By Dhruv Singh Chauhan
My perception of financial literacy in India changed completely when I had the opportunity to intern with S M Sehgal Foundation. I used to think that most of us know how to open and maintain a bank account, but that day I came to know that I was quite mistaken.
It was a chilly morning as I attended the Project Samarth, a financial literacy camp in Sakras Village in the Mewat region of Haryana, an area that I did not realize was also home to the poorest of the poor in India. The camp was jointly set up in collaboration with Canara HSBC OBC Life Insurance Co. Ltd. to bridge the awareness gap and lead to financial inclusion.
We reached the village at about 10:00 a.m., and I was immediately surprised to see close to 400 villagers had already turned up and were waiting in line. They’d heard of the program from announcements on community radio Alfaz-e-Mewat, started by the Sehgal Foundation in the region.
I had been assigned the task of photographing and taking video of the event. As it happened, I ended up interacting with the villagers and the schoolchildren hanging out there on the school premises where the event was held.
The camp comprised of informative lectures and street plays on financial inclusion. It was fascinating to watch as people began to interact with the information counters set up to guide them. Women folk huddled together, nervously eyeing the counters. There was an air of excitement among the people, made obvious by all of their questions: “What is a bank? How do we keep our money? Will our money be safe? How we can take out money? How do we fill the form needed to open a bank account?”
As I started helping people with their queries, my own learning started as I watched them grapple with questions I’d taken for granted. Through the course of the day, there were also the occasional exceptions: highly prepared and knowledgeable people like the family of six that already had copies of all the documents they needed.
My experience that day was quite a learning and unlearning. My key takeaway was that high illiteracy rates very much persist in the village, and there is a need to simplify the account-opening process through a joint effort between the banks and the government.
I was also taken aback by how low the annual incomes were of small and marginal farmers in rural India. They earn barely enough to serve the basic necessities of their families, sometimes even less. This made me realize the importance and value of money and how incredibly ignorant I was of the realities of our country today.
The silver linings: one constant response that made me particularly happy was the answer men gave for the forms when I asked them their wives’ occupations. They proudly replied that their wives worked with them as equal partners and were not confined to the household.
My experience working at the camp made me realize that ignorance is the biggest barrier in the path toward financial literacy. I realized that accessibility to the appropriate resources, and proper guidance to use these resources, play a foundational role, because every human being has the natural instinct and desire to learn.
Local community leaders play such an important role in spreading awareness for the successful achievement of objectives in a social setting. I was impressed by their dedication, and the dedication of the workers of the foundation, and how they handled the event with so much patience and care.
Interestingly, the Nukkad Natak (street play), created to teach the public more about personal finances, proved to be quite a hit with the school boys. They sat through the street play engrossed, following every word.
As the program came to a close, I was filled with a quiet kind of joy as so many people (elders, women, little children) all shook hands, bowing down and thanking me. It was an unforgettable experience, and I drove back home with tears in my eyes.
(Dhruv Singh Chauhan volunteered with the Communications team at S M Sehgal Foundation).