The last six months of this fellowship with Milaap and its field partner NGO - Bharathi Women Development Center (BWDC) - have proved to be really insightful for me, especially with respect to rural India and the development activities. Field visits, particularly, are the best part of the fellowship with Milaap.
I had always been a little skeptical whenever the figures showed India as one of the fastest developing countries in the world. Over a friendly conversation of the likes with the Operations Manager at BWDC, I asked him about this. He just smiled and said that he doesn't know much about the figures, but definitely knows about the borrowers at BWDC who have changed their lives and have become a great influence for others. So, together we planned our visit to a borrower named Lakshmi, who had proved to be one of such influential people.
Lakshmi lives in Ammaiyappan village in Thiruvarur, where she runs a small-scale sanitary pad manufacturing unit from her home. Around 15 years back, when the concept of ‘Self-help groups (SHG)’ was introduced, Lakshmi was the first to join such a group and lead it. She popularized the concept of savings among fellow women. She and her group members even got loan support from BWDC for community development activities like toilet construction, dairy farming, agriculture, etc.
Lakshmi’s husband is a member of the Village Panchayat and a socially concerned being. He helped Lakshmi to start the sanitary pad manufacturing unit. He believed this would help the village women to get access to sanitary pads easily and for a cheaper price. Increasing concern for environmental pollution because of non-biodegradable sanitary napkins motivated their idea of manufacturing cloth pads that are sustainable and eco-friendly as compared to the synthetic non-biodegradable pads. Leading 3 local SHGs, Lakshmi, with her family's support, took a business loan from BWDC and started a cloth-pad manufacturing unit.
Lakshmi explaining the process of cotton pad manufacturing
The process of making a pad involves collecting fine cotton, powdering it and printing it in a rectangle shape. At first, Lakshmi had a printing machine that needed manual intervention. All the other work was also done manually. Over time, she took incremental business loans and expanded her business. Now she has machines for everything, from powdering to pressing of cotton to printing in the final shape.
The small business kept developing and over time, she started producing sanitary pads from a small-scale village level to a district level. On the basis of need, she supplies to the neighboring districts as well. She has progressed to become the president of the Tamil Nadu Sanitary Pad Manufacturing Association, representing the entire state. She has influenced many and has created jobs for a number of women in her village.
Lakshmi addressing the women gathering
Lakshmi credits the success of her business to the women who work there. These women are none other than her SHG group members who have been influenced by the work that Lakshmi and her husband undertook. This unit had started when sanitary pad manufacturing or even women working out of home was considered a taboo in this part of the world. After seeing the change brought about by this couple, the villagers were influenced and became aware of working for this good cause. The women who work here are members of the SHG and have access to small loans which they use for personal household development. Working in this manufacturing unit they receive a regular salary which helps them repay their loans.
Geetha, one of the workers here, says, "I have taken 4 loans from BWDC for many household developmental works starting from toilet construction. I have repaid 3 loans completely and another one is in process. All the repayments were done using the income I get working with Lakshmi akka."
SHG members working together to run the factory
Working with Lakshmi for a long time has motivated many of the SHG members to start something of their own. Lakshmi has truly become an influencer for many women in the village.
Selvarani, another member of one of the Lakshmi-led SHGs, used to work along with Lakshmi in the Sanitary pad manufacturing unit. She has recently set up her own business rears and sells the Karungozhi (Black chicken), a local breed that has medicinal value.
Tungabadra was also a member of the same group who separated out to start her own handicraft business. She sells them and also represents the village in the handicrafts exhibitions held all over India by Government.
It was such a wonderful experience for me to see how a small loan given over a period of time by BWDC had such a great influence on one entire village of Ammaiyappan. Spending months in the field has cleared the major of my doubt on why and how India is becoming one of the fastest developing countries, the major reason being the women in the SHG groups and the access to credits for them to develop!