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I am a professional banker taught and trained in the hard and coarse grammar of banking. At the same time I am a developmental worker at heart always keen to empathize with the poor and their cause. Although I began my career in the exciting and turbulent world of corporate finance, microfinance (which in a common man’s language means financial services for the poor) became for me, in the years that came, an abiding passion and a lifelong obsession.  Even when I was posted in assignments that had little to do with microfinance, I worked out ways of keeping myself involved with it. The roots I had put down were not so shallow that I could pull them up as soon as my assignment ended. Nor could anyone else attempt to do so. I have cart wheeled across the country but have remained always anchored to thoughts of village life.

Early into my journey, I realized that my pre-conceived notions were hindering my understanding of the issues and concerns. Rather I needed to look at the problems of the poor through their eyes. My pre-departure vision was one of heroically entering remote villages, and after briefly surveying the problems, rapidly coming up with solutions to better the lives of the villagers. I did not realize how crucial it was, for the sustainability of any project, that the villagers plan their own schemes, and not the “development experts”.

I put away my books and immersed myself in the rhythms of villages learning from the poor and understanding their problems, trying to see their culture and society through their own eyes. I had to invert everything I’d learned in economics classes. My status as a qualified sociologist was worth zilch. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. That status did make me a little ashamed at my inadequacies, yet it freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. I was able to turn my ideas into workable goals. The humble beginnings taught me life as only a villager can know. It brought me to terms with the inadequacy of my learning. I realized I had to become part of the villagers’ heartbeat to be in a position to help them.

I have never been hooked by the bookish definitions of poverty: this much income or that much calorie intake. I define poverty as the absence of adequate nutrition, clean water, basic sanitation and health care, education and enforced constitutional rights. Poverty may be defined as the inability to secure the minimum consumption, requirements for life, health and efficiency. Poverty is insufficient supply of those things which are requisite for an individual to maintain himself and those dependent upon him in health and vigour. The problem of poverty is considered as the biggest challenge to development planning in India. High poverty levels are synonymous with poor quality of life, deprivation, malnutrition, illiteracy and low human resource development. Poverty can be defined as a social phenomenon in which a section of the society is unable to fulfill even its basic necessities of life. When the poor are living on the edge of subsistence, a minuscule misfortune can push them down into a tailspin. With nearly four out of five Indians living in poverty, millions are caught in a lethal web. Illnesses become a financial sinkhole for village women; they are often forced to drop out of the labour force as they provide most of the care. TB has now at least gone from being a death sentence to a manageable illness. The government has been building awareness of malaria by popularising blood tests wherever any one has fever. Similarly, polio has now been virtually eliminated. Mosquito nets and repellents are being liberally used even in remote villages.

The real tragedy of the poor is that their voice is unheard in forums, even at those which are exclusively devoted to their problems. As the Madagasy proverb goes, “poverty won’t allow him to lift his head; dignity won’t allow him to bow it down”. They are shouted down by those who consider them illiterate and uninformed and who abrogate to themselves the wisdom and the right to speak for the poor. The oppression of impatience came home to me only when I was on the other side, years later. It is not pleasant for anyone to be pushed away with an “All right, now sit down,” when that person is halfway through expressing an issue of life and death. And of course, the public places where such meetings are held are designed to keep the poor away from any scope for voicing their problems.

More than any other professional unit, a rural banker requires a special set of skills particularly when there are few people willing to work in villages and when your priorities are not the affluent famers but poor, helpless and disadvantaged women. There is no point making anyone in your team feel needlessly inadequate. I was never a slave of my own opinion. Instead, I listened to others. We must focus on each person’s strengths and manage around his or her weaknesses. We shouldn’t try to perfect each person, but help each one to cultivate his or her talents, become more of who he or she already is. There may be a moody person in your team, but careful handling may enable him to deliver the most wonderful results. There are a lot of people who don’t enjoy the work they do. They tolerate it under duress and wait for the weekend. I have also met people who love what they do and can’t imagine doing anything else. The expression we use is that they’re in their element. It’s their enthusiasm that has to be channelized

No amount of reading or instructions could have taught me what I learnt in these years I spent in the hinterland. Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I had been handed a rare opportunity to connect with my country and its people, to see and understand the everyday realities of the life of the rural poor. I learnt to be less judgmental. I saw first-hand the consequences of all that ails our system. Yet, for the first time, I realized how easy it was to blame the government for everything; stepping inside and instituting change was much more difficult. I recognized how isolated we all are despite being connected through the news and media. The peasants, I believe, might have a keener understanding of development and its implications than the economists sitting in the rarefied atmosphere of Yojana Bhavan.

It is this distance that has grown between the planners and the people in the rural matrix that has plagued the rural financial system. Too much dependence on data and much less direct engagement with the poor has been the major cause of failure for most state mandated development programmes

The best advice comes from the architect of India’s White Revolution Verghese Kurien and it has been my gilding credo in my professional path:”India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Rural people are the best planners because they have first- hand experience of their toils in daily lives. Professionals sitting in AC rooms and formulating plans cannot cater to the realistic needs. They have to experience the practical problems and difficulties of rural folk