By Tejan Balakrishnan and Dinesh Agarwal, Rang De Kolkata Chapter
Dinesh (on the right), Rang De Kolkata Chpater Members with SVSS office bearers. Many thanks to SVSS, Rang De’s field partner in West Bengal for making this trip possible.
It just came to be that two members of the recently formed Kolkata Chapter of Rang De found themselves boarding a train at Sealdah headed for Laxmikantapur on a January Sunday morning to Sripur in South 24 Paraganas in West Bengal. The purpose of this trip was to meet the first of Rang De’s borrowers in West Bengal in order to get a first hand understanding of the entire process.
We were warmly greeted by the Swami Vivekananda Welfare Society, Sripur (SVWSS) team and had a detailed discussion about their operations and challenges they found themselves up against. SVWSS has been working in micro finance for several years now and has disbursed over Rs.1.4 crore to more than 3300 borrowers. Their partnership with Rang De began in late 2009. They have recently organized a loan for 15 women in Nalua village for various activities. It was surprising and informative to hear how competitive the micro finance landscape currently is and how important it is to minimise the loan disbursal cycle time to allow borrowers to make the most of their loans.
A borrower is waiting for a loan from Rang De to give cheaper feed to her chickens. Rang De has yet to approve of the loan request.
A visit to Gayenpada in Nalua followed. A group of villagers in Nalua had been given the first Rang De loan in the region. It was amazing to see the speed at which the villagers organised themselves and gathered for the discussion. At the very outset, they emphasised that the loan had made a huge impact to their daily lives. They explained how they have been able to use the loan to explore new business opportunities (I.e. Flower decoration, embroidery and sari handiwork) and showed us samples of their work. Some people the group have used the loan to expand their existing businesses (I.e. trading in the harvest and fish).
Like elsewhere in India, it appeared that the loans are being used in the hope that the borrowers can cut out the middlemen, take control of the supply process and maximise their profit. In the absence of low interest loans, there is a strong feeling of helplessness and a feeling of exploitation by the various local moneylenders and middlemen.
We were deeply touched by their tremendous confidence and willingness to succeed. They literally said ‘All we ask is for you to keep helping us and we will show you what we can achieve’. We were also heartened by the fact that all the villagers seemed to understand the value of sending their children to school.
A group of borrowers display their products. This group of borrowers have greatly benefitted from the loan they received through Rang De.
We could see the happiness in the face of each of the group members, a happiness which was contagious and made us feel good about being part of a micro-credit system like this. The Rang De model in particular simplifies the process in the most practical way. The enthusiasm of these women and the interest that the whole model has generated is exemplary. We saw other women who were interested in participating in the whole process.
It was well past lunchtime by the time we bid goodbye to this village and were planning to start our long trip back to Calcutta when we were informed that another village nearby was waiting to meet us.
This village has a prospective borrower group who is eagerly waiting for news of their loan. They mentioned that the timing of the loan is very important in order to be able to buy their goods at the cheapest price. They plan to use the loan for poultry trading, harvest trading and sari handiwork and showed us samples of their work.
The satisfaction and happiness of the first group was clearly lacking in the second group. The difference between the haves and have-nots was written large around us. The delay in meeting expectations appeared to be causing more frustration and desperation on their part and we could only wish that dreams like Rang De can someday solve this almost unsolvable problem.
On the long train journey back to Calcutta, it was a time for silent introspection. It was deeply touching to see how this small slice of rural India is fighting on despite the odds. It had been equally sad to hear of the economic exploitation that they face at the hands of the middlemen and local moneylenders. Even small amounts of money (Rs. 3000–4000) can go a big way in helping them take better control of their destinies and we have seen that Rang De’s low interest loans do make a difference to borrowers. However, everyone echoed the common feeling that like the rest of us, they need a firmer and quicker response to their loan request.
That credit was so difficult to come by to the actual needy was a revelation. With millions of rupees going down the subsidy lane, it beats us as to where is it all going. Are we not able to reach out to the last link in the chain which does not have the right approach and knowledge to cull out money from the financial systems of the country? Is it that all the budgeting and huge finances which are provided in the name of rural and poor population meant only for the middlemen and the not so poor class? Is it here that the answer to the dilemma ‘rich becoming richer and poor becoming poorer’ lies? Is it that the abundance of the rich is made of the labor of the poor?
If the answer to all the questions above are a big Yes, then what we observed in Sripur is a reflective picture of what is happening all over the country. Suddenly it seems, if such was the enthusiasm and possibility of growth and prosperity, let us get money in tons and distribute it to all such people who are not able to improve their lives due to lack of small finances. Have we found the answer to one of the most difficult challenge of our country? Can millions of such Rang De partners spread in each of the villages and slum areas of the country and bring about the much needed revolution? Is it just a matter of providing the right credit to the right people at the right time for the right purpose? If the answers to the above are all yes, then let us plunge into it and find a million more Sripur’s.
Dinesh and Tejan have also prepared a report. The report can be viewed here.