A small group of Rang De Social Investors and volunteers embarked on a field visit to the quaint hill station of Matheran. This story unfolds their experiences and learning from the one day field trip.
Matheran: A Unique Hill Station
Matheran stands out not just for its breathtaking views but for its distinct character - it's India's only hill station without vehicles.
The local economy here is entirely tourism-based, a direct result of the area's inability to support agriculture due to its soil composition.
Government regulations further define its uniqueness: limitations on new businesses, land ownership, and the number of rickshaws. This setting creates a peculiar challenge for the youth, who often drop out of higher education or early job careers due to the prohibitive costs and difficulties of daily travel to Mumbai.
The Banking Dilemma
In Matheran, with its modest population and significant tourist influx, banking facilities are surprisingly sparse. Matheran, with 5000 permanent residents and 5-7 lakh yearly tourists, has only 1 nationalised bank (Union Bank), 1 district bank (Raigad Jilha) and only 1 ATM and even basic banking activities are hindered by connectivity issues. This detachment from the banking system affects both savings and borrowing, leaving many residents with limited financial options.
This brings us to the critical issue of credit availability. The local banks' stringent lending criteria, coupled with the inefficiency of government loan schemes like Mudra, leave many without viable borrowing options. This gap is often filled by private money lenders, charging exorbitant interest rates, making them a costly emergency option.
Here, Rang De and GivFunds have emerged as pillars of change. Their model is simple yet effective: raise money from Social Investors at modest interest rates and lend it to the locals at equally reasonable rates. The process involves a community-centric approach, where local representatives like Nitin Shah and Pooja play pivotal roles in assessing and recommending potential borrowers. This model has seen remarkable success, with 30-odd loans disbursed till now with zero defaults.
The Faces of Change
Our journey brought us face-to-face with the real heroes - the beneficiaries of these loans. From a widowed lady expanding her stall to a young girl aiming to diversify her business, each story was a testament to the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Matheran. These individuals are not just seeking financial support; they are hungry for opportunities to grow and prosper.
A significant topic of discussion was the introduction of e-rickshaws to replace traditional hand-pulled rickshaws, a contentious issue dividing the community. We engaged in debates about the potential impacts on the local economy and the balance between tradition and progress.
Towards a Sustainable Future
As we concluded our visit, the realisation dawned that the key to Matheran’s sustainable development lies in creating new opportunities without undermining the existing economic fabric. Initiatives like training more masseurs, enhancing hospitality skills, and introducing e-rickshaws are steps towards enriching the local economy. However, these efforts need to be balanced with the cultural and environmental sensitivities unique to Matheran.
Our field trip to Matheran was more than a visit; it was an immersion into the lives and struggles of a community striving for self-reliance and growth.
It highlighted the critical role of organisations like Rang De and GivFunds in bridging the financial gap, but more importantly, it underscored the power of community and collaboration in driving sustainable development. As we left Matheran, we carried with us not just memories but lessons in resilience, hope, and the unyielding human spirit.