Tucked away deep into the dense forests of Tamil Nadu, Pullucheri is one of the many rural settlements in India which does not show up on online maps, and briefly appears on the way, during bus or train journeys.
Much like its geographical location, its socio-economic situation was also far removed from common knowledge.
A village inhabited by debt-stricken farmers and labourers, it had the same tragic tale of exploitation, until the day a woman dared to step up and defy the system.
Her courage and grit not only helped her but the entire village to rise above their problems and break the shackles of oppression, perpetrated for decades, by the tyrannical triad of landlords, money-lenders and the monsoon.
Madurai’s Iron lady
Chinna Pillai was married into the village at the age of 12, and soon took to toiling on the fields of Alagar Kovil, a village in the Madurai district.
The farmers and labourers working in Alagar Kovil come from several settlements in the area, including Pullucheri.
With two sons and three daughters to support, she and her husband, Perumal, became a part of the population of landless labourers who were buried under the debts of landlords and money-lenders, carrying out a subtle form of oppression.
Compromise and unquestionable acceptance was the law of the land, where suffering, sickness, death, illiteracy and the exorbitant interest rate (more than 300%), was all a commonplace occurrence.
But, for this young bride, giving up her rights for a life of injustice was never acceptable.
“Letting someone else decide my future was never an option. So, I would request the landlord, politely but repeatedly, for better wages for my group. Some were annoyed by the nagging, but it was what we deserved, and so I fought on,” says Chinna Pillai, to The Better India.
Thanks to her consistent efforts to drag the community out of its misery, Pullucheri, has become a model of self-sufficiency. It has its own banking system—Kalanjiam—a microcredit movement, which has empowered hundreds of women and their families in the last three decades now.
Speaking about her journey, she says,
“I began my work as a labour contract leader (kothu leader) of a group, which consisted of women working in the fields just like me. Being unorganised, there was no consolidated effort to ask for what we deserve. However, by setting up the group, we not only exerted a unified pressure on the landlords but also initiated our own savings unit to secure our future.”
Her efforts which began in 1990, soon attracted development activists to arrive with more effective solutions. And, one of them was MP Vasimalai, the head of the Dhan Foundation, who came with the idea of multiplying the small savings of these women, into large returns that could holistically benefit the community.
But, persuading the villagers was the first challenge, so Chinna Pillai became the bridge between the two. She convinced her group of women to join, and thus together they opened PullukKalanjiam, short for ‘the Granary of Pullucheri.’
It all began with 15 women contributing Rs 20 a month. The cumulative amount was lent to any group member who needed it the most. And, in return, that member would have to pay an interest of 60% per annum.
What might seem like a high rate, was rather a blessing compared to the usual 300% interest rate asked by the landlords and money-lenders.
The fire of change was lit and as a result, in a matter of six months, the Kalanjiam SHG (Self Help Group) began to lend as much as Rs 1000 a month. Members were now not just using the money for emergencies, but also to launch new businesses.
By 1998, the Kalanjiam Mutual Movement had finally begun, and the community leaders vouched to spread the concept of Kalanjiam Community Banking to far-flung areas of the country. Owing to their efforts, after 29 years, it has spread across 63 districts at 250 blocks in 13 states covering 60,000 SHGs encompassing 1.2 million families in its fold.
Chinna Pillai never had the opportunity to educate herself, but thanks to her efforts, her children and those of her community have been assigned a sum of money which will be spent on their education.
“Education is the strongest tool of change, and I want the next generation to be well-equipped with it so that no one can take advantage of their trust. Through the savings unit and education, I want every poor villager of India to come out of their compromised economic state and lead the dignified life they deserve,” says the 67-year-old leader.
Her forceful and relentless fight for the communities, not only earned her a position as the member of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) to further pro-poor initiatives but also made her one of the five women to receive the Stree Shakti Puraskar in 1999.
In an iconic moment, overwhelmed by her work, former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee bent down to touch her feet in respect while handing over the award.
She also received the Janaki Devi Bajaj Puraskar Award in 2001, the Porkizhi Award in 2001, the prestigious Avvaiyar Award in the year 2018 from the TN Government, and most recently in 2019, the Padma Shri Award for her service to the country.
Yet it is not the numerous accolades that define her success.
“Those women driving the movement further, have given me the real award,” says the hero, whose stellar example will continue to inspire thousands more in the years to come.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)