What a Rupee Saved Can Earn

Kalpana’s talk at the AID conference held in Chennai in 1999.

KALAPANA KARUNAKARAN studied History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She coordinates the Center for Ecology and Rural Development (CERD) 50-block women’s development programme in TN, and is the district coordiantor for Mahalir Association for Literacy, Awareness, & Rights.

THIS IS A NETWORK OF CREDIT cooperatives organized by TNSF. In June 1995, the Arivoli literacy program had come to a close, particularly in Kanyakumari because of the abrupt manner in which the program was withdrawn by the district collector. The Arivoli was used by the science forum as an opportunity to create a base for the movement. So when the program was called off, the problem for the science forum was, how to sustain our links with the village women. The women asked us, when you said that we would read together and work together, to learn to read and write and open a new world, did you mean that when the government calls it off, you would also leave?

So our problem was how to sustain this without dependence on government programs, funding, whims or caprices of any other funding organization?. So that we could say with pride and security, that we have built a strong organization, in this case a women?s organisation, which is self reliant.
So here is the self-help group concept which we have been developing in Kanyakumari: 20 women meet once a week, save Rs. 5/week, deposit savings in the nearest branch of any nationalized bank, and every month withdraw an amount to lend among themselves, for any kind of pressing purpose consumption, economic, medical, anything.

What is the economic logic of this kind of program? Why does it appeal to women?

It is the opportunity to save, and save safely. We are often asked, how women can manage to save when even daily sustenance is a problem. We have learned that women have always saved, whether in the knot of the sari, or some corner of the household. Even if the woman is not earning outside, she can economize on whatever her husband provides for running the house.

What MALAR provides is the opportunity for saving safely, and earning 12% at the end of the 5 years. This is the promise Malar makes with the women. Here the women know their savings are safe whereas in the past many have saved with money lenders, chitty fund operators, or religious leaders, and have often been swindled. So the need to save is very great.

When these 20 women open a group, the account is managed by three people, a joint account. We call them president, secretary and treasurer no other reason, other than we need three names. These three women are members of the savings group so all he women know the only way their money will be lost is if these three all leave the village? this will never happen.

The fact that they can access loans when they need to is very important. Women have always been at a disadvantage to men when it comes to accessing credit at low interest. Outside from money lenders interest rates are 60-120% year. To get anything lower than that the family will have to pledge its jewellery or even its ration card.

Our interest rate is Rs 2/ month. Some of you may thing 24%/year is high, but I gave you a sense of the prevalent local interest rate. Every month the women decide to whom to give the loan. The loan can be accessed at any time the 20 decide to meet. No questions about why it is needed, it can be for consumption, wedding, school fees, anything. In the beginning we noticed that most of the loans were for immediate consumption expenses. But after 3 years we have noticed a shift towards borrowing for investment, e.g. to open a business.

In the past people have pledged ration cards. We emphasized that wherever families have pledged cards, these people should get the first loans in order to redeem the ration cards.
In a moment of crisis, the fact that the woman is able to bring home the money that is urgently needed does a lot for her own sense of self worth, self confidence, and her status in her family (and eventually the larger community).

In a moment of crisis, the fact that the woman is able to bring home the money that is urgently needed does a lot for her own sense of self worth, self confidence, and her status in her family (and eventually the larger community).

We emphasized that this idea will not work unless the women hold weekly meetings. It can be under a tree, in a home or school, in a temple or church, anywhere that 20 women can meet without being bothered.

It is the space that this weekly meeting provides for women of the neighborhood to gather together, to talk, sing, discuss their problems, to laugh, etc, that the women value the most.

We are often asked, how can women who are overworked already really be expected to attend a weekly meeting. Women wonder how they will be able to take the time off. But this is how we sell the idea. We start by acknowledging that all women are overworked everywhere, and that they work even harder than their husbands. We tell them, you work so much, how much do you get paid?. So they laugh, they say, we don’t get any salary, to whom do we go for salary?. So we say when you are able to work so hard for others without any expectation, can’t you take an hour a week for yourself. At the end of all this hard work have you been able to save anything? There is usually very good response to this.

In fact they come to see this hour per week as a relief from the monotony of their lives. They tell us that this has helped them form friendships with their neighbours?. This one hour we get to forget our homes, husbands, etc is very valuable to us, they have told us.

We have used this time for post-literacy activities, for example to keep people in the practice of reading so that they do not forget. Many don’t get the newspaper. So during the weekly meeting we circulate small booklets, short stories, some coming from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS). This is also a chance for them to hear about world events.

Also the unity that develops from this group also spills outside. Women have actually mobilized to attack arrack shops. Ours were not as big as the ones in Nellore. In once case women intervened for a woman whose husband was beating her. The other women went to him and told him that if he ever beat her again they would drag him out and beat him in public. The woman also said that he is now afraid to beat her in the manner in which he did before because he realises that she has a sangam behind her, though she may not have the police to protect her. She may not have access to some women’s organisation with an office in Nagercoil, but she has 20 women.

Our loans are also going for economic activity. This program which I very briefly outlined for you, Franco will tell you about the organisational structure. I told you with pride that our program was self-reliant. About how we managed to generate resources for this program and meet our expenses, Franco will tell you.

8000 women have been mobilized in Kanyakumari district. The good news is that it is growing, being replicated by science forum units in other districts as well. We hope it will one day be a strong self reliant women’s movement across Tamil Nadu.


I travelled over more than half of India?. I certainly benefited from this, but all the time I was asking myself uneasily: ?Can the coming of non-violence really be hastened by my travelling about like this?.
Is it possible by such methods to bring about the social change that we desire?. My mind dwelt continually upon such matters as how the railways had been built, and where I had got the money needed for my journeys. It also seemed to me that these speedy means of travel tend to excite the mind rather than to encourage deeper reflection?. Could they ever help me to reach the common people?.
Vinoba Bhave

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