Founding India’s first bank for women, by women, she’s turning them into entrepreneurs with small collateral-free loans: Chetna Gala Sinha

Chetna Gala Sinha, a crusader and a feminist, believes in the power of microfinance, to turn the fate of a woman and her village around. By providing small loans and vocational education to the women, her Mann Deshi Foundation is bringing “hisaab, hunnar and himmat” to several rural hamlets in India.

“I would dream about ‘total revolution,’ but the more time I spent in Mhaswad, the more I realised, change came down to rudimentary, individual issues such as not having toilets. What was required were smaller, daily interventions,” says Sinha.

Rather active in the JP movement, it was when she was summoned to the drought-prone village of Mhaswad in Maharashtra’s Satara district that she met her now husband, Vijay Sinha, and soon married him and moved from Mumbai, her birthplace and home, to Mhaswad permanently.

Realizing how little avenues there were for villagers to save money and procure capital, she urged the women to organise themselves into SHGs, and started a general credit cooperative society. In February 1997, with 840 members, all women, contributing a share capital of Rs.600,000 and the necessary paperwork and approvals in place, they procured their licence from the RBI. Today, the Mann Deshi Bank, with nine branches, has a working capital of more than Rs.1.5 billion. “We lend Rs.670 million annually, and will become a Rs.1-billion bank this March,” she informs us.

They then began working on a microcredit product — that is, a mechanism to provide small loans to poor, unemployed women who do not qualify for traditional credit. “We listened closely to their needs. Street vendors who would sell in the scorching sun every day, and then get sick especially in the summers and lose out on their working days, became our main initial clients and we granted them loans for umbrellas. We would customise the loans for goats, chickens, and cows,” she says. To boost efficiency, the bank was computerised at the get-go. “It cost us Rs.200,000, but I wanted the bank to be as modern as any other.” Within three years, the bank recovered its original overheads.

Since the 73rd amendment had been implemented, she started training women for the political line of fire. The Foundation then decided to take all its solutions to the doorstep — which inspired the “Business School on Wheels”. The state-of-the-art bus travels with computers and micro ATMs, and has the provision to not only impart direct vocational skills such as screen-printing, chutney-making and bag-making, but also a ‘Deshi MBA’. “Confidence building, financial literacy, spoken English and basic computer skills are taught, and any woman can join any day,” says Sinha. Half a million women have been trained through this initiative, across Silvassa, Hubballi, Dharwad, Chiplun, Pune, Nashik, Satara, and Kolhapur.

Global plaudits are streaming for an unapologetically local solution, bringing Sinha closer to her ultimate goal of building an all-women bank at the global level someday.

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