Chetna Gala Sinha
1,501,499 views • 14:28

I'm here to tell you not just my story but stories of exceptional women from India whom I've met. They continue to inspire me, teach me, guide me in my journey of my life. These are incredible women. They never had an opportunity to go to school, they had no degrees, no travel, no exposure. Ordinary women who did extraordinary things with the greatest of their courage, wisdom and humility. These are my teachers.

For the last three decades, I've been working, staying and living in India and working with women in rural India. I was born and brought up in Mumbai. When I was in college, I met Jayaprakash Narayan, famous Gandhian leader who inspired youth to work in rural India. I went into the villages to work in rural India. I was part of land rights movement, farmers' movement and women's movement. On the same line, I ended up in a very small village, fell in love with a young, handsome, dynamic young farmer-leader who was not very educated, but he could pull the crowd. And so in the passion of youth, I married him and left Mumbai, and went to a small village which did not have running water and no toilet. Honestly, my family and friends were horrified.

(Laughter)

I was staying with my family, with my three children in the village, and one day, a few years later one day, a woman called Kantabai came to me. Kantabai said, "I want to open a saving account. I want to save." I asked Kantabai: "You are doing business of blacksmith. Do you have enough money to save? You are staying on the street. Can you save?" Kantabai was insistent. She said, "I want to save because I want to buy a plastic sheet before the monsoons arrive. I want to save my family from rain." I went with Kantabai to the bank. Kantabai wanted to save 10 rupees a day — less than 15 cents. Bank manager refused to open the account of Kantabai. He said Kantabai's amount is too small and it's not worth his time. Kantabai was not asking any loan from the bank. She was not asking any subsidy or grant from the government. What she was asking was to have a safe place to save her hard-earned money. And that was her right. And I went — I said if banks are not opening the account of Kantabai, why not start the bank which will give an opportunity for women like Kantabai to save? And I applied for the banking license to Reserve Bank of India.

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No, it was not an easy task. Our license was rejected —

(Laughter)

on the grounds — Reserve Bank said that we cannot issue a license to the bank whose promoting members who are nonliterate. I was terrified. I was crying. And by coming back home, I was continuously crying. I told Kantabai and other women that we couldn't get the license because our women are nonliterate. Our women said, "Stop crying. We will learn to read and write and apply again, so what?"

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We started our literacy classes. Every day our women would come. They were so determined that after working the whole day, they would come to the class and learn to read and write. After five months, we applied again, but this time I didn't go alone. Fifteen women accompanied me to Reserve Bank of India. Our women told the officer of Reserve Bank, "You rejected the license because we cannot read and write. You rejected the license because we are nonliterate." But they said, "There were no schools when we were growing, so we are not responsible for our noneducation." And they said, "We cannot read and write, but we can count."

(Laughter)

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And they challenged the officer. "Then tell us to calculate the interest of any principal amount."

(Laughter)

"If we are unable to do it, don't give us license. Tell your officers to do it without a calculator and see who can calculate faster."

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Needless to say, we got the banking license.

(Laughter)

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Today, more than 100,000 women are banking with us and we have more than 20 million dollars of capital. This is all women's savings, women capital, no outside investors asking for a business plan. No. It's our own rural women's savings.

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I also want to say that yes, after we got the license, today Kantabai has her own house and is staying with her family in her own house for herself and her family.

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When we started our banking operations, I could see that our women were not able to come to the bank because they used to lose the working day. I thought if women are not coming to the bank, bank will go to them, and we started doorstep banking. Recently, we starting digital banking. Digital banking required to remember a PIN number. Our women said, "We don't want a PIN number. That's not a good idea." And we tried to explain to them that maybe you should remember the PIN number; we will help you to remember the PIN number. They were firm. They said, "suggest something else," and they —

(Laughter)

and they said, "What about thumb?" I thought that's a great idea. We'll link that digital banking with biometric, and now women use the digital financial transaction by using the thumb. And you know what they said? They said, "Anybody can steal my PIN number and take away my hard-earned money, but nobody can steal my thumb."

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That reinforced the teaching which I have always learned from women: never provide poor solutions to poor people. They are smart.

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A few months later, another woman came to the bank — Kerabai. She mortgaged her gold and took the loan. I asked Kerabai, "Why are you mortgaging your precious jewelry and taking a loan?" Kerabai said, "Don't you realize that it's a terrible drought? There's no food or fodder for the animals. No water. I'm mortgaging gold to buy food and fodder for my animals." And then she asks me, "Can I mortgage gold and get water?" I had no answer. Kerabai challenged me: "You're working in the village with women and finance, but what if one day there's no water? If you leave this village, with whom are you going to do banking?" Kerabai had a valid question, so in this drought, we decided to start the cattle camp in the area. It's where farmers can bring their animals to one place and get fodder and water. It didn't rain. Cattle camp was extended for 18 months. Kerabai used to move around in the cattle camp and sing the songs of encouragement. Kerabai became very popular. It rained and cattle camp was ended, but after cattle camp ended, Kerabai came to our radio — we have community radio which has more than 100,000 listeners. She said, "I want to have a regular show on the radio." Our radio manager said, "Kerabai, you cannot read and write. How will you write the script?" You know what she replied? "I cannot read and write, but I can sing. What's the big deal?"

(Laughter)

And today, Kerabai is doing a regular radio program, and not only that, she's become a famous radio jockey and she has been invited by all of the radios, even from Mumbai. She gets the invitation and she does the show.

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Kerabai has become a local celebrity. One day I asked Kerabai, "How did you end up singing?" She said, "Shall I tell you the real fact? When I was pregnant with my first child, I was always hungry. I did not have enough food to eat. I did not have enough money to buy food, and so to forget my hunger, I started singing." So strong and wise, no? I always think that our women overcome so many obstacles — cultural, social, financial — and they find out their ways.

I would like to share another story: Sunita Kamble. She has taken a course in a business school, and she has become a veterinary doctor. She's Dalit; she comes from an untouchable caste, but she does artificial insemination in goats. It is a very male-dominated profession and it is all the more difficult for Sunita because Sunita comes from an untouchable caste. But she worked very hard. She did successful goat deliveries in the region and she became a famous goat doctor. Recently, she got a national award. I went to Sunita's house to celebrate — to congratulate her. When I entered the village, I saw a big cutout of Sunita. Sunita was smiling on that picture. I was really surprised to see an untouchable, coming from the village, having a big cutout at the entrance of the village. When I went to her house, I was even more amazed because upper caste leaders — men — were sitting in the house, in her house, and having chai and water, which is very rare in India. Upper caste leaders do not go to an untouchable's house and have chai or water. And they were requesting her to come and address the gathering of the village. Sunita broke centuries-old caste conditioning in India.

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Let me come to what the younger generations do. As I'm standing here — I'm so proud as I stand here, from Mhaswad to Vancouver. Back home, Sarita Bhise — she's not even 16 years old. She's preparing herself — she's a part of our sports program, Champions' program. She's preparing herself to represent India in field hockey. And you know where she's going? She's going to represent in 2020 Olympics, Tokyo.

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Sarita comes from a very poor shepherd community. I am just — I couldn't be more proud of her.

There are millions of women like Sarita, Kerabai, Sunita, who can be around you also. They can be all over the world, but at first glance you may think that they do not have anything to say, they do not have anything to share. You would be so wrong. I am so lucky that I'm working with these women. They are sharing their stories with me, they are sharing their wisdom with me, and I'm just lucky to be with them. 20 years before — and I'm so proud — we went to Reserve Bank of India and we set up the first rural women's bank. Today they are pushing me to go to National Stock Exchange to set up the first fund dedicated to micro rural women entrepreneurs. They are pushing me to set up the first small finance women's bank in the world. And as one of them said, "My courage is my capital." And I say here, their courage is my capital. And if you want, it can be yours also.

Thank you.

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