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When education adds up

Aquiet revolution is sweeping across the arid plains of Satara district, spreading from the town of Mhaswad, stirring hope in the hearts of illiterate women across Maharashtra. Even President Barack Obama noticed Chetna Sinha's innovative approach to bringing financial literacy to remote, rural communities. 

Testament to the success of a system that seeks to empower the poorest and the most vulnerable members of society is Kanta Bai Salunke. As we approach her, she bolts for her ragged tent, sending knives, spades and tools clattering to the ground as she dives for cover. She picks up a faded velvet pouch, rummaging through it, muttering loudly to herself. 

Then Salunke pulls out a flat, round tin with a triumphant flourish and a smile that stretches wide across her broken teeth. "I cannot come out to greet you naked, can I?" she says, unscrews the lid and smearing red powder across her forehead. "Now I am dressed. Now you know I am a gheesardi tribal nomad. " 

Salunke is still haunted by the humiliation she suffered at the hands of local loan sharks. "I used to feel very frustrated... The rates were so high... You always feel obliged, in debt, trapped..." 

Because of an innovative banking system that allows access to low-interest loans, she can concentrate on making tools and turning a profit. 

Chetna Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi bank says, "When we first considered giving a nomadic tribal a loan we thought "doob gaya toh doob gaya (if she deafults she defaults), we have to take some risks. We looked at how hard she works rather than what ID papers she has. " 

"She is not formally a citizen of this country - she has no ID - so we got her a ration card by establishing through witness accounts that she is a long-term resident. " 

For Salunke, a bank account was not on her reality radar. "I went to the money-lender because banks don't let in women who look like me, " she said, tugging at her ash-smeared saree. "( Also) Bank wants ID, (for that) I have to produce birth certificate - I was born on the street in front of everyone and I gave birth to 11 children in front of everyone, and they want proof of my birth. " 

"They say I don't exist unless I have papers, if I could make them feel the hunger in my children's belly they would know we exist. You cannot ignore hunger. " 

Around the corner from Salunke's tent, Bainabai Sagar is busy ladling out thick, sweet tea from a gigantic, dented kettle mounted on a kerosene stove at her stall in Mhaswad's bustling market place. 

She plucks ten rupee notes from eager hands as they reach out for the tea, inserting the money into a metal box. Sagar steps back for a moment to take stock of the situation, wiping her forehead with the pallu of her saree, settling both hands on her hips. It's been a busy day, with the line of customers waiting for tea still winding round a few stalls, and she has already worked her way through the stock of ginger shavings. 

Sagar has come a long way from the shy, nineyear-old bride condemned to an endless cycle of cleaning and cooking under an unappreciative mother-in-law and an alcoholic husband, both of whom beat her up regularly. 

When she was thrown out of the house, she went to work in the fields, bent double all day for Rs 30 a day. Then she saw a flier for Mann Deshi bank's selfhelp groups for women. There she heard new ideas, found a support structure and floated an idea for a tea stall that everyone encouraged her to pursue. 

"At first I thought, how can I do this? How could I charge for the same tea I am supposed to offer as hospitality ? How pathetic, people would say. But then I brainwashed myself to be brave, at least I am not begging. My children were eating only one meal of dry roti a day. I had to do something. So I took my first loan, and I started. The financial literacy class helped. I learned that tea I offer at home is different from tea at my stall - at my stall it is a product. " 

Sagar is one of 16, 000 women who have been trained at the Mann Deshi business school for illiterate women, the first and only one of its kind in India. And 140, 000 women hold savings accounts with Mann Deshi Bank. 

"If you want a loan you have to take the financial literacy classes, (which) helped me grow my business. I took another loan, bought ingredients for vada pao, (and) trebled my earnings by offering the snack to customers who were already coming for tea, " she says as a man arrives holding what looks like a bus ticket dispenser. 

Sagar opens the metal box, carefully counts out Rs 500 and hands it to the collector. He taps at his keyboard and the device spews out a reciept that he hands to Sagar. In a few moments he is gone and she is back to the business of turning tea into cash. 

"Our door-to-door collection agents show up at the womens' work places, collecting cash the women can spare on a day-to-day basis, " Sinha explains. 

Sinha knew these women were informally saving funds by slipping notes into pillows, tucking cash under mattresses, or hiding it in the folds of their sarees - but those savings are almost always discovered by one family member or another and spent. 
"So when we opened the bank, we thought women would be queuing up to open savings accounts, but no one came. Later, the women said their only hope for saving was if someone could take cash from them daily before they got home. " Sagar is one of those women. 

"My family has savings now. My son used to be embarrassed by his mother's tea stall, but he became curious when I made enough to buy us a scooter, " she laughs. "Now he works with me. " 

Article: Fatima Najm

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