Monday, December 27, 2010

Chronicles of a 'Development Migrant' in Rajasthan

It’s been 4 months for me in Gogunda, Rajasthan now and I am filled with stories from the field. I’m presently working with the Rajasthan Shram Sarathi Association (RSSA) which is a section 25 company started by Aajeevika Bureau in 2006.

My Organisation

RSSA primarily provides general purpose loans and emergency loans to migrant households in the rural tribal belt of southern Rajasthan and destination centers of migrant workers in Gujarat. Other services include linking migrant families with insurance and pension plans provided by the state government and other private entities. There is a general perception here that RSSA is only a loan provider, but part of my role here is to change that image by popularizing financial products like insurance and pension as well as moving towards a ‘wealth management’ approach in our services. My main task is to create a financial literacy model, pilot test it in a few treatment villages and evaluate its impact. The idea is to create a model that can easily be adopted by organizations elsewhere with a few modifications here and there. Furthermore, during the course of my work I am required to identify gaps in financial services for migrant families and if necessary design new financial products and services that are relevant for migrant workers and their families.

What I’ve been upto

In the first few months, I’ve literally been in the field almost every day, with very little time in the office. It has been amazing sitting down with migrant families and understanding their lives and their money management strategies. Every migrant family has a different story and this makes my task seem all the more challenging. How do we reach as many households as possible without running the risk of falling into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach?

What’s more fascinating are the savings mechanisms that exist here in the villages of Gogunda and Kelwara blocks. Gullak Bachat is a common savings tool here. I will put up pictures soon. What RSSA does is provide a Galla or a tin piggy box with a lock. We lock it up and give it to each loan client so that they can save regularly. However, the key is kept with us. On the day of collection, the loan installment is usually adjusted from the savings made by the client in the Galla. It hasn’t benefited all families, but overall it seems to have become an effective tool to not only save but also pay loan installments on time. We are further exploring how we can further use the Galla to encourage better wealth management strategies by households.

Local moneylenders are also considered an effective savings avenue. In the past 2 weeks, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from the local staff is that a huge process of unlearning is so very essential if I have to understand financial behaviour of households here. For example, I was told that often people save Rs. 1000 with a local sahukar (moneylender) and then receive Rs. 900 at the end of one month. This may seem really stupid to an outsider (just as it did to me), but on closer scrutiny, it was found that the family valued 900 Rs. a month later when they had a baby due than 1000 Rs. today…because they knew if they had the money today they would spend it on unnecessary luxuries. This weird sort of saving mechanism takes quite a lot of time to digest (and I still haven’t been able to do so entirely).

I am the first female member of the RSSA staff and they’re quite thrilled about that. Most of the data that they have gathered in the past few years about financial behaviour of migrant households has mainly been sourced from male members. My role here is to actively involve women and even children in the wealth management process. The women here aren’t as passive as we think. They may be shy and quiet and docile, but they do have some smart ways of saving up cash in the home. Some of the women I spoke to hide money with wheat and corn, between saris, in small cracks in the walls, in earthen pots, in between photographs and where not. Understanding this in my opinion is crucial to developing the financial literacy model.

How can you help?
Please keep forwarding useful literature on financial literacy and financial behaviour of migrant households. I am still taking time to understand the financial dynamics of migrant households and the more I learn, the more complex it seems.

Also I would really appreciate any help on available insurance and pension products, particularly life insurance, personal accident insurance and health insurance for rural masses. I am already exploring the options available here such as RSBY, Rajasthan Vishwakarma Anshdai Pension Yojana, United India Insurance and Birla Kavach scheme. Any more schemes would obviously be useful to know.

On a Personal note…
Everything has been wonderful thus far !!!! I live in a small cozy room right next to the office. I have a wonderful family living downstairs who always have unlimited supplies of roti sabzi. That said, I cook every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I even wash my own clothes in the tiny little square that we call a bathroom and clean the place up whenever I find time.

Dhivya has been staying with me for a month because her room wasn’t available…but it is now and she will be moving in a day or two. I will certainly miss having her around and rambling about anything and everything late into the night…but I’m also looking forward to being a little more independent on the personal front.

When you look out my window, you will see corn fields encircled by the Aravalli mountains which are covered with a lush green carpet for now. I do have some rather friendly company in my room as well – two lizards, funny looking colourful insects from the corn fields and honey bees once in a while. I’ve become rather used to them now.

I love the people here. Everytime I go to buy vegetables or groceries I end up having tea with the chai wala or newspaper wala or the mithaiwala or bartanwala or people from the police force or anyone familiar whom I end up meeting. Even when I go for field visits, the villagers always forcefully stuff my bag with fresh vegetables from their fields. I am constantly touched by these little gestures that people here extend. Yesterday on my way back from a village, I met some one on the bus. Within a 30 minute bus ride she was so happy that she gave me a few wild bhindis and chillies that she had just plucked from here fields. Truly touched!

I am so thrilled to be here and spend the next 2 years working in such a warm, friendly environment and I can’t wait to have new adventures each day!!! I’ll just sign off with two lines from one of my favourite poets ‘Lord Byron’ in one of his poems called ‘The Dream’. It constantly reminds me that giving life to a dream is full of mixed experiences and the better prepared we are for it, the more we will enjoy the process!

And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

This be Ghana

Ghana?? Where exactly is that now? Not many of my relatives or friends know Ghana exists. “It’s in West Africa”, I say and then everyone goes “Ohhhh, okay”... The next question addressed to me with a genuinely concerned expression is – “So is it safe???” ... I say, “Why yes of course, one of the safest African countries actually”...At this point I get either one of two reactions or both: 1) Africa is a not a country?!?!?! And 2) How can Africa be safe????

I must admit, I wasn’t too familiar with the African continent myself until I went to South Africa and I too had misconceptions about Africa. It’s funny how we like to put the whole of Africa together and talk about it as one entity – Africa is not safe or Africa is so poor or Africa is so hot or there are so many wild animals n Africa... It is also strange that we let media images of a few places in Africa dictate our general mental image about the entire continent....and also how most media reports from the continent are always about something depressing and ominous.

After returning from Ghana, I had plenty of stories to convince people that there were many good things about Africa... or should I just say Ghana. I was working in Pokuase village, slightly over an hour from the capital city Accra and it was a huge learning experience. It had been 6 years since I went to South Africa, so just being back on the same continent made me feel happy. I always feel a great passion when I’m in Africa (I know I’m generalising again). It is just the energy and the people and the certain oomph that Africa embodies.

Ghana is possibly one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever been to. From the moment that I stepped into the country, I was greeted by smiling faces, and Akwaba’s all around. Akwaba is a Ghanaian word for ‘Welcome’. It’s a typical Ghanaian way of saying “Akwaba, You are welcome” infinite number of times. Even the village that I lived in was full of smiling faces. The walk to my workplace was about 20-25 minutes from where I lived. So each morning, during that 25 minute walk, every single person who walked past me would greet me with a “Good morning, how are you doing?” and a wide smile. The same happened on the walk back during the evenings. I was told by some of the locals that it was a good thing that I responded to their greetings because then I wouldn’t be considered an outsider. I would be a part of their community and so no one would mess with me and even if someone did the whole village would come to my rescue. Nice!

In terms of development, Ghana definitely has a lot of catching up to do. While it has much better development indicators than a lot of other African countries, some things in Ghana still need to evolve and transform, particularly their political system. They do have a democratically elected government, however most political debates centre around the ‘character’ of the leadership rather than their take on social issues. It is not unusual to turn on the radio and listen to one politician talk about how many boyfriends the other politician has and hence she shouldn’t be favoured in the forthcoming election. These were brought up even during my discussions with some of the locals. The younger generation however definitely seems much more informed and concerned about government policies and their international image.
Yet another disappointment was the work culture. Punctuality has yet to become trendy in Ghana. It might seem trivial now, given the other issues that they face, but punctuality is so crucial at any stage of development. How do you get work done if people are never on time? I was told by a local that this (not being on time) is part of their culture and I should enjoy it while I’m there. Seriously ?!?! By making it ‘cultural’ she almost made tardiness a perpetual, everlasting component of Ghanaian life. Such defeatist attitudes must be removed if change has to happen. Not just that, often when things got difficult, the general response I got was “Don’t worry, leave it to God”. Sure, it’s good to have faith in God, but well you need to do something too. I also noticed that Ghana doesn’t have a strong domestic industry of the kind that we can boast about in India. Most of the big companies are foreign MNCs and a lot of the contracts go out to Chinese firms.

That said, Ghana presents so much opportunity because of its open-mindedness and tolerant attitude. The village that I worked in was so open to changes, particularly when they were explained about the possible benefits. I hate to generalise, but often in India, we face major roadblocks in development interventions, largely due to a more rigid mindset and way of living.

Ghana has its own little quirks like any other country and that’s what makes it so endearing. Travelling in tro-tros, cheering for the Black Stars, listening to sermons in the most random places, buying Chinese herbs from a wannabe priest, drinking ‘pure’ water from the roadside plastic bags, the plantain chips, fufu, banku, red red, tilapia, okro stews, having 100% pineapple flavoured alcohol, swimming at Kokorobite, getting soaked in sweat only to be covered by orange dust, having conversations with random people on the street – Ghana definitely has given me some amazing memories and lots of stories. I return from Ghana with fond recollections of Pokuase and working with some amazing women. Ghana has infected me with her energy, passion, open-mindedness and zest for life. Some day soon when I go back, hopefully there'll be a different Ghana waiting for me – progressive, livelier and always on time :)