A federation of women salt workers
Salt extraction is one of the primary economic activities of Vedaranyam region of Nagapattinam district. In Vedaranyam region salt is produced from about 10400 acres of which 7000 acres are operated by two big companies by taking land on lease from the Salt commission of India while the remaining 3400 acres is accessed by about 700 small-scale producers (holding 5 to 10 acres) by again leasing it from the salt commission. Nearly 5000 male and female permanent workers from around 25 villages are involved in the salt production process. Salt production is a seasonal work and salt workers’ daily wages ranges between Rs.100 and Rs.150 per day. October to January is the lean season for salt workers and most of them take the loan from the salt pan owners and money lenders. The money lenders provide loan only at the exorbitant rate of interest. Apart from the loan taken during the lean season, salt workers also take larger loans to meet expenditure relating to education, health, marriages, and festivals. The salt workers normally only the interest and the principal remains and sometimes even the interest gets accumulated and added to the principal amount. To clear one debt they resort to borrowing from someone else. All these make the salt workers permanently indebted.
With this background and as suggested by salt workers and their union leaders, it was decided to establish a federation to help the women salt workers living in and around Salt Sathyagraha Memorial. Thus, Vedaranyam Women Salt Workers Development Council was formed. The main purpose for the formation of the federation is to transform the federation into a community bank in the future. The main objectives of this federation are i) to reduce the burden of salt pan workers and release them from the clutches of money lenders and other lending agencies and ii) to improve the income of women salt workers during the lean season.
The process of selecting villages was initiated in June 2013 and competed in August 2013. Twenty-three settlements in Vedaranyam Municipality were selected. One hundred and one salt women worker groups (Joint Liability Group) were formed with a membership of 707 women. These groups were federated and named as Vedaranyam Women Salt Workers Development Council. This federation has 13 Executive Committee members drawn from 13 villages. Office bearers namely President, Vice President, Secretary and a Treasurer were selected from these 13 members. The Council also has a representative from MSSRF.
The Process of availing loans
The each JLP group meets once in a month. During the meeting application for the loan will be received and recorded. These applications are submitted to the Executive Committee, which takes a decision on granting loans in its monthly meeting. The following are the criteria used to decided to provide loan: i) need for the loan, ii) attending meeting regularly and iii) regular payment of their savings of Rs.100 per month. MSSRF representative monitors and helps the federation in maintaining accounts, registers, and other documents properly. MSSRF also monitors whether repayment is done regularly by the groups. The Council’s monthly meeting is held in the third week of every month where issues related to group activities and members are discussed.
Utilization of revolving fund
The members of the federation utilize the revolving fund for the activities given in Fig. 1. Majority of the credit goes to microenterprises/ income generation activities such as salt production, goat rearing, dairy, floriculture, grocery shop, tailoring, provision shop etc., The other expenses such as children education, health, family expenses were also met from the credit. Maximum loan size to each member was limited to Rs. 10,000/- and the rate of interest is 12% per annum which is lesser than the interests levied by other microfinance institutions and nationalized banks. The Council decides the size of the loan amount and the individual to take the credit. Women headed families were given preference in getting credit. Till March 2018, 238 members from 34 groups utilized the fund. An amount of Rs. 278,315 has been earned as interest. The federation members are now interested to register as society/community bank to sustain for the long term.
Successful cases of microenterprises
Goat rearing, poultry, and dairy are some of the successful microenterprises carried out by women salt workers. The experiences of a few women are given to show the benefits and impact of this intervention.
Ms. Maheswari (30 years), in Melaka, says goat rearing taken by her along with many other women has brought about positive changes in their lives. This is her first experience with goat rearing but her first experience proves to be successful and helpful in meeting the household expenses. She is able to manage without borrowing from outsiders and also from the salt pan owners. She is proud that she is able to improve her household income. She, like other women, was working in the salt pan but now she has stopped going for saltpan work as she is able to earn sufficient income through goat rearing. She initially bought two goats but today, she has 10 goats at home. She could repay the first loan of Rs 5,000/- in twelve months and she took a second loan of Rs. 10,000/- She was proud to say that she has converted the loan into the asset. Her experience with goat rearing encouraged Maheswari to start another income generating activity in a small way. Maheshwari says she gained the confidence to start selling saree in and around her village, which also helps her to tide over many financial needs of the household. Apart from economic improvement, she is now confident to handle many things outside the domestic sphere. She acknowledges the moral support and technical guidance provided by MSSRF.
Ms. Tamil Mani, Melaka aged 48 years bought two goats for Rs 5,500/ from the loan taken from the Council. After repaying her first loan she asked for a second loan of Rs 10,000 to buy a cow (local breed) and a calf. She bought them by paying Rs 13,500/-. She used her savings to meet the balance amount of Rs 3,500/. She is now confident that she can manage livestock well.
Ms. Shantha, Melaka opted for poultry rearing and she is happy with her income from poultry and also working in the salt pan.
Many women salt workers are able to take care of their goats, poultry, and cattle and able to carry out their household chores without much pressure and they informed that overall, their dependency on the money lenders has been reduced significantly.