‘True empowerment is when women can ask questions’

Dr. C.K Gariyali, a post graduate from the Delhi School of Social Work and a doctorate in women’s studies from the Mother Teresa University is a senior IAS officer. She has studied poverty alleviation at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University and Women’s empowerment at the Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University. She has served as Principal Secretary to the Governor of Tamil Nadu and as Secretary Social Welfare Department. She also held the position of Collector of Chennai and South Arcot districts, and was the Secretary to the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Dr. C K Gariyali IAS shares with Marie Banu her views on women empowerment.

You have held several portfolios in the government. Which of them did you cherish most and why?
Indian Administrative Service is a great opportunity to serve the nation. I have cherished each and every portfolio and I don’t rate them high or low. I think each of them opened up new opportunities for me to help somebody in different segments of the society.
However I cherished most my work in the Correctional Administration Department. During the year 1979, I worked with children who were involved in petty crimes; kids who had failed an exam or got beaten at home and just hopped on to a train and landed at Madras Central; girls who had lost their parents and were wandering the streets; orphans; and women who were apprehended and remanded under immoral traffic act. While there, I was terribly moved to see these unfortunate human beings, who were young and vulnerable and mostly victim of circumstances. Every morning I had to think of devising new ways to help them—to get them out of correctional institutions, to find their parents, to get them back to their homes and families, or alternatively, to place them in foster care or adoption. There were many issues that we were struggling with, but we eventually made a lot of improvement to the system and the prevailing laws. When I was transferred, I cried for days. I still keep in touch and send occasional gifts for girls in the Kellys home.

While serving as Senior Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, you were also on special duty as the Relief Commissioner for Cuddalore district. Can you share your experience working for the tsunami victims?
It was a very sad experience! I have never seen such devastation in my life. The morning of the tsunami, the Chief Secretary asked me to immediately head to Cuddalore as I was at that time overseeing the administration of Cuddalore District.
I drove directly to the hospital as the dead bodies were brought there and all the survivors were gathered outside. I had never before seen people who have lost everything—their children; their family members; their homes, their belongings, and even their livelihood. Before I could got down from the car, a woman came rushing towards me, held me by my neck, started shaking me, and asked me screamingly to go to the sea and bring back her three children. She did not need any other type of assistance from the government. All that she wanted was to get back her kids. In her mind a person of authority could simply miraculously bring back her children.
I could see that the survivors of tsunami were in a terrible state of depression and I was worried if they would kill themselves. Therefore, the first thing I did was to call Dr. Thara of SCARF and ask her to rush a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health personnel to Cuddalore. Then, I made other calls to the Institute of Mental health in Chennai, National Institute in Hyderabad, NIMHANS in Bangalore, NGOs in Madurai, and requested them to send as many therapists and counselors as possible along with anti-depressant drugs to treat the survivors.
People had lost the will to live. Our government did not spare any expense and the NGOs also chipped in. The first thing I did was to re-open the schools because unless children settled into a routine, parents could not be able to put their lives together. Another important thing was that we involved survivors in their rehabilitation and used a participatory approach where political leaders, local leaders, and survivors jointly worked together.
Cuddalore became the laboratory to generate the customized and personalized rehabilitation strategies and ideas for all tsunami affected districts. The work in Cuddalore was highly commended by MedhaPatkarji as well as Bill Clinton and our work received international acclaim.

Known as the ‘Mother of SHGs’, can you tell us about the SHG Movement in Tamil Nadu?
Deep inside me I am a feminist and I passionately care for women. I am happy that they are getting stronger and more empowered. The SHG Movement started in Tamil Nadu in late eighties, when Dr. M.G.Ramachandran was the Chief Minister. Since then, Tamil Nadu Government including our present Chief Minister Dr. Miss. J. Jayalalitha has been very much pro-SHGs and pro-poor. In the last three decades, poverty reduction has always been the main agenda for our Government.
As a result, Tamil Nadu has achieved maximum poverty reduction in our country. The credit for this would go to women‘s self-help groups as they organized and empowered themselves economically, socially, and politically. Today, almost every SHG woman is contributing in some way to her family’s income.
In the early years, it was challenging to bring women into the SHG fold. Women going out of their homes to attend meetings and training were jeered at by the local people. However, once families realized that woman could bring in extra money into the household, the attitude changed.
Do you think that the women of today are empowered enough? What according to you is woman’s empowerment?
I have written four books on this subject. The first one is titled ‘Inching Forward’ which talks about the empowerment being a slow by sure process. The second one is titled ‘Woman’s Own’ which is about the SHG Movement itself. It shows that SHG woman had to first empower themselves within the household and then only they could empower themselves economically, socially and politically.
True empowerment is when women can ask questions, take decisions, and bring transparency in local governance. Today, we have over 10,000 SHG women elected as representatives in local governance. Tamil Nadu should be really proud of achieving this.

In economic empowerment of SHG women, what is the role that the government, banks, and different financial institutions play?
We have a lot of money allocated by the State Government as well as the Central Government to provide seed money and revolving fund for the Self-help groups. Once SHGs are credit rated and graded, they also become eligible for availing bank finance. Majority of banks lend funds to the self-help groups at an interest rate of 12 to 13 percent. However, the banks are not able to meet the entire requirement of SHG women. They are particularly unable to lend to the urban poor as they fear that they would migrate. In reality, the urban poor actually live for decades in the same place and they are also in need of financial assistance. In cities like Chennai, banks do not even have adequate staff to open bank accounts for hundreds of SHG women. Hence, there is a big gap in credit access to the poor.
This credit gap is being filled by micro-finance institutions. However, few MFIs have been lending at a very high rate which had led the RBI to set up Malegaon Committee to address the issue. Now the RBI has issued rules based on the recommendations of Malegaon Committee to regulate the MFI sector. With this kind of regulations in place, the MFI sector can play an important role along with the Government and banks in providing credit to the poor.