Bhagyamma and 15 other women were sitting around and talking about how Kalamma was suffering from the last two years. They were discussing whether her drunken husband needed to be chided collectively or boycotted socially or to file a complaint of domestic violence in the nearby police station. Some of them felt that resolution had to be by reconciliation and keeping in mind the need for peace in Kalamma’s family. They also decided to give her Rs.250 for her immediate needs and in passing discussed the savings that they all had collectively made. This was a typical Wednesday evening for them and they spent nearly two hours every week talking about their welfare, problems, health issues, the weather, savings and credit. This was truly a self-help group where they existed for each other and were completely independent of any outside assistance. This group gave them so much – a sense of identity for themselves, a few hours away from home and all their domestic chores, a reason to celebrate their own womanhood and a relative degree of privacy and independence. These two hours each week meant so much for them and the social, economic, and political empowerment that was happening was so subtle and invigorating.
As I was watching them discuss and debate Kalamma’s problem, my mind was drawn to what was happening in Andhra Pradesh over the last many years. A large number of profit seeking micro-finance institutions had extended more than 6,000 crore rupees in loans to millions of women. Many of them were forced to take loans and make repayments and this led them deeper into poverty. Hundreds of women unable to bear the pressure of making repayments have committed suicide. It has become such a large problem that the Government had to step in and begin regulating this industry. All that had happened was, suave executives using technology and huge capital to leverage profit out of these unsuspecting poor, had replaced the local money-lender.
Unfortunately, in our haste to capitalize on the enormous power and potential of self-help, Government and NGOs around the world have reduced it to a mere micro-finance movement. People have forgotten the underlying principle of self-help that is so empowering and filled with dignity and have reduced it to a vehicle providing loans and affecting recoveries.
We need to understand that poverty is an experience that only the poor can relate to. It is the poor who understand the needs of the poor best. They understood their own difficulties, got together to save their money, and with their saved money they would extend credit to the poorest of the poor. The interest they determined was correlated to the paying capacity of the individuals themselves. It was a wonderful mechanism where the poor not only understood their needs, but also understood their paying capacities. They also went beyond mere savings and credit. The finance part was only the excuse and many groups evolved into true self-help groups and provided the members with the psychological, social and political strength that only groups can give individual members. There was very little outside influence or intervention. When Self Help Groups (SHGs) started more than 3 decades ago, they were reasonably community driven and community centric. The loan amounts given out were determined by the absorption capability of the group members. They were not determined by the amount of money the group had. When the Government came into this business a few years ago, they offered a seed capital without considering the group dynamics or the strengths and weaknesses of the participating members. There was no evolutionary process or any training; there was no understanding of what credit was; there was no understanding of what savings could do or not do. All that they thought was seed capital would kick-start an economic process and bring the women and their families out of poverty.
Organized and large-scale micro-finance institutions (MFIs) further damaged this concept of self-help. These people were driven not just by social concerns. They might have started for social concerns, but once they started the process I think they were driven mostly by economic concerns of their own profitability. Recovery became more organized. Interest rates were not determined by the ability of people to pay but by how much the bank needed to get back. While many NGOs were passionately committed to the social benefits, the present breed of MFIs is trained to run these institutions on business principles.
Self Help Groups operated not on the ability of its members to repay but on the ability of poor to use the credit for generating more wealth to get out of the poverty trap, and kept the interest rate such that it did not become a burden. They did not lend money to make profits from the interests. They lent money to get someone out of poverty. Whereas the MFIs give out loans with the focus being on recoveries rather than on what the poor can do with their loans. These agencies have interest rates of 40-50%, which to the poor looks smaller than the 100-120% they would otherwise pay to the local money-lender.
Today we have International MFIs who are actually going to public to raise funds exactly like a private company raising funds. Raising public funds means paying out dividends and this forces one to charge large interest to not only cover their own operating costs but also give them sufficient room to make large profits and pay it out as dividends to the investors. The poor in this entire operation is a mere statistic rather than an inclusive participant seeking to get out of the poverty trap.
One understands the need for a large influx of capital into the rural areas to kick-start the economy. But then they need to be socially conscious MFIs with the ability to look at the larger picture and go beyond mere finance. We need to have a hybrid solution wherein the small and local self-help group operates with the benefit of easy access and availability of credit that tie ups with larger MFIs can provide. They need to build on the strength of sitting together in small groups, discussing their problems and find contextually relevant solutions. Not just for their financial problems, but also for their everyday local issues. The way micro-finance is designed, it is limited to only look at economic empowerment and its spinoffs. The empowerment process that happens in SHGs is much more complex, much more multi-dimensional, and follows an ecosystem approach.
What the micro-credit movement needs is to go beyond being unidimensionally focused on just money. It needs to look at the power of communities – of community engagement, community ownership and community centricity. What we need is the members determining the rates of interest, determining whether the loans are for consumption or production, determining the amount of wealth they can absorb or need. We also need to empower people with the training and the tools. One needs to ensure that the technology that is brought in does not exclude the poor and is something that the women can handle. True self-help is when the women are made the drivers of change, the owners of the groups that they run, and take responsibility for the development that determines how they live and cope with the challenges of poverty. This can happen only when it is a community-driven process and not external agency driven. The micro-finance industry is just the body, they need to get a soul and transform into a true self-help movement.
Thimmamma limped slowly to the Fair Price Shop in her village. This was the second day that she was going there. She just could not manage to stand the whole day in the queue and negotiate her way through the crowd and buy her rations the previous day. She was hoping that she would be lucky today. She was now nearing 70 years and had lost her husband more than 15 years ago. Her only son had left the village looking for greener pastures more than 35 years ago and she had not heard from him for more than a decade now. Her eyesight being poor and her body old, she could neither work as an agriculture laborer nor stay at home all day long doing nothing. She occasionally visited the larger homes in her village and helped the women folk in cleaning the grains and in other domestic chores. This kept her busy and the women would usually offer her a meal in return. Month after month she would wait for the local drummer to announce the arrival of food grains in the Fair Price Shop. This shop, owned by a local politician, would be open for a few days till all the grain stock was exhausted.
After a wait of more than 5 hours, she managed to get her rations for the month. She paid the assistant at the shop Rs.100 and collected Rs.15 in return. For Thimmamma, this was a monthly chore and her life revolved on successfully getting her Rs.85 worth of food grains. I was visiting her village on one such day and managed to strike a conversation with her. Thimmamma was amused that somebody would be interested to talking to her. She told me her story and how she was patiently waiting for her death. Talking to her made me wonder what one needed to do to help people like Thimmamma. The state had created schemes specifically for people like her. She was carrying an Antyodaya card that entitled her to 29 kg of rice and 6 kg of wheat per month, apart from the 4 liters of kerosene and 1 kg of sugar. What Thimmamma had got that day was just 16 kg of rice and 2 kg of wheat and no kerosene or sugar. And all this at Rs.85 instead of the Rs.52 that these grains were worth.
There are hundreds of people like Thimmamma who are blissfully unaware of their entitlements and consider themselves lucky to be getting what they are getting. Despite the best of planning, the last-mile problem dogs many of our schemes and they fail to meet their objectives. The Indian PDS is one of the largest subsidized food distribution systems in the world. More than 500,000 shops all over the country are involved in distributing food grains at highly subsidized rates to millions of poor Indians, who depend on them solely to meet their food and nutritional needs. Despite the orders of the Supreme Court, most of our Fair Price Shops are ‘Unfair’ in the way they transact their business.
The FPS show owner in Thimmamma’s village (and in all the others that I have visited till date) neither discloses information on the number of cardholders or their entitlements nor the stock position publicly. Bills are hardly given and even if done so, are unreadable and erratic. The quantity and quality of food grains issued are mostly below standards. I am yet to see a single FPS in the entire state which issues the allotted quantity of rice to the cardholders at the stipulated price. It is mostly less by 4-10 kg of their entitlements and sold at prices varying between Rs 3.25 and 3.50. The shops are usually open for 4 to 6 days in a month, against the required duration of entire month with Tuesdays being the official holiday. When one talks to these shop owners, their standard response is that they are given very little commission and are forced to distribute grains to more people than the actual number of legitimate cardholders. They also mention that palms need to be greased and they always end up talking like they too are the victims.
Amidst such a prevailing ecosystem, how does one get people like Thimmamma, who cannot get to read and understand the entitlements written on her card, to get their rightful due? How does one get to work with a system that is designed to be opaque, gray and patronizing of the corrupt? Can technology be an equalizer and help her get what she deserves and what the State ends up claiming to spend on people like her? Can we not design a system that can ensure pre-packaged and labeled food products that can be issued only to her, using biometrics and centrally linked point-of-sales machines? All this can be done and should be done. We need to make sure that the millions of rupees that the government is spending on providing safety nets to the vulnerable and the marginalized actually end up reaching them. And we need to do it before it is too late.
For people like Thimmamma, the 2G spectrum scam or the ISRO S-Band scam mean nothing. But losing out on their few kilos of grains, month after month, can make the difference between life and death for them.
A hundred years ago, on the 19th of March 1911, thousands of women gathered in Germany. Their main concern then was the plight of working women. What started off as a movement in Eastern Europe and Russia slowly gathered momentum and the United Nations started celebrating this event as Women’s Day on the 8th of March every year on a worldwide basis from 1975 onwards. Today Governments and NGOs around the world including those in India celebrate this event and the day is marked by meetings, seminars, discussions and press articles. What does this day mean to the millions of Indian women? Does it hold any significance that will go beyond mere symbolism and indicate the changing condition of women in society?
More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda had spoken strongly of women having an equal place in Indian society and said that the country would not progress if it had no equal place for its women. With the changing social, political and economic landscape of India today, are our women leading better lives? Is women’s empowerment mere sloganeering or does it still remain a favour bestowed on them by the menfolk? Do rural micro-credit programs that have come to stay impact the lives of these women?
I decided to understand all this and more by traveling around and meeting and interacting with some of these women in Heggadadevanakote Taluk. Rathnamma living in Basavanagiri was till recently dependant on her husband for the little money that he brought home as an agricultural labourer. For years she and her family were subject to the vagaries of nature and life was indeed unpredictable. Now she is a confident mother who is not only contributing to her family kitty, but also more decisive and articulate. The last one-year has seen her gradually evolve into a business-woman making snacks and other eatables at home by herself and going around the nearby town marketing the same to petty shops. A gradual economic change without any fanfare or drama but significant nonetheless! If Rathnamma saw economic opportunity in making and selling snacks and other goodies, her nearby friend Chikkamani found business sense in buying and selling garments and cloth. She travels on her own to Mysore and other places and returns home to sell the cloth and garments she has procured from there. She has slowly but surely learnt that trade and commerce need not be a male bastion. She now claims to be earning more than her husband and jokingly says that she needs her husband more to carry the heavy luggage that she brings home after each visit.
Shivamma of Manchegowdanahalli was completely different. She was more of a social activist who was keen on setting right the Fair Price Shop in her village. She was concerned that poor and destitute women from her community were not getting their rightful entitlements. She had to wage a relentless battle against powerful forces both within and outside her village and ensure that all the Antyodaya cardholders got their rightful share of 29 kg of rice every month. She did not stop there. She goes around meeting other members of the Women’s SHG Federation and urges them to join her in the crusade in setting right the Public Distribution System.
Machamma of Kebbapura tribal colony was tired of running around to the local politicians, asking for civic amenities for her colony on the outskirts of the Bandipur National Park. After not receiving any response to her repeated pleas from the powers that be, she decided to take things into her own hands. She contested and won the Gram Panchayath elections. Today she is one of the most vocal members in the Panchayath and has taken her role in the Social Justice Committee very seriously. While she chose to express herself politically by joining the electoral process, Putti and Madi of Jaganakote haadi decided to make participatory democracy in their small tribal hamlet a reality. They are active campaigners for Gram Sabhas and are making sure that these are held periodically and are becoming the true voices of the people.
Kavya is another special young woman who decided to fight all odds stacked against her and resolutely refused to accept that poverty and gender could come in the way of her academic achievements. With assistance from Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, she not only completed her SSLC and PUC but is now studying to become an engineer. She also wants to dedicate some portion of her life and time for the academic upliftment of other rural girls like her.
The success of these women is not anecdotal or distant, but reflect the emergence of a silent change in society. Women are no longer content with the status quo and are unwilling to wait till the men dish out ‘empowerment’ as a special privilege or favour. They are now active participants in processes that concern their lives and welfare and are willing to engage with society and the State in negotiating their entitlements. What makes it all the more special and heartening is that these women are mostly tribals and dalits who are no longer willing to be mere ‘beneficiaries’ of Government doles but are asserting themselves to become partners in progress. Women’s Day may be seen as just another reason to celebrate, but I am sure it does mean a lot for women like Rathnamma, Chikkamani and others to come together and share their successes and failures and learn from each other. Women like them do need a day to call it their own and celebrate the change that all of us wish to see.
I have always believed that communities having Food Security is one of the manifestations of their development. Food Security is not something that happens as a stand-alone phenomenon. It reflects the priorities of people and their spending capacities, availability and access to food grains, agriculture progress of the land, social policies of the State and more importantly, societal commitment to ensure that no person goes to bed hungry. It is with this understanding that I agreed to investigate the corruption and mal-administration in the Public Distribution System (PDS) when the Hon’ble Lok Ayukta of Karnataka asked me to. Apart from my own stand against corruption, I also saw this as an opportunity to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of PDS in the State and do my bit for the issue of food security to the citizenry, especially those living in rural areas.
Despite my previous experience in the office of the Lok Ayukta investigating allegations of corruption in the Health & Medical Education sectors, I must confess that I was not prepared for what I saw. PDS in India is the world’s largest subsidized food distribution system, operating out of 500,000 Fair Price Shops (FPS). I am fascinated on why the planners named them ‘Fair Price’ shops! The very basis of my investigation is to see if they are really FAIR in letter and spirit.
I began the process many months ago in Sept 2010, by visiting a few shops in Heggadadevanakote Taluk of Mysore District. I was accompanied by the local officials and went to a small village having a population of around 2000 and with a few tribal colonies surrounding it. The FPS in the village is run by the local Farmers’ Society and I had heard of some irregularities there. The shop was shabbily maintained, with food grains lying all around the place. The key person had done a disappearing act on hearing of our visit and had left his assistant to face the flak. People of the area were waiting for their rations to be given to them and on casual enquiry I found that none of them were being given their rightful entitlement. People with the Antyodaya card, entitled to 29 Kg of rice and 6 Kg of wheat per month at Rs 3 and Rs 2 respectively, were only being given 25 Kg of rice at Rs 3.25 and 3 Kg of wheat at Rs 2.25. People were not even aware of what they were supposed to get and at what rates. They simply took what was given at the price the shopkeeper told them. None of them realized that they weren’t being given a receipt for the amount paid.
The local people got wind of my visit and a small crowd had gathered outside the shop to relate their woes. An elderly and nearly blind lady slowly and hesitatingly made her way towards me. She held my hands and pleaded to instruct the officials to issue her a card. She was a widow, more than 70 years old, and with no income, all of which would entitle her to get the Antyodaya card. The State has consciously created the Antyodaya system as a social security measure, specifically targeting the elderly, widows and the destitute. I turned around and asked the concerned food inspector how was it that this deserving old woman was excluded? His immediate response was that she did not come to the Taluk Office to get herself registered. Oh, if only this old lady had the means to travel 20 Km to reach the Taluk office, negotiate the corrupt system and get her rightful due, why would we even need a Social Security System then?
As I turned around and tried to give an answer to the lady, she very innocently asked me what else other than being poor, neglected and blind did she have to be to get her share of rations. I wish I could answer that!
This was not an isolated example. A few months later, I had a similar experience in a poor neighbourhood in Gulbarga city. Another elderly lady aged around 70 years came to present her complaint to me. She was again a widow with a mentally retarded son who was around 30 years of age. Having lost her husband 10 years ago, she was left with no social or economic support. All that she had was the sympathy and support of her friendly but equally poor neighbours. She came upto me with them asking for a BPL card. It was evident that her poor friends were more socially conscious than our State and its huge machinery. I was painfully aware that she deserved an Antyodaya card and not just a BPL card. The system had completely ignored her because she was not loud enough or rich enough to bribe the concerned officials into giving her a card that she rightfully deserved.
Comparing these two incidents with another that I had in Hassan left me feeling angry and helpless. Angry that the system was so very irresponsive and irresponsible and helpless that I could do nothing to help them. In Hassan, I met a ration shop owner who had a 15-acre estate nearby and a huge palatial house but still carried a BPL card. My own investigation has revealed that the entire process of identifying the poor in the State is flawed and irrational. We not only have a huge number of rich people carrying BPL cards, but also some very genuine poor who do not have a card or have an APL card. Who in the system should be held accountable for this state of affairs? Is it the politicians who think of eliminating poverty as mere schemes to be announced as electoral promises or the bureaucracy which is caught up in the rules and regulations that they devise or the society itself which has forgotten that as citizens we not only deserve good governance but are also entitled to it?
It seems so paradoxical that the whole country is now obsessed with the scams that break at each day. It is as though one must siphon away millions of rupees to be noticed. The unseen and unheard impact of corruption on the millions of the deserving poor does not seem to affect the collective conscience of civil society or the administrators and may not be important enough for the media to provide any space. What we fail to notice is that these micro events are what truly impact poverty and we may be losing out on an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate that we care.
I was in Muguthanamoole on the 5th of this month along with Poshini and Devaraj, my colleagues at SVYM. Poshini and her team are passionate about empowering the community and getting them to understand the concept and practice of ‘Entitlements’. For the last few years, we have been trying to get people to use the Right To Information Act to secure what is rightfully theirs. We are also working with ‘communities’ in getting them to make their local Fair Price Shops (part of the Public Distribution System) become more responsive and deliver on their mandate. Food security in rural areas for people living below the poverty line depends mostly on PDS, but it is common knowledge that the entire PDS system reeks of corruption. Many Antyodaya cardholders entitled to 29 kg of food grains end up getting only 15-18 kg and that too at the whims and fancy of the FP shop keeper. Most of these shopkeepers are well-connected local politicians and get away with bullying and bulldozing any local opposition.
This meeting was after many months of quiet persuasion and capacity building done by Devaraj amongst the many CBOs in the village. Attending these meetings were a way of recharging myself and directly experiencing the joys of community mobilization.
As part of the meeting, the local Gram Panchayath President, Mr Siddaraju was also invited. One of our main focus was to activate existing systems and make them respond to community demands. The Panchayath President was sensitized on what was expected from him and the Gram Panchayath vis-à-vis the problems of PDS and Food Security faced by people living within the jurisdiction of his Panchayath. Over the last many weeks, Devaraj had quietly explained the PDS system, the entitlements of the BPL and Antyodaya card holders and had specifically asked them to demand constitution of the Vigilance Committees as mandated by the scheme.
People at the meeting were enthusiastic and hungry for information. They felt outraged on learning that they were being given only around 50% of their legitimate due. What angered them was the indifferent and arrogant attitude of the PDS shopkeeper. They asked the Panchayath president to discuss their plight in the next Panchayath meeting and pass a resolution to set right affairs. They also wanted the Vigilance Committees to be formed as early as possible.
Watching the energy and the process left me feeling happy that communities could be aroused to understand the concept of entitlements and demand what is rightfully theirs. But I was also worried – about how the system would respond to these emerging demands, and whether political opposition and the interests of the rich and mighty would stifle out this organically evolving community power. My fears were misplaced. A few days ago, some representatives of the community came visiting to Saragur and were visibly happy. They were feeling exuberant that they local shopkeeper had come around and apologized for denying the people their due. He promised to make amends and had started supplying them the full quota. This was the first time that their voice was being heard and it was indeed a heady feeling. Democracy can be quite intoxicating and I was left feeling confident that we could indeed fight the scourge of corruption not by legislation nor by moral pressures but by an awakened community which refuses to settle for anything less that what is their legitimate due.