Chetna Gala Sinha has been working towards empowering the women of rural India to stand on their feet.
It was during the Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement in the ’70s that Chetna Gala Sinha met her husband — a farmer from Mann district — who was also a part it. Soon after, she left her job in Mumbai and decided to settle in the outer region of the state.
And thus began her journey of working closely with the community in Mann, in the district of Satara, leading to the foundation of Mann Deshi Foundation. The foundation, she explains, is dedicated to empowering female entrepreneurs and their communities.
But it was when a street vendor approached Chetna, asking her for help with kickstarting her financial savings, that she got the idea of starting a bank. The Mann Deshi Sahakari Bank was thus established in 1997, making it the first Indian one to be run by and for rural women.
“The banks wouldn’t open accounts for the street vendor because of their small incomes. So, I decided that if banks are not helping them, why shouldn’t I start a bank for them instead,” smiles Chenta.
Today it does business of over `150 crore, and over 4,00,000 women banking with them. Besides a bank to help rural female entrepreneurs, Chetna also started a business school in the region, as well as a community radio for the area.
“With all these initiatives, we have seen women entrepreneurs attending the business school, taking loans. They’re now running successful ventures,” she smiles, proudly.
Right from providing financial support to training, the foundation helps these entrepreneurs and artisans forge market linkages as well. With the same aim, the foundation has been organising Mann Deshi Mahotsav for the past seven years in Satara. And for last two years, Mumbai has played host to this fair.
“The idea is to bring these rural women entrepreneurs, artisans and farmers to sell their produces at a fair price. We also let women work on the dealing of their products themselves, giving them direct market access,” explains Chetna.
The event will have 90 rural entrepreneurs exhibiting a wide range of products, typical to the Mann region, like dried papad, chakli, pickles, chutneys and more. One will also get a chance to meet the rural entrepreneurs selling hand-made and embroidered textiles like shawls, saris, and dupattas, in prints commonly found in Mann.
But it hasn’t been an easy task for Chetna to put together. She smiles, explaining that she had to master the art of unlearning. “When I started off, I doubted the ability of these rural women. But I was wrong; they have so much energy and are full of zeal to do anything,” she affirms, adding, “The problem is we don’t see the strength of rural India. We assume that English-speaking people are much smarter.”
And these rural entrepreneurs are the motivation behind the activist’s continued efforts for the upliftment of the community. “These women inspire me to my core. They take so much risk and challenges. Not at any cost will they meddle with the quality of the product. They don’t think about how much money they are going to make, but focus on giving their best,” she concludes.
Till January 7, 10 am to 8.30 pm At Ravindra Natya Mandir, Prabhadevi