In a worrisome trend becoming visible now, micro-credit based self-help groups (SHG) appear to be caste driven.
Equally disturbing is the fact that these groups, which were meant to empower the weaker sections and address their social needs, seem to push them further into marginalisation as they corner the benefits of micro-financing.
In a presentation to the Planning Commission on "SHGs, Empowerment and Poverty Alleviation" on Tuesday, a group of NGOs quoted a recent study showing that 80 per cent of the 214 SHGs it surveyed were single caste, with the SC, ST and minorities accounting for only 7 per cent of these. The backward and the backward classes also accounted for 7 per cent. The survey was part of a study done in 2006 by M Harper on SHGs in India and focussed on Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Rajasthan.
"This trend is available also in states like Gujarat," said Jhanavi who is associated with Anandi, a community based women's organisation in Gujarat.
Coming in the wake of the euphoria of the Nobel Peace Prize being given to Muhammad Yunus, the idea behind Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, Soma K Parthasarathy (Nirantar), K Lalitha (Yugantar) and Archana, a reseacher sought to bring out the myths and realities about SHGs and micro-financing institutions which tend to see micro finance as the solution to women's poverty or empowerment when it is only one element in the larger framework of development need.
They group of activists pointed out that while the SHGs did improve access of credit to women, the benefit has not reached the interior and tribal villages and SCs and women-headed households. In fact, they pointed out that the poor women are often asked to take on the burden of their own poverty alleviation, specially when it comes to repaying the loans which they take often to meet the family’s needs.
"For women's empowerment to be addressed, women need to be enabled to define their priorities and demand their rights," they said.
The group wants the Planning Commission to include certain initiatives in the 11th Five Year Plan. This includes establishing Regulatory frameworks for the functioning of the micro-credit institutions, asking these institutions to contribute to a Women's Crisis Fund to address women's needs and involving panchayati raj institutions in this exercise.
The need to regulate micro-credit based SHGs—which began operating in a big way in the early Nineties—is considered imperative as there are seven million of them, with Andhra Pradesh topping the list of states they operate from.