From a child labourer to an IITian, it has has been a long and arduous journey for Samuel. He would have ended up like many other child labourers in Andhra Pradesh had his mother Iyamma not taken a loan from a village Self Help Group (SHG) about a decade ago.
Now in the third year of his engineering course, that small loan has transformed Samuel’s family’s fortunes. They now have farmland and their own house in their native village Lodhipillai, says Vijaya Bharati, director, SMELC.
In 1991, the Self Mobilization Experimentation and Learning Centre (SMELC), the organisation that runs about 5,000 SHGs, was started as a small pilot project funded by the World Bank and assisted by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP). Since then, the organisation has helped over 2,000 families overcome poverty.
Sabira Begum is another beneficiary. Losing her husband at the tender age of 16 left the illiterate teenage mother of two — a girl and a 40-day old boy — with little hope. “I was being tossed between my in-laws and parents for survival,” she recalls. But her life changed when she met Vijaya Bharati in her village. “Bharati Amma took me in her arms and told me to be courageous. I joined a village SHG and became self-reliant,” she says, adding that since then, she has done her bit by educated womenfolk in Bihar to adopt the concept.
And there has been no looking back for Sabira. She earns Rs 6,000 a month, owns three houses and a shop, and her two children are in college. Being part of the network of SHG has also given her the confidence to head the village SHG.
The village SHGs (5,000 are part of SMILEC) run a unique micro-finance programme for womenfolk. To be part of an SHG, a woman has to deposit Re 1 every day. When the need arises, a member can withdraw her deposit and also take a loan at a very low interest rate, Bharati says. The SHGs also run the mid-day meal scheme in villages.
The SHGs joining hand to form SMELC has resulted in the organisation having a corpus fund of Rs 15 crore, helping it run computer education programmes, school education centres and nursing courses for child labourers. “Of the 1,050 girl child labourers in our education centres, 975 have got admission in government-run residential schools in a year in Kurnool district alone,” Bharati says. The first batch of 32 child labourers turning into qualified nurses will be deployed in health centres soon.
Bharati terms the organisation a successful ‘social lab’, where the life of every woman has changed. She quit her UNDP job in the late 1990s to continue with SMELC with the aim that there is “light in everybody’s life”.