“The SJSRY scheme should be continued as it was. It has been altered now in an unfavourable way.”

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A group of 30 business women form Mumbai went on a pleasure cum educational trip to Bangkok in January this year. There’s nothing extraordinary about that apart from the fact that it took them many months of saving, planning and effort to do it. They are first generation business women from the margins of the Maximum City. They began their long journey out of the slums of the city. Their startups had survived the test of time, fierce competition and inexperience. It is not ever so often that this happens in the city of opportunities especially, not on the wings of a government policy for poverty alleviation.

Anuradha Kalhan spoke to Manisha Katke and Vaishnavi Sawant from the group to know the struggles and success of these enterprising women. Here is their story…

Why and how did all 34 of you choose to go to Bangkok?
Manisha: We are all members of Self Help Groups (SHGs) started under the guidance of Community Development Officers (CDOs) of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) under the centrally sponsored policy called Swaran Jayanti Shahri Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY). So we share a common platform. For a decade now we have been running our small enterprises based on our group savings, loans with government subsidy and training. None of us had ever travelled abroad; we had seen films and pictures and we all wanted to go. Our CDO was about to retire and she suggested we make that giant leap. Our CDOs accompanied us. We looked at the options offered and only Bangkok and Sri Lanka fitted in our budget. We chose Bangkok after we heard that it has a flourishing market and many women operating in it.

Vaishnavi: Yes, our budgets, our desire to look at other markets specially markets where women participate actively and the guidance of our CDO are the reasons we had the courage to think of it and then decided to go to Bangkok.

What problems did you face in organising the trip?
Manisha: The most difficult part was making passports. We had to collect required documents which none of us had in any kind of order. It took six months just to collect address proof, marriage certificates, and school leaving certificates, name change affidavits.

We did it ourselves. The next hurdle was that many ladies in the group, who were very keen to go, did not have enough savings to pay up their share. They did it slowly over months.

Do you think the trip was worth the effort?
Manisha: Yes, certainly. The main purpose of the trip was to see other markets and specially women working and handling business. We saw a lot of women working enthusiastically, politely and systematically where ever we went. What we also noticed was that there was a high level of discipline, processes and system in every aspect of the country. That and the cleanliness really impressed us. I think in India we are far behind in all these dimensions. We are not even ten percent there.

Where would you like to go next, why and when?
Manisha: We are thinking of going to Sri Lanka next, to learn what we can from that country. It will take us two to three years to generate time and resources.

Vaishnavi: If I wanted to go for sight-seeing, I would go to Switzerland. But to see a big market perhaps Dubai would also be a good place.

What did you like most about Thailand?
Manisha: We noticed that no matter how angry they are, they talk very softly, kindly and politely. The management of systems is so efficient that everything is orderly, clean and tidy. If the market is to close at 5.30 pm it will close exactly at that time. We enjoyed the Alcazar show, the grace and beauty of the dance, very much.

Vaishnavi: I liked many things, but most of all the peaceful, efficient systems in place for traffic and public hygiene and general cleanliness. The attitude and behaviour of people is remarkable.Women are active in all spheres, are skillful and have good business acumen. They make their own decisions, even about marriage. There is a lot to learn from them.

What did your friends like about the place? Did you discuss it with them?
Manisha: Yes we discussed among us what we observed. We noticed how they manage their waste and how everyone participates in keeping everything clean as if they owned the city and the country not just their homes. They even treat gay people respectfully. There was a market named Indira and in that and in other markets we saw so many women, all of who were working safely, confidently and enthusiastically.

Vaishnavi: We mostly liked the same things, especially the floating market and to see women multi-tasking.

What do you all manufacture in Mumbai?
Manisha: We do an assortment of things within our SHGs. My group manufactures jute bags, some make leather bags, garments, others jewellery, files, paper products, liquid soap, phenol, etc. Others run a restaurant, some do catering etc. Most of our exhibitions and sales are CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities of companies.

We have learned the important requirements of a viable business. We have learned to treat our business like our baby, to deal with customers politely and honestly,make our products as well as we can and as neatly as possible. If the products are costly we should be able to explain why.

Vaishnavi: I operate a food business. We run a tea stall along with four women from my SHG. We undertake catering; make festival sweets and other edibles.

Other women in the group make candles, perfumes, jewellery, garments etc. We try to become more and more financially and mentally capable.

Tell us how you began your work?
Manisha: It is a long story and an intense struggle; you see all of us were very poor, struggling with low and unsteady family incomes, hounded by money lenders in our slum. Then we heard of this government policy SJSRY and formed Bachat Gat Self Help Group (SHGs). We would meet every month and pool our savings, then got linked to some public sector bank when we started SHG account. We started some work in packing and after five to six years we started the jute bag business as our own venture.

The biggest problem was finding buyers, marketing our products. Initially MCGM gave us somevenue for selling but it did not bring us enough demand, so we didsome exhibitions and slowly got involved with exhibitions as part of CSR activities of firms. To be able to deal with that world we took a personality development course, learned to make power point presentations, dress and conduct ourselves with some confidence.

Vaishnavi: We began our work on a pani-puri handcart outside a garden. We used it in the off hours like mornings to sell tea. Then we got a stall of our own for selling snacks and tea. We did this for 13 years. More recently, we have bought a small shop for a restaurant in Panvel.

What was the most difficult part of your life in Mumbai once you came here after marriage?
Manisha: The most difficult part was living in a slum in a 10 ft x 10 ft room with my in-laws. It was a nightmare. I had a bigger room to myself in the village.

Vaishnavi: Everyone in my home opposed me when I wanted to start the tea selling venture on the roadside. Even my own family was very embarrassed. Our neighbours and friends teased us a lot.

How did you overcome your problems?
Manisha: One cannot overcome any problem in the city without money. We did many things to earn money till we finally settled in this business. We have now bought larger homes.

Vaishnavi: I decided in my heart that I would not turn back from my venture. My friends in the SHG stood by me. Our trust and support for each other was firm, steady and strong. Our dream of owning a shop and keeping its name ‘Jai Mahalaxmi Bachat Gat’ has finally come true. Our hardwork has been rewarded. The same people who teased us earlier now appreciate us.

What help did you get from the government, MCGM and others?
Manisha: We got support, training and loans under SJSRY. Loans with a subsidy, when we paid that back we got a bigger loan of ` five lakhs for our business. This was the best and biggest help we have ever got fromany government. The SJSRY scheme should be continued as it was. It has been altered now in an unfavourable way.

Vaishnavi: The biggest help was our CDO who showed us the way forward, gave us confidence and encouragement. That and the loan and subsidy that followed changed our life.


Anuradha-Kalhan

Anuradha Kalhan is an independent researcher. She was earlier a Fellow at NMML, Teen Murti.

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