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Senior Capstone Sends Student to India for Research

By Kaitie O'Hare

Ishani Desai

While most students spend their winter breaks relaxing by the fire or vacationing with their families, senior Ishani Desai spent her time off researching social and economic tensions in India for her capstone project.

The economics and international relations double major and math minor student first got the idea for her capstone when she was a freshman learning about microfinance in an introductory economics class. “From then on I was all about microfinance. In my group of friends I’m the ‘microfinance girl,’” says Desai.

But being the microfinance girl has its perks. Microfinance, a tool that’s used to alleviate poverty by giving small sums of money to the poor who can’t otherwise produce income, is commonplace in India. She leaped at the opportunity to visit her family members in Gujarat, a state in northern India, for four weeks while gathering research for her capstone.

Microloans are often used by the poor to open their own shops or businesses. “They just need a little bit of a start up so they can generate revenue and pay it back,” says Desai. Her research on microfinance closely examines how microloans affect the Indian household, and more specifically, the decision making power of women in the household.

Desai spent her time in India interviewing men and women and working with two NGOs, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and SAATH (in Gujarati, "saath" means “together, cooperation, a collective"), which strive to protect women’s working rights and aid the urban and rural poor of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, respectively. “Women with microloans have a higher chance of having decision making power in the household over educational expenditures,” says Desai. “I asked questions like ‘When do tensions in the household arise?’ Tensions arise when women have a loan, but the man has no say in it.”

NGOs like SEWA and SAATH are effective at diminishing some of the pressures Indian women feel when employed in the working world. “They are very hard working; the burden really falls on the women. It doesn’t matter if they’re poor or wealthy. It’s such a different culture,” says Desai. “I just got the feeling that women are very strong willed and headed. They put their children first. You read about it here, but I really saw that in practice in India.”

While Desai evaluated the impact of microloans on women in the household, she was also interested in analyzing how Indians themselves perceive their nation’s poverty. SAATH estimates that 45 million Indians, 15 percent of the total population, live in slums. “With a population so high, poverty is inevitable,” says Desai.

Every day in Ahmedabad, Desai passed children sitting on the sidewalks watching television through a storefront’s glass window. One day she decided to buy the children packets of cookies. She had purchased twenty packets for the children, but quickly ran short when she says crowds of children started gathering around her screaming for cookies. “12 multiplied to 36,” she says.

“It was eye opening for me to see the children’s response. I feel like we can’t give them money and we can’t give them food, so what can we do? People in India see poverty as natural. They’re accustomed to it,” she says. With such a high population, she believes that poverty will always be an issue unless more opportunities arise for those living in the slums.

Because India has such extreme poverty and a large population, Desai questions how microfinance will affect the poor in the future. “It’s fairly new, but I’m really curious as to what’s going to happen in the next 40 to 50 years. Will microfinance really help? The long run impacts are what I’m interested in,” she says.

For now, Desai will review her interviews and research to make firm conclusions about the issues troubling India. She hopes to return to India for at least a year to work with an NGO.