period. The group’s working offered useful lessons to us bankers and the villagers for future collective endeavours.
Shantabai partnered with another member of a self-help group to pick up a canteen contract for employees at the Tahsildar’s office. Our bank staff had to do a lot of handholding besides extending finance. Although the two women decided not to renew the contract after the one year term, they were able to gain a lot of confidence and also build reasonable savings. Chanda and Shantabai combined their savings to purchase a small piece of land and construct a concrete house which they rented to augment their income.
Chanda would try her hand at seasonal businesses even as she build a stable income from tailoring. She set up a local outlet for Patanjali products in her own compound that she could attend to even while she paddled her sewing machine.
Meanwhile, Chanda’s two daughters were growing up and she started focusing on their education even while she continued her entrepreneurial journey.
Chanda was a very good bhajan singer and she would enthrall audiences with her mellifluous voice. Her versatility helped her endear to the assortment of visitors to the village ranging from bank staff, government development staff and volunteers of NGOs. But Chanda kept herself away from the political swirl because she was a tough, uncompromising and very outspoken woman whose unvarnished honesty was her greatest shield.
The COVID-19 crisis has spurred an entrepreneurial wave across the country. Rural women, particularly the enterprising ones like Chanda among them, have also jumped on board. They are, in fact, better placed to cope with the pandemic as their own uncertain lives pose every day challenges and keep testing their resilience. They carry the greater burden of nature’s cruelties and also have the emotional range to come up with amazing responses.
Chanda has guided her woman into a temporary factory for mass production of face mask. Prior to the norms becoming stringent on inter-state movement of goods, cotton material for the masks was being procured directly from mills. Presently, the Zilla and Gram Panchayat officials are sourcing the cloth from local shops. Chanda said it takes 15 minutes for one mask to be readied. “Since several SHG members were seamstresses, we looked up online on how to make a three-layered cotton cloth mask that can be reused. The initial hiccups were in getting to place the filter and stitch. Now some of us can produce 400 in a day,” she added.
According to Chanda, the cost of producing a three-layered cotton mask that can be reused is Rs. 8.50 and the disposable ones are a rupee less. “There is no difficulty in getting the material as the Tahsildar has given authorisation letters to some shops to release the stock. Once the masks are ready, they are sanitised in detergent, ironed and packed. My SHG gets Rs. 4 per mask, which is sold at Rs. 12 per piece with the disposables costing Rs. 9 per piece,” Chanda said.
The masks produced are being consumed by the Zilla Panchayat. “In one day, my SHG produces 700 masks and the local Tahsildar comes and picks them up. These are sold at Rs. 20 per piece.”
Shantabai’s compassionate streak runs through the family. Chanda’s husband is a trained electrician and is a great asset for the village. His support helps farmers get their electric pumps restored without much time when they develop any snag.
Chanda used her ingenuity to assemble her own dal mill. She found that villagers had to travel to the nearest town for refining their farm pulses. She modified an old farm harvester to design her own indigenous pulses refiner. Since the village had frequent power cuts she got an old diesel engine to power the mill. With her husband’s knowledge of electric instruments, she soon made the entire unit free of any technological frictions. She shared her expertise with women from neighbouring villages and inspired them to also set up similar units. Chanda expanded her flour mill by adding a grinding unit for turmeric etc. She took a loan of Rs. 12000 which she repaid within three years.
Chanda’s efforts have enabled her children to achieve quality education. Elder daughter Raveena did her M.Com and teaches at a school. The second daughter Praveena graduated with distinction and is preparing for civil services. Given her outstanding academic performance, she should hopefully make the grade. Son Golu has graduated in commerce and is pursuing a software course. More important, all children understand the value of hard work and moral integrity. Chanda has demonstrated through her own life’s journey that self-confidence and determination are the most reliable allies for overcoming all odds.