By Swapna Majumdar,Womens Feature Service
Rani, 35, loves to watch Hindi soaps. Her husband has just bought her a television after two decades of marriage. But this is not why she is happy about her life with him. It is the toilet he constructed for her before buying the television that thrilled her more.
This new facility is dear to Rani because she no longer has to wait until dark to relieve herself in the open in the Naubasta Khurd area in Sadar block of Lucknow where she stays with her husband and three children. She is happy that she was able to make her husband understand that the need for a toilet at home is greater than that of a TV. “It was hard to ask for a toilet when we were living hand-to-mouth with the little money he earned as a rickshaw puller. But now things have changed. It is not just my husband who owns a rickshaw I, too, am its joint-owner. So I could ask for a toilet,” she says with a bright smile.
It is not Rani alone who now has a more comfortable existence. There has been a visible transformation in the lives of those rickshaw pullers – and particularly their wives – who became members of the Rickshaw Sangh in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Launched in 2008, the Sangh is empowering these women by helping their husbands to buy rickshaws. In addition, it is helping to bring in income security, confidence and dignity to their occupation and also linking them to financial and social services.
Conceptualised by the America India Foundation (AIF), a Delhi-based non governmental organisation, the initiative ensures that the ownership of the vehicle is joint, something that has contributed to shared decision-making and an improved status of the women.
According to Pradeep Kashyap, Vice President, AIF, the decision to make ownership joint was deliberate. “We realised that we could address gender inequality by giving the women equal ownership of the rickshaw. Once women become joint-owners, it really boosts their confidence and also motivates them to ensure that loan repayments are regular and timely,” he says.
In fact, it was their experience from earlier livelihood programmes, which showed that when women were made partners, there was an improvement in the quality of life of the entire family. This was another reason for insisting on joint ownership says Hanumant Rawat, Director of AIF’s livelihood programmes. “We saw that the women are more responsible and committed. So after they join the Sangh, Joint Liability Groups (JLGs), similar to self help groups, are formed with both the husband and wife as members. All members take a pledge to attend meetings regularly and repay the loan every week as responsible members of the group. Also, they pledge that the increased income will be used for the family. This is why we insist that ownership be joint, so that we are able to achieve the dual objective of addressing their economic and social vulnerabilities as well as empower their wives by giving them equal ownership of their source of income. Till date, there has not been a single default in payment,” Rawat reveals.
Once the first loan is repaid, the women are inspired to augment their incomes further. Sabina, who jointly owns a rickshaw, has taken a loan for a cart. She intends to sell roasted peanuts in and around Khadra, where she stays, since it does not require a very big investment. “I am happy that together we are able to give our children a better future. If my husband wants to spend the money on something else, I will stop him. I am confident that he will listen to me because, after all, I also own the rickshaw along with him.” Sabina has four children and has big plans for their future.
In Lucknow, over 400 rickshaw pullers already own their vehicle and 1,200 are in the process of becoming owners in the next couple of months. Another 1,500 rickshaws and carts were handed over in November last year.
What makes this initiative innovative is that money is not given directly to the rickshaw pullers or their families. Instead, the Sangh is the face for these families, negotiating loans from public sector banks like the Central bank and Punjab National Bank. Once the AIF provides the first loan default guarantee to these banks on behalf of the members of the Sangh – AIF gives this money from its own funds – the banks lend money to AIF’s local NGO partner. In Lucknow, it is Bhartiya Micro Credit that hands over the rickshaws to the members on the basis of weekly loan repayments designed to make them owners within a year.
There are an estimated eight million rickshaw pullers in India. About 95 per cent of them do not have sufficient money to buy their own rickshaw, so they rent them. Since they do not have access to bank accounts or formal credit markets, they are frequently exploited by the money-lenders, rickshaw owners and the authorities. This intervention, which also runs with the help of seven partners in Bihar and the National Capital Region region, in addition to UP, has so far helped over 12,000 rickshaw pullers and their wives become proud owners.
By becoming members of the Sangh, the rickshaw pullers are eligible for insurance, uniform, an identity card, a municipal permit, a driving licence and a bank account.
Recently, the Central Bank of India has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the AIF to provide loans for Rickshaw Sangh members. Says Sridhar, Chairman and Managing Director, Central Bank of India, “Rickshaw pullers need financial inclusion. They migrate from villages in hope of getting employment in cities. Rickshaws are the easiest form of earning money, as it does not require specialised skill. Since most of them hire rickshaws and have to pay a big percentage of their earning to the owners each day, they are unable to send their children to school or improve the quality of their lives. When we heard about the programme, we were very interested because it not only aligns with our commitments but also helps to promote gender empowerment. By partnering AIF’s programme, we will help families move out of poverty.”
Owning their rickshaws has meant that these families are able to save some part of their earnings. This has led several women, whose husbands had not joined the Sangh yet, to line up for membership. Vimla Devi, 35, lives near Rani’s home in Naubasta Khurd. Her husband used to be a painter but after seeing the change in the lives of Rani and her family, she has persuaded her husband to join the Sangh.
“I am also tired of going to relieve myself in the fields. By becoming a member, we will be able to earn enough to build a toilet,” she says.