A taste of Mumbai’s reality

Today the Bombay Builders team split into three groups, attending the branches and borrower meetings of Ujjivan Microfinance. Ujjivan sits somewhere between the 10th and 12th spot on the list of largest Microfinance Institutions operating within India. I was most impressed by their original presentation last week in Pune where they emphasised their commitment to social imperatives above profit, something the industry must uphold if it is to remain a viable option for reducing the overwhelming poverty faced by modern day India.

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When visiting the slums where Ujjivan offers their loans I was again given the opportunity to understand the conditions of India’s Urban poor and why these loans are so important to them. If a loan from such an organisation offers the opportunity to access credit at a lower cost than on offer from traditional money lenders, then possibly one’s own initiative and hard work will eventually culminate in their children being free of poverty. From what I have witnessed so far in India it is hard to believe that microfinance has the capacity to eradicate poverty in less than one generation. Credit is a tool to help build economic independence and not a weapon of mass destruction against poverty

At one of the centre meetings we were able to visit the homes of four microfinance borrowers. A centre is a group of women who access microfinance loans through a joint liability scheme where every member is mutually responsible for the loan of another member. Each of these women appeared warm and gracious, welcoming Struan, Andrew and I into their homes amongst the alleyways in one of Mumbai’s expansive slums. Their homes constructed of brick walls and corrugated iron roofing varied in size, but were no more than 4 metres in width and 5 metres in length. All of their belongings, kitchen, living room and bedroom were located in the one room that comprised their dwelling. Along the tiled walls or fabrics laid down for us was the consistent pattern of blooming flowers, in every colour and woven display imaginable. I noticed the consistency of the flower as we crept through the winding pathways wet from the washing of clothes. I could not help but imagine it as a symbol of both peace and the development of prosperity…blooming against a backdrop of poverty and hardship.

Another prominent feature of these homes was the position of a religious idol placed in reverence close to the ceiling. Adjacent to these hindu symbols stood a stick of incense that would burn softly as the women and their families conducted their daily lives, cooking, cleaning, working and having meetings to fund those very activities. Although living conditions were cramped we were pleased to see that artefacts of the modern world were at their disposal. In the first home we visited the family had set up speakers to provide surround sound for their entertainment while in another a boy sat fixed to his computer, playing cricket…of course!

The contrast between different slums is also an interesting part of this journey we have undertaken. Yesterday we visited Malwani the second largest slum in the city. This was our first opportunity to witness a Self Help Group (SHG) model of microfinance. The SHG model allows members to access banks directly through proving their financial responsibility by saving a small sum of money over a period of time. Once the bank is satisfied with their savings success they are then offered a small loan to continue or initiate business opportunities. The Sanmitra Trust acts as an intermediate between the bank (in this case being the State Bank of India with their recently established product ‘SBI Tiny’) and the borrowers. The organisation began and continues to be a provider of community support services to Mumbai’s excluded sex workers. Many of these women are shunned by society due to the nature of their profession and targeted for their vulnerability. The Sanmitra trust offers condoms, education, along with free health and counselling services to these women. Unfortunately their private funding will end in 2012 when the current project financed by the Gates Foundation will cease. I personally hope that another private donor or enough support both locally and internationally will help them maintain their good work into the future.

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The women we met that formed an SHG had started a business making hair clips. To imagine that such a simple commodity could give these women both economic independence and inclusion testifies to how microfinance can be successful. We were told about an NGO that had previously attempted to facilitate accounts specifically for the sex workers in the slums. However, this type of activity solidified the segregation of the group, who would remain excluded from mainstream financial services. One of the women stated she wanted to be able to walk into a bank open to others in society, knowing that she was their customer. Therefore, she demonstrated that her aspiration was to be treated like other Indian citizens who were economically included, and not as an outsider being granted access to such services on special terms.

We walked around Malwani with this woman who showed us her home and the community she formed part of. The streets were crowded with people wanting to get a look at us, with such a large group it was hard to remain covert. In today’s meeting one member of Ujjivan stated that around 56% of Mumbaikers (citizens of Mumbai) lived in slums, so in all honesty these two experiences were more local than visiting the gateway of India and opulent hotels in South Mumbai. We were witnessing the majority, an interesting set of circumstances in an endlessly intriguing city. A city that offers so much but often delivers well below expectations for many of the migrants who seek its bright lights.

Well that’s it for now. The traffic continues, we have been spending a minimum of 4 hours in traffic everyday and I’m sure these expeditions will form a large part of my memory in this city. The learning continues, Microfinance is truly an outstanding amalgamation of business and social consciousness. It is hard to fathom that we are now half way through our Indian experience and with so much left undocumented I feel like I’ve cheated you all! Sorry, more to come later 😀 

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Published by Paul - Brain Injured and Traveller in one.

The World is an amazing place filled with adventure, awe and excitement. As a child I dreamt that I would see every country, every crevice of the globe. And now? Now I continue to fulfil that dream...I would like to share that journey with you in some small part...

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