Published on March 15th, 2014 | by Jehan Raffiuddin
FAB WOMAN: Chetna Sinha
‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013’ and recipient of the 2005 Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar award for rural entrepreneurship, meet Chetna Sinha – Founder of Mann Deshi Mahila bank and a social activist who has persevered spectacularly in her mission to empower women in rural India.
An economist, farmer, and activist, Chetna Sinha born and brought up in Mumbai and today, works to bring about sustainable social change in some of the poorest and most drought-stricken areas of rural India. After leaving the city life and settling down in Mhaswad, a village in Satara district, she married Vijay Sinha, another activist-farmer and whole-heartedly chose to pursue a career in farming. It was here that Chetna experienced, firsthand, the biggest roadblock to empowerment of rural women — lack of access to financial services leading to debt. Determined to bring about a change that would change the course of rural banking, Chetna founded India’s first co-operative rural financial institution – the Mann Deshi Mahila bank. Today, this insitution is the largest microfinance bank in Maharashtra with over 185,000 clients and a pioneer in the microfinance world of India that offers individual and group loans, savings, insurance and pension plans. What is unique about this fully-computerised bank is that it offers weekly and fortnightly credit and savings schemes to its customers, most of whom are daily or weekly wage earners. Believe it or not – it also provides daily loans for buying vegetables or fruits! With 48,000 members and assets worth 90,000,000 rupees ($2m), the bank enjoys a repayment rate of 97.5% and has already created 16,720 women entrepreneurs in the region around Mhaswad. These are mind-boggling numbers considering that her clientele mostly consists of poor women with annual incomes averaging 22,000 rupees ($490)!
As she delved deeper into the lives of the very clients she served, Chetna went one step further to found the Mann Deshi Foundation, an NGO to provide a variety of non-financial services to Mann Deshi Bank clients, such as financial and business management training, community radio, as well as women’s health and farming workshops. Before long, there was also the Mann Deshi Mahila Bachat Gat Federation (Self-Help Group Federation) – a non-profit association aimed at helping rural women entrepreneurs which today boasts of more than 2,462 SHGs. Since 1996, she has been organizing women in rural areas of Maharashtra in the fight for the land and housing property rights and has also launched a community radio station to build a platform for information sharing and creative self-expression among the community members of Mhaswad. In partnership with global organizations such as HSBC, British Asia Trust, Clinton Global Initiative and many others, she has also developed corporate community partnership programs which allow the corporate sector in the U.S. and Europe to get a unique view of the impact that micro-finance initiatives have on the local rural population.
“Our bank demonstrates the effectiveness of microfinance as a financial tool to reach out to the poorest of the poor. We would like to expand our activities to encompass migrant workers and street vendors in urban areas,” says Chetna. “We have shown that banking with the poor isn’t always a loss-making proposition,” she adds. “Each success story has inspired more innovation and creativity.”
With an aim to support one million women entrepreneurs by 2020, Chetna Sinha is a true inspiration. We’re blown away by her determination and dedication to empower rural women in the country and it was truly an honour and privilege to speak to her. Here’s some of our conversation with her for you below:
FAB BAG: What was the toughest challenge you faced when you decided to build Mann Deshi Bank?
Chetna: When RBI rejected the license because the women who were going to be running the bank were illiterate, I was shattered I returned to the village in tears. I thought I let down all the women that were a part of this journey. But to my surprise it was these women that told me, “So what if they rejected it… we’ll educate ourselves, learn to read and write!” It is honestly these women that have made all of this possible
FAB BAG: If you had to start something new, what would it be?
Chetna: A bank in a very different way. I would encourage weekly markets, banking ATMs and so much more.
FAB BAG: What keeps you motivated?
Chetna: It is these women that keep me going. I’d like to share an example with you: Bainabai Kantilal Sagar used a Mann Deshi loan to start a tea shop, where she made tea on a stove which used her domestic gas connection. Ms. Sagar didn’t know using gas subsidized for home use in a business was against the law until the police stormed into her shop and arrested her. When she called me I immediately released her from police custody. I thought she would have been crushed but she told me, I’ll get myself a commercial gas, sell tea and still make a profit. It is these stories that keep me motivated.
FAB BAG: Happiness to you is?
Chetna: Happiness is helping change the life of women. I’d like to share another story with you: Our Bare Footed Running Champion Kajal Aatpadkar comes from a very poor family. For six months out of the year, she lives and goes to school in Mhaswad, but for the six remaining months, she migrates with her parents to the sugarcane plantations six hours away. Her physical exercise teacher realized her talent and requested her parents to not take her to the fields. She then trained her well as a result of which Kajal completed 400m in 2mins and 3 secs and was selected by Balewadi national sports school.
FAB BAG: What’s that one message you’d like to give our member?
Chetna: Just because a woman may be illiterate, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything, but the truth is if explained to her she understands it all
Here’s a video of Chetna’s speech at a TEDx event:
Parting Shot: Chetna is a woman of substance. Inspite her proposal being rejected by the RBI, she did not quit and used all the positivity around her to stand back up and try again. After all that she has achieved, she is still humble enough to admit that it is the inspiration she gets from women around her that has contributed to the success of Mann Deshi Group. To all those reading this we’d like to leave you with this note, “Sometimes it’s just the people around you that make all the difference and when life gets hard, they stand by you to make you stronger than you ever thought you could be”
The *FAB* Women initiative by FabBag.com celebrates the occasion of Women’s Day all through the month of March with an aim to inspire women across the country by sharing stories of ordinary women with extraordinary lives. If you liked reading Chetna’s story, please leave a comment below and share this article. It’s now your turn to spread the inspiration.