“Uplift”: The name says it all

It’s the middle of the night. Your child’s temperature is spiking. Her cries are waking the neighbours. You are beside yourself. You need medicine. Having no savings, you go to the local moneylender and are told your small personal loan of £3 will cost you £5 a year in interest alone.

Paying approximately 24 times the UK interest rate was the only option for desperate or entrepreneurial villagers in Hazaribag, India until the Jesuit “Uplift” project began.

Headed by Australian Jesuit Fr Tony Herbert SJ, the “Uplift” project teaches women to administer a savings group which lends money as needed within the village at 5% per annum. One such loan recipient has been 22 year old Chotu.

Raised by a hard working mother and an alcoholic father who rarely worked, Chotu left school in third grade.

“When I was 12 years old my maternal uncle arranged for me to work in a roadside eatery. I was given the task of washing the plates and given 300 rupees (£3.32) per month. I did that for one year. Then the malik (owner) said he wanted one more helper, so I brought a boy from the village who washed the plates and I upgraded to cleaning the tables at 450 rupees per month. I did that for six months. Then I asked the malik if I could become a waiter, and he said ‘go and get another boy’, so I upgraded again to become a waiter, which I did for four months at 1,500 rupees (£16.58) per month.”

The ambitious Chotu started filling in for the cook, making chow mein and omelettes, but he was still on his waiter’s rates of 1,500 rupees per month. This went on for two and a half years until the malik agreed to pay him a chef’s apprentice’s wage of 3,000 rupees (£33.16) per month. Within just three months he was recognised as an experienced chef and was earning 6,000 rupees per month.

“But what I liked best was that the customers now addressed me as ‘mistriji’ (an honorific term), whereas before they bossed me around and gave orders in the diminutive ‘aare, aabe’, as to inferior servants. I was happy at this. Then I thought: if a cook gets so much respect, what if I was the malik? By this time I was 16 years old.”  

Chotu started saving money, and built his own house, although the roof took him years to fund.

“In 2013 I got married, it was not arranged by my parents as is custom but was a ‘love marriage’ with a girl I had met. Lalita was of our same caste but also of this village, so a heavy fine had to be paid to the village for breach of the customs. In 2015 she gave birth to Rajan, a year later another boy Ravi. We then had a little girl who died after three months.”  

“With each new birth there were tighter financial demands on the family, and then my younger brother got married, so now the family was six adults and the two children. I was still earning 7,000 rupees so asked the malik for a raise. He got angry and said ‘you stay as you are or go’.  I went. I was very depressed, tried to get work as a cook at other places but none would give more than 5,000 rupees.”

Chotu was caught in this situation for a year, until he determined to open his own food stall. With his family’s blessing, and with a loan through the women’s saving group he was able to hire space at an intersection 3kms from his home.

“Now each day I have 20 regular customers and about 100 casual customers. I spend about 1,500 rupees in costs, and have income of about 2,300 rupees (per month).  And I am my own malik, I am very happy with that. I have bought a Scooty to travel back and forth, I open up at about midday and return home at nine at night.  I don’t drink or use any tobacco. It has been hard work, but I am very happy.”

The “Uplift” project offers an alternative to the widespread network of indebtedness and its resultant desperation. Under the direction of the Xavier Hazaribag Association, the project provides the training and support which empowers village women to help themselves and others. The project and its many beneficiaries all began with a modest bequest to Jesuit Mission in Australia