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Inside the Struggling Effort to Bank the Indigenous Women of Mumbai

Despite a recent government initiative aimed at providing financial services to women in India, the populations most in need of assistance aren't seeing the benefits.
Hira Bai takes care of her grandchild Rohit in their mud and bamboo reinforced hut in Devipada, a tribal settlement in the remote forestland of Aarey Milk Colony on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Hira Bai takes care of her grandchild Rohit in their mud and bamboo reinforced hut in Devipada, a tribal settlement in the remote forestland of Aarey Milk Colony on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Six decades ago, when Sumitra Savre was a little girl, her family could not afford to buy her clothes. Her mother would tear a sari into multiple pieces, and Savre would wrap the shreds around herself.

Savre is one of the 10,000 indigenous inhabitants of Aarey Milk Colony, a neighborhood in northern Mumbai that borders the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Known as the city's "green lungs," the 17-mile area is home to 32 hamlets scattered through a lush forest.

Married at 14, Savre's move to her husband's home in Sanjay Gandhi National Park brought no financial respite. For the next four decades, she would accompany her husband to the forest a few yards from their home, and the couple would spend the day gathering firewood to sell. They would return with 140 rupees ($2) each day—not enough to survive in the city.

Today, after her husband's death four years ago, 62-year-old Savre continues to venture into the jungle to earn her living, returning often to her maternal home of Aarey Milk Colony. Though her knees are failing her, she has little choice: Despite living in India's commercial capital, she has no bank account or savings.

"When I'm particularly unwell, I take up day jobs at farms, sowing vegetables or watering the fields," she says. "We never thought of saving. In times of emergency, I just sell whatever little I own or borrow money from family or private moneylenders."

Despite its proximity to central Mumbai, the women in Aarey Milk Colony remain deprived of basic necessities—education and employment opportunities, and access to bank accounts.

"When we surveyed the women, we realized that almost none of them own bank accounts," says Soma Datta, an activist who has recently helped dozens of indigenous women from the area open bank accounts under the Indian government's Jan Dhan Yojana scheme.

"The World Bank recently lauded India for this scheme, which has ensured financial inclusion for millions of women across the country. But on ground, tribal communities in places like Aarey have been deprived of these benefits—ones who, ironically, are the scheme's exact target audience," Datta says.

Pratibha Thapar, who works as a coordinator with Datta's non-governmental organization, I Care for Tomorrow Society, says the indigenous tribe of Warlis has been residing in the colony for hundreds of years. Most women in the area were, like Savre, married off before they turned 18, robbing them of education opportunities.

"The average income of each family here is 5,000 rupees ($72) per month, and in most homes, husbands go unquestioned when they splurge these already meager amounts on alcohol," she says. "To support their families, women often take to menial jobs, like cutting grass for stables or working at construction sites. With no bank accounts, most women don't have savings."

Anita Page, 27, from the Khambachapada village in Aarey, opened a bank account three months ago with help from Datta. She says women in her community who wish to save money for a rainy day often resort to desperate measures, like organizing lotteries for funds.

"A group of 10 women decide to participate in the lottery. Each one of them adds 100 rupees ($1.50) to the kitty, and writes her name on a paper chit. After the chits are collected in a cup, a child picks out one chit, and the woman whose name comes up wins the 1,000 rupees ($15). At times, they use the money they pool to help other women, who are in desperate need of cash," she explains.

Datta says that, when she approached women to open bank accounts, she realized most of them did not have the requisite documents. In the majority of the families, only men had relevant identity cards—it wasn't deemed important for women to possess them.

Datta also found that many women held misconceptions about banks, for example thinking they'd have to have thousands of rupees for deposit if they were to open accounts.

"When I explained they were eligible for accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana with no minimum deposit required, and that the scheme could also avail them easy and affordable access to other financial services like credit, insurance, and pensions, they said they had never heard of the government policy," she said. "Worse, some of the women who did approach the banks had been turned away. They were told that the banks were no more opening accounts under the scheme."

Another problem which has plagued the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme all over India is the fact that many accounts go unused. The latest global survey of financial inclusion from the World Bank found that 48 percent of all accounts in India were inactive. Worldwide, women are 5 percentage points more likely to have an inactive account than men.

Babita Hadal, also a local coordinator, says: "Of the 47 accounts we have opened under the scheme so far, many are inactive. Women haven't made transactions because the closest bank is seven kilometers [4.3 miles] away. There's no ATM in the vicinity either, and if you wish to reach one, you have to walk two kilometers to get to the nearest bus stop. This inaccessibility to transport services is also why most women avoid taking jobs."

According to the government's progress report, women make up more than half of Jan Dhan Yojana's 322.5 million beneficiaries. But like the accounts of women in Aarey, many of these remain inactive, says Bhaskar Kakad, a social activist with Mumbai-based non-governmental organization the Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action.

"This state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of coordination between banks and the government, and also to the lack of appropriate measures employed to reach the target audience of the Yojana," Kakad says.

"To publicize the scheme, the government has largely published newspaper ads. But women in areas like Aarey aren't literate enough to read these advertisements. Newspapers barely reach them! There's need for aggressive awareness programs so that women in such disconnected locations are able to avail of the scheme's benefit, and secure their futures."

Several non-governmental organizations are now entering the colony to help women sign up for bank accounts and providing alternative sources of income to allow them to build up savings.

I Care for Tomorrow Society helps women earn 300 rupees ($4.34) a week by teaching them how to make paper bags, while another non-profit, We Will Help, hosts lunches for visitors from Mumbai, prepared by local women. The profits are shared between more than 120 women. Apart from lunches, the non-governmental organization also organizes markets where women sell the produce from their farms, handmade artifacts, and local delicacies.

These new sources of income for women have had a consequence for families, encouraging men to take on more unpaid care duties.

"I remember during the first lunch, many of these women were accompanied by their children. But by the third time, the kids had stopped coming," says Cassendra Nazareth of We Will Help. "When I inquired about the reason, they said their husbands had realized that the ladies were bringing in money, and had happily volunteered to take care of the children. That's the reality here—it takes cash to earn women the respect they deserve."

This article originally appeared on Women's Advancement Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about women’s economic advancement, you can sign up to the Women's Advancement email list.