The all-round distress brought about by the Covid pandemic notwithstanding, if one were to go by the Indian equity markets, our economy is booming, the equity indices have touched an all-time high and mutual funds are registering great returns. But the sobering factor is that this razzle-dazzle on Dalal Street is confined only to a minuscule percentage of Indians. You have to read our December cover story, which features the famed flower sellers of Chennai, to realise the kind of economic distress that the small and unorganised sectors, so valuable to our economy that kick on the streets of India, are facing. But underlying the economic woes that the women, who string together the fragrant jasmine and other flowers, are facing, is their grit and determination to put their shoulder to the wheel, and carry on. These feisty women need our salute of course, but also our help and patronage.
Through my four decades in journalism, and wide travel throughout the country, particularly to our smaller cities and villages, I have personally witnessed the stranglehold that moneylenders have on our vulnerable sections… the small vegetable and fruit vendors, flower sellers, domestic help and others who need to borrow money for emergencies. While medical emergencies are understandable, regrettably, in our social ethos, even the poor have to spend much more than what they have earned or saved, for weddings. And of course, those with daughters have their burden multiplied severalfold, with the dowry evil sucking the last paisa from them, and putting them at the mercy of moneylenders. With no bank willing to touch the poor, who have no collateral to offer for a loan, they are at the mercy of the village moneylender, and the interest rates are so exorbitant, that they send your head reeling. The most common is 10 per cent a month; or a mind-numbing 120 per cent a year!
This is where one of the focus areas of Rotary — enhancing livelihoods — comes into the picture. We all know that several Rotary clubs in India and overseas have embraced the microfinance model and through club and district projects are disbursing loans to women’s self-help groups. Having studied the Grameen model from the grassroots level in Dhaka and the surrounding villages way back in 1998 and later in 2006 when Prof Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, I have seen at close hand how group dynamics work. If one member of the group faces a problem and is about to default on a payment, the other members visit her home, counsel her, try to help as much as possible, and ensure that she keeps up with the repayment of her instalments. Because in microfinance, only if you complete payment for one loan, do you become eligible for the next and bigger loan.
Rotarians across India have emerged as knights in shining armour when it came to providing relief to migrant workers, daily wage labourers, the homeless, as also safety and medical equipment to health workers and hospitals. But relief has to be followed up with rehabilitation. In the immediate post-Covid world, India’s economically crippled people, such as Chennai’s flower sellers, are going to need a massive infusion of economic rehabilitation. Will India’s Rotary clubs rise to the challenge and do whatever they can? I know they will!