Sunday, September 30, 2012

India # 10 The Saree Circle


Dear Blog Buddies, I promised this post last week and wrote it on time but publishing it without pictures seemed a shame.  But the upload glitch is still glitching.  Maybe this week I'll have a breakthrough and can populate past blogs with images.   

Today I step into an event that has been repeated millions of times since the l970’s: the monthly meeting of women who run tiny businesses, thanks to microloans they have mutually pledge to repay.

In the early morning we cross the Ganges, now at floodtide, from Patna in the state of Bihar on a bridge nearly five miles long, which is itself momentous, and then walk a kilometer through banana groves to a tiny grocery store behind which ten women are seated in a semi-circle.  Other guests and I are introduced, join the circle and business begins.

Each member has brought her monthly loan payment to the treasurer who counts it, enters the tally in a record book and presents it to the Saija loan officer.  Each explains to the visitors how they use their loan: one for a cow, one for a bicycle rickshaw to haul bananas to market, one to rent tents, chairs and tables for weddings, and so on.

They have been together for three years and obviously enjoy this time, laughing easily.   There is a glow about them; they are beautiful people and anything but impoverished.  It feels at once natural and a great privilege to be with them.

The loan officer has some news to deliver and over time has offered training and advice, but simply coming together with ritual consistency has proved to be a reinforcement which has enabled group-lending to those begin with nothing to be successful over four decades.

ACCION discovered microfinance in Brazil in 1973 and Muhammed Yunnis invented it in Bangladesh when Grameen Bank was created in l976.  Ninety-four percent of Grameen’s seven million loans in Bangldesh are to women and all are in “solidarity groups” like this one.  ACCION still promotes the model but its partners have a much larger proportion of individual loans.   The government of India mandates the Grameen model for all of the country’s 10,000 MFI’s.   Men’s groups are typically composed of five.

Women have powered microfinance and insured repayment rates in the high 90’s from Day One.  The money goes for school tuition and uniforms, food and medicine.  That’s far less certain certain with the guys.

I try to sink into the moment, take it all in, look around as deeply as I can.  That I had some small role in all this over 50 years ago seems an utter miracle, an act of God, but that thought only comes later.  Right now I am surrounded by bananas and a circle of women whose remembered faces will give me pleasure for years. 


We must be on our way because at the district office new groups of ten women are being created at a rate of one every half hour.  Saija has raised 180 million rupees for new loans and is determined to disperse all of them in July, August and September.  The staff of 10 of this district has already approved 900 loans for the month and it’s time to turn over the money.  As we approach, twenty women are leaving, others are climbing the stairs and even more are filling up every available chair in the office.

The routine is for a Saija official to take each group through a series of questions and answers to sure they understand the obligation they are undertakin, often with a family member also pledged.  They get it, that’s pretty clear.  Then each signs in four places and finally there is a little ceremony where they receive 10,000 rupees, or about $200, clasped in a paper band.  I’m been asked to do the honors for one group, which I do awkwardly with a little Namaste bow, the only gesture I know.  We are all quite serious and proper and hustle along.  Children are squirming and the menfolk are waiting on the stairs.   





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