June 29, 2009
My work here has not gone quite the way I expected it would, but of course I should have expected this. Throughout the first week I got a taste of SEWA’s many operations but all the while I was itching to know what my project was going to be, how would I be contributing. For this I needed to speak with Jayshree, the head of SEWA Bank. I had come in every day and asked her assistant if she would be available, “maybe in an hour, you wait there” and she would point to the couches. After I realized that it would never be an hour unless I got a confirmation from Jayshree that she would speak with me, I had someone send a note to her. “Dear Jayshreeben, when would be a good time to meet with you to discuss what work you would like from me?” “Ok, 4:00” was her response. It actually ended up being more like 4:30 but I didn’t mind, I was too excited that I finally had a project to work on!
SEWA has a new pension scheme as I had been learning all about, however what they wanted now was a platform for promoting pensions. My job, as Jayshree told me, would be to collect quotes and stories the women and try to create such a platform. The ideas, as I understood it, would be to talk to older, very poor women who had not had the pension scheme available to them. They would say things like “I cannot stop working, how would I live,” or “retirement, what is retirement?” or “I will work till I die, I cannot rest.” I expected to go out into the field and sit across for a tired woman, her back bent over from years of carrying heavy loads, her skin leathered from years in the hot sun. She would rub her feet and tell me sad stories with tired eyes. I would then document all of this in rich, gritty prose. The final message would be along the lines of, “though saving is hard now, your future is in your hands. Open a pension account with SEWA now and reward your body when you are too old to work comfortably.”
Well this was all lovely to think of, and if I meet a woman who fits that description maybe I’ll lift those lines from my blog, but as of now, no such luck. The day after meeting with Jayshree I went out in the field with a woman who was doing some loan and savings collections from some of SEWA’s members. She brought me to a relatively, but by no means extremely, poor Muslim neighborhood. All the women I spoke with were housewives; their husbands earned enough so that their labor services were not needed. They had SEWA pensions and they didn’t have to worry about whether the money that was going into the pension fund might be better spent to feed a hungry mouth. Ok sure, seeing another neighborhood was nice, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It’s only the first day, I told myself, tomorrow will be better.
The next day was Saturday, but since they work on Saturdays, I was in business. Into the bank I went, pen and paper in hand, ready for my fieldwork. Well, turns out no one goes out to do collections on Saturdays, it was ok though, there was a back up plan. Since many members also come into the bank to deposit money and open accounts I would just talk to some of them as they were waiting around. I interviewed over a dozen women, but for the most part they were not what I was looking for. These women were not particularly old and they were all capable of making it to the bank and opening new accounts. [The two most interesting interviews are below]
[Mumtaj is 42. She makes roti at home and sells them to a restaurant; her daily income is about 60 rupees. She has a savings account with SEWA already for herself but she is now opening a pension account for her daughter. Her daughter is 20 years old and the victim of polio. She cannot walk and has no education. The state will not give her handicapped daughter the support she needs so Mumtaj is setting aside money now. When I ask her why she does not open a pension account for herself she says she is working for her daughter, she does not care about her own life as long as her daughter is provided for.
“If I am opening an account in my daughter’s name, must I bring her here? I can’t carry her,” she asks the woman behind the desk at the bank. The woman smiles at her, no we will send a SEWA worker to your home to get her signature and all the details worked out.
Sima is 30 years old. She does stitching work and earns 1,200 rupees per month. She is divorced so this is her only income. She has a 4-year-old son, and two daughters, one in 8th grade and another in 5th grade. She has a pension account but when I ask her if she plans to retire she shakes her head, “I work for my children, I cannot think about sitting at home.” For her the appeal of the pension account was that she would get more back at the end. She says she is saving for children, for their marriage and education. She did not save before SEWA and she is very glad she is putting aside money now for her children. She saves around 100-300 rupees per month. She is getting some help from her brothers but she can’t say that they will help her daughters. Her ex-husband gives nothing in child support.]
Ok, so I didn’t have what I wanted yet, I was starting to realize field research is not as easy as I thought it was. Patience is not my strong suit and I wanted the results I was expecting. Of course any fool can see the problem with doing research and expecting/wanting specific results, and yet I refused to change my mindset. “Monday had better be better,” I thought to myself as I exited the bank Saturday late afternoon.
Today was Monday, so here begins the recount of today’s fieldwork. “Where are we going today,” I asked my translator as she, the SEWA worker, and I climbed into a rickshaw outside of the bank. “First to see a woman who works as a beautician,” she responded after asking the SEWA worker in Gujarati. As soon as we got there I could tell this wasn’t what I wanted. She was doing quite well for herself and had no problem saving money for a pension account. I could feel myself getting frustrated. Finally we left the beauticians home, and were off to another place.
As we drove through the city, I could see the scenery changing from nice, large stores with glass windows to small shacks. We were definitely getting farther from the center of the city. Then we turned onto a bumpy, sandy road.
The sides of the road were adorned with a thick expanse of garbage. Skinny bare-bottomed children stood on the edge of the piles, perhaps looking with trained eyes for a broken toy or some such hidden treasure. Buffalo and goats were littered around the piles of garbage, looking for something to eat. Ahmedabad has been dry for far too long, the monsoons that should have arrived two weeks ago still haven’t hit. The animals’ skinny haunches and naked ribs cried out for the monsoons that would make things grow again. As we got out of our rickshaw to talk to the women who lived in these parts, I realized these homes would probably quite different than the homes of other SEWA members I had seen to date.
The first woman we saw was Laidu, she is probably about 60 years old. The first thing I noticed about her were her earlobes. Her right earlobe looked as though it had been torn long ago by a heavy earring, two pieces of skin that had once been connected now just dangled off her ear. Her left earlobe, though still intact, had also seen the abuse of heavy jewelry. Her hearing hole was stretched so long that one could now fit half a hand through it. She has not had the easiest life, but once I began talking to her I realized she was probably one of the lucky ones.
Laidu lives with her son, daughter in law, and two grandchildren. She is a chindi stitcher, at the encouragement of her son. Up until 5 years ago she worked as a laborer doing construction work, but as she got older her son told her to stay at home. Her daughter-in-law, Saria introduced her to chindi stitching. The two of them work from home on the sewing machine they own. They buy the scraps of chindi fabric from a tailor in bulk. With one kilogram of chindi they can make one blanket in a day. The tailors sell the chindi for 8 rupees per kilogram. Laidu and Saria then sell their finished work to a middleman who pays 100 rupees for each chindi blanket. I know from reading a history of SEWA that, at least in the past, often the middlemen would give the women a very low price for their work. I ask the Saria if she feels this way and she says no, she is happy enough with the price he gives her because she is able to make a good profit on it and she is able to save.
Laidu and Saria are both SEWA members. They are thankful for SEWA, and have taken 7 loans. I ask Saria why she likes SEWA. Her answer is simple but telling, “before SEWA if I needed money I had to go to other sources that would charge interest of 6% a month, SEWA charges only 1.5%. With SEWA I have a chance at repayment, with the other money lenders all I could ever do was make enough to pay back the interest charges.”
Though Laidu looks old to me, she says she will work as long as she can. However when she can no longer work she will have the fall back of her family. They are earning well enough to support her in her old age. Though I have yet to find my women who are not supported in their old age, I assume that not every poor woman has this cushion. I enjoyed listening to Laidu and her daughter-in-law, but I still don’t have the story I want, we move on to the next home.
The next few homes do not yield anything interesting. They are for the most part fairly young and able to save. They are getting in on the pension scheme early so they can take advantage when they are older. “I really want to talk to someone that has trouble saving, someone older,” I try to impress upon my translator.
The next house we go to belongs to a woman who has been having trouble repaying her loans and opened a pension account but does not put savings into it. Her name is Savita and she looks to be about 45, though she like many has no idea what her exact age is. She is a sweepstress, meaning she travels a long way to go to either offices or homes in need of sweeping. She must pay 20 rupees a day to get to work and back because the work is such a long distance from her home in the outskirts of Ahmedabad. She earns 1,500 rupees a month, she probably works a 6 day week and so makes about 60 rupees per day of work; after subtracting her transportation costs she is left with 40 rupees – less than the equivalent of 1 dollar. I ask her whether she saves money. She shakes her head no, “how can we, we have only four people working and 10 mouths to feed,” she says sadly. When asked if she will ever retire she says she will work for “as long as I have my arms and my legs.” Every bit of income is necessary to keep their family afloat.
We leave her home, the money that she owes on her loan has not been collected and no money has gone into savings. Perhaps she does not need the pension program as much as some but I know such programs are meant to help her and I wish there was a way she could take advantage. Savita may be luckier than some because she does have a large family that may be able to support her when she gets very old. Nonetheless it is important to impress upon women the importance of saving for their futures now. I am beginning to wonder if anything I write be able to do such a thing when saving isn’t just hard it’s near impossible. The interviews are starting to come, and yet the work ahead of me seems as tough as ever.