Chinna Pillai, the 70-year-old matriarch, is on a mission. Her untiring efforts have brought succor to thousands of landless labourers and people below the poverty line. She may be illiterate but her achievement of transforming an entire village once made the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee touch her feet.
She is famously called the Iron Lady who brought 12 lakh families out of poverty. Her hard work in the last 20 years has garnered her many accolades. She was awarded Padma Shri for her selfless work.
A resident of Pullucheri, a small village in Mathur panchayat near Alagarkovil in Madurai, she also inculcated the habit of saving money among people, eating healthy food and also educating children. She also stopped more than 50 child marriages.
Married at a young age and moving to a village where people are conservative, Chinna Pillai had two sons and three daughters to support, where she and her husband became a part of the population of landless labourers who were trapped in debts.
Her activities, which started in 1990, quickly attracted many activists to come up with more successful alternatives. Vasimalai, the head of the Dhan Foundation, came up with the concept of multiplying the tiny savings of these women into big profits that could holistically support society
Money-lenders were fleecing the farmers who did not have the power or courage to question the system. They were slapped with interest rates up to 300 per cent. But Chinna Pillai decided to take on the system. “Letting someone else decide my future was never an option. So, I would request the landlord, politely but repeatedly, for better wages for my group. Some were annoyed by the nagging, but it was what we deserved, and so I fought on,” says Chinna Pillai.
Her unending efforts to take her community out of oppression in Pullucheri, has today transformed the village into a model of self-sufficiency. The village has its own banking system called Kalanjiam which is a microcredit movement, which has empowered hundreds of women and their families in the last three decades now.
“I started my job as a labour contract chief (kothu leader) of a group composed of women working in the field just like me. Being unorganised, there was no concerted attempt to challenge what we deserve. However, by setting up a group, we not only exerted united pressure on the landlords, but also launched our own savings unit to protect our future.”
The road ahead was very challenging for Chinna Pillai because convincing the villagers and educating them was a daunting task. Her activities, which started in 1990, quickly attracted many activists to come up with more successful alternatives. Vasimalai, the head of the Dhan Foundation, came up with the concept of multiplying the tiny savings of these women into big profits that could holistically support society.
Chinna Pillai became the bridge between the two. She convinced her group of women to join, and thus together they opened PullukKalanjiam, short for ‘the Granary of Pullucheri.’
It all started with 15 women contributing Rs 20 a month. The accumulated sum was lent to every member of the party who wanted it most. And, in exchange, the participant will have to pay 60 per cent of the annual interest.
What may sound like a high rate was more of a blessing than the normal 300 per cent interest rate requested by landlords and money lenders.
The fire of reform was sparked and the Kalanjiam SHG (Self Support Group) started to lend as much as Rs 1,000 a month in a matter of six months. Members have not only used the funds for emergencies but also to start small businesses.
By 1998, the Kalanjiam Cooperative Movement had finally started, and the group leaders had promised to expand the idea of Kalanjiam community banking to far-flung regions of the world. As a result of their campaigns, after 29 years, they have expanded to 250 blocks, serving 60,000 SHGs, covering 1.2 million families.
Although Chinna Pillai could not educate herself, due to her sacrifices and efforts, her children and those in her society have been given an amount of money to be spent on education of children.
“Education is the strongest tool of change, And I want the next generation to be well-equipped so that no one can take advantage of their confidence. Through the savings and education unit, I want every poor villager in India to come out of their distressed economy and lead a dignified life that they deserve,” says the 70-year-old leader.