15 Feb Building the Nation from its Roots
I had the privilege of attending the UESI – Kerala Mission Conference held in 1980, which changed my life significantly. I was convinced that the path that the Lord had laid before me was that of social work. Ever since, I had been on the lookout for opportunities to serve the under-privileged people of our society. I realized that only a holistic transformation of the poor and the marginalised could bring about a change in society. When I was working with IFFCO as a Marketing Officer, I was passionate about visiting the rural and neglected corners of the nation and learning about people living at the lowest ebb of society. The book, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’ by John Stott gave further clarity to my conviction that evangelism and social action are like two sides of the same coin.
I shared my conviction with a few friends and seniors in the EGF and after much prayer and discussion, we were led to found an organisation named ‘Evangelical Social Action Forum’. It was registered as a charitable society in 1992. Initially, we focused on career guidance for the rural youth, awareness programs on HIV-AIDS, mobilising scholarships for needy students etc. In 1994, I was introduced to the Micro Enterprise Development activities of EFICOR, which was being established in several parts of the country. I was immediately attracted to the concept of microcredit as that seemed to provide a solution to one of the questions I was struggling with, i.e. how to provide opportunities for the underprivileged people. At EFICOR, God gave me several opportunities to interact with people like Rev. C. B. Samuel, which shaped my theological understanding about a Christian’s role in nation building.
In 1995, we launched our Micro Enterprises Development Division (MED), which eventually led to the formation of ESAF Microfinance and Investments Pvt. Ltd. in 2008. Through the MED division, we aimed at strengthening the economy by empowering rural households. We became the pioneers in the State of Kerala when it came to a structured form of lending through mutually trusted Self Help Groups at the village level. One of the learnings in the process was that the poor are more loyal and trustworthy as far as loan repayment is concerned.
From the perspective of nation-building, we have made some silent but revolutionary impacts in the rural hinterlands of the country, like empowering women through entrepreneurship, giving them a voice in the household decision-making, imparting financial literacy on wise spending, facilitating market linkages, providing affordable health care services, taking education to the jungle hinterlands of Jharkhand, launching garments manufacturing in rural areas that can generate employment, etc. We are also empowering the farmers through Farmer Producer Companies and giving them customized products to meet their agricultural requirements. We have crossed many a milestone in nation-building by strictly focusing on our triple bottom line approach to people, planet, and prosperity.
In the field of education, ESAF could make certain contributions through its initiatives in the tribal villages of Jharkhand. An initial survey conducted in the district of Dumka revealed that most children had no access to primary education. Many of them were made to work in the coal mines or in the paddy fields. It was a pathetic sight to see little girls selling locally made liquor in the village markets. We realized that giving them opportunity to study was the only way to make a difference. ESAF opened primary schools in the villages which enabled hundreds of students to get primary education. Later, a high school and Skill training Institute were established in Dumka to help the tribal children to continue their education. Another project called ‘Balajyothi’ was initiated to provide opportunities for rural children to develop their life skills. This project is getting established in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Assam.
Rural healthcare is another challenge in our country. ESAF focuses on giving awareness to rural communities on basic health and hygiene. Rural women who have proved their leadership capacity are given training to function as health workers (arogyamithras). They impart basic health education to people and help to check blood pressure, blood glucose etc. Similarly, selected women are given training in basic mental health and counselling to function as barefoot counsellors (manomithras) in the villages.
Our nation-building approach was well recognized when a Social Return on Investments study conducted by an international agency in 2012, revealed that for every Rs. 1 invested in ESAF, Rs. 3.19 was returned in social value. “We build the nation from its roots”, was our first major campaign as an NBFC, and the fact that the banking license came soon after this campaign really doubled our joy.
The contribution of ESAF in uplifting the rural economy for more than two decades was well acknowledged by the Reserve Bank of India through an in-principal license to set up a Small Finance Bank in October 2015. ESAF was the only Organization that managed to make the cut from Kerala. The bank finally commenced business on March 10, 2017. As a social entity, we strive to bring financial peace by fighting the partiality of prosperity. Now almost 50 lakh customers are enjoying the benefits of our nation-building efforts. As a bank, we focus on financial inclusion by offering small loans and expanding the banking services to the unbanked areas. At the same time, we stand as a bank for all.
God has placed each one of us in specific situations in our nation. It is His will that we become ‘salt and light’ in our communities, addressing the issues that people face. The specific role of everyone depends on one’s gifts and talents and the need that God wants one to meet. I believe that recapturing the Biblical concept of God as the Creator and Redeemer who is concerned about the spiritual, material, and social needs of people is the first step in this process. Then we need to prayerfully seek God’s will regarding the specific role that God wants us to fulfill in transforming communities and building the nation.
K. Paul Thomas is the Founder of ESAF group of social enterprises, which includes ESAF Small Finance Bank. Currently he holds the position of Managing Director & CEO, ESAF Small Finance Bank. He along with his wife, Smt. Mereena Paul, are Members of Kerala Evangelical Graduates fellowship and closely associated with UESI ministry. They are blessed with four children Emy, Alok, Abhishek and Ashish and reside in Thrissur, Kerala.