Kanta Bai Salunke – A Tribal Nomad speaks

 Photo by Fatima Najm/Creatives Against Poverty

By Fatima Najm/ Creatives Against Poverty

Kanta Bai Salunke bolts for her ragged tent, sending knives, spades and tools clattering to the ground as she dives for cover. She picks up a faded velvet pouch, rummaging through it, muttering loudly to herself.

Then Kanta pulls out a flat round tin with a smile that stretches wide across her broken teeth. “I cannot come out to greet you naked, can I?” she says, dipping a tentative finger into the tin and smearing red powder across her forehead. “Now I am dressed.”

Kanta turns to a younger woman stirring a few pieces of onion in a pot over a makeshift furnace, and lunges at her, leaving a horizantal red streak across a second forehead. Her daughter in law, who had been sitting on her haunches, loses her balance and rolls backward.

Both women laugh so hard, several children sitting huddled in clothes too large for their bony bodies begin to giggle. Eleven of them call Kanta, a member of the Gheesardee nomadic tribe, their mother.

Kanta says she cannot believe she is now an entrepreneur, making a small profit, taking and repaying loans on time. She is still haunted by the humiliation she suffered at the hands of local loan sharks. “I used to feel very furstrated, I could make axes, hammers, also anything with a sharp blade, but where would I get the money to start? I sell enough to feed the family but then I need raw material.”

Now thanks to an innovative banking system that goes doesn’t demand identity papers from nomadic tribal women, Kanta can apply for loans and focus on meeting the demands of her clientele, and the needs of her children.

Chetna Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi bank says, “When we first considered giving a nomadic tribal a loan we thought “doob gaya toe doob gaya – if she deafults she defaults– we have to take some risks, this  woman has been a resident of this community for a long time, she doesn’t need papers to prove her identity.”

“She is not formally a citizen of this country – she has no ID – so we got her a ration card by  establishing through witness accounts that she is a long term resident,  now we are trying to get her a voter registration card. She deserves equal access to all services. She deserves a bank account.”

But for Kanta Bai a savings account was not on her reality radar. The only route to funding her work was the local loan sharks who charged her exorbitant interest rates.

“I went to the money lender because banks dont give loans to women who look like me,” she said, tugging at her ash-smeared saree, poking at the holes in the hem. “Bank wants ID, for that, I have to produce birth certificate – I was born on the street in front of everyone and I gave birth to eleven children in front of everyone, and they want proof of my birth.”

The red streak across her forehead is an important sign of her existence, of her place in the world. It announces her status as a married gheesardee tribal woman.

“I am naked without this, I am no one, but when they see me with this big red forehead they know I am a gheesardee,” she says. “They say I dont exist unless I have papers, if I could make them feel the hunger in my childrens belly they would know we exist. You cannot ignore hunger.”

Since 2006, 16,000 women have been trained at the Mann Deshi Business School and over 11,000 new business women have been created.

140, 000 women currently hold savings accounts with Mann Deshi Bank.

Fatima Najm on assignment for Creatives Against Poverty to report on the impact of British Asian Trust projects at Mann Deshi Mahila Bank http://www.manndeshi.org/