Q&A with Mr. Sarat Chandra Das, CEO, Grameen Sahara on their livelihood interventions, impact, achievements & challenges in the North East

Q. What are the thematic areas Grameen Sahara works on?

A. Grameen Sahara was informally started in 2001, conducting awareness and training programmes at a small scale in livelihood activities like fisheries, sericulture, horticulture, piggery, etc. along with awareness programme on health, education, etc. for rural people. In 2002, Grameen Sahara was formally registered under Societies Registration Act 1860. It then launched microfinance as a core programme to materialize its dream of contributing towards poverty reduction in the society. It focused on a range of topics related to sustainable livelihood through Natural Resource Management, Education, Skill Building & Enterprise Promotion and Institution Building.

It is present in four states, namely, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram & Nagaland, where it ensures sustainable livelihood encompassing people’s capabilities, assets, income and activities to secure the necessities of life. The core sectors we are working on are Agriculture & allied sectors, which includes Paddy, Horticulture crops, Spices, Livestock, Pisciculture, Food Processing, etc. In addition, Clean Energy, Sericulture & Handloom Weaving are also being focused upon.

Grameen Sahara’s key interventions include mobilization and capacity building of grassroots community based organizations (CBOs) such as the FPOs, SHGs, MBTs, Women’s Federations, skill upgradation through technological intervention, etc.

The other areas of work include natural resource management, programmes for financial inclusion, skill building and enterprise development – both community & private enterprise and lastly, education where Grameen Sahara has promoted a school.

“Primary thematic areas are Natural Resource Management, Agriculture Development & Clean Energy, Skill & Education, Micro-Enterprise Promotion, Financial inclusion & services and Institution Building at grass roots & apex level”

Q. What are some of the notable projects it has been involved in?

A. Grameen Sahara has executed various projects on livelihood enhancement for rural farmers, agriculture development, Iinstitution building, handloom promotion, women empowerment, etc. A few notable projects are mentioned below:

  1. Golden Weavers’ Project:

The Golden Weavers’ Project is the flagship programme, supporting eri-spinning & weaving based livelihood amongst poor women by promoting people’s institutes around a producer value-chain and facilitating them with techno-managerial inputs, financial intermediation and market intervention. The project covered 5000 poor woman spinners. The programme is supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and geared up with the collaboration of the Central Silk Board, Silk Mark Organization of India, NABARD, NEDFi, SIDBI, Eco Tasar Silk Pvt. Ltd. etc. In 2012, the project was transformed into a self sustainable Producers’ Company (Grameen Silk Producers’ Company Pvt. Ltd.), which has 1000 shareholders as on date. The project was successfully completed by 2016.

  1. Grameen Development & Finance Pvt. Ltd.

Grameen Development & Finance Pvt Ltd is an NBFC-MFI working in four states with a client base of 32,000 with a portfolio of Rs 65 Cr. The company provides credit to women borrowers to take up income generating activities in rural, semi urban and urban areas. The company has a vision to work with 2.5 lakh families in the region in the next three years. The focus is on supporting and promoting sustainable livelihoods.

  1. Promotion of System of Rice Intensification (SRI):

SRI is a system of cultivating rice which involves practices that favor a rice plant to grow to its full potential, resulting in healthier growth and higher yield. Grameen Sahara started the promotion of SRI in 2008. Since then, it has reached 17000 farmer households of Kamrup and Goalpara districts of Assam. In 2013, it got funding from Tata Trusts for the promotion and extension of SRI in four development blocks – Matia, Rongjuli, Krishnai and Kushdhowa. In three years, we had to cover 5,000 families under SRI project in this district. We over-achieved this as 7288 farmers adopted this practice for the cultivation of paddy and a other similar crops. In 2016-17, Grameen Sahara again started its intervention in Kamrup district with funding from Tata Trusts with the target to cover 5000 additional farmer households in three years. Till now, 5488 farmers have participated and adopted SRI practices.

  1. Diversion Based Irrigation (DBI):

DBI is a system of diverting a portion of water from natural sources without intermediate storage for the purpose of irrigation. With the support of Tata Trusts, Grameen Sahara implemented Canal Irrigation System in 2009 covering nine villages of Kamrup District. In that phase, 500 acres of 1750 farmers were covered. After the successful implementation of this canal irrigation system, Grameen Sahara extended the intervention with PVC pipe-based system in 2011. Till now, 36 villages have been irrigated through this process in Kamrup and Goalpara, covering 3500 families for adoption of various agricultural activities.

Besides, irrigation water purification system has also been facilitated in 22 villages by installing TechJel Water purifiers with the support of Tata Chemicals, to provide safe drinking water. Water Users Groups (WUGs) are promoted in every project village. They collect regular contributions from the users to build a common fund, which is used for maintenance/repairing of the system, whenever required. Its impact includes:-

  • Emergence of adoption of improved agricultural practices by expanding cultivable lands and increased involvement of the farmers
  • Kitchen gardening/homestead farming possible for all the seasons
  • Emergence of community institutions and established market linkages
  • Enhancement of household income and improvement of the socio-economic status of these small and marginal farm families
  • Availability of safe drinking water for the families and school children
  • Impact on women drudgery, where women no longer have to travel far for water
  1. Rights of Woman in Conflict and Fragile State (RWCFS):

Grameen Sahara, with a view to address the communal conflict issues between Rabha & Garo tribes, as well as to link these communities to sustainable livelihood activities implemented this project with the support of ICCO India in Balijana, Kuchdhua under Goalpara district and Boko under Kamrup district of Assam. The greater objective of the project was to stress on meaningful livelihood generation among the women beneficiaries. The project has been implemented as a consortium of three organizations (Grameen Sahara, Assam Mahila Samata Society and Reach India). The project enabled women from diverse communities for their rights through empowerment and enhancement of their socio-economic status, with a view to organising them into people’s institution, providing technical assistance and market support.

The project had a direct impact on the livelihood pattern of the members in both districts. Activities like spinning and weaving were secured as an income generation activity with the creation of two sustainable community owned institutions. It created & developed a spirit of entrepreneurship in them with the knowledge of current market demands as well as quality standards and strategic pricing of the products. As these beneficiary members have been organized into two community owned institutions, they now have the power of collective bargaining.

The project has given employment to the Eri spinners and weavers in both the districts. 374 spinners and 450 nweavers have directly benefited.  Moreover, these two business institution have been linked, as Tungchar Producer Group purchases eri yarn from Prakshalika Producer Group and Prakshalika purchases fabric from Tungchar. As a result, a convergence has been created which benefits both parties. In future, these two institutions will be linked with government projects such as NRLM and other schemes.

  1. Center for Microfinance & Livelihood (CML):

It is an umbrella organization for capacity building, research, collaborative interventions and policy advocacy in the social sector. CML wwas established in 2008 with the support of Tata Social Welfare Trust. Today, CML has become an associate of Tata Trusts. It is working on four thematic areas, namely organizational self-awareness and assessment, organizational capacity enhancement, livelihood linkage and promotion and sectoral influence and pro-action.

  1. Supporting Human Capital Development in Meghalaya (SHCDM):

This is the ‘Training of Meghalaya Youth as Handloom Weaver and Pre and Post Loom Technicians For Employment/Self-Employment in Meghalaya/North East Region India’, commissioned by Meghalaya State Skill Development Society under the Asian Development Bank-assisted project SHCDM. It is intended to be a state-wide implementation with impact across Meghalaya in the handloom sector. In a span of 16 months from Nov 2018 to Mar 2020, 21 Skill Development Centers were set up in the state, covering 1527 weavers from all 11 districts. The target was to cover 1500 youth in Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hill divisions and train them in handloom and textile along with marketing and credit linkage support.

The project witnessed the convergence with the Handloom Department, Govt. of Meghalaya for logistic supports and Indian Institute of Handloom Technology, Govt. of India for Assessment & Certification of the weavers. Besides area-based work studies in different locations, we also formed 91 Producers’ Groups and linked them with banks. However, the time allotted for market linkages and proper impact assessment is inadequate, as a system change with the change of mindsets of rural weavers takes time.

  1. Grameen Jyoti Academy

This school has been set up under the CBSE and has classes up to Class V. Over 250 children are enrolled, with an annual enrollment rate of 40. The teachers are qualified. The management has the vision to improve its education quality to the best in the area. It is a not-for profit school and 25% students enrolled are from underprivileged families in the surrounding areas. The target is to enroll 500 students up to Class X.

  1. Institution Building:

Grameen Sahara has played a vital role in institution building with several producer groups and institutions, like Grameen Silk Producer Company Ltd., Grameen Development & Finance Pvt. Ltd., Centre for Microfinance & Livelihood, Pakshalika Producers’ Federation, Tungchar Producers’ Federation, Grameen Pig Producers’ Federation, Siro-Seuji Krishi Samabay Sammittee, Grameen Jyoti Academy, Organic Bhumi FPO and Pratishruti Pure Agro Pvt. Ltd.

Q. How has the Covid-19 lockdown impacted the microfinance activity of GDF? Do you think collection and new loan issuances will pick up once the lockdown ends?

A. The lockdown has impacted the microfinance sector very badly; and in fact, like never before. Liquidity is going to be a huge problem. Portfolio quality is going to get badly hit. Since the economy has broken, there is heavy job loss, business loss, activity loss and so on, which will take time to normalise. Immediately after the lock down is lifted, it cannot be expected that borrowers will be able to stabilize their activities. It will take time to get them back on earnings like before. Stabilization of repayment will take time.

Q. How do you view the fundraising situation for NGOs in the Northeast? Is CSR funding picking up in that region, or are development agencies still the main source of funding?

A. The fundraising for NGOs in this region is very challenging. It is not wise to depend on funding from the schemes under Government departments, as their processes are very lengthy and the release of funds are most often delayed. The CSR funds are also not easy to mobilize as most companies now have their own foundations/societies and tend to implement projects through their own foundations. Moreover, the companies are focused more to work only within a 50 km radius of their units. Hence as an non-profit NGO, it is better to rely on funding from development agencies, who also help in project execution in a professional manner.

Q. Tell us about the Grameen Silk Producer project? How did you organize the outreach to 10,000 silk producers, and how are you creating market linkages and price support?

A. GSP is owned by 1,000 producers. The project named Golden Weavers mobilized more than 5,000 weavers and spinners, organized them into producers groups and finally facilitated them to set up the company. The project was designed in such a manner that with time, they would be organized into a company so that the required support services could be provided to the producers after the project was completed. We put our efforts in that direction from the start. Grameen Sahara facilitated the market linkages and that was also taken over by the company. There are markets within the region and also outside . There is a separate Board in the company and a separate management. Grameen Sahara continues to play an advisory role.

Q. What is required to scale up FPOs to a size where they can raise debt from rural banks? Any examples you can add here, and how they achieved that scale?

A. The primary requirements for an FPO to raise debt from rural banks are documentary compliance like registration, bank account with transaction history, proof of activities and business plan. But despite the RBI directives, banks always try to find ways for refusing the loans or delay the processes on different grounds. Banks are not active lenders to the FPOs. NABARD has its scheme and gives credits, or even grants, to FPOs. But that is normally an exception, and not a part on normal business.

Q. Tell us a bit about the societal resistances you faced in the Northeast while scaling up the microfinance operations?

A. Initially there was no resistance as such. Since banking reach has always been poor in the region, microfinance has been welcomed. Microcredit has played an important role in the region in making credit available. But post demonetization, there was an influx of microfinance institutions from the rest of the country. That was because this region was the least hit during demonetization. MFIs from all over India developed the perception that this is the best region and there was an exponential growth of microfinance in the region. Multiple lending by multiple players meant the problem of over-indebtedness cropped up. From 2019, there was public protest against microfinance by some civil society associations. Microfinance portfolio deteriorated, which was previously one of the best in the country. Protests against CAB and CAA also affected the borrowers’ activities and the portfolio quality. The Covid lockdown has also impacted this space.

Q. What are your plans to scale up these interventions? What will be required in terms of resources, support, talent, policies and funds to achieve that scale?

A. Grameen Sahara always explores and analyzes need-based interventions. However, the focus remains on livelihood enhancement of rural beneficiaries and the creation of a self-sustainable institution model as a change catalyst. Any activity proposed by Grameen Sahara always focuses on the self-sustainable model beneficial for the community. We welcome innovative ideas and adoption better technologies. Though we have our own pool of experts, yet new talents with a similar zeal to do betterment for the community are always given the opportunity to join us in our endeavors. We have a vision of making Grameen Sahara a One-Stop Center for both on-farm & off-farm farmers, a Facilitation Hub with branches scattered in strategic locations of the region. Further, we also dream to make the unorganized sectors of handloom & agriculture more organized to advance together as one institution, and become a facilitator towards the greater benefit of the communities of Assam and the North Eastern states.

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