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Mohammad Amin of India's Orissa State is creating economic self-help cooperatives supported by an alternative banking system that caters to the urban and rural poor who lack land or other assets.

This profile below was prepared when Mohammad Nooruddin Amin was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


Mohammad Amin of India's Orissa State is creating economic self-help cooperatives supported by an alternative banking system that caters to the urban and rural poor who lack land or other assets.


The pattern of self-help cooperatives dates far back in Indian history, when villagers took turns grazing one another's cattle or supervising fishing in the village tank. Mohammad Amin is reviving the cooperative approach in a way that addresses the difficulties faced by today's villagers.

Mohammad's self-help cooperatives consist of people with a common interest–workers in the same factory or farmers of the same village–who jointly deposit their savings and are entitled to take loans from that pot for their own immediate needs–whether that need be buying medicine for a sick child or investing in the necessary capital to launch a small business.

Mohammad has set a rate of interest on savings in the cooperative at more than the bank rate and provided a rate of interest on loans that is less than the bank rate, providing a powerful incentive for people to participate in the cooperatives. But Mohammad's ultimate objective is to broaden the function of the cooperatives beyond these valuable, but limited, financial services. Eventually, Mohammad envisions the cooperatives serving as a social platform where members pool their skills and resources to help one another develop socially and economically. Mohammad will also seek to link his alternative banks to the formal banks once the savings multiply, thus mainstreaming those who would otherwise have been left out of the formal banking structure.

In recruiting members from the self-help cooperatives, Mohammad will particularly focus upon women, who have a better history of repayment and are usually the custodians of family savings. Mohammad hopes that this will increase women's access to financial resources and strengthen their own position within their families and the whole community.


More than 6,000 of the 9,600 existing economic cooperatives in the state of Orissa are operating at a financial loss and must be subsidized by outside sources. In one district, the government cooperative has yet to achieve repayment on 95 percent of loans it has given. The members of these groups feel little loyalty or connections to the other members; they become members exclusively to have the right to draw loans from joint savings. Many of the leaders have fallen prey to corruption; misuse of power in granting loans and embezzlement of money from within the funds is all too common.

The present banking system does not have the ability to serve the poorest of the poor who do not have land and other assets to use as collateral. Banks furthermore do not provide loans for the necessities of everyday life–such as food or medicine. Moreover, stringent complex banking paperwork and forms, high rates of functional illiteracy among the poorest populations and other factors make traditional banks inaccessible to economically disadvantaged populations.


Reaching out to individual women and other potential cooperative members is the first step in building the self-help cooperatives. The members will elect a governing body from among themselves to make decisions about loans and other cooperative matters.

The functioning local groups will be used to spread the idea to adjoining districts. The conglomerate federation formed by these groups will advocate social as well as economic rights for group members. Here Mohammad will employ his human rights group "Adhikar" to push for housing rights for the urban and rural poor. By involving various people in his field, like teachers, legislators, youth clubs, women's groups, print media and financial agencies, Mohammad will spread awareness about the social and economic rights of his target group. He is doing so through orientation camps, posters and village meetings.

Apart from organizing his target group and creating general awareness about their plight, Mohammad is actively promoting the replication of the self-help cooperative structure among other groups. He has written the first Indian language savings manual, Savings Society Orissa Model, which Action Aid has requested to also to be translated into English and which is being used by other non governmental organizations working throughout the state.


Still in his early thirties, Mohammad studied law after completing a master's degree in political science. The son of an undersecretary in the department of law, Mohammad eventually chose journalism over law and worked for the Oriya daily Sambad from 1985 to 1989.

Always sensitive to social and economic inequalities, he formed a rickshaw pullers' union in 1984 to combat police atrocities. Before launching his savings cooperatives, he started a quarterly magazine about the plight of slum dwellers called Basti Habar, which is still distributed among legislators and policy makers and also serves as a link between slums. In 1989, after the eviction of Satyangar slum dwellers, he appealed to the High Court, which ordered an inquiry into the matter and ordered a compensation of Rs. 5,000 (U.S. $140) per family and also guaranteed all evictions in future to be in accordance with the law. He has also been involved in the process of permanent settlement of urban poor for the past decade.

After his successful efforts in the urban slums, Mohammad is now focused on the remote rural areas of Orissa, where governmental organizations might not penetrate in the next twenty years.