Crusader who set rural women free from poverty

The ‘Padma Shri’ awardee, who still leads a spartan life, is not keeping well lately due to age-related complications, but her failing health hasn’t weakened her resolve to lift more rural women out of poverty. (DH Photo)

70 years young. That’s how once can define P Chinnapillai for her grit, determination and vision that has inspired millions of women.

The ‘Padma Shri’ awardee, who still leads a spartan life, is not keeping well lately due to age-related complications, but her failing health hasn’t weakened her resolve to lift more rural women out of poverty.

Chinnapillai wasn’t known to the world until 2000 when the then prime minister A B Vajpayee bent down and touched her feet while presenting her with ‘Stree Shakti Purasakar’ for building a successful micro-credit movement.

Since then, Kalanjiyam, the micro-credit movement launched by her with help from Madurai-based Dhan Foundation, is now spread across 14 states with more than one million women as members.

“The award was the turning point in Kalanjiyam’s history. It helped the movement reach every nook and corner of the country. I get rousing reception wherever I go because of the recognition that Vajpayee gave to me,” Chinnapillai says.

As poor agricultural labourers, women like Chinnapillai were forced to be at the mercy of unscrupulous lenders who levied unreasonably high rates of interest. “That’s when people from Dhan Foundation approached me and asked me to form a Self-Help Group of women. The concept was unheard of and not many women were willing to join,” Chinnapillai, a Dalit woman who was married at the age of 12, says.

Highly dependent on their husbands financially and emotionally, the women wouldn’t muster the courage to hide a part of their earnings from their spouses. “It was an enormous task to convince women to save a part of their wages and deposit it with Kalanjiyam. Not many husbands stood by their wives, but somehow 15 women, including me, came forward and formed the first SHG in 1991,” Chinnapillai says with a grin.

It all began with the Rs 20 that the 15 women pooled in every month. The collected money was used to provide loans to members of the SHGs, thus preventing them from approaching money lenders. Kalanjiyam has today grown into a network that runs several small industries and community hospitals that provide quality treatment.

Reminiscing her struggle, Chinnapillai says that after a long and tiring day at the agricultural fields, she would set out on foot, to nearby villages to meet women and convince them to form SHGs to save money. She faced maximum resistance from none other than her husband who wouldn’t open the door for her in the night when she returned from her village visits.

Ageing hasn't stopped Chinnapillai from travelling across the country to give pep talks to women on the need to save. The self- help groups have been successful in lifting lakhs of women come out of poverty and helping them give their children quality life. Chinnalillai symbolises everything that's right with the movement.

“The process of lifting families out of poverty took more than 15 years. Today, many of the little ones who could study due to loans availed from Kalanjiyam are doctors and engineers. Some are even working in foreign countries. It feels good to have contributed to the success of many women,” she says with immense pride.

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