In a typical Indian slum, you would easily come across women who are physically disabled, uneducated, and poverty stricken; though witnessing them making quick money transactions in their self-operated “slum bank” would be a rare sight.
Four and a half years ago a group of 14 women, including 5 blind ladies, initiated the Adishakti Mahila Group in Bangalore—a self-operated, micro-financing group that aims to provide easily accessible loans to slum families at low rates.
Counting money, worth of hundreds or thousands of Indian rupees, is one of the several other house-hold chores that these women have been religiously doing since the last few years.
The slum-bank’s typical meeting goes on like this: Padmavati, 26-year-old mother of two, sits on a plastic chair in the corner of her one-room home that also serves as the bank; the room also provides a sneak peek of her bright-blue painted kitchen, which is staked with varied kinds of plastic bottles, carrying Indian spices and pulses. Outside towards the left on the floor sits two middle aged blind women, Mahalaxmi and Sarojini. Few other visually impaired women count money.
Arti, 32, blind by birth, is seen holding a few 1,000 rupee notes with her mouth while counting others with her hands and Manjula is caught perfectly striking at a mosquito on another woman’s shoulder. The promoter of the group, Saroja, is busy making inquiries, “Arti, how much is the interest on Manjula’s loan?” And Arti like a fast computer machine, calculates the exact count of how much and who has to pay, and at what interest!
Every month, amidst the noisy hue and cry of the street outside, everyone manages to come here right back from work for their second-shift job—to operate their self-help group by collecting money and repaying loans. Since the group started, they have collected and saved a small amount of money every month in micro-financing scheme, given loans to each other, discussed problems, and sought solutions.
“I took a loan of 50,000 rupees ($816.2) from the group to take a small house on lease,” said Padmavati, who got married at 17. In India the legal age of marriage is 18 years, however, child-marriage or marriage below the legal age bar is not a new concept in the world’s second most populated nation.
The slum thrives on the nearby industries that barely pay the workers a few thousand rupees as wages per month. Low incomes, and lack of access to social security and options of financial assistance make the slum-bank the best option for most of them when in need.
Saving money in the self-help-group has helped them in various ways. “We get loans on just 2 percent interest and the loan is instantly made available in cash,” Sarojini loudly explained.
Many women in the group work in garment factories nearby. “I work as a head tailor in the textile factor, earning 6,500 rupees, while Manjula earns 5,000 rupees,” said Bharti, while trying to explain how workers are paid according to their level of skill. Recently, Bharti got an immediate life-saving loan from the group when she was suffering from blood-infection. Her husband came to the group while she was in hospital and asked for a loan of 20,000 rupees ($326).
There are other women in the group who don’t have regular jobs and thus saving money in the group becomes all the more important. Mahalaxmi makes a living by weaving chairs; her employer calls her only when there’s work and she merely earns rupees 4,000 a month.
While eight of the 14 women have accounts in banks, they have little money. “We can put money in the bank only when we have it in excess sometimes,” said Lakshamma, 50, who works as a sweeper in marriage halls and earns 350 rupees for every day of work she during gets during marriage season.
Women in the group every month save a minimum of 300 rupees ($4.8). “We don’t have extra money to save. We can save only little from whatever money we have for our day to day expenses,” said Arti, when all of a sudden the electric power went off. The women fumbled with the dim burning Chinese lights. Someone lit an empty medicine bottle converted into a kerosene lamp. While the counted money was carefully placed on the bed in stacks of 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 20 rupee notes.
“4,200 rupees is saved this month. Everyone till today has an individual saving of 12,200 rupees. The total loan repayment this month is rupee 48,500 ($791),” said Saroja, who works for a local NGO, and supports the women in maintaining individual cash-books and keeping overall accounts.
The sudden power back up relieved the women and Padmavati thanked god, while looking up at the tube-light with folded hands.