Friday, November 1, 2013

Bhutan: Now and Then (TimeOut Explorer)

9 am: Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (in colour), 33, and his four predecessors (in black and white) --the kings of The Land of Thunder Dragon-- greet immigrants at the Paro airport in their full-length photographs. Accompanying them is the Scottish whisky-maker, Johnnie Walker, brandishing its merchandise.
3 pm: Kencho Dorjee, 25, slips out of the chanting room at the Thimphu Stupa and surreptitiously takes out his cell phone from under his maroon monk’s robe to talk to his family.
9 pm: Dawa Drakpa, 21, lead guitarist and vocalist of the Baby Boomers band rocks to Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” at Thimphu’s Mojo Park night-club donning a black t-shirt with the batman emblem.

Today, this is how a day looks like in a place stereotypically associated only with prayer flags and withdrawn lamas, pursuit of happiness and all things the modern world is too busy for: Bhutan. But when ara (traditional rice-brew) has given way to Johnnie Walker; women’s customary attire, kira, is fitted to make them look sleeker and stylish; youth relate more with guitar and less with dramyin (Bhutanese musical-instrument); and monks zip past in Mercedes (Maybe, Bhutan’s economy cannot afford a Ferrari yet), is our distinct neighbor losing its cultural identity?

Bhutanese authorities believe that their culture including language, artisan skills, socio-cultural participation and driglam namzha (code of conduct) provides identity to its people and thus is a source of happiness. They, therefore, incorporate cultural preservation as one of the four pillars of their signature measure of prosperity-Gross National Happiness (GNH). Sangay Dorji, program officer at GNH Commission, says, “there is a strong sense of co-relation between well-being (happiness) and sense of your identity and evidently culture is the building block of our identity.” However, the supposedly righteous concept itself is one of the culprits behind the adulteration of culture. Carol Graham, researcher at the Brookings Institution and author of several books on happiness, says, “GNH is very little about happiness and much about a forward-looking development-strategy. But development is, in the end, modernization which also clashes with the cultural heritage that the Bhutanese want to protect.”
Other than development, Graham adds, there is a huge influence on local culture of TV, Internet and other technologies through which Bhutanese youth are connected to the world.

At the age of 14, when children decide what they want to be when they grow up, Drakpa saw a documentary about John Lennon on Fox Channel and found his role model. Inspired by Beatles, he formed his rock-band and named it Baby Boomers in honor of the period to which the popular group belonged. Never having played Bhutanese folk-songs or instruments, the foursome bob their heads to guitar chords with ease. “Rock-music defines us,” Drakpa says.

Other than career decisions, mass media also guides everyday clothing choices. Chimi Demand, 19; wearing leopard-print hair-band, fitted pants, and boots; chats with her college friends at Thimphu’s clock-tower square before heading for picnic. Ask her the inspiration behind her sartorial statement and she coyly says, “Movies and music videos.”

The lure of television has engulfed not just the worldly. Lobzang Choda, 24, has been a monk from nine years. He does not know what night-clubs are and does not wear pants, but he yearns to watch football and wrestling on TV (Bhutan’s national sport is archery). Although monks are barred from watching television at Dzongs where they live, he confesses that he catches glimpses of his favorite sports when he goes to the grocery stores in the city.

Although mass media has a great influence on popular culture; penetration of TV, Internet, newspapers and other technologies is also dependent on development of the country. In her book Cosmopolitan Communications: Cultural Diversity in a Globalized World, Pippa Norris, Professor at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, writes in the chapter ‘Poverty’: “Processes of economic development do gradually expand public access to the mass media more broadly throughout societies.” She mentions lack of investment in telecommunication infrastructure by the government and problem of affordability among the people as limiting economic factors for mass media to penetrate rural, under-developed markets. “If modern ideas and images from Google, Disney-ABC television, or the Murdoch newspaper empire do not actually reach poorer people living in isolated places such as Timbuktu and Thimpu –regardless of any effects arising from state restriction on freedom of expression, trade barriers, or social psychological filters—then the multinational media corporations are unlikely to pose an immediate threat to traditional life-styles, values, or beliefs in these communities,” Professor Norris concludes.

A lot has changed in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, between when Professor Norris published her book in 2009 to now. Having access to the national channel (Bhutan Broadcasting Service) and international channels like CNN and NDTV on television, 12 national newspapers, seven radio channels, Internet and mobile connectivity; Thimphu is not isolated any more. On the other hand, in the rural southern and eastern parts of the country, radio still remains the most prevalent form of mass media.
One such village in south Bhutan is Dekiling where Indira Rai, 19, receptionist at Thimphu’s Jumolhari Hotel belongs to. There people grow paddy, guava and orange for a living. The majority of population in her village, Rai says, is illiterate and “religious” who depend on radio as the only source of information. Rai finds cultural differences between her village and the city: “In the village, I wear kurta and long skirt at home whereas in Thimphu, I wear jeans when I’m not working,” says the soft-spoken damsel. In Bhutan, it is compulsory for citizens to wear national dress (gho for men and kira for women) at work, school and college, monastery and other formal institutions. “Also, in the village, my parents don’t allow me to go out with friends while here, my aunt I live with is modernized and doesn’t mind me going out with boys,” Rai chuckles.

However, in the last five years, Dekiling like many hamlets in Bhutan was electrified and connected by road under government’s national urbanization strategy. While TV was introduced in Bhutan’s major cities in 1999, its villages got their share of the world in a box only in last few years. Handful of households in Dekiling own TV sets.

“I hear they are planning to build a factory too,” Rai adds, suggesting government’s proposed project in her village. Graham explains how development affects the parameters of culture, namely artisan skills and language, included in GNH. “As production techniques modernize, they often crowd out traditional ones, such as handicrafts, both in terms of efficiency and in changing taste and demand for products.” GNH takes into account Bhutanese people’s interest and knowledge in 13 arts and crafts like weaving, carpentry and bamboo works. Graham adds, “As economic activity becomes more global and requires usage of an international language like English, local languages become less relevant.” The cultural component of GNH also considers people’s fluency in their regional dialect, with Dzongkha being Bhutan’s national language.

Villages have been put on the development path by initiatives like that of Tourism Council of Bhutan to develop tourism, country’s second largest revenue-aggregator after hydro-power, in rural eastern parts of Bhutan. Their urban counterparts like Thimphu and Paro started on the development path before five decades.

The story of development in Bhutan started in 1960s when culture was not proclaimed so much for fetching happiness to its people as a tool for national security. Sandwiched between two super-powers, India and China; naïve, peace-loving and economically-feeble Bhutan had its cultural identity as the only weapon to protect itself from being swallowed. To shield its prized asset from outside influences, the kingdom remained in isolation for ages. This thwarted its development which manifested in high poverty, illiteracy and infant-mortality rates. Therefore, Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, opened the country to the world for development to step in. However, along with development, some inevitable enemies of culture like consumerism and modern notions also crept in which clashed with the Buddhism-influenced non-materialist culture of Bhutan.

In 1980s, the fourth king vocalized his preference for Gross National Happiness (with four pillars: development, culture preservation, environmental protection, and governance) over Gross National Product (pure economic-development indicator). Under nascent democracy institutionalized by the king in 2008, which some believe is just nominal change of power, the governments (both ruling and opposition) pledge allegiance to GNH. The philosophy of development with consideration for culture is apparent in policies like that of tourism corporation to charge a high daily-tariff from visitors to attract only responsible tourists who would not harm their culture. But this is an illustration of curtailing outside influences. Can intrinsic cultural changes due to urbanization, for example, ushering in villages like Dekiling be leashed if development is to sustain? Graham is skeptical.

Thus, if either development or culture can exist; Indra Adhikari, Bhutanese journalist who thinks that democratic government has ended monarchy’s role in politics, says that the government as opposed to monarchy is pro-development. “Monarchists were pro-culture. But now there is reduced influence of monarchy on government to concentrate on preservation of culture,” he says. “Now, more concentration is on development,” Adhikari adds.

Sibi Mathew, General Manager of Hotel Taj Tashi in Thimphu, testifies: “Over the last four years, Thimphu is gradually beginning to be much more like a concrete jungle with lots of businesses having set foot and is beginning to loose its natural charm,” he says.

Another characteristic of democracy that affects culture, in addition to focus on development understandably due to accountability to the public for a term, is freedom of choice. Contained in Bhutan’s constitution, freedom of choice prima facie seems contradictory to the code of conduct (driglam namzha) mandated under the development philosophy’s (GNH’s) cultural component.
Karma Tshiteem, Secretary at GNH Commission, says “People are most happy when they make choices themselves.” Nevertheless, Adhikari says, freedom of choice has not fully translated into practice as the government enforces driglam namzha under GNH.  For example, in Bhutan, it is required to maintain uniform façade in all forms of architecture in terms of multi-colored wood frontages, small arched windows and sloping roofs.

Many believe that the benevolent kings never imposed culture on the people of Bhutan and that people willingly followed the traditions. Under democracy, people understand they have right to choices (including cultural), but neither does the development-oriented government expect them to behave differently nor do they mind juggling both: culture and modernization (offshoot of development).
Drakpa of Baby Boomers says that the rock music his band plays does not contradict with traditional Bhutanese culture. “Bhutan is a free democratic country after all,” he says. Yet, when his band performed on BBS before two years; as they unplugged “Oh darling” by Beatles draped in gho, it seemed Drakpa was addressing his traditional culture when crooning: “I’ll never do you no harm.”

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Pursuit of Happiness (Forbes)

Money and happiness have been married and divorced umpteen times by economists. A recent study by University of Michigan professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers united moolah and mirth after Richard Easterlin, an economist and professor at University of South Carolina, separated them in 1974. While the Easterlin Paradox stated that rise in income does not necessarily increase happiness, the new research refutes it by proving that higher the income or the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), more happy the person or the country is. No conditions apply.

Between the two polar studies, several researchers tried to bring money and happiness together by establishing a threshold till which they hold hands before parting ways. For instance, in 2003, British economist Richard Layard set $15,000 as the point beyond which money does not fetch happiness. In his 2005 work, Layard reset the point at $20,000.

But on a macro level, what does the country’s GDP say with regard to the happiness-meter of its citizens?

Carol Graham, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organisation based in Washington DC, and author of several books on happiness including Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, says GDP is a comprehensive indicator of happiness. “GDP per capita captures country- level unobservables such as freedom and governance, public goods, environment, etc, all of which matter a lot to well-being (economists’ term for happiness),” Graham says.

However, Terry Babcock-Lumish, a professor of social sciences at West Point, thinks the contrary. she says GDP rarely considers components of quality of life like pollution, crime, or how unevenly goods and services are enjoyed by a nation’s citizenry.

Perhaps for this reason, Bhutan, the first country to introduce Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of prosperity, considers three factors besides socio-economic development to compute GNH: Cultural preservation, environmental protection and good governance. Sangay Dorji, programme officer at Bhutan’s GNH commission, says, “GDP is heavily biased towards increased production and consumption, regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs but continuously inducing people in labouring for higher income at the cost of relationships, peace and ecological stability.”
For Babcock-Lumish, GNH is a useful indicator as, along with other metrics like GDP and Consumer Price index (CPI), it provides a more textured understanding of an economy. However, Graham says that of the above pillars, the top priority for the Bhutanese government is to boost the country’s economy as it will be the key to reducing poverty and improving health and literacy. “GNH emphasises environment, governance and culture but half their game is not that far off Gross National Product,” she says.

Many organisations conduct surveys across the globe and rank countries on the basis of happiness or aspects of it, calling them emotional well-being, prosperity and so on. Gallup World Poll (used in most happiness surveys like Legatum Prosperity index, UN’s World Happiness report etc) measures emotional well-being across 160 countries by asking its citizens five questions like “did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, scientists involved with the poll, define emotional well-being as “the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience”. in their article, “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being”, the duo mentions that traditionally well-being was limited to life evaluation (what people think about their lives).

In 1974, Easterlin measured life evaluation in his study, basing his research on open-ended questions on what people want out of life—what they would need for their lives to be completely happy. [The recent Stevenson and Wolfers research also measures life evaluation but they base it on a more closed question like “how does your life fare on a 10-point ladder where 1 is the worst and 10 is the best?]

According to Graham, open- and close-ended questions generate different responses. “Closed question is framed in relative terms for the respondent and answers to this question correlate more closely with income within and across countries than open-ended life- satisfaction questions,” she says.
Moreover, Graham adds that the ladder question used in the new study is the most common life-evaluation question and is linked most closely to income.

The new study utilises Gallup data on the life-evaluation question and not queries on emotional well-being. Interestingly, Gallup rankings based on the latter parameters show that money doesn’t impact happiness, results that are contrary to the new study. (Latin American countries like Panama top the rankings in the 2012 Gallup Poll, while singapore languishes at the bottom. However, on basis of their GDP per capita, CIA World Factbook ranks Singapore at 7, while Panama is way behind at 89).

Graham adds that life-evaluation questions that consider a longer time-period in a respondent’s life correlate more closely to income as it includes people’s ability to do what they want to do with their lives. in contrast, emotional well-being questions incorporate a shorter time- period (daily experiences) and are less associated with money because, after a point, money can’t make you smile more. This is probably why the study by Stevenson and Wolfer with the life-evaluation question, and that too a closed one, as its basis proved that money is married to happiness.

Read article here on Forbes website

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Seva Cafe serves generosity on a platter (Forbes)

The milieu at Shantivan, a garden in Mumbai’s tony Malabar Hill area, on February 17 was like a hangover from Valentine’s Day. Placards displaying messages like ‘Love is all we need’ were tied to tree branches and hearts were chalked with 8 bounty throughout the green sprawl. Except that it wasn’t an ode to Cupid. The occasion was the second monthly lunch hosted by Seva Café.

Omnipresent at the venue was a bespectacled man in khadi kurta-pyjama. He, along with other volunteers, was welcoming the guests and explaining the concept of the café— here, patrons aren’t charged for the food they’re served, instead they are free to pay whatever they want. Or, they can walk out without shelling out a single penny.

Meet Siddharth Sthalekar, who was orchestrating this “generosity enterprise” with ease. About three years ago, he was the co-head of the derivatives trading desk and the head of algorithmic trading at Edelweiss Capital. A typical day for this financier then would begin when the gong woke up Dalal Street at 9 am. That was when he would appear on CNBC, dressed in a crisp, formal shirt and tie, and share his expertise on accumulating stocks.

On one such morning in 2010, even as he was offering investors advice on what stocks to buy and sell, Sthelekar had the hint of a smile on his face. So much so that the cameraman asked him what’s brewing. Little could he explain to him then that the decision that he had taken—to throw it all away—had lit up his poker face that morning.

For some time, the 31-year-old Mumbaikar had been contemplating quitting his cushy job to explore if there is an alternative to the premise of accumulation that seemed to drive individuals in the corporate world. When he finally took the plunge, he set out to travel across India with his wife Lahar, a freelancing interior designer who graduated from the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad. Over the next six months, as they visited several non-profit organisations, they woke up to the concept of gift economy where goods and services are extended without any formal quid pro quo. This motto formed the cornerstone of Moved by Love, an incubator at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, which carries out various projects.

One such project, Seva Café, was in hibernation. Sthalekar, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, and his wife became its core volunteers and helped reopen it in September 2011. Seva Café practises giving, the antithesis to accumulation. At the café, volunteers cook and serve meals every week from Thursday to Sunday for free.

What is Sthalekar’s takeaway from the experiment? The proof that customers have kept the café running by paying up even when they could have got away without it. That there are enough people not governed by greed—something he had set out to test in the first place.

However, Sthalekar admits that the transition in his mind from market to trust economy did not occur overnight. “Initially, I used to put price tags on customers as they walked into the café,” he says. That’s in tune with the rationale of profit maximisation that business schools teach and the corporate world practises. So, Sthalekar often spent more time at the table of a potential Mr 3,000 compared to the table of a tea-stall owner, who was in his perception Mr 100. Then, his “noble friends”, including his wife and other volunteers, stepped in and pointed out the flaw in his approach, prompting a course correction.

However, running the café till eternity is not the objective of this entrepreneur. In fact, it’s quite on the contrary. Sthalekar says the ultimate aim of this gift-economy project is to shut it down. “If the aim was to keep the café open forever, we would have gone with a presentation to the Bill Gates Foundation and asked for a corpus.”

The idea, he says, is to trust the assumption that every individual, irrespective of his economic standing, can be generous. Seva Café provides a space for people to practice generosity by recognising the selfless giving of the volunteers. But, in the long term, Sthalekar hopes that people will develop the habit of being generous even outside the café—in all environments and circumstances. When this would happen, Sthalekar would lock the doors of Seva Café and put the sign ‘Mission Accomplished’ on it. “When there will be enough generosity in the world, there would be no need for the café,” he says.

Although Sthalekar doesn’t know when this will happen, he says he is optimistic as he is coming in touch with more and more people who are generous. The other situation in which the café would close, he says, is if it does not receive enough support from volunteers and/or customers. This has not happened for seven years, even from before he joined the project.

In the beginning, Sthalekar confesses, he could not fathom the motive of gift-economy projects. Given his background, it was a huge deviation from the aim of multiplying revenues manifold. He recollects that when he was at Edelweiss, he used to entertain clients with lavish dinners and alcohol at five-star hotels to extract the best deals from them. He doesn’t deny that he enjoyed the high life and his work per se, but instances like those made him question the morality beneath his work. “The contradiction of charging my corporate card for an expensive bottle of champagne when I knew there are hungry people on the street did not align with my values,” he says.

That led to a constant struggle in his conscience. At one level, he was carrying the stern face expected of a financier. But the realisation that the efficiency which money provides is skewed took him closer and closer to the decision of moving on. “It was brewing inside me,” he says. He found moral support from some unexpected quarters—his boss at Edelweiss. When he told him that he would quit, his seemingly-capitalist boss opened up to him about a secret desire that he nurtures in his heart: He wanted to build an ashram for old people. This reaffirmed his conviction that people are generous by nature, but they act in correspondence with the space they are in.

There are days when he has his doubts about the choices he has made. “On some days, I do feel ‘what I am doing here, travelling on a train when my friend owns a BMW?’” he says. Nevertheless, his experiment of living on people’s generosity affirms to him that it is possible to sustain oneself by giving. “The litmus test of this experiment is that if I create value for the society, the society will support me,” he says.

Even though Sthalekar’s ultimate dream is to shut down the café, for now, he wants to open more Seva Cafés across the country.  It pops up once a month in Pune and Bangalore. In January, he decided to try his luck in Mumbai. He was apprehensive, unsure of how the financial capital would react to a pursuit completely non-material. “We decided it would be a one-off experiment. But because the response was overwhelming, we served Mumbai in Feburary too and are scheduled to hold another gathering in late-March,” he says.

On both occasions, Seva Café served about 100 guests comprising an eclectic background—from professionals to slum children. Although they had anticipated serving about 60-70 patrons, the participation of a dozen-plus volunteers from the city came as a bonus and helped them enhance the scale of hospitality by a notch.

However, for Sthalekar, opening more cafés is just the means to the end: The day when people will make giving a way of life and these spaces will become redundant. It is hard to believe that the images of Sthalekar Google juxtaposes are of the same person: One clad in a loose khadi kurta, sporting a French beard and wearing a hearty smile; the other a snapshot of him in the CNBC show. Ask him and he’ll tell you that maybe they aren’t the same person. Today, if Siddarth Sthalekar were to appear on the CNBC show, he would advise investors to give all their stocks away.

Read article here on Forbes website

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

The school on GB Road (Times Crest)

Kat-Katha can easily pass for a typical school for slum children: Six students from age 3 to 17 sit on a floor mat supervised by a teacher busy explaining place value on an abacus when we go in. Two bedsheet- covered computers are perched on a table in the adjacent room. The dilapidated walls are covered by sketches made by the students. 

However, at the entrance of the school, on the same wall that displays a chart of 23 enrollments, hangs a curious vending machine which makes it apparent that this is not a typical slum school - a condom dispenser. The space was once a brothel and the students are the children of sex workers and brothel owners. The teacher, Gitanjali Babbar, 26, is the founder of Kat-Katha.

Kat-Katha, which translates into 'story of puppets, ' originally intended to provide life choices to sex workers. Before establishing the centre, Babbar was working at the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), the body that had put up condom dispensers at brothels including the now dysfunctional one at Kat-Katha.

However, when some of the sex workers urged Babbar to think beyond condoms, the idea of Kat-Katha came up. "Kat-Katha was first conceived to equip women who do not want to be in the sex trade with skills like tailoring, dancing, literacy, etc. so that they could pursue alternative livelihoods, " Babbar says.

Babbar began operating from a youth centre but as soon as she started bringing prostitutes there, the owner of the space who had donated it to the centre asked her to vacate the premises. Thereafter, Babbar quit her job and along with some volunteers entered the brothels and began to educate the sex workers.

It wasn't smooth sailing in the beginning. "The didis (Babbar addresses every sex worker as didi) used to abuse us because they thought we were a part of some NGO that would make big promises and then manipulate them, " Babbar says. But slowly, she gained the confidence of the women and their children too joined the classes. Finally, the children ended up absorbing most of the time and attention at Kat-Katha though about 25 women still come to the centre to learn dance, to study, or to simply chill whenever they feel like it. 

Kat-Katha is located on the infamous GB Road in Delhi that houses more than 3, 500 female sex workers and their 1, 500 kids in about 77 cage-like brothels. It is 1 pm and on the ground floor, the shops selling hardware, paints, mobile recharge and such have already done half a day of business. Babbar clambers the narrow, steep and sneaky staircases between the shops which lead her to her students. The sex workers have just woken up and are idling around. Some are having brunch, while others are getting ready for their 'day trade' in deep-necked spaghetti tops, lips painted a bright red.

Babbar heads for the rooms where she knows that she will find children who are regulars at her class. She asks them to rush to her "school" as if she were a school bell. Babbar cajoles Nisa (name changed), 6, to bathe before leaving for her class. Nisa pleads for a compromise: She will change clothes but will not bathe. Babbar does not give up. In another brothel, a shy boy lying on his stomach, hears Babbar's call and pops his head down from a dark space similar to a dingy storage in a footwear store.
Passing a few brothels on both the sides of one such staircase, she reaches Kat-Katha. One by one the students start coming in, some loaded with a school bag, others just with their curiosity and amusement. Randhir (name changed), 11, is the first one in. With the air of one who owns the space he heads straight to the computer room, uncovers a machine and shows us a PowerPoint slide he made: It is a picture of a house in the countryside pasted from the internet and superimposed with the caption: "My name is Randhir. "

"We will structure the curriculum and activities but first, I want these kids to enjoy the freedom that they have always been deprived of, " Babbar says. She points out that these children and their mothers never step out of the brothels for fear of being abused.

A sex worker, 42, peeps into the room to see what's happening. Babbar encourages her to find the letters of her name, Sita, from the bits of paper printed with Hindi alphabets. She looks on as Nisa assembles Sita's name on the floor. This is probably the first time Sita has seen her name written. As Babbar coaxes her, Sita reluctantly copies her name in a notebook.

Babbar plans to open another centre dedicated to imparting vocational training to sex workers as and when funds come in while reserving the current space for kids. Some sex workers have requested Babbar to find jobs for their grown-up children above 17 who have become pimps. But because these children are uneducated and are past school age, Babbar wants to train them. Thus, Babbar's idea of Kat-Katha has organically evolved to incorporate the people associated with the brothels of GB Road.
It is 6pm. The children at Kat-Katha refuse to go home from this space which has no closing time and operates all seven days of the week. In a couple of hours, the cramped brothels will be transformed. There would be bright lights and the strains of filmi mujras will be heard through the windows. Randhir has seen his mother step out every day when it's dark, wearing seductive clothes. He says he is determined to take her away from GB Road some day.

Babbar says she has plans to spend a few nights at Kat-Katha. "It's good bonding time with the kids who then understand I am not a visitor from an NGO, " she says.

Read article here on Times of India's Crest edition website.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Credit Column (Outlook)

At the counter near the bank entrance, two women are helping illiterate women clients fill out their passbooks. Many other clients—again, women—stoop over women officials in their cubicles. There are no men here. This isn’t the all-women’s bank that Union finance minister P. Chidambaram proposed in the 2013-14 budget. It’s the Shri Mahila SEWA Sahkari Bank Ltd, Ahmedabad, one that has been around for 39 years.

In the late 1960s, Ela Bhatt, as chief of the women’s wing of a textile labour union, recognised the multiple problems faced by women workers and gradually organised them, by 1972, into the Self-Employed Women’s Asso​ciation (SEWA). Its founders soon realised that these working women needed savings and credit services, but existing banks weren’t keen on dealing with illiterate women, who wouldn’t know how to handle their passbooks, would arrive in work-stained clothes, often with babies in hand. So, two years on, SEWA set up a cooperative bank for women, beg​inning with 4,000 members.

Chidambaram plans to provide Rs 1,000 crore to set up an all-women bank in the public sector. SEWA Bank, in contrast, began with Rs 1 lakh, contributed by mem​​bers. Today, it has a working capital of Rs 200 crore and serves four lakh women.

Jayshree Vyas, 60, has been the managing director of the bank for 25 years. She says one of the chief objectives is to help poor self- employed women to keep out of the trap of borrowing from money-lenders. She tracks the capital-time chart of a typical client and points out how it starts with debt, moves into savings, and then on to business expansion and buying a house of their own. One example, albeit a client who’s just starting out, is Jyoti Makwana, 26, who makes and sells PoP figurines. Her working capital has come from the third loan she has taken from the bank. “At 1.5 per cent interest per month, it’s advantageous,” says the high school dropout.

But there’s more to the bank than just financial services, says Vandana Shah, 57, its general manager. She has been with the bank since 1976 and says it has been an innovator all along. “It’s only recently that the RBI came up with know-your-customer (KYC) guidelines, but we’ve been strict about that since inception,” she says. The bank now employs 250 officials at seven branches across Gujarat. But Shah remembers how a five-member team used to run the bank from the foyer of a textile unit, helping uneducated workers not only with their finances but also their personal problems.

Jaya Bhavsar, 46, a client who earns from stitching and embroidery, appreciates the personal touch. She took a loan for house repairs one-and-a-half years ago, and says the staff explains to her all the technicalities of repayment. She wouldn’t want to go to any other bank.

Much of this commitment has been won by the 150 community leaders, or “bank sathis”, who liaise between the bank and clients. Thanks in part to them, and to the staff’s attitude to clients, transactions worth Rs 1,500 crore took place at the bank over last year.

Lopa Raval, the cashier at the head office, says the work gives her satisfaction, and recounts one Saturday afternoon when a woman came crying to the bank after the counter had been shut, seeking withdrawal of money for her daughter’s hospitalisation. Of course, the bank obliged her.

As Raval speaks, an announcement is being made for clients to subscribe to the New Pension Scheme (NPS), for which the bank is an aggregator. But long before the NPS, SEWA Bank had tied up with Unit Trust of India to create a pension scheme for its clients, who otherwise wouldn’t have saved for old age. It had been inaugurated by Chidambaram. A case of grassroots inn​​ovation and initiative beating government. Of the minister’s proposed all-women’s bank, Vyas says she’d like to wait and watch, for “we are yet to see whether it will reach rural areas and whether its systems will suit poor women”. SEWA Bank could perhaps give them some valuable lessons.

Read article here on Outlook website

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