Nasreet Khan. A single woman, aged somewhere in her late 20s or 30s – I couldn’t really tell. A face bearing both the lines of experience, and the glowing energy of youth. A tall, well-built woman with long hair neatly tied in a plait, rustic features, and an air of unmistakable dignity about her. I had heard quite a bit about this lady from the current Branch Manager of the area her village fell in. A small village, by the name Bilkisganj, some 2 hours drive from the city of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh.
I had gone there to study the concept of an SHG in closer detail. But I ended up witnessing an embodiment of the greatness of human spirit.
I had heard of this woman as the leader of an SHG. But I met one who had transformed the lives of more people than I could ever imagine making the slightest difference to.
For the benefit of those who do not know what an SHG is, let me spell it out. A Self Help Group, as the name suggests, is basically a group of people formed with the aim of ‘self help’. It has to have 15 or more members. These members are to register themselves with the bank as an SHG and open a bank account. They also have to specify an economic activity they want to perform such as – some form of agriculture, or an allied activity, etc. For 6 months, thereafter, they have to keeping saving a specific amount in the account every week or so. This is usually a token amount designed to build economic discipline in the members. Also, they have to prove to the bank that they are serious about this venture of theirs. Which is done by holding regular meetings, making arrangements for tie-ups etc that the Bank can inspect and ascertain. At the end of this 6-month period, if they prove regular in their savings and serious about their plans, they are given a loan by the Bank.
Nasreet Khan, the eldest of four siblings, after her father’s demise, was pretty much the head of her family at the tender age of 18-20. Her 2 brothers and one sister were still very young. With a small hut for a house and no fortunes to speak of, the family was going through difficult times to say the least. They had little land and agriculture was not the most lucrative venture in the area due to weather and soil conditions, let alone the fact that there was no able-bodied male in the household. The then Branch Manager (now transferred elsewhere) of my client bank approached the villagers around that time with the SHG idea.
Nasreet Khan, albeit poor, is a well educated woman. I was surprised to hear that she had done her MA from a nearby university. She was probably the village’s most educated person in those days. And having at least one educated person in an SHG helps manage accounts, understand and complete the Bank’s formalities, etc. The Branch Manager approached her and explained the scheme to her. She was quickly excited by the idea. With the help of the BM, she hit upon the idea of making garments. The plan was to use the loan money to get cloth and some basic raw material, make ladies garments from them, and sell them in the Bhopal market.
She collected 14 other girls from the village. Given that the villagers respected her for her educated background, and that there was little occupation for the womenfolk in the village, she managed after some amount of convincing required. And hence, was born the simply named Vastra Nirmaan Samooh (Garment Manufacturing SHG). This was some 10 years ago. Today, garments made by this SHG are sold not just to wholesalers in Bhopal, but put up in exhibitions at Bhopal Haat (where they can command better pricing by direct selling to customers), and sold through intermediaries to big cities such as Mumbai. Nasree visits these big markets often to stay abreast with the latest designs. She showed me the accounts she keeps on behalf of all the women. She even encourages the members of her SHG to get an education themselves. Come noon, and these women and girls start pouring into the house to start the work. She allows the use of her own backyard for work of the SHG. They now work with sewing machines rather than hand so the production has gone up. Recently, she participated in an exhibition in which their SHG was selected and she went to Dubai for an exhibition of Indian ladies wear. The awards were put on proud display for our benefit. But more importantly, I noticed, that the hut has evolved into a 2-storeyed building. The siblings are all grown up and married. And the mother’s eyes beam with visible pride when she looks at her daughter.
You would think that is enough brilliance in a single human being to leave one dazzled. But Nasreen had much more in store to blind me with. She has encouraged many more women in the village to start similar SHGs. As if the salwaar kameez she got stitched for me miraculously within an hour was not enough, I was to be further subjected to free bangle offers. We visited one of the SHGs that had started after hers, under her guidance. A group of women who make bangles out of laakh and fashion it with dyes and small mirror designs. She maintains their account too, they told me. And then they proceeded to serve me with literally oven-fresh bangles. I had to beg them to accept money in exchange. Tip of the iceberg, though.
These women told me how this SHG concept has changed their lives. How there are many more that Nasreen and the Bank have inspired in the surrounding villages. And how they have changed lives of not just individuals, but entire villages. Many cemented houses have come up, people have televisions and phones in their houses. Electrification may still be an issue like it is in countless villages of India. But the standards of living, overall, have gone up significantly.
Nasreet also visits other villages and addresses their Panchayat gatherings which she attends with a representative from the Bank. She shares with them the success stories from her experience and encourages them, especially the womenfolk, to form SHGs and start such ventures of their own.
Some hours spent in the company of these people and I had to return to the branch. Laden with gifts from the villagers, touched by the generosity of their hearts and stupefied by the magnanimity of their spirit, I could not find words to express my respect for this extraordinary woman who had been no less than a second God to them. I think I managed something of a request for her to keep up the good work – my words were too insignificant to recall anymore. But as I rode in the back of my AC car through the muddy streets of Bilkisganj, I wondered if, for all my MBA is worth, I would ever be half as great a ‘manager’ as that BM whose work continued to touch lives long after he is gone. Or whether, for all my intellect, I could ever be one-tenth of a person as the astounding woman I had met today.