N Chandra is a soft spoken lady who tends to ramble, especially when it comes to Mei Wei, the improbable Chinese-sounding name she picked for her modest sweets business in suburban Erode in Tamil Nadu. The 48-year-old is boss to 19 employees at a small godown where her company, Chiki’s World, makes a variety of local sweets like thaen mittai (honey sweet) and ellu urundai (sweet sesame balls) under the Mei Wei brand.
“My son chose the name,” she said when questioned about her choice. “A lot of my clients kept asking me what it meant. I told them I have no idea. Then my son checked on the internet and told me it means arusuvai (six different tastes),” she added.
In just a few years, Chandra has gone from being an employee at a supermarket to owner of Chiki’s World, which clocks sales of 25,000 rupees per day. Born to parents who worked as bonded labourers in a matchstick factory in Bhavani near Erode, she was forced to drop out of school after the third grade due to extreme poverty.
Five years ago, Chandra started a women’s self-help group (SHG) amongst the staff at the Nilgiris supermarket where she worked, pooling in 25 rupees per head every week. The sum would be used regularly by the saleswomen to meet additional family expenses. The entrepreneurial bug bit her as she realised that supermarkets needed to stock quality sweets. Out of the 15 women in her SHG, only three decided to take the plunge with her. Investing 30,000 rupees each, the women started Chiki’s World with a single stove and one gas cylinder.
Bank loans soon followed, thanks to the SHG, and Chandra, fighting against the tide, slowly built up the business. Two-and-a-half years ago Chandra’s husband Natarajan passed away. She said there was no support for her from the banks or government during this period of grief and loss, despite being a reliable borrower who repaid her loans on time.
“The government gives us a lot of help but they hit harder when we are down,” she said. “When I am falling, the government and banks don’t say – don’t worry, go ahead, we will give you some more time. I was lost for about a year when my husband died. Banks and government officials were unbearably rude to me despite knowing my position,” she added.
Chandra also says that the state can do more to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, by setting up retail SHG supermarkets in city centres that will enable them to get more buyers. “There is one small shop in Erode but it is on the outskirts and there are hardly any customers. We need space, stalls or something in the heart of the town so that lots of people can buy from these women-only shops,” she said.
Almost 150 kilometres away from Chandra lives A Maniammal, 57, a cook at the ladies hostel in Trichy’s Bishop Hebber College. She took up a steady job a little over a year ago because, she was unable to push her business dreams beyond a point. The head of 10 women SHGs in her area, Maniammal was hoping to start a small canteen to sell food. This was not to be. She alleges that access to credit for SHGs is not easy any longer.
“Earlier we were able to take loans with five SHGs coming together. Now only one group can get a loan, so the amount is smaller. Banks tell us that they are reluctant to disburse loans to women above 35 years of age. As if we won’t be able to repay it if we are older,” Maniammal explained.
“We have lost interest now. That is why I found a job. There is no income at all in SHGs,” she added.
First launched in Tamil Nadu in 1989, SHGs attracted a wave of aspiring women entrepreneurs who wanted to be financially independent. Tamil Nadu is a model for the country in terms of a flourishing SHG presence, especially among women. Since 2012-13 though, the country has shown a steady decline in the number of SHG savings linked with banks, according to the NABARD report of 2013-14 on the status of microfinance in India. Although the southern region fares a little better in the country in terms of non-performing assets (NPAs) relating to SHGs, Tamil Nadu is on the higher side of the list with 11% of SHG-related businesses being declared as NPAs. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh top the list with 20.07% and 19.31% NPAs respectively. As per latest state government records, there are 6.08 lakh active SHGs in Tamil Nadu with 92 lakh members. NABARD data shows that as of March 2014, the average loan per SHG was 2.54 lakh rupees with a total of 24,280.52 crore rupees worth of loans by SHGS with banks.
Political parties too view the women SHGs as an almost captive votebank and each party in power, whether it is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), tries to woo these women. In February, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa promised android smartphones with a special app to around 20,000 SHGs trainers in rural areas under a scheme worth 15 crore rupees, called the Amma Mobile Phone Scheme.
Little access to cheap credit
Along the busy truck route in Theni, a row of small shacks do brisk business. These puncture shops – with spellings ranging from ‘puncher’ to ‘panjar’ – are not out of the ordinary, except for one. Forty-three-year-old K Latha runs the little shop and cuts an incongruous picture – a slender lady fixing huge truck tyres from 6.30 am to 6pm every day. She has been doing this for the past 22 years.
Married when she was 18, Latha said she struggled to bring up her daughters and help support her ageing father who was unable to work. “I have two elder brothers, one elder sister and two younger brothers, and none of them chipped in to help take care of father. I thought about what to do. I have studied only up to the ninth grade. The only skill I know is the one that I learnt watching my father – repairing punctured truck tyres. So I decided to set up a shop next to his and help him,” she said.
Latha said she has a debt of three lakh rupees – loans taken from private moneylenders for her daughters’ weddings – which she is struggling to repay on her earnings of 400 rupees a day. “I wanted to expand my business. But I already have so much debt. The Theni collector helped me to get a loan once from the bank. After I repaid that loan, I went back to the bank to borrow some more. The bank refused, saying I had no collateral,” she said. Latha feels that taking loans from private sources is not a good idea – the interest rate is too high and no business can flourish with such high repayments.
Over 200 kilometres away, a young 30-year-old home-maker and mother of one, S Latha, lives in the urban slum of Indira Nagar in Uraiyur near Trichy. Her husband works as a driver in Singapore and rarely visits. She said she has a lot of free time on her hands and is confident of making something of herself.
“I know tailoring. I just need 50,000 rupees to one lakh rupees initially. I can stand on my own feet if I have access to this money. I have tried asking for loans from banks but they do not give without collateral. I don’t own a house,” she said.
S Latha alleges that government schemes and help from local politicians are available only to supporters of the ruling party in that area. “People like me need government help for such small businesses,” she said. “I have the knowledge but I am unable to do it.”
Lakhs of women in Tamil Nadu aspire to stand on their feet to assert their rights and independence. They are demanding that politicians pay heed to making situations and processes easier for them to help themselves.