Mahatma Gandhi — the Father of the Nation — often said that true independence could be enjoyed only when communities are strengthened and poverty eradicated.
I share here the success story of Chetna, who grew up in a middle class family in Mumbai, came to a drought-stricken region of western Maharashtra to marry a farmer and prominent local social activist. She put her university degree in finance into action. Local women, she observed, were wearing themselves out in subsistence livelihood such as growing grapes or selling vegetables. In 1992, she began organising them into self-help and savings groups that helped them share technical knowledge, lower their costs through bulk buying and manage their money better.
But Chetna quickly realised that the women also needed business loans. However, conventional banks wouldn’t lend to them because of their low income. So in 1994, she applied for a licence to run a bank on behalf of 500 rural women. The Reserve Bank of India rejected the application because, except for Chetna, all the women identified themselves with a thumbprint and, according to RBI, directors of a bank had to know how to read and write. Undaunted, Chetna, who was in her 40s, set up literacy classes that eventually went beyond simple word recognition. The women were also taught how to calculate interest on principal. She recalls, “we gave the proposal to RBI again three years later and received the licence. That is how The Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank was started with 500 women and around ₹5,00,000 in their credit pool.” It took three years for the bank to become fully sustainable. Today, it has more than 1.4 lakh clients and deposits of over ₹3.78 crores.
If rural women with no formal education are to break the cycle of poverty, they need more than a few small loans. Chetna says the bank is scrupulous about accountability, with internal audits every quarter, annual audit by the cooperative department and an inspection by the central bank every four years. Chetna’s story is very inspiring. There are many Chetnas among us. All they need is encouragement and support from people and organisations like ours.
Rotary focuses on service to the community through voluntary action. The main characteristic of Rotary is human touch. Dedication of the Rotarians, their relationship with the community, flexibility in the programmes they lead and innovative approaches to problem-solving will result in greater success.
Be the Inspiration. Inspire each other and together let’s change the world.
Director, Rotary International