Monthly Archives: April 2013

Microfinance: The misunderstood tool of poverty alleviation

Small businesses, poor farmers, seasonal makeshift occupants often face a credit crunch. Lack of provisions within the larger framework of the banking industry makes them shift towards traditional money lenders, liquidating immovable assets. The concept of micro-credit or micro-financing as we know of it today was introduced to meet the needs of these people. Financial services of micro-savings and small loans are made available to individuals or groups for any entrepreneurial activity. Micro-credit is a global concept today with roots in a majority of nations across each continent.

Women from a rural self help group in Golaghat district of Assam taking part in an SHG exhibition

Micro-finance but, has been misunderstood by many as a financial/economic tool that has the intrinsic potential to alleviate poverty.  Provisions for making microcredit available is to make people a little more independent economically so that they can choose better options for themselves and for their children. Poverty brings with it a whole lot of issues ranging from health, education, nutrition etc. It’s a trap where one gets engulfed into if ever they enter it. Micro-financing is one effort that can break open the trap of poverty so that people may find a way out of it. The judging of micro-finance as an innovation of ending poverty cannot be singularly based on its innate ability to end poverty. Other than the evident economic impact it has of helping small businesses grow, providing income generation etc, social and political developments are certainly aspects of the parallel benefits coming out of microfinance. Micro-finance incentivises people to come together and form interest groups (“Self Help Groups (SHG’s)”) to avail common banking facilities such as common savings account, group loans etc. In our recent survey of such SHG’s in Raigad and Thane districts of Maharastra, India we found a uniform agreement on benefits of microfinance. The women who were interviewed reported higher savings and lesser debt crisis than before. On educating their children, providing nutritional food and better healthcare facilities they had a better grip and awareness than before. Much of it has to be attributed to the microfinance NGO’s which organises training and awareness camps for the SHG members. Overall, the women could feel more independent than before and their participation in “gram-sabhas” (village level governing bodies) also increased. Through such ground level governance platform the unified women could speak to improve facilities of water, electricity etc. and remove social evils that affect the fairer sex. Moreover economic benefits can occur in more ways than just entrepreneurship. The sudden needs of the poverty stricken people often lead them to sell of their land and other immovable. Microcredit helps them address these needs in a much more planned manner. The lack of such facilities would have meant that their condition would have been worse off

Critics of microfinance often cite two arguments against it: First that microfinance has not been able to develop entrepreneurship as deemed and secondly that it has often led to severe debts to individuals. To turn poor below poverty line people into efficient entrepreneurs is not an easy task. It may not have had converted 100% of the businesses started by availing loans under microfinance into profitable and efficient businesses. But certainly the entrepreneurial spirit is visible among a few who would have otherwise shuffled from one government office to another. In many cases it has also proved itself by setting successful avenues of income. Micro-finance is the first impetus given for economic growth towards poverty alleviation. It certainly should not be held accountable for not leading to overnight growth of businesses more so when its added benefits of social equity and political independency are definite add-ons. Debt crises, further entanglement in the debt loop are externalities of every credit system. Traditional lenders with their high interest rate and flexibly return structure throw people into debt as their onus is to maximize profit for themselves. Microfinance institutions on the other hand aims at economic independence and sustainability and hence focus more on monitoring of the loans. Yet cases might exist in which the microfinance loan put a person into debt. Better monitoring and counselling on loan reimbursement will help improve this scenario. Microfinance as an institution is moving ahead with its goal of poverty alleviation through economic growth and social equity amidst misunderstandings and misnomers. Its flaws in the system are not inherent but situational and temporal. Efforts to fight those flaws are the need of the hour.


Can ULFA suggest us on Bihu?


It is painful to pick up the pen to write on the beloved Bihu and its current trends when the festive moods have not yet settled. As an Assamese it is always a proud affair to introduce Bihu among others as one of the few festivals that cut across religious and community lines to bring together the people of the blue hills and red rivers. It is a lifeline of the culture and traditions of the people of Assam. Late Radha Gobinda Baruah brought this institution from the fields and courtyards of the villages to the stages of Guwahati at Latasil. Since then till today Bihu programs have only been growing and today almost every locality celebrates or in other words organizes a Bihu function. While that seems like a good thing, recently such events and the artists performing in them have had to face criticism from various sections of the society. The principal allegation being that such events were diverging from the central idea and purpose of Bihu. Since the past few years stages have invited various artists from outside Assam as well to perform for the crowd. Mostly singers who were winners of reality shows came and performed popular Hindi numbers. Resentment from various sections of the society was visible. While some chose to voice against it overtly, covertly it was there in the minds of many and discussed in smaller circles. Various experts of the Bihu dance have also voiced against the growing commercialization and lack of interest towards the traditional and local art forms. A recent statement by the ULFA that notified Bihu committees to refrain from allowing performance of Hindi songs has caught the attention of many. Naturally words of agreement or of disproval have also started pouring in. This article has been written to view this proposition made by the banned outfit in singularity from all angles. Justifying anything about this particular move is not tantamount to giving a clean chit to them.

“A diktat is a statute, harsh penalty or settlement imposed upon a defeated party by the victor, or a dogmatic decree.” Before any discussion begins it can be very well realized that ULFA’s statement was far from this. It was one in its series of the perennial statements made to the people of Assam. Also important is to note that similar feelings have been spoken of by sections of the society previously to ULFA as well. Then why did this particular statement create such uproar? Was it a new way in which ULFA delivered its statement? Certainly not. It has always warned of consequences if their statements are not followed. Many a time their verdict has been overthrown by the people unless it is a call of Assam Bandh when it is overwhelmingly accepted. Indian citizens believe in the Indian democracy, it is ULFA who defies the Indian setup. As responsible citizen we must allow opinion to flow in even if it is by a banned outfit because at the end of the day their action does impact our consequences. Furthermore it is necessary that we keep rhetoric out of the picture and verify the basic premise and content of such a statement. Because rhetoric must have caused more harm to the state of Assam than any other in India. If we get provoked just because of the fact that ULFA made that statement and because of the fashion in which they did so, then we will hardly be able to distinguish ourselves from an irrational individual with preconceived notions.

So while narrating and analysing the incident two things are very important. Firstly these issues are always spiced up by agencies that can derive profit from it. Secondly it is important that we treat this statement as one in general instead of linking it time and again to ULFA as that makes the context lot more emotional. So after having said that there are few questions to which we must try and answer. Has Bihu been rooted deep into mainstream Assamese society that it faces no trouble in future? Are traditional rituals like Bihu dols performing Bihu at each courtyard still predominant in society? Lastly but very importantly are all folk performers economically sound and secured? If answer to any of the above is no then we must realize that although Bihu as a festival might still be having the same or greater love in our hearts, but on the ground times are changing. Unlike traditional celebrations Bihu stages are not an arena where everyone can be a spectator and a performer at the same time. The stage is set there for a bunch of performers to enthral a huge group of audience. So logically the stage cleared the space for more star performers or crowd pullers. So much so that today the first question that is raised by people regarding any Bihu function is, “who is the main artist?” Hence forth the focus and energy of most organizing committees have diverted towards collecting more funds to be able to afford such performers. Demand and supply takes its natural curve and hence forth the star performers cannot be blamed for it. It is the people and their judgements that are responsible for this. So given that these performers are heartthrob of the people who almost idolize them, they have a greater responsibility back to society, both in terms of their conduct and in order to maintain the legacy of our culture. Hindi might be one of the most popular languages of India and with the entry of bollywood into Assam few songs have gained mass popularity. The likes of Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar are still respected across the length and breadth of the nation including Assam. Music has no language, that’s true. But every musical concert or performance sticks to a genre or a set agenda unless it is a bollywood award ceremony. A rock concert can accommodate rock music in English, Spanish, and Hindi etc but certainly it won’t accommodate folk or metal.  Similarly is Bihu any other musical extravaganza or does it have significance? If we think it does have significance then is it not important to portray it in the correct light? Henceforth, out of the 52 weeks of the year leaving 1 week for our beloved Bihu should not be a difficult task. The reason we make this claim is because although some believe that Hindi songs are not an aggression to our culture, this capacity to visualize our culture comes only after a great deal of exposure. Most of the ears which are an audience to these Hindi numbers are but sadly unable to judge this perfectly.  Solely banning Hindi songs would not solve most issues faced by Bihu, may be it won’t solve any. But it is important that we look back at our age old tradition and try to rectify the steps that will help sustain it. ULFA raised an issue in this regard which must be logically dealt with rather than bringing it down in a jingoistic fashion by calling them murderers and extortionists. As free citizens we must be confident that our freedom to express has more power than their gun.  ULFA must be given the option to comment or suggest and we must consider that in our discourse rather than confirming it as a diktat.

558521_455785574496676_398625767_nIt can be agreed that when ULFA made this statement it was not one of the affirmatives. And people support affirmative thoughts rather than value judgements. Singularly taking a dig on Hindi songs and that too in a generalized negative form is what caused this trouble. But at the same time let us not refrain from looking at ourselves and realizing the double standards that we have set in our society. Many sections have repeatedly spoken against indecent behaviour of artists and on the issue of threat to Bihu due to entry of the Hindi songs. Just because ULFA made the statement made it much more lucrative for some to defy it for their benefit and for other to jump into that cult. Where do the same guts to defy their statement die out when a call for bandh is given? When dozens of people died in Rabha Hasong, when hundreds were drowned in Dhubri the front pages of the national media had other issues to be more interested in. But Zubeen Garg made the national news. Is this propaganda, or is this neutral journalism? I leave this to be answered by you. But the act of reacting so vigorously to the ULFA statement rather than simply allowing it to pass by is highly immature both for the artist and his fan followers.

On a finishing note I am running out of any Bihu naam in my mind to replicate this situation, so instead I pick the famous lines of Late Bhupen Hazarika whom we so dearly miss every Bihu, “Raij aji bhaworiya, dekhei naat ghor, kune ki bhau loba, aha xomoy je takor”