When I joined the Indian Police Service, a little before I turned 22, I never thought I would ever end up doing anything else. I spent the next 38 years traveling around Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country, trying to master my policing job. The I.P.S. offers this unique opportunity to work everywhere from the hallways of power to the hamlets of the poorest. Having grown up in the poverty-stricken and then very backward region of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, I always felt I could connect with the poor, rural and urban, and sought opportunities to do so throughout my career .
The last decade of my career was spent walking the tightrope of running the police forces of Mumbai, Pune, Navi Mumbai and finally, Maharashtra state. Needless to say, with an all-engrossing and stressful police career, I never had the opportunity to think - What Next? Much less what after retirement! But as I ran some of India's largest mega-cities, it became increasingly clear to me that what I loved most was connecting with and supporting the poor - in cities and villages. I had created the urban community policing initiative, called Slum Police Panchayat, in Pune and Mumbai, and this brought home to me not only the policing/security issues the poor face, but also challenges related to their social matrix and livelihood.
Finally, when I did hang up my boots on May 31, 2010, driving back myself in my own car from that very regal heritage State Police HQ building in Mumbai, I took the final decision. Next morning, I landed up at the Dharavi office of my dear friend, the Magsaysay award-winning social activist Jockin Arputham. This I used as my work place for the next few days till I found myself a small rented place in Sion East, next to the railway tracks which separated us from Dharavi. With the women slum police panchayat volunteers as tutors, I began discovering the lives of the poor. I would trail behind them as they scurried along the thick water pipes over which people had set up plastic sheets as homes. We would walk through Dharavi's skinny lanes and climb up vertiginous steps to inspect little homes heaving with large families and bustling businesses. It became clear to me that the poor could run sustainable businesses and support their families if only we could provide low cost funding and/or skills.
It always bothered me to see the wealthiest and corporates borrow huge sums for consumption and large investment at low interest rates, and these incredibly industrious micro-entrepreneurs could only borrow paltry sums for earning their daily bread at usurious rates from unsavoury elements or even micro-finance institutions. So, I put in some money from my superannuation benefits and savings, and started lending to the poor across the city. Some financial help came along from family and a few close friends. My daughter, a US-educated accomplished journalist who had been writing about financial inclusion, red-zoning and the agrarian crisis, took a sabbatical from her lucrative job to keep our small operation running .
Together, we travelled to Vidarbha, where she had written stories about widows of farmers who had committed suicide due to indebtedness and crop failures. Day after day, we met women with no hope or light in their eyes. Most were young and supported children or parents left behind by their husbands. Neither of us had any solutions for them. But we could not turn away either. So, we started by picking the most vulnerable of them and giving them a small monthly grant to keep their homes running. This bought us some time to set them up in sustainable livelihoods.
Every month we travelled to Yavatmal and Wardha, the two districts worst affected by farmers' suicides, trying to motivate and encourage these women to break the cycle of poverty and desperation. After several months, Chanda Madawi, who had lost her husband when she was pregnant, and was always accompanied by her five-year-old son, agreed to set up a small kirana
(corner) shop in her village. Soon, Pramila Balbudhe, who lost her husband after two failed suicide attempts and now supported three young children, agreed to sell glass bangles. The two of them faced every odd and overcame it. Buoyed by their success, more women started setting up little businesses; nothing made us happier than watching them succeed.
Over the last five years, we have kept our monthly date with them, supported them, settling up many new ones in business each month, first only a few, then dozens, scores, and now we have about over 800 in our fold. We watch with pride as their businesses have grown; they have spoken at large business conferences, met British royalty and battled the prejudices of rural communities.
In Mumbai too, our office is a warm home to street vendors, rag pickers, tiffin makers and other enterprising micro-entrepreneurs. We have supported several thousand in scaling up their businesses through micro-loans, skills-training, after-school programs, water ATMs etc. We are a non-profit and are not looking to earn money through this. It is the social dividend that keeps us going more than anything else. (AN Roy has served as the Director General of Police for Maharashtra and the Police Commissioner for Mumbai. He is now the Founder-Chairman of Vandana Foundation.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.