Umarani Biswas collects money from a village home. Picture by Saurav Bhattacharyya
Since 1969, she has been teaching poor women from the remote Tehatta block how a daily saving of ek mutho chaal, (a handful of rice), can go a long way.
Umarani Biswas is 87 now.
She still walks 6km every day through the dingy and impoverished lanes of the villages bordering Tehatta I block.
At a time the state is reeling under the effects of scams of fund mobilising companies, she boasts about a collection of Rs 1.30 lakh every month from her clients.
The officials of the post office, where she deposits the money, call her “Lady Yunus” after Mohammad Yunus, who won the Nobel prize for starting the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh based on micro savings.
Those who listened to Lady Yunus were saved from falling a prey to any fly-by-night funds scheme.
For the residents of Shyamnagar, a village 160km from Calcutta and close to the India-Bangladesh border, even the thought of an investment was a luxury.
Lady Yunus also advocates birth control.
She was once beaten up by village women for advocating it.
But she stuck on.
Her mantra was simple: “Practise birth control and save at least a handful of rice every day from daily meal in a separate container to sell it at the end of the month.”
Now some villagers save money, instead of rice.
At the end of the month, collection is deposited in the small savings schemes of central and state governments at the Shyamnagar post office.
Villagers deposit money every month for a period of a year, five or six years.
At the end of the term, they get their money back with an interest.
“Rs 1.30 lakh is a hefty amount and that too from a poor belt like Tehatta. It is unheard of, particularly for a small sub-post office like Shyamnagar,” says postmaster Kashinath Mandal.
Indrajit Talukdar, deputy director of the small savings department in Krishnagar, says: “She can be a role model.”
Umarani’s journey began in 1969 after the death of her husband.
She started working as member of the mahila samiti under the family and social welfare department. While working as a volunteer of a family planning programme in Shyamnagar, she was moved to see the condition of the villagers.
“I made the villagers understand that a small family can save big money for them. I urged them to let go of prejudice. I was beaten up for advocating birth control. But I did not give up,” she says.
“During that time, the local block officials asked me to join as a small savings agent for schemes available at the post office because they knew about my popularity among women,” she says.
But that seemed impossible as most of the 2,500-odd families in the area were below the poverty line.
“In the beginning, I could convince only seven families to go for a monthly savings of Rs 5 under the Cumulative Time Deposit Scheme,” she said.
“Then I introduced the concept of ek mutho chaal. The maturity benefits of the first few investors spelled magic,” Umarani added.
Tehatta block officials said Umarani also talked about living a good life and stressed on the importance of education for women.
“She has taught us a way of life, the need for education, sanitation and many more things. It was because of her that most residents of Shyamnagar constructed pucca toilets more than two decades ago using the interest from their savings,” says Bandana Sil, Umarani’s neighbour who works as a small savings agent.
Umarani’s family members look up to her.
Bablu Biswas, the eldest of her three sons, said: “My mother has taught us how one can live a dignified life. Even in the worst period of her life she never begged. She fought to find a way to survive.”
“I have never seen another person with such patience, determination and conviction,” says Amar Biswas, her second son, a local ration dealer.