Self Help Groups

Self-Help Groups are informal associations of people who choose to come together to find ways to improve their living conditions. They help to build Social Capital among the poor, especially women. The most important functions of a Self-Help Groups are:

  1. To encourage and motivate its members to save
  2. To persuade them to make a collective plan for generation of additional income
  3. To act as a conduit for formal banking services to reach them

Such groups work as a collective guarantee system for members who propose to borrow from organised sources. Consequently, Self-Help Groups have emerged as the most effective mechanism for delivery of micro-finance services to the poor. The range of financial services may include products such as deposits, loans, money transfer and insurance.


Evolution of the SHG movement in India

The first organised initiative in this direction was taken in Gujarat in 1954 when the Textile Labour Association (TLA) of Ahmedabad formed its women’s wing to organise the women belonging to households of mill workers in order to train them in primary skills like sewing, knitting embroidery, typesetting and stenography etc.

In 1972, it was given a more systematized structure when Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was formed as a Trade Union under the leadership of Ela Bhatt. She organised women workers such as hawkers, vendors, home based operators like weavers, potters, papad / agarbatti makers, manual labourers, service providers and small producers like cattle rearers, salt workers, gum collectors, cooks and vendors with the primary objective of

  1. increasing their income and assets;
  2. enhancing their food and nutritional standards; and
  3. increasing their organisational and leadership strength.

The overall intention was to organise women for full employment. In order to broaden their access to market and technical inputs, these primary associations were encouraged to form federations like the Gujarat State Mahila SEWA Cooperative Federation, Banaskantha DWCRA, Mahila SEWA Association etc. Currently, SEWA has a membership strength of 9,59,000 which is predominantly urban.

In the 1980s, MYRADA – a Karnataka based non-governmental organisation, promoted several locally formed groups to enable the members to secure credit collectively and use it along with their own savings for activities which could provide them economically gainful employment.

Major experiments in small group formation at the local level were initiated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala about two decades ago through the Tamil Nadu Women in Agriculture Programme (TANWA) 1986, Participatory Poverty Reduction Programme of Kerala, (Kudumbashree) 1995 and Tamil Nadu Women’s Development Project (TNWDP) 1989. These initiatives gave a firm footing to SHG movement in these states. Today, around 44% of the total Bank- linked SHGs of the country are in the four southern States of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

The positive experience gained from the above programmes has led to the emergence of a very strong consensus that the twin concepts of (a) small group organisation and (b) self-management are potent tools for economic and social empowerment of the rural poor. Efforts have been made almost in all parts of the country to adopt this model as a necessary component of the poverty alleviation programmes.

Forming small groups and linking them to bank branches for credit delivery has been the most important feature of the growth of the SHG movement in our country. The SHG-Bank linkage programme was started as a test project in 1989 when NABARD, the Apex Rural Development Bank in the country, sanctioned Rs.10.0 lakhs to MYRADA as seed money assistance for forming credit management groups.

In the same year, the Ministry of Rural Development provided financial support to PRADAN to establish Self-Help Groups in some rural pockets of Rajasthan. On the basis of these experiences, a full-fledged project involving a partnership among SHGs, Banks and NGOs was launched by NABARD in 1992.

In 1995, acting on the report of a working group, the RBI streamlined the credit delivery procedure by issuing a set of guidelines to Commercial Banks. It enabled SHGs to open Bank Accounts based on a simple inter-se agreement. The scheme was further strengthened by a standing commitment given by NABARD to provide refinance and promotional support to Banks for credit disbursement under the SHG – Bank linkage programme. NABARD’s corporate mission was to make available microfinance services to 20 million poor households, or one-third of the poor in the country, by the end of 2008.

In the initial years, the progress in the programme was a slow; only 33000 groups could be credit linked during the period 1992-99. But, thereafter, the programme grew rapidly and the number of SHGs financed increased from 82000 in 1999-2000 to more than 6.20 lakhs in 2005-06 and 6.87 lakhs in 2006-07. Cumulatively, 33 million poor households in the country have been able to secure access to micro-finance from the formal banking system.


Agencies involved in the SHG movement

Apart from NABARD, there are four other major organisations in the public sector which too provide loans to financial intermediaries for onward lending to SHGs. They are (a) Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), (b)RashtriyaMahilaKosh (RMK), (c) Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) and(d) then, there are public sector/other commercial banks which are free to take up any lending as per their policy and RBI guidelines.



The RashtriyaMahilaKosh was set up by the Government of India in March 1993 as an Autonomous Body registered under Societies Registration Act, 1860 under the Department (now Ministry) of Women and Child Development. The objective was to facilitate credit support to poor women for their socio-economic upliftment. It was felt that the credit needs of poor women, especially those in the unorganized sector, were not adequately addressed by the formal financial institutions of the country. Thus RMK was established to provide loans in a quasi-formal credit delivery mechanism, which is client-friendly, has simple and minimal procedure, disburses quickly and repeatedly, has flexible repayment schedules, links thrifts and savings with credit and has relatively low transaction costs both for the borrower and the lender. The Kosh lends with a unique credit delivery model “RMK – NGO-SHG- Beneficiaries”. The support is extended through NGO’s, Women Development Corporations, State Government agencies like DRDA’s, Dairy Federations, and Municipal Councils etc.



Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) launched its micro finance programme on a pilot basis in 1994 using the NGO / MFI model of credit delivery wherein such institutions were used as financial intermediaries for delivering credit to the poor and unreached, mainly women. Learning from the experience of the pilot phase, SIDBI reoriented and upscaled its micro finance programme in 1999. A specialised department viz. ‘SIDBI Foundation for Micro Credit’ (SFMC) was set up with the mission to create a national network of strong, viable and sustainable Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) from the informal and formal financial sectors. SFMC serves as an apex wholesaler for micro finance in India providing a complete range of financial and non-financial services to the MFIs so as to facilitate their development into financially sustainable entities, besides developing a network of service providers and advocating for appropriate policy framework for the sector. SFMC is implementing the National Micro Finance Support Programme (NMFSP). The overall goal of NMFSP is to bring about substantial poverty elimination and reduced vulnerability in India amongst users of micro-finance services, particularly women.


Private Initiatives:

Though, government efforts have played a major role in advancing the SHG movement in the country, there has been a large number of voluntary organisations (NGOs) which too have facilitated and assisted SHGs in organizing savings and credit in different parts of India. SEWA in Ahmedabad, MYRADA in Karnataka, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra and Ramakrishna Mission in Jharkhand, and ADITHI in Bihar are some of the names which took the lead in promoting Self-Help Groups (mostly of women) around income generation activities using local skills. From organizing villagers into groups which could work on viable activities, to making a project and securing funds (own contribution or through a tie-up with the financial institution), these VOs have worked with involvement and dedication. PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), DHAN Foundation, ASSEFA (Association of SarvaSeva Farms, MALAR (Mahalir Association for Literacy, Awareness and Rights), SKS, Janodaya, Cohesion Foundation and Jan ChetnaSansthan are some of the other major non-governmental institutions which are promoting and nurturing a large number of SHGs of poor people, mostly women into effective organisations which could leverage credit from formal sources, and develop local resources and skills to increase productivity and income. It is thus, due to the combined efforts of the government and these private voluntary agencies that the SHGs have come to occupy a place of prominence in the socio-economic fabric of rural India.


Impact of SHGs on rural life

A random impact evaluation study covering 560 members of 223 SHGs linked to Banks located in 11 States was carried out by NABARD. A three year period was selected for this study. The results of this survey released in 200018 indicated that

    1. 58% of the households covered under SHGs reported an increase in assets;
    2. the average value of assets per household increased by 72% from Rs.6,843 to Rs.11,793;
    3. majority of the members developed savings habit against 23% earlier;
    4. there was a threefold increase in savings and a doubling of borrowings per household;
    5. the share of consumption loan in the borrowing went down from 50% to 25%;
    6. 70% of the loans taken in post-SHG period went towards income generation ventures;
    7. employment expanded by 18%;
    8. the average net income per household before joining a SHG was Rs.20,177 which rose by 33% to 26,889; and
    9. about 41.5% of the household studied were below their state specific poverty line in the pre-SHG enrolment stage; it came down to 22%.

Participation in group activity significantly contributed to improvement of self-confidence among the members. In general, group members and particularly women became more vocal and assertive on social and family issues. The structure of the SHG is meant to provide mutual support to the participants in saving money, preparing a common plan for additional income generation and opening bank accounts that would help them in developing credit relationship with a lending institution. It ultimately supports them in setting up micro-enterprises e.g. personalized business ventures like tailoring, grocery, and tool repair shops. It promotes the concept of group accountability ensuring that the loans are paid back. It provides a platform to the community where the members can discuss and resolve important issues of mutual concern.

While some of the SHGs have been initiated by the local communities themselves, many of them have come through the help of a mentor Body (either government or an NGO) which provided initial information and guidance to them.

Such support often consists of training people on how to manage Bank accounts, how to assess small business potential of the local markets and how to upgrade their skills. In the end, it creates a local team of resource persons.

Group formation becomes a convenient vehicle for credit delivery in rural areas. Commercial Banks and other institutions which are otherwise not receptive to the demands of marginalized individuals, start considering such groups as their potential customers. Overall such Joint-Liability Groups expand the outreach of the micro-finance programme in an effective way, reaching out to the excluded segments e.g. landless, sharecroppers, small and marginal farmers, women, SCs/STs etc.

The majority of Self-Help Groups comprise of women members. There is evidence in this country as well as elsewhere that formation of Self-Help Groups has a multiplier effect in improving women’s status in society as well as in the family. Their active involvement in micro-finance and related entrepreneurial activities not only leads to improvement in their socio-economic condition but also enhances their self-esteem.

Women in a group environment become more articulate in voicing their concerns and a change occurs in their self-perception. They start to see themselves not only as beneficiaries but also as clients / informed citizens seeking better services. On the home front, their new found awareness and the confidence generated out of their entrepreneurial skills make them more confident vis-à-vis their menfolk.

The SHG programme has contributed to a reduced dependency on informal money lenders and other non- institutional sources. It has enabled the participating households to spend more on education than non- client households. Families participating in the programme have reported better school attendance and lower drop-out rates.

The financial inclusion attained through SHGs has led to reduced child mortality, improved maternal health and the ability of the poor to combat disease through better nutrition, housing and health – especially among women and children.

Weaknesses of the SHG movement

But the SHG movement has certain weaknesses as well:

    1. Contrary to the vision for SHG development, members of a group do not come necessarily from the poorest families;
    2. the SHG model has led to definite social empowerment of the poor but whether the economic gains are adequate to bring a qualitative change in their life is a matter of debate;
    3. many of the activities undertaken by the SHGs are still based on primitive skills related mostly to primary sector enterprises. With poor value addition per worker and prevalence of subsistence level wages, such activities often do not lead to any substantial increase in the income of group members.
    4. There is lack of qualified resource personnel in the rural areas who could help in skill upgradation/acquisition of new skills by group members.


Key issues facing SHGs today

Though, during a short span of fifteen years the SHG movement has recorded remarkable progress much still remains to be done. The movement shows steep territorial variations. Many areas of the country lack adequate banking structure. Urban and semi-urban areas, to a large extent, stand excluded from this mode of credit delivery. Further growth of this movement faces threat from inadequacy of skills in the rural areas. And finally the pace of the movement needs to be accelerated. The following eight issues of this sector deserve priority attention:

    1. Maintaining the participatory character: We saw the cooperative sector became a springboard for political aspirants. Though the SHG movement is relatively new, government interventions and subsidies have already started showing negative results. The patronage and subsidies provided to the SHGs by government and the Panchayats often lead to their politicization. Therefore, due care must be taken to ensure that government initiatives do not erode the fundamental principles of self-help and empowerment of the poor.

Need to expand the SHG movement to States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and in the North-East (where the SHG movement and micro-finance entrepreneurship is weak):

Overall 73% of the farmer household (in rural areas) have no access to any formal source of credit. In March, 2001, 71% of the total linked SHGs of the country were in just four States of the southern region viz. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The figure went down to 58% in 2005, 54% in 2006 and to 44% in 2007. But even the current figure is a cause of concern when one talks of financial inclusion for the whole country.

  1. Need to extend small group organisations (SHGs) to peri-urban and urban areas:

According to the 2001 census, 314.54 million persons changed their place of residence (vis-à-vis the situation in the 1991 census) within the country and out of this 29.90 million or 9% changed their place of residence in search of better prospects elsewhere.

Since issue of any form of identity card is invariably linked with the possession of an immovable property, such migrant workers do not have any formal document to prove their domicile in the city. But the overall economic and social well-being of the city is closely linked with the condition of this section of the city dwellers. In the absence of any documentary proof, it appears that this class of people do not have access to organised financial services.

As per the existing statutory provisions, NABARD’s mandate is to provide micro-finance facilities only to rural and semi-urban areas. Branches of the mainstream Banks too, though, equipped with manpower and technology, are not keen to service this sector. Even money lenders are reluctant to lend to them.

The net result is that this segment of the urban population e.g. pavement sellers, street hawkers, construction workers etc. remains financially excluded.


Mode of SHG development and financial intermediation:

Establishing stable linkage between a SHG and a local financial institution is one of the key elements of the SHG movement. Currently, four distinct models of financial intermediation are in operation in various parts of the country namely:

    1. SHG-Bank linkage promoted by a mentor institute
    2. SHG-Bank direct linkage
    3. SHG-Mentor Institution linkage; and
    4. SHG-Federation model

Since the borrowing SHGs consist mainly of low income members who cannot afford to miss even a day’s wages, a hassle-free transaction with a Bank which is ready to come to their doorsteps with appropriate credit products is of great value to them. The SHG – Bank Linkage Model with a mentor SHPI in tow (Model I above) would be the most appropriate one for delivery of financial services to the SHGs.


Self-Help Groups and Regional Rural Banks:

As on 1st April, 2007, out of a total of 622 districts in the country, 535 have a network of Regional Rural Banks; the rest 87 districts have no RRB presence. These branches have been created by the Regional Rural Banks Act, 1976 primarily for providing institutional credit to the marginalized sector of the rural economy (small, marginal farmers, landless labour and rural artisans). Theextension of the RRB network to the remaining 87 districts would considerably speed up the process of inclusive banking and help in extending micro- finance to local SHGs.


Issues of sustainability:

The institutional sustainability and the quality of operations of the SHGs are matters of considerable debate. It is generally held that only a minority of the Self-Help Groups are able to raise themselves from a level of micro-finance to that of micro-entrepreneurship. Neither do such Bank linkages lead to sanction of larger individual loans under the Bank’s normal lending programmes. The ultimate objective of such a tie-up is to impart financial strength to the SHGs so that they can enter into a stable relationship with the local financial institutions – without any external support. Even after many years of existence, by and large, SHGs are heavily dependent on their promoter NGOs or government agencies


Financial assistance to SHPIs and other support institutions:

Forty-five per cent of the total numbers of women SHGs of the country are located in Andhra Pradesh. This enviable position of the State is primarily due to the initiative shown by promoter NGOs often known as Self-Help Promoting Institutions (SHPIs) / mentor organisations. If the SHG movement is to spread across the entire country, there is need to provide major incentives to SHPIs / promoter NGOs. Currently, the financial support to SHPIs comes from the Micro Finance Development and Equity Fund (MFDEF) of NABARD. It is limited to an amount of Rs.1500 per SHG (formed and activated). To attract more and more SHPIs to the rural areas, this quantum of support needs to be revised.


Role of Micro-Finance Institutions:

Micro-credit is defined as provision of thrift, credit, and other financial services (such as deposits, loans, payment services, money transfer, insurance and related products) of very small amounts to the poor in rural, semi-urban and urban areas for enabling them to raise their income levels and improve living standards. Micro-finance institutions are those which provide such micro-credit facilities. Micro-credit is an instrument of both social as well as economic policy. It opens up integral development processes such as use of financial and technical resources, basic services and training opportunities to the unprivileged. Access to savings, credit, money- transfer, payment, and insurance can help poor people take control of their financial life. It also empowers them to make critical choices about investing in business, sending children to school, improving health care of the family, covering the cost of key social obligations and unforeseen situations. But the most important of all, an access to finance generates self- esteem among them.

ARC-2 has made the following recommendations and the Micro Finance Sector (Development and Regulation) Bill, 2007 needs to be amended to include the following suggestions:-

    1. The scope of Micro-finance Services should be substantially widened to cover credit / savings, insurance, pension services, money transfer, issue / discount of warehouse receipts and future / option contracts for agricultural commodities and forest produce.
    2. The activities of Section 25 Companies to the extent they concern micro-financial services as described under the proposed Bill should also be brought under the purview of this legislation. However, for their management and other functions, they will continue to be governed by the provisions of the Companies Act.
    3. The issue of interest rate charged by the MFIs should be left to the Regulatory Authority which is being created under the proposed Bill.
    4. It should be ensured that if MFIs are allowed to handle thrift / savings and money transfer services, they would do so only as business correspondents of commercial Banks.


Himanshu Arora
Doctoral Scholar in Economics & Senior Research Fellow, CDS, Jawaharlal Nehru University
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