COULD life be much more than penury? With a total family income of less than Rs 1,500 per month, Valsala Sebastian of Alapuzha town, formerly Alleppy, in Kerala it hardly seemed possible. Today, however, she lives in a pucca house with electricity and running water. A fan, a clock and a tin of Cuticura talcum powder are signs of her improving standard of life and pride of place is given to a telephone. Valsala, who is illiterate, now earns Rs 3,000 per month, sometimes more, as sitting fee as a municipal councillor, besides Rs 450 a week from coir mat weaving. And last year she went to New York to receive the 'We the People' 50 communities award from the United Nations.
In the last four years, over 10,000 women of Alapuzha have found a solution to their poverty through the Community Development Scheme (CDS) of the state government's Urban Poverty Alleviation Cell—the unit that earned the UN award that Valsala collected. Few of these families had been touched by any antipoverty exercise in the last 45 years. Now, however, the CDS programme has created 5,200 jobs and illiterate housewives have gained economic independence through small businesses they have started.
"We have built a system that reaches the real needy and makes a holistic attack on poverty," says P.K. Gopinathan, state coordinator for the programme. Till now, factors like family income were often manipulated to channel funds to the undeserving. Gopinathan along with Dr V.L. Srilatha, project coordinator of UNICEF, developed a poverty index based on demonstrable, non-economic factors to identify the poor. The poverty index regards nine factors: pucca or kutcha house, access to safe drinking water, a latrine in the house, only one earning member, a child below five years of age, an alcoholic or drug addict in the family, an illiterate adult in the house, an SC/ST family and access to less than two meals a day. Those suffering on four or more grounds were considered for the benefits.
Identification of the poor has been done by the under-privileged community itself through a three-tiered structure. Neighbourhood groups (NHGs) comprise 20 to 40 women, each representing a poor family. An Area Development Scheme (ADS) at ward level is formed of representatives of these groups. The ADSs in turn have representatives for the CDS at the city level. These women go door-to-door filling up asimple form and identifying the poor.
Further, the women were helped to set up a virtual banking system to channelise funds. Thrift societies collected their petty savings. Funds from NABARD, UNICEF and other agencies added to the kitty through which loans were sanctioned. Says Dr Srilatha: "Sixty-two per cent of the loans given in Alapuzha are from these funds." The illiterate women now judiciously disburse loans. The government of Kerala has spent almost Rs 1 crore to help provide the basic amenities and a Management Information System has been computerised to help them keep track of progress. This grassroot approach seems to have worked out better than armchair identification of the poor and their needs. Instead of living on dole or patronage, the poor are now building their lives on largely their own resources. Besides the obvious betterment in physical living conditions, the women are suddenly finding themselves elevated to social positions which carry value and status. For instance Sheela A.R. was earlier a contract labourer and an introvert. Today she heads the Thumpoly ADS representing 22 NHGs. She manages a tailoring unit which provides income to 11 women of her ilk. For all this she draws an honorarium and is proud of her 'contacts'. The women have representation in the muncipality and the state government and meet senior officials—consequently, their consent on matters carries weight.
Only a few years back, K.L. Sushama had been struggling to pay for her education,while confronting an alcoholic father. Today she is a municipal councillor and earns Rs 1,500 per month from tutoring. A loan for a sewing machine has provided employment for her brother and her mother and there are now four earning members in the family. Her father has stopped drinking. "He couldn't bear being called the drunkard father of a councillor," beams Sushama. Her ADS provides employment to 58 women through a mesh mat unit and two farm sheds. And she now aims at getting electricity for her area.
Renuka Sivadas, wife of a bus conductor, is now the confident president of the CDS. She has started a dairy development unit along with three other women and has repaid a good part of her loan. She's also spent Rs 25,000 to build a house. "I am confident of travelling alone to all parts of the state on my work," says Renuka. All the women Outlook met were full of life and verve that belied their past. "The women have pride in themselves", explains Joshy Joseph, commentator, Films Division, which made a film on the Alapuzha CDS.
Funding agencies are pleasantly surprised that absolutely no one has defaulted on repayment. Even the poorest of the poor are paying back regularly. Thankamma took a Rs 3,000 loan to feed herself, her daughter and a mentally disabled son. She feels she can restore dignity to her life through her little shop. On a profit of Rs 25 to 30 a day she has already re-paid Rs 2,000 in the six months since she started out. As also has her next-door neighbour, 49-year old Anandavalli, despite qualifying on all nine factors. Anandavalli took a Rs 6,250-loan to buy two cows. She now earns Rs 50 a day. Despite supporting her 69-year-old husband and three school-going children, she is paying back Rs 250 to Rs 500 a month.
Several agencies are coming to their help. NABARD has already outlaid Rs 80 crore for further statewide assistance and the Electricity Board gave 1,000 connections to the CDS. The three-tier system is forceful enough to channelise aid from other projects involving public health and literacy. The Alleppy model, as it is called, has been adopted in 57 towns in Kerala already and in the rural Mallampuram district. Recognition is flowing in from all quarters. The South African government has sent its delegation to study the model. The Indian Government has already accepted the model for its urban poverty programme for 345 towns. Says Isabelle Austin, UNICEF state representative for Tamil Nadu and Kerala: "We are regarding this people-centered format as the core of our strategy for the next five-year programme."
"This is a silent revolution", states Gopinathan, "which has eliminated the power brokers and put opportunity in the hands of people." A lot yet remains to be done. The beneficiaries are yet few in comparison to the total number of poor. UNICEF is waiting to study the final impact on children. The programme has yet to involve female adolescents who could contribute substantially. Critics also fear political intervention and pressure as everyone tries to get his little wedge of the pie.
Nevertheless, the proud poor of Alapuzha are ensuring that their city, once known as the Venice of the East, is being rebuilt to a new promise. Through a process that the rest of the world may yet follow.