Reflections From My Milaap Fellowship: Six months working at DCBS | Milaap

Reflections From My Milaap Fellowship: Six months working at DCBS

It is hard for me to explain in words how the experience of the last five months has changed me as a person, but I will try my best.  If it were not for the wonderful opportunity the amazing people at Milaap gave me I wouldn't have been remotely aware of how culturally diverse India is, and probably wouldn't have travelled to some of the beautiful places I went to.  Before joining this fellowship, the only experiences I had in India were during summer holidays when my parents would bring my sister and I to Kolkata and we would meet with all of our extended family, and that was the entire scope of our trips.  I had never really ventured outside of the confines of my family's home on my own, and only saw what my parents showed me.  When I arrived in Kolkata in March I came seeking a different experience, one that would challenge me and help me gain a deeper understanding of what India is about.
[caption id="attachment_6329" align="aligncenter" width="307"]IMG_1332 "excuse me, comin through!"- this cow[/caption]
After joining Milaap’s Fellowship program I was stationed an hour outside of Kolkata in a small commercial hub called Dakshin Barasat, working with a local MFI called DCBS (Dhosa Chandaneswar Bratyajana Samity).  I recently sat down with Mr. Animesh Naiya, the founder and CEO of DCBS and asked him about the origins of DCBS.  He explained to me that initially he was struggling like many others in rural West Bengal and was unemployed.  After trying out a few entrepreneurial ventures that failed, Mr. Naiya read about organizations that gave loans to low income people to start businesses and generate income.  With some help from his father, family members, and other community members he was able to start his own organization in 2003, which he ran out of a small apartment owned by his father.
[caption id="attachment_6317" align="aligncenter" width="327"]IMG_1514 Mr. Animesh Naiya at the headquarters of DCBS[/caption]
Now DCBS operates on over 200 villages in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, and has helped over 10,000 women receive loans for small businesses and other endeavors.  DCBS only caters to women because they are the most marginalized demographic in the rural regions and often do not have the agency to start their own businesses or fulfill their own dreams.  Mr. Animesh Naiya also personally believes women are overall much more reliable than men and more likely to repay their loans (He had a smirk on his face when saying this, but after five months in the field I actually concur).
[caption id="attachment_6318" align="aligncenter" width="341"]IMG_1284 A typical women's group full of smiles[/caption][caption id="attachment_6333" align="aligncenter" width="340"]IMG_1269 A woman with her child at a group meeting[/caption]
When I first arrived at the DCBS headquarters in Dakshin Barasat, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful.  Even though DCBS is a small organization, the staff was very accommodating and provided me with a room to stay in that was walking distance from the main offices.  Everyone at the office was very friendly and I have had many long conversations with my co-workers about the similarities and differences between life in America and in India and other topics.
[caption id="attachment_6320" align="aligncenter" width="415"]IMG_1700 Majority of the wonderful DCBS staff at a office meeting.[/caption]
When it came to my Milaap fieldwork, the people at DCBS like Mr. Arunda (regional branch manager) were so helpful in explaining how the field visits worked and escorted me to the various branches in the South Parganas district to get acquainted with everyone involved in making DCBS work.
[caption id="attachment_6319" align="aligncenter" width="434"]IMG_1696 Arunda (left) and I giving a lovely woman from Japan a tour of Dakshin Barasat[/caption]
My main focus was meeting with some of the thousands of women that have been clients of DCBS, and who have also received assistance from the generous lenders at Milaap.  In order to meet with these entrepreneurial women, most of my time was spent travelling to the various branches spread out across the South 24 Parganas district that facilitated the group meetings and loan collections.
[caption id="attachment_6321" align="aligncenter" width="238"]IMG_1654 DCBS branch office in Jeevan Mandal Hat.[/caption]
As I mentioned before DCBS currently assists 10,000 clients.  In order to adequately address the needs of its large clientele base, DCBS has encouraged most of the women to form groups based on proximity to one another, at the moment there are about 1090 self-help groups operating.  The early morning group visits were probably my favorite aspect of the Milaap Fellowship.  Before receiving this opportunity I had never been to the more rural regions of West Bengal, and I had no idea what to expect.  On the mornings of scheduled field visits I would have to reach the branch office by 7am.  I was paired with a Collections Officer based on which particular groups I would need to visit.  Next, the Collections Officer and I would cycle our way over to the designated site of the group meeting, which was usually at the home of the group leader.  Riding cycles through the brick lanes that outlined the vast paddy fields in the early morning sun was a truly beautiful moment each time I did it.  Those cycle rides were brought about brief, ephemeral moments where I felt like I reached serenity, and felt at peace.  I would also think to myself “I can’t believe I’m riding a cycle through rural India right now!!!”. I had many moments where I’d suddenly realize how cool my job was and how unique the experience was. (There were also many moments where I fell off my bicycle, got a flat-tire, or the chain would fall off, but I guess all life-changing experiences have their high and low moments, riiight???)
[caption id="attachment_6322" align="aligncenter" width="291"]IMG_1241 Morning Bike rides through the countryside[/caption][caption id="attachment_6323" align="aligncenter" width="367"]IMG_1519 DCBS Loan officers, off delivering solar home lighting systems[/caption][caption id="attachment_6324" align="aligncenter" width="407"]IMG_1740 A kind tea stall owner repairing my flat tire for me![/caption][caption id="attachment_6325" align="aligncenter" width="700"]IMG_2248 Morning views in Dakshin Barasat[/caption]
Still, what made those mornings truly special was to see the big smiles on the faces of the women as we reached the group meetings.  Hearing their stories of struggle and success was truly inspiring. Often times just sitting at the group meeting and observing the women chatting with one another made me smile and laugh.
[caption id="attachment_6326" align="aligncenter" width="522"]IMG_2227 Some of the entrepreneurial women of Dakshin Barasat and I.[/caption]
The women in these groups all seemed to have a good relationship with the DCBS collections officer that was assigned to them.  They would often crack jokes and poke fun at the CO and the entire group (along with the CO and myself) would roar with laughter.  Seeing the joy in faces of these wonderful women and sharing a laugh with them, is something I will cherish and remember forever.
[caption id="attachment_6327" align="aligncenter" width="499"]IMG_2218 Some group members sharing a laugh with Collections Officer Rajyeshwar.[/caption]
When I first started the fellowship, in the back of my mind I would think, “damn this might be depressing, hearing about their struggles and seeing their living conditions”, but I was quite mistaken. The people I met were happy and content with their lives.  All they ask for are the basic resources that all people should have the right to, like clean water, reliable electricity and infrastructure, job opportunities, and education.  I realized these people were not at all different from me, and their stories were not sad or tragic, but were stories about struggle, and creating opportunities for a better future. A person's socio-economic status is a terrible indicator of their character, personality, and intellect. I realized that these wonderful people do not need our charity and pity, but deserve the unalienable rights that all humans are given: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  I encourage everyone who has been lucky enough to live a privileged life to lend a little for a great cause, remember that it’s not about giving a handout, its about giving an opportunity!
[caption id="attachment_6328" align="aligncenter" width="500"]IMG_1261 Pure magic.[/caption][caption id="attachment_6330" align="aligncenter" width="500"]IMG_1158 Children running through the narrow brick lanes of their village[/caption][caption id="attachment_6331" align="aligncenter" width="475"]IMG_2240 A woman working on her sari with the aid of a solar lantern.[/caption]