On the second day of my visit to Prayas, our next MFI partner in the state of Gujarat, I went to Gandhidham, which showed signs of most modern Indian cities with its large buildings, the latest cars on the road and so on.
I learnt that Gandhidham and other parts of the Kutch area also had a high level of HIV/AIDS. There were several reasons for this – a nearby sea port, transportation hub, a significant migrant population who work in the nearby export processing zones and industrial centers that did not have their families with them, and also acute poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities.
Prayas is also involved in the prevention of HIV/AIDS and works closely with the gay community and also female sex workers (FSWs) who are considered high risk groups. Prayas has 3 gay employees who reach out to the gay population many of whom are married and educate them about taking the necessary precautions. Many of them also have STD or AIDs as a result of which they incur high medical expenditures. Their families thus tend to be lot poorer. For their economic development, Prayas consciously forms groups in the areas where they live so that their spouses can take microloans and earn their livselihoods.
As I learned a little bit more, I also realized that were hardly any financing options for the poor available in Kutch. Other than Prayas no microfinance institutions operates there and most people have to approach a local money lender in case they need a loan. The money lender terms I found were the most usurious with interest rates in excess of 700%.
Thus, poor families facing financial shock or hardship for example during a health emergency, have very limited options. What I learned is that several women have had no choice but to become a FSW to get some money to treat a sick child or sick husband. Prayas is in contact with more than 800 FSWs. Apart from education, Prayas also works for their socio-economic development by helping them gain livelihood opportunities by giving them microloans.
I also visited some of the entrepreneurs and their families in Gandhidham. I found many of them living in worse conditions than what I had encountered in Jharkhand and Bihar when I visited Ajiwika. In case of some of the families, the rain water was entering their houses and some families were not even sending their children to school. This was a big shock to me.
Gujarat has been growing at very high GDP growth rates since 1991 (possibly greater than 10% per annum) and I did not expect to see this level of poverty. This perhaps tells us that while top down development strategies like big infrastructure projects, massive roads, big industry projects are useful and beneficial; their benefits may not necessarily reach the poorest families who continue to be trapped in the vicious cycle of extreme poverty. While bottom up development is not flashy; there are no big buildings, bridges, massive roads or monuments to show, I think it is a sure way to make a difference to the lives of the poorest families and help them come out of poverty with dignity.