LIKE many other small, crowded neighborhoods in Madras, India, Chalmar Nagar is more like a rural village than an urban slum. One-room houses with walls of reed matting line narrow, dusty alleyways. Behind them, swampland glows brilliant green, packed with the giant leaves and purple flowers of water hyacinths. But Chalmar Nagar is hardly a pastoral paradise. The air is thick with exhaust fumes from this bustling south Indian city's traffic jams. Cows roam the lanes, but so do motorcycles, rickshaws, trucks, the occasional car, and bullock carts. Everyone seems to be scrambling for survival - everyone, that is, except the men napping on string cots in the shade.
Subu Lakshmi is at home here. She even feels a sense of proprietorship for the community, because she has had a positive effect on many people's lives.
Until five years ago, Mrs. Lakshmi was like many other women here: With four children and a husband who earned little as a coolie, she sold rice cakes on the street. She was always in debt to a moneylender, and often her children did not have enough to eat.
``I suffered a lot with four children, not being able to feed them properly,'' says Lakshmi, a tall, graceful woman who seems totally at ease talking to strangers. ``That's why now I can explain to people that life is just too hard with four children - that after having two they should stop.''
Five years ago, she was approached by a community organizer from the Women's Working Forum (WWF), an agency that extends family planning help and small business loans to poor women who have no access to commercial banks. The woman suggested she use some form of birth control, and Lakshmi decided - against her husband's wishes - to have a tubectomy. Her husband later agreed when she told him she had been offered a job as a family planning worker herself.
Today, Lakshmi earns more than her husband does - and much more than she earned selling rice cakes - promoting family planning in the community. She spends her earnings on better food and clothes for her family. But, she admits with a big smile, her sense of accomplishment is just as important to her as her salary.
``At first I was afraid to go around and speak to so many people,'' she says. ``But now I'm speaking bravely. People respect me.''
Lakshmi regularly visits 300 families in Chalmar Nagar, about 30 every day. The training she received at WWF has enabled her to gain women's confidence and to present them with options that allow them to choose an appropriate means of birth control. So far, 98 of her client families are using one kind of birth control or another.
Across the city from Lakshmi and the slums of Chalmar Nagar stands a nondescript, two-story building on a quiet residential street. It gives no hint of the unusual scene that takes place inside each day. In a second-floor room with pale green, flowered wallpaper, nine women in brilliantly colored saris sit at long tables, poring over columns of figures in huge ledgers bound in green and purple and red. Most of the room is in shadow, with dazzling, liquid yellow sunlight streaming in from the windows. The scene would look positively Dickensian, if it were not so vividly, vibrantly Indian.
This is one of three bank branches of WWF. Three women are sitting on a backless bench against the wall, waiting to transact business.
``In a bank where there are only men working, these women feel shy to speak,'' says Egammai, manager of the WWF bank. ``They may come from the fish market and they smell bad. The men say, `Don't stand here, move farther away.'''
But at the WWF bank, the constraints of tradition are being swept aside. Women at the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder form groups of borrowers, take out loans, and free themselves from the grip of the money-lenders who used to drain off all their profits.
NAGAMMAL is a fruit vendor, a handsome woman in a purple sari with a red blouse underneath - generally unheard of colors for a widow, who is expected to wear only white.
``Normally, widows are shunned,'' says Egammai. ``If a widow passes by a newly married person, or someone applying for a job, it's considered unlucky. People think the marriage or the job will not work out.''
Such traditional beliefs, as well as caste restrictions and the demanding of large amounts of dowry from a bride's family, are among the ``oppressions'' that WWF's founder, Jaya Arunachalam, is working to combat.
``Oppression comes from the vested interests in society itself,'' she says, ``from class, from caste, from gender.'' Hence, WWF draws most of its members from the lowest caste. And the organization promotes inter-caste marriages that are dowry-free.
Nagammal belongs to what is called a ``backward'' caste, but she is the leader of a group that also has 10 other WWF borrowers. She may be barefoot and illiterate, but she walks into this bank with dignity and conducts her business with assurance.
Mrs. Arunachalam, who founded WWF in 1980, says it is not large infusions of aid or the ``blueprints'' of outside experts that make her agency a success. It is, instead, just this sort of ``community networking'' - this reliance on the skills and energy of women at the grass-roots level.
``You have to empower the poorer sectors of the population, that's the first step toward development,'' Arunachalam says. ``Planning has to come from below, from the grass roots.''
From the beginning, it was the poor women themselves who shaped the agency's programs by articulating their needs. For example, when the agency started, the primary service it offered women was credit at 18 percent per year, to free them from the stranglehold of the moneylenders, who charge as much as 10 percent per day.
But the women knew they had a further need.
```You're lending us money,' they said, `but we still have too many children.' So we realized we had to offer them family planning too,'' says Arunachalam.
Why this emphasis on women?
Development agencies around the world are finding that aid directed to women has a greater impact on the welfare of poor families, and ultimately whole communities, than aid directed to men.
``It's women's incomes that carry most families,'' says Arunachalam. ``When a woman works, 100 percent of her earnings goes to the family. When a man works, 65 percent goes to the family, and with alcoholism increasing, his contribution is often almost nil. So women are the key to development.''
FOR those who believe that third-world development must be directed toward raising the living standards of the generally poor masses, another key group is the vast ``informal sector.'' In many countries, these ``self-employed'' men and women far outnumber officially salaried workers.
These are the coolies carrying loads in the streets, the food vendors, handicraft-makers, washerwomen, tailors, cigarette rollers, construction workers, rag pickers, domestic workers, and small shopkeepers. They and their families make up about 80 percent of India's population of 817 million, but they enjoy no financial safety nets, have no access to mainstream institutions such as banks, and are often exploited and victimized by moneylenders, middlemen, and local police.
Women workers in the informal sector are especially vulnerable, poorly paid, and often cheated, while frequently being the main - even the sole - support of their families. In south India, WWF provides various services for some 82,000 women, including 36,000 in Madras alone. Almost all members have become borrowers from WWF's banks, with an average loan repayment rate of 96.4 percent. WWF also offers training in tailoring for young women, a night school for child laborers, a boarding school for boys and one for girls, nutrition classes, and leadership training.
KILLIAMMAL is a vegetable vendor and widow who has been a member of WWF - and a borrower and saver at its bank - for four years.
She lives with her five children and two grandchildren in one stuffy tenement room underneath a busy elevated highway. (Her married daughter was recently abandoned by her husband, so she has come home with her two small children.) The youngest still sleep on the floor of the narrow balcony outside, and the whole family still uses the one stinking, communal toilet downstairs. And Killiammal still gets up at 5 to take the train to the wholesale market to buy produce.
But the loans she receives from WWF enable her to buy vegetables in bulk. And the profits from her business no longer go as interest payments to the moneylender, but on better food for her family and on school expenses for her grandchildren. While school is officially free in India, items like books, uniforms, shoes, and sometimes fees often make it too expensive for the poor.
``When my children were small, I suffered a lot,'' says Killiammal, a tiny woman with a ramrod-straight back and a brilliant smile that breaks out unexpectedly from her care-worn face. ``My husband drank and never gave me any money, so all our children had to stop school after the second grade.'' But today, Killiammal's grandson is in the fourth grade.
``He is the first in our family to go so far,'' she says with pride. ``My hopes and wishes are for him to study higher studies and perhaps become an office clerk or a doctor.''
Such a future appears highly unlikely for a child of Killiammal's humble caste. But the important thing - and an enormous mental leap forward - is that now Killiammal believes it could happen.
Sitting on the floor of her room near her homemade Hindu shrine, she recalls her disbelief when she first heard of WWF.
``I was borrowing from daily and weekly moneylenders and buying my vegetables on credit,'' she recalls.
``One day a woman in the fish market said, `There is a forum that is helping poor women. See, even I have taken a loan and it is really profitable.'''
``I didn't believe her at first,'' says Killiammal with a laugh. ``I thought, `Who would help poor women? I've never heard of such a thing!''' Part four of a five-part series. Next Wednesday: A women's bank in Bangladesh.
In the March 8 Ideas section (part 4 of this series), two photos were misidentified. The bottom photo on Page 13 is of Jaya Arunachalam, founder of the Working Women's Forum. The middle right photo shows Nagammal, a WWF member.