Monday, March 16, 2015

Mission Financial Literacy: Journey as Destination

IIFL’s freewheeling experiments in financial literacy at the grassroots have only reinforced an elementary need: that before we seek to explore the inherent possibilities of this fertile space, we must strive to explode the myths and misconceptions that constrict them.

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Thanks to the arid, bureaucratic mechanisms of conventional NGO bodies, proletariat activists and CSR practitioners across the globe, social responsibility, knowingly and unknowingly, has come to harbor several blatant assumptions about the larger cause of end-beneficiaries (often generically slotted as ‘target groups’ or ‘deprived’ communities) Conveniently overlooked in the process is the plain fact that their deprivation is only circumstantial and in no way indicative of the instinctive and intellectual capacities inherent within the community. Contrary to popular perception, the supply-side forces, in the mad rush to emancipate the downtrodden, are themselves found deprived when it comes to even reading the minds of the audience, leave alone identifying its needs,. In peddling their jargon-heavy black and white prescriptions on financial prudence and general well being, they are knowingly and unknowingly oblivious of the expressions of playful amusement and suppressed yawns that the so-called ‘deprived’ reserve for the seemingly ‘privileged’ - - stemming more from doubt than disbelief.

Continuing our offbeat experiments in the realm of financial literacy initiatives across India, (Read: Kaleidoscope of Possibilities), IIFL has always sought to make the financial literacy landscape as inclusive as possible – holding workshops and interactive sessions for stakeholders across spheres – school children, collegians, professionals, entrepreneurs, housewives, slum children, people on daily wages, cleanliness workers, plumbers, electricians, turners, fitters, contractors, cooks and blue-collar and white-collar staff of entities across spheres including municipal corporations, hospitals and clinics, hotels and resorts, traders and merchants, service providers and middlemen – both from manufacturing and service sectors. And we have constantly tailored our programs in the light of the actual experience consciously shunning the disappointment of a few failed programs. Even in the failed space, the sheer contentment of having walked the extra mile is way more than the dejection of the last leg turbulence, often the outcome of pre-conceived notions of the local organizers about the needs and sensibilities of the ‘target audience’ as also the fear of losing control of their prized bastions.

IIFL has always adopted a freewheeling approach to financial inclusion. Inclusion to us is more inclusive than what the word typically implies. (Read: The essence of Inclusion) From theatre intervention programs and role play enactments to film and music appreciation sessions, from fun examinations, contests and e-books (Read: Honey, I didn’t shrink our Money) to participative thought sessions on stress management, articulation and communication skills, language appreciation capsules and basic tech literacy - there’s simply no limit to innovation in the presentation formats. In fact, there’s no format in the first place. After the curtain raiser exercise to build better inroads into their minds, they become more receptive (if not always convinced) about the larger cause of financial literacy as an integral life skill. In line with the respective needs and sensibilities of the given audience, we then proceed to touch upon simple tenets and technicalities of financial planning and independence.

It is then that they are better inclined to appreciate the fact:

That compound interest is not merely a chapter from the Mathematics text book, it’s a miraculous life-changing tool, best exploited as early as possible in life
That insurance is not investment, and the promise of a few money-back policies can prove misleading
That fixed and floating rate installment decisions call for greater deliberation than what’s prescribed by market forces
That inflation can play real havoc with the most promising of investments especially bank FDs
That Equity and Debt have their pros and cons but are integral investment components
That stock market is not a gambling haven and mutual funds merit a closer look
That investment of time and effort in mock trading and fundamental analysis can pave the way for steady wealth creation
That year-end tax planning can easily prove counterproductive if not minutely evaluated for the real benefit
That needs are different from wants and value is different from price
That shopping on a full stomach helps you escape the burden of reckless purchases
That the fine print is often overlooked in the hypnotic charm of alluring ads
That the need to distinguish between good debt and bad debt is elementary to a loan decision
That plastic money could be used to one’s advantage with some prudence and discipline

As always, members of the audience, across all age groups, often surprise you with occasional quips and counter questions that help you learn more than you seek to teach. The more you interact with them, the more you marvel at the depth of their instinctive knowledge, fertile imagination and the zeal to become willful change agents. We are more than sure some of them will become change architects of global credence in good time. Here’re only a few of the lingering echoes:

One bright school girl from Devarjan, a tiny hamlet near Latur in Maharashtra, had a simple argument “Why doesn’t the government simply print more notes to eradicate poverty?” All effort to elucidate the consequent vicious chain of increased spends, demand-supply gaps and soaring prices didn’t seem to impress her. We wished to hold a special session exclusively for her post the session. Unfortunately, the unbelievably wooden and pompous school authorities seemed hardly bothered which was really sad.

A differently abled adolescent, who had accompanied his mother to one session held in conjunction with Don Bosco Technical Institute Kurla, proved a much better listener than most of the other ‘normal’ participants. His sheer effort to get involved, often urging others to be attentive, was truly a moving experience.

Chinmay Bidarkar, standard VIII student of Sri Ravi Shankar school, Latur impressed one and all with his mathematical genius, solving compound interest problems with effortless authority and yet strikingly unassuming in his replies. Clearly a great Indian mathematician in the making!

Ujjwala from Kanakawli and Deepak from Jharkhand, astoundingly mature for their age of 16 and 18 years, proactively articulated the value of money in their own words.

Pranjal Garg of Kendriya Vidyalaya, Rishikesh, Amit Kumar Singh of Port Blair Kendriya Vidyalaya, Anjali A R, Naveen T, K Venugopal and A Santosh of Kendriya Vidyalaya Adoor were among the sterling scorers in the Fin-Lites exam held in schools all over India.

Ms. Varsha Dixit, a key official of the Thane Municipal Corporation showed exceptional vision and extended all help in organizing offbeat financial literacy and communication skill workshops for the corporation staff. Similar sessions have been planned for the Safai Kaamgars on stress management and financial literacy.

Sharada, Anagha, Geeta, Savita and Varsha, all enthusiastic lady entrepreneurs, actively participated in an innovative role play enactment during a Don Bosco session at Borivali, realistically simulating a loan proposal meeting with a bank official and summarizing the learning for the benefit of the audience.

Mr. Pradeep Lotlikar, a former senior staffer of the All India Radio, is now actively pursuing a money management session for the employees of All India Radio, Goa. He attended our workshop at an agricultural college in Goa and was impressed with the freewheeling nature of the program.

Mr. Chandrasekhar Burande, noted architect and citizen activist, took the lead in successfully organizing IIFL workshops in the schools and colleges of Latur, Devarjan and Udgir.

Ms. Sonali Kulkarni, Principal, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar School Latur and Mr. Amarr Prabhu, Principal, Don Bosco Technical Institute, Kurla – both young and dynamic achievers have raised the bar for their noble profession with their untiring and selfless devotion to the larger cause of their institutions.

Ravi, serving staff member from Goa’s Tourism Development Resort in Miramar; Raju, Vada pav vendor from Varangaon near Jalgaon; Giri, auto rickshaw driver from Pon Nagar, Pondicherry; Rai, an ever-smiling steward from a hotel in Shillong’s Polo Ground area; Joshiji, a PSU employee from Rishikesh; Nishigandha, a health and hygiene activist from Thane’s Manorama Nagar; Dinesh, a clerk from Alangar, Mudbidri in Karnataka, Sandeep, a local vendor from Belgaum in Maharashtra, Alex, a transport business agent from Pune - all showed exceptional leadership qualities in assembling their respective communities in real quick time for short sessions on financial literacy.

Kalwa Pipeline case study

But the most satisfying of all initiatives till date was the theatrical intervention exercise we did with the children of Kalwa Pipe Line, a discarded slum pocket of Kalwa, Thane’s neighboring suburb. Their slum is adjoining a pipeline and hence the name. Ironically enough, proximity to the pipeline has done little to solve their recurring water scarcity problems which continue unabated. But their inventive reconciliation with reality and their ingenuity to work around it amidst the despondency and disappointment is a wonder story beyond words.

Meet the Kalwa Pipeline champions of change: Asif, aged 11, is one of the most vocal and vociferous social activists we have ever met. A pocket-sized dynamo, he is a born leader when it comes to enforcing discipline and urging his peers to stay focused during the financial literacy sessions for ‘jyada se jyada fayda’ (maximum gains) as he succinctly puts it. Arif, Asif’s elder brother aged 20 works as a scavenger and runs errands for money but has now taken the lead in explaining the value of money to the community. Chandni, a child laborer, a promising girl of 16, now provides coaching to little children in dance and music, Sonali, 17, explains the virtues of small savings to ignorant adults and Afreen, 18, has taken upon herself to teach English to her folks beginning with the Fin-lites workbook. And last but not the least, thanks to Santoshi, a housemaid of over 35, who got all these kids together at her matchbox place for the financial literacy sessions as also the slum theatre experiment. The kids, who obviously had no prior experience of public speaking, went on to deliver a hard hitting satire called “Jhagde pe jhagda” (squabble upon squabble) in the vast auditorium of Thane Municipal Corporation following rigorous practice in a short span of time. Today, almost all of their long standing problems yet remain unanswered but the new-found vigor from the slum theatre and financial literacy experiment has made them even more determined to fight all odds with greater resolve. Of all things, they are now extra vigilant about saving money for productive purposes like quality food and essential household utilities and constantly check their fascination for things they don’t need but long for, thanks to tempting TV ads and peer pressure.

At IIFL, our financial literacy mission believes in silver linings, not silver bullets…precisely why every trial is no less a triumph and every departure from convention beckons an arrival in the form of sunrise possibilities.

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