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Over the last few years, especially in the last five years, every one in the social development sector is talking about SHGs in glowing terms. This includes NGOs, aid agencies, government, bilateral and multilateral agencies, the World Bank (!) and even the media. Every development stakeholder is talking of promoting, strengthening and working through (and with) SHGs. No one wants to be left behind. The result is that SHGs have proliferated all over the country. Some glimpses

  1. A major financial institution claims that in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra they have access to 120,000 SHGs of which 50,000 are Good (whatever that means)
  2. The biggest civil society programme in the country uses number of SHGs they ‘have’ as a parameter of success!
  3. A very senior IAS officer talks only of promoting and strengthening SHGs……..

I have not been able to meet a single woman, from any community, class or caste who is not a SHG member!!!! Some are members of multiple SHGs… That is natural with the SGSY, PEEP, DPAP, MERC, DRDA and other schemes…….

One gets a feeling that SHGs are a panacea…. But then the puzzle remains… When there are so many SHGs engendering empowerment

  1. Why are women so poor?
  2. Why are they still oppressed?
  3. Why are 86% of all women abused at least once in their lives? Why do 56% of them face abuse regularly?
  4. Why is the sex ratio around 920? Why is the 0-6 year sex ratio even worse?
  5. Where has it all gone wrong?

I think that the fault is not at all with the concept. That’s BRILLIANT. After how can the concept of ‘Self Help’ be wrong? Hidden in that is awareness and action : precisely what Paulo Freire has preached many years ago when he spoke of conscientisation.

What should a SHG be doing?

  1. Providing a forum for women to get together….
  2. Enabling them to access information and increase their awareness….
  3. Building social capital……
  4. Enabling them to share their grievances and frustrations…..
  5. Helping them help each other by presenting a united face……. How many men would have the guts to abuse their wives if ten of her friends are standing by to help her and take action?
  6. Ensuring women understand and enjoy their rights by having the courage to fight for them.. can a gram panchayat really ignore the wishes of all women in the village? Especially if they have accurate information and are willing to fight….

How many SHGs we see are doing this? I don’t want to guess and preempt you but believe me the percentage is abysmally low……….

WHERE ARE WE GOING WRONG THEN?

The first thing wrong is the nomenclature……. NGOs (and their aid agencies) and Government officials have grown used to forming Savings and Credit Groups (SCG) or even Thrift Groups and then calling them Self Help Groups. Is it not strange? I can understand an SHG which is also a SCG but not the other way round….

Another thing that is worse is the process…….. in my work I have occasion to undertake a number of evaluations / assessments / training. I always ask a question of the NGO field workers…. ‘How much time does it take to form a SHG?’…….. the answers range from 1 meeting to 2 months…… Joking are they? No they are not………. Its actually very simple….

Like I said before almost all women in this country must be aware of savings groups by now……. The workers job is simple… (s)he walks in.. calls a meeting.. says ‘you should form a savings group (bachat gat). You can then get money when you want and at less interest rates as compared to the money lender. After six months you can get Rs. 25,000/- from the bank (there is a government scheme for that) and then after repaying that you can get Rs. 250,000/- (another scheme). You can also get bank loans for business…. Think about it…….. which woman would be able to resist that spiel? No one…….. and then presto………. A SHG is born… One output achieved……… and if processes like understanding each other, internalizing the reasons for getting together, choosing the leaders, knowing the method of operations etc are given the short shrift…….. so be it……. Who cares………. I have met field workers who have told me brazenly “Bhau I do not work in that Kolam (a very poor primitive tribe) hamlet at all.. I went twice but the women are not interested in forming an SHG”

The result……….. an explosion of groups all over the country……. Groups involved in meaningless activities……… or no activity at all…….. field workers doing all the work of collecting savings, filling passbooks, writing minutes of meetings, deciding on loans etc…….

For long NGOs working on soft issues of empowerment were unable to show outputs unlike their more fortunate infrastructure brethren………. SHGs have solved this problem…. Now there is something to show…….. ‘fast to form and easier to show’……(sounds like a instant noodle ad)……. So endemic is this much phenomenon that now we have SHGs of men and also mixed SHGs!

I think it is time to wake up and look at the quality of these SHGs……. By that I don’t mean the bank / CRISIL or any other rating! (incidentally I don’t have any problems with forming savings groups… they have their uses…… limited though they may be……. In fact they can be excellent starting points……… but definitely not the ends) Let us go to the roots of why we are forming SHGs in the first place…….. then lets evaluate whether we are achieving the aims we set up for ourselves……. We cannot fool too many people……. For too long……. In any case we can feel free to fool ourselves……. let us spare a thought for the women………. Let us use the SHG as it is meant to be………. Today most of us are merely (mis)using the wonderful concept of SHGs for functions they were not meant for…. Akin to using a magnificently crafted Samurai sword for chopping vegetables….

These are obviously my personal views…….. I welcome dialogue……..

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