Madhuri Singh,43,is known to the women not only in Shankarpur village in Varanasi,but also in more than a dozen others. Her claim to fame is garib banks,which she has created without any outside support. These banks are self-help groups (SHGs) which have instilled confidence in Dalit women by giving them economic freedom.
Dalit women (there are more than 400 now) are now saving Rs 100 to Rs 200 a month. The money collected is kept in the accounts opened in regional banks in their names. Members are given what can be called passbooks to keep a record of their dealings. Money is given to a person only after it is approved in the meeting. A watch is kept on repayment and those who default without adequate reason are made to pay a nominal penalty. Women can use these savings to get loans for self-employment,such as selling eggs or opening a small shop. The increasing network and the savings over a period of time have reached a point where Dalits are even taking agricultural land on patta (lease) from land owners. Sarita,a teacher at a Dalit school in Shankarpur,narrates how members from different villages came together to get a piece of land.
Sometimes,even upper-caste outsiders come to them. Lalan Mishra of Seevo village urgently needed Rs 15,000. He was in such a dire need that he also accepted a higher interest rate,as he was not a member of the group, Madhuri says.
Usually,SHGs involve an organisation or the government. But she has refused any such support,and the financial discipline in her system is something that is worth emulating, says Rupak Verma,who was a manager at Union Bank of India in Varanasi. Recruits from leading banks in the area are often sent to her to learn banking with the poor.
Madhuri started it all nearly 14 years ago,as a health worker. Her family was edgy about a woman from a high caste working with Dalits. My mother-in-law would advise me to carry my own plate during training sessions,but I refused, she recalls with a chuckle. Madhuri once took her mother-in-law to the training venue. Her husband,Dhirendra Pratap Singh,works with a cooperative society,but chips in with whatever support he can extend.