She takes pride in helping change lives with micro-finance, sniffing out the fraud cases, and being called a “madam”
Shampa Adhikary is “madam” on the cycle. Every day at 7.30 am, wearing a plain salwar kameez and carrying a small bag, she sets off on her bicycle, riding through a 5-km radius in the Gopalpur municipal area of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district. She stops by a dozen-odd homes to verify whether the families are eligible for a loan or to collect money from them if they have already borrowed a loan.
Adhikary, 28, is a credit officer with Bandhan Financial Services, a little-known microfinance firm which early this month trumped several big names to win a banking licence from the Reserve Bank of India. Started in 2002 in Bagnan town of Howrah district, Bandhan was conceived by Chandra Shekhar Ghosh to provide microcredit to farmers and small artisans, but predominantly women.
The company’s credit officers have a background similar to those of its borrowers. Adhikary, for example, belongs to a family of farm labourers. A graduate, Adhikary would teach children at homes in Shyamnagar, where she stayed with her parents. One of the families informed her about an opening for a credit officer at Bandhan three years ago. Since then, Adhikary has been working for the firm at a monthly salary of Rs 8,300.
Her typical day involves long chats with loan applicants over cups of tea. The informal conversation, though, has a serious purpose — to verify whether an applicant is eligible for a loan. Adhikary today has a list of 10 such applicants. The first on the list in one Jahanara Bibi. Adhikary parks her cycle next to the home, and knocks on the door. A tall, sari-clad woman opens it, and Adhikary introduces herself. She converses with Jahanara Bibi for close to half an hour, and in between asking casual questions such as what she’s cooked today and chatting with her two children, Adhikary extracts the information she needs — her husband’s occupation and income, the family size, the number of earning and ailing members, if any, and the prospects of trading in timber for which the family has sought loan. She jots down the details in her diary, which she would later submit at her office. She only asks for the information; she doesn’t decide on the eligibility herself.
Besides meeting loan applicants, Adhikary also visits the homes of borrowers to collect the money they have to repay. These are borrowers who couldn’t take part in the normal process of loan repayment. In that process, the borrowers assemble at the home of one borrower, and repay their respective amounts in the presence of a cashier and an accountant of Bandhan. Razia Bibi is a borrower who could not attend the meeting. So, Adhikary knocks at her door, and over a glass of water, asks her why she couldn’t turn up at the meeting, and takes the money. She quickly puts the bundle of cash in her bag.
Everyone addresses Adhikary as “madam”. “It feels good,” she says, not just for the respect, but also because she, has over the years, learnt to sniff out fraud cases. “When I joined, people seemed to know more about Bandhan than I did. But now, I can identify genuine cases from the fake ones,” she says, adding that the recovery rate has been over 99 per cent.
The officer, who is part of a 30-member team, also takes pride in her work. “I have seen how microfinance changes the way people live. For instance, someone who could hardly make two ends meet would buy a cycle rickshaw and then over a year, would have more than two rickshaws. It is wonderful to touch so many lives,” she says.
It’s now 12.30 pm and she’s back in office — which occupies three floors of a residential building — to update account books and make the list of applicants/borrowers to meet the next day. She is done by 5 pm and retires to her room, given by the company.
Adhikary spends the weekend with her husband, a farm labourer, in Murshidabad, which is 240 km away. She got married less than a year ago, and even though she has to travel five hours every Saturday to be with her husband and back, she hasn’t lost the energy to continue with her job. Now that her firm is becoming a bank, she’s even more pepped up. “Earlier, people were sceptical about my work. But now, they ask me for a job in my company,” she says.