Poor People Are Like Bonsai Trees
Nobel laureate professor Mohammad Yunus said “To me poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a flower-pot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted; only the soil-base that is too inadequate.” Being poor, disadvantage or marginalised is neither a crime nor a curse on any individual. Everybody has the potentiality to change or grow. The society has the obligation to create the environment (help) for them, where they can unleash their energy and creativity and they can break those vicious cycles of injustice from their own.
Professor Yunus has influenced me a lot to shape my understanding about life and society. Today, I too realise that charity is not the answer to a social evil; rather we should enable them to help themselves through their own endeavours. It can be better understand through a real life incident. While working with Ujjivan (Microfinance Institution), a tribal woman approached us for loan of Rs. 6000/- to start pig rearing. We helped her to start her business. Within a period of 18 months her return on investment (ROI) was more than 800%! Now her children are going to school. She is capable of helping her family!
But why I got attracted to Microfinance, why I switched my career from foreign exchange to microfinance? Was it professor Yunus’s writing? Not exactly; off course, he has shown a practical path to me.
I belong to one of the most marginalised communities of Assam. We are commonly known as Miyan. The term Miyan literally means “respected”. But in social as well as political discourse in Assam the term is being used in a derogatory sense. Like, no Dalit wants to be called him/her as Harijan (son of God, as prescribed by Mahatma Gandhi), the people from our community also don’t want to be called as Miyan. I have seen the social exclusion from close proximity, at the same time poverty too. Soon after my matriculation I started searching the root cause of the problem. It didn’t take much time to understand that social evils like poverty, illiteracy, child marriage, population explosion and on the other side of I found Assamese nationalism, high level of ethnocentrism and communalism were the main causes behind the misfortune of those poor people.
While studying the history of Assam Agitation, I found that the Miyan community was targeted mainly because of their religious practice. I went more inside. I started reading Marx, Engels and Lenin. I joined Students Federation of India (SFI). (Even I was elected as member of Barpeta district committee). Once I met Sitaram Yechury (Polit Bureau Member of CPI(M) in Guwahati. During the public meeting, he openly admitted that he is an atheist. For the first time I realised like a person openly revolting against God! It was fascinating for me. Though I was studying dialectical materialism, yet I was not been able to convince myself as an atheist. I read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian?” and also Bhagat Singh’s writing on religious faith. A small of book on Stephen Hawking’s life finally succeeded to bring me out from the superstition called religion. I become an atheist!
This development not only equipped me to fight against the communalism but also against the culprits who wanted to shield themselves through religion. Rape, child sexual abuse, dowry death, forced divorce (Talaque) etc were rampant in our locality. I started educating the victims to fight back. They learnt to use the alternative remedial options like human rights commission, woman commission, creating pressure on police through newspaper reporting etc. Eventually, I had to run away from my village to safe my life. But fortunately, the people have now learnt to use the law to uphold their right and entitlement to some extent.
I couldn’t continue my BA.LLB from Assam University due to financial problem (I had to manage my all expenses myself since my matriculation). Then, I have chosen IGNOU and completed my graduation. I got employment in UAE Exchange & Financial Services Ltd as Probationary Officer. I couldn’t continue my job even for one year. The values I imbibed, the suffering I have witnessed were not favourable for my new assignment.
I changed my profession to microfinance practitioner from a foreign exchange professional. Providing small loan (Micro credit) to economically active poor women was really amazing. And its impact on the poor family was more fascinating to me.
But I realised helping those people through microfinance was not enough. The incident of Andra Pradesh microfinance crisis compelled me think more into the deep. I further understood, only providing credit eventually creates debt trap for the poor. Helping them to help themselves should be the primary approach to alleviate poverty and other social evils. Creating a safety net or an ecosystem which can help them to perform well is the only answer. Charity and pumping cash will not help in long run.
Coming back to the socio-political perspective, the poor of my village are treated as illegal Bangladeshi when they come to Guwahati or other towns of upper Assam for livelihood. Every year devastating flood and erosion induces thousands of people to internally displace. As a social worker I can’t help them to get rid of from so called nationalists, who harassed the poor people. What I can do?
After two years of my study at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I would like to help them to create job at local level, so that they don’t need to migrate to other places. But will never suggest them to be confined. I will help them to get the benefit of right to education. I will encourage them to pen down their story to create pressure and awareness. To establish rule of law I will definitely help them to choose the right path.
One day, not I but they will help themselves!