Waste Is Wealth

A grassroots initiative of the Syro-Malabar Cathlic Church improves lives and environment

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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At first glance, a casual observer might think conventional the mingling of women near a modest house on the outskirts of Ernakulam, Kerala’s second largest city with a population of 3.1 million. The hum of Malayalam, the local language, slices through the heavy humid air. Youngsters hang on their mothers’ backs, nestle in their laps or burrow under their arms, which are abundantly draped in saris of vivid indigo, magenta, saffron, turquoise and violet. Unwieldy children and plates of biscuits, bananas and sweets are passed from woman to woman.

Suddenly, the chatter subsides and the children stop fidgeting. In unison, the 15 women begin chanting the Sahrudaya Geetham, a familiar prayer in Malayalam.

“Lord, bestow on us the blessing to live as one caste, one religion and one family.

“Give us the strength to work as humble servants,” they continue, reciting the Song of Togetherness. “May we see the truth that Muslim, Hindu and Christian are one in this country, and it is you who rules the world as Allah and God ... give us the blessing to live always in the thought of you.”

Indeed, this is no ordinary social. With words of reverence and solidarity, a self-help group — an initiative of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church — begins its weekly program, assembling beneficiaries and their children for peer support, financial advice and, of course, loan servicing and repayment.

Valsa Gopi opens her accounting ledger and calls out names. One after another, each of these women, all local microentrepreneurs, address the group, offering an update on the status of their various enterprises — raising chickens, making sweets or selling garments. Near the meeting’s end, fingers fish into saris, small wads of Indian rupees emerge and Valsa Gopi’s satchel thickens. Together these Christian, Hindu and Muslim neighbors — loan by loan, repayment by repayment — climb the proverbial development ladder, pulling themselves up out of poverty.

Keralites across the state have been forming comparable self-help groups with infectious enthusiasm. But for those at Welfare Services Ernakulam (W.S.E.), which has earned a statewide reputation for combating communicable diseases, such a contagion, for a change, comes as good news. In recent years, this agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly has developed and promoted its microcredit program with great success.

Today, it oversees some 2,000 local self-help groups in which more than 35,000 of the most economically impoverished women in the region participate. Thousands more, from farmers and construction workers to the elderly and physically challenged, have organized similar groups according to their specialized skills and specific needs. Self-help groups now operate in the archeparchy’s 350 villages, no matter how rural or isolated.

The impact of these self-help groups has far exceeded expectations. In addition to servicing microloans, organizers use the regular meetings as springboards for a host of community activities and social services.

“These village self-help groups are the basic platforms of all our social and economic planning and development,” said Father Paul Moonjely, the executive director of Welfare Services Ernakulam.

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Tags: Kerala Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Women in India Micro Credit Program