Fostering the will for a better way

by Setsuko Kamiya

MYSORE — On the outskirts of historic Mysore — city seat of maharajas until Indian independence in 1947 — is a settlement called Kuduremala. A community of just 800 people, its name is testament to the former rulers of Mysore — which occupies about a third of present-day Karnataka State — who took their horses (kudure) there to drink from its open water tanks (mala)

Things are very different today: Kuduremala is the slum home of people from the bottom of India’s caste system.

That, though, hasn’t stopped one enterprising resident, 36-year-old Pappamma, who three months ago opened a store there. From 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., her little shop sells candies, snacks and groceries, as well as items such as bindis, the colored dots many Indian women put on their foreheads.

Pappamma’s small, wooden emporium is the first to be opened in this slum. “I wanted to do business here because everyone has a hard time going shopping in the city, which is pretty far away,” Pappamma said.

But facilitating access to everyday groceries is not the only blessing Pappamma has brought to the people of Kuduremala. Perhaps just as importantly — or more so — her shop is a successful example of a business established with money from a fund run by a women’s group in the community. Comprising money invested by group members themselves, the fund is monitored by them and lent to people in the community at an interest rate of just 2 percent. Then, as loans and interest payments all return to the fund, others in the community can apply to borrow, too.

Moneylender misery

“Before the self-help group, moneylenders were coming from outside and charging 10 percent interest a month,” said Karuppamma, the oldest woman in the slum, who said she was in her 60s. Such sharks, previously the only sources of loans, simply made people’s lives even harder. “But now, since we formed the group a few years ago, we have been able to send our kids to school,” Karuppamma said.

To start her business, Pappamma borrowed 8,000 rupees (around $160) from the fund, and as she is now making 900 rupees a month, she aims to have it all paid back within a year.

For her, and others like her, the fund is truly life-changing. Before she opened her shop, Pappamma made 60 rupees (about $1.20) a day through collecting rags for recycling. And though she says her income is now down by half, she looks forward eagerly to this changing when she has paid off her loan. “I can’t save now, but I will when I finish repayment,” she said.

To a great extent, the empowerment of Pappamma and others like her in the Kuduremala slum is being realized through guidance from the Rural Literacy & Health Programme, an Indian nongovernmental organization working with residents and child laborers in Mysore’s 18 slum districts.

According to workers on the program, the people of Kuduremala, being from the lowest caste, previously had to get by through scavenging, collecting rags or cleaning toilets — while their children, who did not go to school, helped their parents. Just a few decades ago the community lacked even basic sanitation, and infant mortality was very high. (People believed illness was caused by evil spirits and so rarely sought proper medical treatment.)

When the NGO began working there in the late 1980s, it first focused on introducing an informal education program to get the children off the streets. Its members also provided leadership training and education for women, and ran awareness programs on issues such as health, hygiene and human rights. Through such efforts, RLHP workers said, the slum-dwellers came to realize the importance of organizing themselves.

“At first, the people were scared of meeting members of other castes,” said Philomena Joy, director of RLHP. “But through education and the activities of the self-supporting group, they started to obtain new skills, and they’ve become more confident.”

At one point, men in the community were offended that women were being educated. But an RLHP member said that they were soon convinced that if the women got better jobs, family income would increase. Now, Pappamma’s 42-year-old construction worker husband is happy about his wife’s business.

Over the last decade, benefits have spread to the community at large. Where once everyone used to live in huts, for example, financial support from SELAVIP, an NGO based in Japan, and the state’s social welfare department, has enabled them to construct small homes for the 118 households — homes the people built themselves in order to minimize costs.

Joint initiatives

Meanwhile, RLHP has also cooperated with the Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation, which, with funding from the Asian Development Bank, in 1996 began projects such as sanitation improvement, road construction and poverty alleviation in Mysore and five other cities in the state. The NGO helped KUIDFC to reach the slum-dwellers to implement road and drainage upgrades, and to build a community hall and install toilets in homes. KUIDFC said they are also, with help from RLHP, providing adult classes and staging street plays highlighting social issues such as alcoholism.

“It’s about motivation, to get the people to understand they can do something for themselves,” said Aneetha Amanna, a KUIDFC social development officer who is working with RLHP. “Once they are motivated, then changes follow.”

The cooperative approach between various agencies and India’s poor takes many forms, but the transformed aspirations it fosters could hardly be better expressed than by 24-year-old Papathi, the leader of the self-help group and a mother of two children. “I want my children to receive a university education in Bombay and become doctors and engineers like the rich people do,” she said. “I have the will, and I know that my children will follow my wish.”