Asha Kamble, 34, grew up watching Udaan on Doordarshan, a TV show based on the life of police officer Kiran Bedi.
Since then, she dreamed of growing up and doing what Bedi was: helping people. When she turned 10, the dream took concrete shape: she decided that she would try and get into the Indian Police Service, like her role model did.
Her circumstances were hardly ideal. As she studied under the light of a kerosene lamp in a slum in the Malvani area of Malad, her father, an alcoholic cobbler who earned Rs 25 a day, would taunt her for “wasting” his money on fuel. It only made her more determined to fashion a better future. In her books, she found an escape from the misery at home.
She topped her Marathi-medium municipal school in Class 10, helped by one NGO, which paid for her books and other expenses (see ‘Education’), took a BA in sociology and a diploma in business management.
She didn’t become a police officer, but did realise her dream of helping people. In 1996, she co-founded a non-profit group called the Navnirman Samaj Vikas Kendra, whose slogan is “autonomy, not charity.” She heads the group’s micro-finance division, earning Rs 27,000 a month. Micro-finance gained popularity in the early 1990s, led by non-profit groups such as Pradan and Myrada (See ‘Economy’).
“I’m helping people the way people helped me,” she said. Her division has given loans to about 3,000 city families in the northern suburbs; she also gives business advice to some.
Walking through the Malvani market last week, Asha pointed to many shops that have benefited from these loans.
One of her most rewarding loans, however, was to a blind lady, who used to beg at Andheri station. Asha’s unit gave her a loan of Rs 3,000, with which the lady started selling lottery tickets. Then she set up a shop that also sold notebooks and toys. Eventually, she managed to buy a house.
Asha remembers her own struggle and the time when sewage and water would flood her home made with cardboard walls. “We had no electricity until I entered Class 10,” she recalled.
Her father passed away when she was in Class 12, and as the eldest child, she had to run the family; her mother was unemployed and illiterate. Asha was determined to educate her two younger brothers, ensuring that both got bachelors’ degrees.
While studying she also worked, juggling a job as a tuition teacher to students of Class 8 to 10 with her duties as a credit collector for the Sahyog Co-operative Credit Bank.
She also had an innate business sense, honed by her avid reading of newspapers. She saved, took loans and over 15 years kept moving into sturdier rooms within the slum. She did this by figuring out that it was ultimately cheaper if she paid the entire money for the rooms upfront in the form of a “heavy deposit” instead of paying monthly rent. She raised this money by saving and taking loans. Eventually, she invested in shares and a room in Virar, which she rented out.
Standing in her one-bedroom flat in a private society in Malvani not far from where she grew up and which she bought for Rs 6.5 lakh with her husband, a childhood friend, she said with a smile: “From rising inflation, I could tell that property rates were on the rise.”
In between giving her maid instructions and talking to her nine-year-old son Yash, who goes to an English-medium school, she added: “I have got everything I ever set out to get.”
She is doing a part-time MBA in social entrepreneurship at the reputable NMIMS business school in Vile Parle but is struggling to keep up because she is not fluent in English, a result of her initial social handicap.
“I take longer than others to submit projects,” she said. “And I still get C and D grades because I can’t communicate what I want. I have never been a bad student. I can’t handle it.”
Not one to give up, she has begun taking English tuitions from a retired professor in Malad, which she packs into an already gruelling schedule that includes a full-time job, a part-time MBA and family life.
Characteristically, she is also planning her future. “I will retire at 45,” she said. I’ll get my money working for me and take refuge in the Himalayas.”