A Keralite family manages 12 compost tanks as part of a W.S.E. microenterprise initiative. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Thanks to a small loan from W.S.E., these Keralite women now run a lucrative paper bag business. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A self-help group in Ernakulam holds its weekly meeting. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Packages of Megha pickled food are prepared for market. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Father Paul Moonjely stands by a public awareness advertisement that reads “waste is wealth.” (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A local self-help leader addresses her countrparts at a monthly regional conference. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
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.
“It is through the groups that we float our leadership initiatives and empower our community — not just economically but socially, culturally, even politically.”
“In our groups, there are Christians, Hindus and Muslims,” he continued. “The church gives the leadership. But we don’t refuse anyone because they are from other religions or castes. Our whole objective is to make sure that in our society it’s not only the rich who can handle money, but that the poor are sufficiently capable to handle money, and handle it in a more efficient and productive way.”
As self-help groups take root locally, they play an increasingly vital role in the region’s overall sustainable development. However, at the heart of this grassroots initiative are the individual entrepreneur and a belief in his or her dreams.
One such entrepreneur is Mija Thomas. Four years ago, Mrs. Thomas fit the profile of a typical middle-age housewife living in the picturesque suburban town of Pazhanganad, just outside Ernakulam. She kept her home tidy. She knew her way around the kitchen. She took good care of her children, and she left the breadwinning to her husband. To the naked eye, her life appeared domestic, quiet, flare-free, if not carefree. But quietly, a dream burned.
Thanks to a microloan from Welfare Services, Mrs. Thomas now runs a small, successful pickling company called Megha (“sky” in Malayalam) from her home, which these days resembles more a food-processing factory than a homestead. Permanent fixtures in the living room, large vats hold pounds of salted mango. Mushrooms, cultivated in baskets of woodchips, hang from the ceiling in a dark, damp room, which once served as a spare bedroom. At the kitchen table, six women work furiously in assembly-line fashion to stick labels on vacuum-sealed packages of pickled dates, lime, mango, fish, prawns, meat and, the best seller, bitter gourd.
“Hurry. Hurry. But don’t screw up the labels, or I’ll have to answer for that,” warned the “Pickle Madam,” as Mrs. Thomas is affectionately called. She and her staff were rushing to prepare Megha’s line of pickled goods for an upcoming Shivarathry festival, one of 10 such events at which Megha exhibited that month.
“I remember my first exhibition,” recalled Mrs. Thomas. “Afterward, I was so exhausted. I lost money. If W.S.E. hadn’t given me money to cover my transportation and reminded me of other success stories, I was ready to quit that day, right then and there.”
As Megha’s some 15 employees know first hand, the company has come a long way in a short time. Month after month, sales and profits keep soaring. Orders now arrive from as far away as Delhi.
For good reason, Mrs. Thomas’s confidence is sky high.
“I want Megha to be known around the world,” declared the Pickle Madam.
The microcredit initiative of Welfare Services Ernakulam, in tandem with its network of self-help groups, continues to grow and adapt to Kerala’s changing needs. Most recently, it combined Keralites’ entrepreneurial spirit with the power of microcredit to develop a pioneering durable solution to regional disease control and waste management.
W.S.E. first conceived of this unparalleled program in late 2006. During that year’s peak monsoon season, staff in Ernakulam began receiving alarming reports from their foot soldiers — local self-help group animators, council members and parish priests — that the chikungunya fever had returned to the coastal district of Alappuzha, just 16 miles from Ernakulam. A deadly mosquito-borne virus, it had last struck Kerala over 30 years ago.
Some 70,000 people in Alappuzha had already contracted the virus, for which no vaccine exists. The only available treatment alleviates the disease’s symptoms, which include high fever, joint pain, fatigue and diarrhea. Extremely poor, most of the victims lived near stagnant, polluted bodies of water and slept without mosquito nets. And at the time, the district’s waste management system and environmental policy were almost nonexistent. Making matters worse, the local government responded to the crisis slowly and inadequately.
With chikungunya spreading fast and tens of thousands already sick and fighting for their lives, Father Moonjely and his staff quickly mobilized their resources. Having battled outbreaks of E. coli, malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis over the years, Welfare Services public health teams had a wealth of experience at their disposal. They launched a three-prong strategy to treat those already infected and prevent the virus from spreading.
“When this disease was spreading in 2006, we activated all of our community groups in those villages,” said Father Moonjely.
“The first focus was a massive cleaning campaign. We gave thorough training to people in the area on cleaning, and we sprayed an insecticide in the waterlogged communities.”
In cooperation with the district’s medical services, W.S.E. then set up and operated free medical camps in every village affected by the virus. The agency also took the lead in coordinating all other community efforts and social service providers, including youth groups, nongovernmental organizations and health workers.
“We got all these institutions networked,” said Father Moonjely.
As for the seriously ill, the agency arranged for nearby hospitals and clinics run by the archeparchy to admit the most affected.
“But people were bedridden for months,” the priest continued. “The disease persisted there for a long time. Mostly poor people — those with health problems, those living in small huts — they were the ones most affected. Of course, they couldn’t work and support themselves. So we gave them material assistance and food supplies — rice, eggs, milk. We were supporting 100,000 people — about 70,000 people who were infected plus their dependents as a preventive measure.”
Within two months, Welfare Services Ernakulam and its partners contained the chikungunya outbreak. And though an estimated 126 people died because of the virus, the toll easily could have been much higher had not W.S.E. responded effectively and quickly. The following monsoon season, chikungunya struck Kerala once again, but this time in areas far from the archeparchy.
“Not a single person was affected in this particular district of Ernakulam,” said Father Moonjely.
The agency’s work, did not stop once it resolved the 2006 chikungunya crisis. On the contrary, the leadership of W.S.E. saw the event as a wake-up call and started planning for more permanent preventive measures. Father Moonjely and his team reasoned that the district required an integrated waste management system if it wished to minimize the possibility of a future outbreak.
“All these communicable diseases have their origin in poor environmental sanitation,” the priest said. “Any society that wants to really mitigate these problems of viral diseases and infections needs a well-structured waste management system.”
Rather than lobby local government or pressure impoverished and overburdened families to shoulder more responsibility, Welfare Services developed a bold, if not revolutionary, initiative that gives communities economic incentive to keep their environment safe from disease.
“Waste is wealth!” Coined by W.S.E., this alliterative, catchy slogan now serves as the principal marketing strategy for the agency’s latest microenterprise program, which offers poor families the opportunity to earn income while at the same time laying the groundwork for an integrated waste management system.
Participating families receive biofarming equipment that transforms organic waste into fertilizer or renewable energy. The program comprises two separate and equally effective models for waste management: aerobic and anaerobic.
The former, which W.S.E. refers to as the “vermi park” project, uses microorganisms that require oxygen to compost solid waste. Welfare Services provides each participating family with a dozen or two ecofriendly terracotta tanks, composting worms and skill training in “vermi” composting. Families fill each tank with organic waste, e.g., food scraps, garden waste and manure — the same debris that once clogged drains, nourished mosquitoes and spread disease. Industrious worms do the rest of the heavy lifting.
About 45 days later, the agency purchases the waste turned fertilizer and “vermi& wash — the yellow nutrient-rich liquid residue that seeps out the bottom of each tank — and resells them at a profit to local farmers. The compost makers, who currently number 1,400 families, each earn $750 to $1,200 annually — not a bad income for cleaning up the yard.
The anaerobic model, or biofuel program, generates income for families primarily by reducing household energy costs. The equipment includes a cement chamber and gas piping that runs to the kitchen.
Program participants place biodegradable waste, usually manure, along with wastewater into the cement chamber and seal it. The waste decomposes inside the chamber, producing biogas — a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide — that the equipment pumps directly to the kitchen’s gas-run stove.
The process also generates solid compost called sludge slurry, which serves as potent fertilizer that W.S.E. uses to promote organic farming. Welfare Services has already constructed 350 of these biofuel plants for individual households as well as for commercial establishments, such as shops, hotels, slaughterhouses and hospitals.
“All these programs are interlinked from the grassroots level to industry and the marketplace,” said Father Moonjely. “This is the whole cycle of development.”
Lisie Hospital, a 1,000-bed facility of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly located in the heart of the city, now boasts one of Welfare Services’ biofuel plants. The hospital’s associate director, Father Johnson Vadakkumcherry, cannot praise it enough. A former Welfare Services staff member, he is a staunch advocate for sustainable development.
“If you go out and distribute money to the people, they will remain beggars forever,” he said. “But you know, after Father Moonjely arrived at W.S.E., there’s been a change. Formerly, it was merely welfare services. Now development is taking place. He has built that through loan systems, life insurance and health insurance plans — by strengthening their incomes. We cannot remain the dispenser of money forever. We need to help people stand on their own.”
Without a doubt, Father Moonjely and his team have taken this initiative of the local church in an entirely new direction — and on a lean budget to boot. Whereas administrative costs for most development organizations hover between 30 and 40 percent of the operating budget, Welfare Services Ernakulam spends well below 10 percent. Not surprisingly, Father Moonjely has attracted the eye of other organizations, which have dangled job offers in his direction, with high salaries and all the perks.
“Not so hard to say no,” laughed the priest, who has been with the agency for over two years. “I get a lot of gratification from this work … but we’re not working for money. We’re working for the people. And they appreciate what we’re doing.”
What makes Welfare Services stand out is the grassroots network it has helped build and upon which it depends. Some 300 parish communities, 439 priests and countless volunteers contribute to the agency’s work. This network of individuals and communities, which, as Father Vadakkumcherry puts it, “reaches every nook and corner” of the archeparchy, gives the agency its unique character and makes it possible to accomplish all that it does.
For his part, Father Paul Moonjely attributes W.S.E.’s success to faith. “That’s the core element and driving force being expressed by these vibrant communities,” he said. That’s what motivates us and brings us together in the different platforms within the parish. We’re basically translating the love of God through these expressions, these activities, these interventions. We’re not just social workers.“
Peter Lemieux received the Dorothea Lange Fellowship in 2001.