It is Women's Day today. Celebrate away, but what about the rest of the 364 days? Here is some food for thought:
The Multipurpose National Identification Card (MNIC) could go a long way to solving some of the larger, yet smallest, economic problems India faces. The vast population has been the biggest hurdle in enforcing any kind of reform or workable schemes with ease and because of the country’s natural attachment towards red-tapism, a bad situation is made worse.
Now take for example Kavita, – stuck in a thankless, often violent marriage. She has been told, as have countless other women in search of protection and help, that if they can only become economically self- sufficient it would greatly improve their lot in life. For Kavita, who has never heard of the Gramin Bank or micro-credit finance, the concept will soon become familiar. Trickle down economics has not brought about the results India’s poor need – trickle up is proving to be the next best option.
So Kavita joins a self-help group. Operating under the guidance of a NGO, she begins to save fifty rupees every month for six months. After that period, all twenty women in her group can open a joint bank account from which they can borrow for professional purposes. But because Kavita lives in the slums, she cannot be elected president, secretary or treasurer of the group – as the bank needs identification. She has no ration card. She has no house. This is the first time she is ever saving money. But this also means that only women with proper identification can serve as officers for their groups, and unfortunately equal opportunity is lost, and the NGOs can only train as officer’s women who already have a leg up – an address.
However, Kavita does manage to borrow funds as a regular member to join a training scheme. She learns to cook. The NGO and its parent organisation tie up with other places to ensure employment. For example, the Delhi Commission for Women has tied up with the MCD and one thousand government schools have arranged to have mid-day meals provided by the self-help groups. Kiran Walia of DCW explains that the larger objective behind the schemes is to provide minimum income to the women. It helps them put money in the bank for the first time. It does wonders for their self-confidence; even a small gesture like buying a gift for their child with their own money is a big step for them.
And Kavita’s world-view expands. She begins to understand the wisdom in saving and investing money. The NGO tells the women if they were to form a cooperative society, they could get a larger loan. Excited, she asks what needs to be done. The fee is a steep Rs 500 but she is ready to save. But then comes the clincher. She needs identification to join the cooperative. Again, she is left out in the cold.
Kavita’s story is certainly not unique. And it a sad testimony to the lack of progress the country has made that these schemes, aimed at the most destitute in the country, inadvertently keep them out. If their rules are not revised, we will have to accept that we continue to condone that we are a country of forgotten people. And it is this gap in connecting the schemes that is holding back these schemes. Consider the requirement of a ration card -- a permanent address. Now consider the plight of the lowest echelons of society, like Kavita – those that are migrants, those that live on the footpath, in jhuggis. Where is such an address? The same goes for acquiring a voting card, documents that validate your existence, for example, a drivers license, electricity bill and so on are acceptable. And so, under these rules, a women who is allotted a servants quarter can reap benefits, but it leaves out those that do not have a roof over their heads in the cold.
Perhaps there is a silver lining with the introduction of the MNIC, which can prove to be a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of the urban slums. Granted it will face similar hurdles, but no excuses can be made for not taking ground realities into account, and instead asking every citizen for their permanent address. It simply does not work. Her abusive husband may treat a woman like Kavita as a non-entity, but surely the government of India should not mete out the same treatment.
After all, even if the government has a hundred different schemes and departments for the poor, unless it learns how to connect all the dots, there will be leakage we simply cannot afford.