This article uses a critical disability lens to map how differential inclusion shatters the promise of democratizing capital in microfinance. Based on an ethnographic study of disability microfinance projects of the World Bank in India, it traces the dynamics of inclusion through the exclusion of debilitated bodies that cannot be capacitated within the neoliberal logic of entrepreneurship. A disability perspective brings into relief the pernicious ways that microfinance operates through webs of ableism, capitalism, and other axes of power and domination. It builds upon and contributes to the ongoing debates on microfinance as a form of neoliberal populism by showing what disability has to say about political futures amidst globalizing desires for inclusion, social mobility, and democratizing access to capital. Examining disability as a culturally-specific configuration of precarity and marginalization that is deepened by microfinance programs allows us to challenge the inclusionist claims of finance capital, and re-envision ethically and socially responsible frameworks. Generating culturally grounded knowledge on disability in the global south, this article also makes an important contribution to the field of disability studies, which scholars have argued remains implicated within the hegemony of 'scholarly colonialism' (Meekosha, 2011).


Microfinance has been globally celebrated as a magic bullet that can end poverty, or "send poverty to the museum," as proclaimed by the founder of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus. The popularity of microfinance reached its pinnacle when the UN declared 2005 as the year of microfinance, and in 2006, Yunus and the Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Specifically targeting poor women and other historically excluded communities for financial inclusion, microfinance has been hailed as a pro-poor, inclusive paradigm of development. This emphasis on inclusion in microfinance has arguably reached its final frontier with the recent integration of disability. While critical feminist and other social science research has challenged the populist claims of bottom-billion capitalism and gender empowerment espoused by microfinance, such critical inquiry remains largely absent at the intersections of disability and microfinance.

Troubling the populist claims of microfinance as a tool for democratizing capital, I show the perils of financial inclusion for people with disabilities through the market place. Based on an ethnographic study of disability-oriented microfinance self-help group projects of the World Bank in rural areas of south India, I examine disabled people's experiences as they navigate the world of microfinance and unevenly engage with markets under the neoliberal logic of entrepreneurship. Given that this neoliberalized financial inclusion works through entrepreneurial and productive subjectivities, local hierarchies and norms of familiality make it possible for those with lucrative caste-class occupations and kinship networks to succeed while those without remain excluded. Through narratives and case studies, I demonstrate the effects of financialization on disability within the context of a stifling rural economy, and show how disabled subjects strive to protect themselves by pursuing safety nets and, in fact, de-linking from finance.

Through the framework of "differential inclusion" (Puar, 2012), I shed light on the neoliberal technologies of financialization in World Bank disability microfinance projects in India. I show how finance capital works through gradations of capacity and debility in microfinance, incorporating disabled bodies that can be capacitated within the entrepreneurial market logic, whilst delimiting debilitated bodies that cannot be recapacitated to wear out in the stasis of rural impoverishment. The neoliberal logic of entrepreneurship constructs disabled people as either bankable or unbankable along the lines of local hierarchies of caste, class and gender, all of which intersect and coalesce with disability to produce gradations of success/failure, inclusion/exclusion, and capacity/debility in microfinance projects.

This article emerges from my larger research project examining the neoliberal governmentality of disability and development projects of the World Bank in rural south India. I draw upon ethnographic work conducted in India from 2006 – 2016, which involved living in the field from 2006-2008, followed by multiple short fieldwork trips conducted over the course of 2010 – 2016. The fieldwork was primarily based in the rural districts of Telangana, 1 formerly part of Andhra Pradesh (AP; a state in South India), where the World Bank's disability microfinance self-help group projects are concentrated. Through participant observation and in-depth interviews with various stakeholders—including disabled women and men, their family members, and staff of governmental, nongovernmental, and international institutions organizing the microfinance project, the AP Poverty Reduction Project (APRPRP)–I explore questions of inclusion-exclusion, as well as structural and intersectional inequalities built into the design and process of microfinance. Interweaving the experiences of disabled people with the policy discourse of macro stakeholders, I present a mix of narratives that capture differential manifestations of microfinance across intersectional axes as well as the stagnation and suffering experienced by disabled interlocutors in their quotidian lives. I frame my interlocutors' experiences and their differential inclusion in the microfinance program according to three categories used by local project staff: ultra-prime, prime, and failing.

In order to understand the interlocking effects of disability and microfinance in the context of rural economy and culture, I participated with my disabled interlocutors in their world of microfinance—market activities, economic institutions, and day-to-day lives. I also observed activities of microfinance institutions and other village-level institutions to capture the processes of financialization. As a member of the disabled community and a woman from India, my disability status and cultural experiences enabled the co-construction of meaning among my informants and allowed me to grasp cultural rationalities and local norms of disability embodiment. Engaging in "thick description" (Geertz, 1973) of the particular dependencies of embodied disabilities reveals the contradictions of microfinance vis-à-vis economy, body and society. Generating culturally grounded knowledge on disability in the global south, this paper also makes an important contribution to the field of disability studies, which scholars have argued remains implicated within the hegemony of "scholarly colonialism" (Meekosha, 2011).

Tracing the Contours of Microfinance and Neoliberal Inclusionism

Much work in the social sciences concerned with microfinance has examined the material and discursive contradictions of what Ananya Roy (2010) terms "poverty capital" as it financializes poverty and reproduces gendered inequalities through a new governmentality of impoverishment (Elyachar 2005; Roy 2010; Rankin 2002; Young 2010; Guérin et al. 2014; Hartsock 2006). Critiques of microfinance stress that instead of empowering marginalized subjects, microcredit (the engine of microfinance) functions as a mode of "accumulation by dispossession" (Harvey 2004) that proliferates existing inequalities and metastasizes global underdevelopment (Elyachar 2005). Roy (2010) argues that the ideology of microfinance functions as an instrument of financial inclusion that commodifies poverty by constructing the ideal development subject as an autonomous, productive individual. The enigma of inclusion in microfinance represents "neoliberal populism" (Roy 2010), a phenomenon by which neoliberalism derives its legitimacy by including marginalized communities—albeit within the same capitalistic market logic that also creates conditions for their exclusion. Through the lens of non-normative embodiment, this article builds upon these critiques by showing how disability disrupts neoliberal populism and its lofty claims of democratizing capital. In so doing, this article draws attention to a neglected perspective within social sciences on the politics of microfinance—that of embodied disability in the global south.

While social science literature has critically engaged with the neoliberal politics of inclusion in microfinance, disability research remains largely pragmatic in examining the operational nature of exclusion from microfinance, and thus advocates for more inclusion. Though microfinance constitutes an integral part of today's development industry, scholars point out that only 0.5-1% of microfinance clients are people with disabilities (Beisland & Mersland, 2016). Consequently, most studies of disability and microfinance frame the lack of access to capital as the key problem (Beisland & Mersland, 2012; Lewis, 2004). Research in this genre identifies two kinds of barriers: "internal barriers," marked by lack of confidence, skills, knowledge, or charity-expecting attitude of disabled microfinance clients, and "external barriers," which include prejudices and attitudes of the microfinance institutions, staff, and community, as well as institutional and environmental constraints (Leymat, 2012; Thomas, 2000). These studies accordingly recommend inclusionary measures like information dissemination and awareness raising, training disabled consumers, and promoting ad-hoc flexible schemes (Cramm & Finkenflügel, 2008). In line with the UNCRPD's proclamation on the rights of people with disabilities to inclusive development, these scholars advocate for disability-inclusive microfinance, the key development practice today. Ideas like "disability mainstreaming" and "disability-inclusive development" have gained currency in international disability policies and programs, especially after the passage of UNCRPD. Now more than ever, there is greater consensus toward promoting financial inclusion of disabled people by making financial services—such as microfinance, the main stay of international development policy and practice today— disability-inclusive and accessible.

However, these liberal inclusionist paradigms have come under critique by critical disability studies scholars and activists for privileging essentialist notions of disability, premised on a binary construction of disability and ability (Gorman, 2010; Fritch, 2015). They demonstrate how disability rights discourses are grounded within liberal frameworks that privilege the inclusion of individual impaired bodies, away from larger structures of debt and debility. Critical disability scholars demonstrate the ways in which liberal inclusionist paradigms appropriate ableist, neoliberal ideologies and practices to expand capitalist market relations and activate an untapped labor market (also see Friedner, 2015; Soldatic, 2013; Grech, 2015; Mcruer, 2012; Erevelles, 2011). Disabled subjects are rearticulated as "potentially able," "right-bearing" subjects, whose inclusion in the society overwhelmingly depends on their being active in the market (Gorman, 2010). A crucial effect of this demand for economic participation and bodily integrity is that it augments new ways of dividing and grading disabled bodies in neoliberal societies through "an implicit assumption of disability as a fixed ontological state (rather than a social relation)" (Gorman, 2010, p. 6). Through the emergence of these neoliberal disabled subjects, disability gets fixed in the body instead of the web of social and historical relations in which it is embedded. On the one hand, such fixation and categorization of disability identity excludes disabled people who "fail" to connect with global capital due to their marginalized positionality at the intersections of class, caste, gender, and locality. On the other, it leads to the erasure of these very positionalities themselves (Eravelles, 2011; Mitchell & Snyder, 2015).

Expanding these critiques of liberal frameworks, Jasbir Puar (2012) illustrates how finance capital works by recapacitating debilitated bodies through the process of "differential inclusion." Within the neoliberal framework, individuals are evaluated according to their ability to engage with the market as productive, independent subjects. As Puar (2012) contends, this process is applied to all bodies, with everyone "evaluated in relation to their success or failure in terms of health, wealth, progressive productivity, upward mobility, [and] enhanced capacity" (p. 155). Puar shows that this process also includes disabled individuals, whose abilities are assessed—along with non-disabled individuals—according to "gradations of capacity and debility" (p. 155). 2 Those "folded into life are seen as more capacious or on the side of capacity, while those targeted for premature or slow death are figured as debility" (Puar, 2012, p. 153). These gradations, which are required by the neoliberal demand for bodily capacity as well as the profitability of bodily debility, entail a "shift in the broader techniques of social control that instead of regulating normativity (self/other; normal/abnormal), concentrates on modulating, tweaking, and regularizing bodies, replacing regimentation based on inclusion/exclusion with regimentation based on differential inclusion" (Puar, 2012, p. 155). In fact, this assessment often dictates an individual's degree of inclusion or exclusion from the labor market and, by extension, microfinance.

I bring these interdisciplinary debates within the social sciences and critical disability studies to bear upon complex questions concerning the governmentality of finance capital from an embodied disability perspective of the Global South. Puar's framework of differential inclusion, capacity and debility is especially valuable in explaining the technologies of inclusion and exclusion as mobilized by finance capital in disability microfinance projects of the World Bank. I interweave her work with Roy's (2010) analysis, to show how the ideology of microfinance functions through "differential inclusion," which rests upon including capacitated, i.e., autonomous, entrepreneurial disabled subjects, whilst excluding the debilitated disabled bodies. The article therefore maps how the promise of democratizing capital through microfinance is fractured by differential inclusion, inclusion through the exclusion of debilitated bodies that could not be capacitated on account of caste, class, gender, rurality and other positionalities. In doing so, this article makes a theoretical and empirical intervention in critical disability studies by exposing the inadequacies of liberal disability inclusionist frameworks that focus narrowly on identity as their organizing principle. What follows is an ethnographic narrative of poverty capital that is accentuated by disability microfinance self-help groups in communities of rural south India.

Setting the Context: Disability and the Microfinance project in South India

Andhra Pradesh (AP), a state in South India, has been at the vanguard of implementing neoliberal reforms in India (Taylor, 2011; Cross, 2010). Under the auspices of structural adjustment programs, AP, with funding from the World Bank, implemented anti-poverty policies that sought to limit the scope of the state through an emphasis on microfinance and community-driven development (Bhagwati & Srinivasan 2002; Dollar & Kraay 2001). One of the largest anti-poverty initiatives launched during this regime was the Andhra Pradesh Rural Poverty Reduction Program (APRPRP), locally known as Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP), founded in 2003. As the single largest poverty reduction project financed by the World Bank in South Asia, APRPRP (referred to as the project from here on) organizes large-scale microfinance self-help groups for women, disabled people, and previously marginalized communities with the goal of reducing poverty through Grameen Bank principles, which include democratizing capital, capitalism from the ground-up, and business with a "human face." This policy focus is based on the World Bank's neoliberalized approach to poverty, entrepreneurship, and social capital wherein providing access to credit, strengthening network connections, and participation in markets through microfinance is expected to help people move out of poverty and other disadvantaged positions (Coleman, 1990; Putnam, 2001; World Bank, 2009). Within this framework of development, poverty is seen as resulting from a lack of capital, and thus the solution is geared towards providing access to the capital. Poverty is thus increasingly addressed within a capitalistic or financialized development paradigm rather than a multidimensional one—Roy's (2010) notion of "poverty capital."

The popularity of microfinance is evident in its scale—about 17 million people had been organized into 1.4 million self-help groups (SHGs) 3 under the banner of APRPRP by 2014 (Suran, 2014). Of these, there were 12,743 SHGs for people with disabilities, with a total of 152,916 disabled people in Telangana alone. Most of these groups target women and seek to redress the fact that they are a disproportionate majority among impoverished groups who frequently suffer discrimination in labor markets. While the project primarily started with women's SHGs, over time it has come to include disabled people and other marginalized communities. The inclusion of disability in microfinance signaled opportunities for financial inclusion and mobility to hitherto excluded social categories. As disability was traditionally entrenched within traditional service-delivery, rehabilitative and charity oriented models, this inclusion was certainly a break from the past. Disability was taken out of the traditional mold into what seemed to be offering financial inclusion, mobility and access to a better life through the marketplace. Disability-inclusive microfinance thus brought disability into the mainstream of development discourse.

Rural disability has largely remained at the fringes of disability and development discourses in India (Mehrotra, 2013), even though the majority of disabled Indians reside in rural areas, amidst extreme poverty and uneven development, symptomatic of the rural-urban divide in the country. According to the 2011 census, as many as 69 percent live in rural areas, where their proportion to the total population and the overall poverty rate 4 is higher than in urban areas (GOI, 2016). The experience of disability in rural India is compounded by structural barriers in sectors like education, employment, health, as well as deep-rooted cultural barriers owing to disability stigma. Collectively, these barriers have meant that the rural disabled population fares far worse that its urban counterpart with regards to literacy, education and school attendance, employment and financial stability. 5 The combined effect of these barriers is that households with disabled members experience more precarity than the general population: they are poorer, with lower income and fewer assets, often struggling to meet even basic needs. 6

Though the government of India has robust policy and legislative frameworks to address disability poverty and employment, these also reflect an urban bias. The Persons with Disabilities Act (PWD Act) of 1995 has been the cornerstone for disabled people's access to government entitlements as well as for preventive and early detection measures, affirmative action, and non-discrimination. In 2016, India replaced the PWD Act and enacted new disability legislation in line with the UNCRPD, called the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD Act), which defines disability more broadly and increases the reservation requirement from three percent to five percent in education and poverty alleviation schemes and four percent in government employment. In addition, there are social protection provisions through the central and state sponsored disability pension scheme like the National Social Assistance Program (NASP), unemployment allowance for PWDS and such. However, as the World Bank country report points out, the outreach and impact of government policies and programs on poverty and employment outcomes of disabled people in rural areas has been negligible (O'Keefe, 2009). This is partly due to the fact that the legislative framework does not fit well within the context of rurality, as the rural economy is in large part informal (composed of agricultural and non-farm sector), falling outside the purview of labor regulations, with no mechanism to ensure disability reservation or any labor regulations as such. Consequently, the report recommends microfinance self-help groups (SHGs) for disabled people as the most promising channel for self-employment and empowerment through entrepreneurship. This push towards self-employment of persons with disabilities also pairs with the recent shift in the rural labor force from agriculture to service and formal to informal sectors.

The World Bank SHG project promoted a microfinance approach for poverty alleviation for people with disabilities through self-employment and entrepreneurship. Before the self-help group project, disabled people in rural Telangana were excluded from formal and informal forms of banking, as they were not considered bankable. They could neither take loans from the bank in the absence of collateral, nor were they in a position to take loans from private moneylenders due to the high interest rates and exploitative recovery methods employed by moneylenders. The inclusion of disabled people in microfinance marked a break from this pattern as it both provided access to credit and challenged widespread stereotypes about disabled people as unproductive and non-bankable. In doing so, it represented "neoliberal populism" (Roy, 2010) as disability became profitable for microfinance and was used discursively to legitimize the populist claims of microfinance as being pro poor–a tool for democratizing capital for the most vulnerable. However, this inclusion was paradoxical, for it meant inclusion in a system that was inherently uneven and exclusionary. In fact, its accessibility was structurally illusive. In what follows, I trouble this neoliberal populism by demonstrating the inequalities in the process of microfinance.

Mapping the Politics of Microfinance

Microfinance loans, or what the project called 'community investment fund' (CIF) loans, were collateral-free group loans, where the self-help group members could borrow small sums of money from the project at an interest rate that was lower than that of the private moneylenders. As a form of informal banking, these loans operated on "solidarity lending," where the group itself acted as social collateral. The group held individuals accountable for repayment, which was determined by the recycling of loans to the next set of borrowers. Inability to repay jeopardized others from receiving future loans, which meant that group members faced tremendous peer pressure to repay in a timely manner. Moreover, aggressive mechanisms were put in place by the project to achieve repayment, such as social shaming and/or confiscating valuable assets equal to the loan amount.

Microfinance loans were contingent upon members' capacity to save on a weekly basis. Regardless of income or economic situation, every member was required to save Rs. 25 per week; 7 failure to do so resulted in removal from the group. This mandatory saving itself discouraged disabled people with limited resources from participating in self-help groups. Those who did not have assets or a steady source of livelihood often used their disability pension (social security) for weekly saving, leaving them with a meager amount for sustenance. Once the group had saved a certain amount, they were eligible to receive a CIF loan from the project and the banks. These loans could not be utilized for consumption purposes or other necessities; rather, they had to be invested in what the project called 'productive ends,' i.e., an income generating activity that would bring in money and ensure regular repayments. The project expected disabled people to convert seed capital into sustainable sources of income through the establishment of microenterprises that could pull them out of the "spiral" of poverty and structural disadvantage.

The value and frequency of the loans varied from member to member depending on their financial position. Paradoxically, those who needed the most tended to get the least. This was despite the fact that the self-help groups underwent 'micro credit planning' (MCP), a joint planning process to determine an individual's share of the loan. Although facilitated by community social workers, this process was highly contentious and intersectionally driven. People's share of the pie was contingent upon their ability to repay both the loan and the interest in a timely manner. As a result, those who had preexisting assets and resources took the biggest share, while those who could not afford to invest and repay hesitated to come forward. In general, the latter opted to take 'internal loans,' which were given by the SHGs from their internal weekly savings. While microfinance loans were low interest loans given by the project for income generation, internal loans were high interest loans (the rate of interest was comparable to that charged by the traditional moneylenders) that could be used for immediate consumption purposes. Those who took the internal loans mostly belonged to marginalized caste communities, poor and landless households, and had limited assets and livelihood opportunities. They usually borrowed for health and rehabilitative emergencies, house repairs, marriage expenses, food, education, and other necessities. Since the project considered these to be 'non-productive' expenses, they came at a price. These loan dynamics show that microfinance was primarily productive where there were already existing assets—economic, social, familial, and political; a view that was commonly expressed by a majority of the stakeholders in the microfinance project. The loans' differential interest rates created a two tier hierarchical structure whereby the relatively better off got cheaper loans than the poorest of the poor. This system reinforced the intersectional disadvantages of disabled people, deepening existing social chasms.

Overlooking market inequities and social disparities, microfinance as a capitalist form of intervention was geared towards providing micro solutions for structural problems. This privileging of the micro over the macro in microfinance in fact mirrors the medical model of disability, which perceives disability as an individual predicament rather than a systemic phenomenon (Chaudhry, 2016b). While the self-help group project brought microfinance to the doorsteps of disabled people, structural disparities and the materiality of disability made it inaccessible for them. The intersectionally grounded nature of disability poverty not only made it harder for disabled people to utilize microcredit loans, but also to access them in the first place. Critiquing these inequities, one disability activist who had worked with the project noted:

You have to take the money and you have to repay it, then only I can get the money. After your repayment, the first three people will get the money and later the next three people and the next three people… It is a rotation process. For years, this fellow goes on saving the money. In a group of ten people, they have to regularly contribute whether they get the loan immediately or not. First three people are selected by saying that "needs are there." But the people who have confidence that they can repay the money, they only will come first. More than confidence, they have certain assets. By doing some business or something, they will become advanced. But, the remaining people will wait for the loan for a long time. So, in this micro credit planning process, you are saying that it's very participatory, group will decide – whom to give the loan, etc. But it is not happening. Community coordinator (project official) will decide or may be people themselves take decisions…we don't know. The people who are able to save and repay regularly, their groups will run properly. This is the prime layer (relatively advantaged), and within the group you will also see ultra-prime layer. The poor people who are not able to save and repay the loan regularly, they will fail. There is inequality.

The project official critically points out the layered inequalities built into the means-ends of microfinance. The microcredit planning process itself was far from participatory, effacing the democratic claims made about microfinance. The temporal, spatial and structural inequalities manifested in the form of "entrepreneurial confidence," which facilitated the success of the "prime" and "ultra-prime members" and the failure of others who were forced to wait for their loans—sometimes indefinitely—until their financial conditions improved. For some disabled people, this meant waiting until either fellow group members repaid their loan or their own or their family's financial conditions changed. In his ethnographic research with urban youth in India, Craig Jeffrey (2010) terms this condition a form of "chronic waiting." Jeffrey explains how the neoliberal paradigm promises hope in the future without changing past or present structural inequities. Microfinance suspended debilitated disabled people in a zone of chronic waiting, whilst expediting capacitated disabled people who embodied entrepreneurial potentialities. This politics of waiting was the dominant temporal frame of microfinance.

Drawing upon the project official's evaluative categories of "ultra-prime, prime and failing" subjects, I classify the differential inclusion of microfinance into three broad categories based on the positionality of disabled participants. There were members who benefited most, those who benefited moderately, and those who benefited least or not at all from the loans. These classifications were underpinned by the neoliberal ideology of economic productivity, entrepreneurship, and competitive market individualism—values that were considered indispensable for pulling people out of poverty and steering them on the path of self-employment. The neoliberal logic of entrepreneurship included capacitated disabled subjects and excluded those debilitated bodies that were already positioned precariously. Local hierarchies of caste, class, gender, and locality coalesced with disability to produce gradations of success/failure, inclusion/exclusion, and capacity/debility in microfinance projects. The following discussion explicates how differential inclusion unfolds on the ground by reflecting on the kind of disabled people who made for good neoliberal subjects—capacitated disabled entrepreneurs—and those who could not.

Capacitated Disabled Entrepreneurs

Financialization structured disabled people as bankable or non-bankable based on their performance in microfinance. Entrepreneurial success in microfinance entailed following the terms of financialization—regular savings, loans taken, loans repaid, investments made, and income generated. Those who benefited most were structurally privileged in terms of caste-class, land holding, traditional occupation, nature and severity of disability, gender, generation/age, and most importantly their family and household structure. They were seen as capacitated disabled subjects by the project. As I illustrate below, capacity under neoliberal capitalism indexes disabled peoples' ability to engage with the market as a productive, independent subject. 8 This invariably favored those with enhanced capacities of health, wealth, progressive productivity and upward mobility accorded by intersectional privileges.

Out of the 20 disabled participants interviewed in total, there were five (two men and three women) who benefited the most in standard monetary terms–i.e., regular savings, loans taken, loans repaid, investments made, and income generated. These constituted the ultra-prime layer—participants who were socioeconomically predisposed to be successful in microfinance. These five participants had some commonalities, including steady sources of income to enable regular group savings and assets and infrastructure to productively invest and repay the principal loan amount along with the interest. As a result, these participants did not rely on loans for financial security, rather they utilized them to diversify and expand their existing income base. The most profit was made by those who invested the loans in their traditional livelihoods or pre-existing enterprises, as the infrastructure was already in place and the risks were premeditated. Their socioeconomic household backgrounds also bore similarities. They were in their 50s (with the exception of one male participant who was in his 30s) and therefore older, belonged to relatively upper caste-class communities, had strong family support, and had only minor impairments.

The two disabled women, who had acquired physical disabilities later in their lives due to accidents and amputation, had mild and non-congenital disabilities that were not culturally disabling and did not impact them functionally or occupationally. Although the remaining three had severe congenital disabilities—a woman with leprosy, an older blind man, and a partially sighted young man—and while their disabilities were more stigmatized culturally—their intersectional lives led to privileged positionality. In addition to the strong kinship networks and household resources and support systems noted above, their families owned more than 10 acres of agricultural land with irrigation facilities and big pakka (concrete) houses, which also allowed them to diversify their economic base.

The strong network of immediate and extended family support enabled these five members to optimize the microfinance investments. In all cases, the household, as a unit, was collectively involved in the livelihood activities of their disabled kin. The families helped them to set up new livelihoods by providing general and disability specific assistance, i.e., helping with sensorial, physical, or manual tasks related to the new activities. In turn, these members invested their loans in traditional family occupations such as agriculture, diversifying farm production, irrigation, local business, and cattle grazing. As a result, overall household income increased, suggesting that family was not only a form of kinship, but also an economic unit engaged in a common mode of production. This joint management was an organic part of collectivist culture in rural south India.

These five participants took multiple loans of large amounts as they were in a position to repay. For example, Sunil, the partially sighted young man who belonged to the Reddy community (an upper-class community) took two microfinance loans, which he invested in the family farms. He used one loan for crops, and the other to buy oxen, which significantly benefited his household economy. Similarly, the older woman with leprosy, Bharti, invested her two loans in family farms, cultivating vegetables and purchasing buffalo for dairy. The two other women who had acquired disabilities later in their lives also invested their loans in their traditional occupations. Himani, who belonged to the Kurva community (a cattle rearing community), bought buffalo for dairy purposes, and Sharda, a woman from the Vaishaya community (an upper caste-class business community), invested loans in her existing grocery "kirana" shop.

While four of these five participants invested their loans in traditional livelihoods, one disabled participant, Harun, successfully invested his loans in a non-native occupation to start up a new enterprise. Representing the ideal entrepreneurial subject, Harun started a small roadside restaurant, "dhaba," together with his sister in the village. An older blind man, he also owned ten acres of land and had a steady income through his traditional occupation of extracting liquor from Toddy trees. He took care of the dhaba with his sister, and his own daughter and son-in-law took care of their family farms. As the new enterprise was not his primary source of income and he already had steady income from his native occupation, the risks were minimal. Harun's experience also illustrates the advantages of familial support—without the substantial assistance of his sister, daughter, and son-in-law, he might not have been able to successfully sustain the new enterprise.

Due to the powerful link between caste and economic relationships in rural India, caste-class dynamics played a pivotal role in microfinance projects. In India, caste operates as a system of social stratification that is deeply connected to economic relationships. 9 As scholars of caste point out, caste membership circumscribes aspects of social life in exploitative ways that affect economic transactions, performance and upward mobility (Beteille, 2012; Srinivas, 2009; Breman, 1996). Caste discrimination has been officially abolished; however, it endures as a powerful mechanism for regulating social hierarchies, with members of the upper castes yielding power over land, capital, and politics. Although this economic understanding of caste is less prevalent in urban contexts where there is greater social mobility, it is still remarkably salient in rural areas, where community members practice occupations based on their caste categorization (Srinivas, 2009).

Caste dynamics played a central role in the experiences of my interlocutors. In the context of my research, microfinance attempted to encourage financial inclusion by actually excluding those on the margins of class and caste within disabled communities. At the same time, the socially oppressive system of caste-class heavily impacted how and if disabled microfinance beneficiaries could use the loans 'productively' (Chaudhry, 2016b). This underscores the salience of caste in upholding the capitalist logic of microfinance, which emerges as a system that benefits those who have preexisting capital, i.e. privileged caste status.

That being said, the distinction between those who successfully implemented the loans and those who were unable (or unwilling) to did not break down neatly along caste lines. Instead, my research shows a more complicated dynamic: specifically, those with lucrative caste occupations within the other backward classes (OBC) communities (such as toddy-making, sheparding, cattle grazing) were able to invest their loans in existing businesses whereas those whose caste-based occupations were not financially lucrative tended to start new ones, ultimately a riskier financial decision. Those with lucrative caste occupations were also more likely to be agricultural land-owners than oppressed-caste disabled people. Having access to land, cattle, water, and other resources ensured privileged-caste members had more reliable avenues for investment, compared with oppressed-caste loan-takers, who were more at the mercy of market forces with their new small enterprises.

The privileged-caste participants were comprised of economically active market subjects who were intersectionally positioned to succeed and were thus ideal entrepreneurs for microfinance interventions. Microfinance programs were predicated upon an ideology of ableism in which everyone was expected to be individually productive in order to be bankable and therefore the right kind of subjects for capitalism. Those disabled people were included who could be harnessed by market rationalities, and easily integratable into the market. These capacitated disabled entrepreneurs were celebrated as exemplars of disability-inclusive development. They were also seen to exemplify the prototype subjects of neoliberal populism, what Titchkosky (2003) calls the "able-disabled," whose disability could be capacitated within the neoliberal economy of inclusion. In doing so, the neoliberal development regimes produced an "exclusionary form of inclusion" (Fritsch 2015) that allowed for "limited inclusion" of capacitated forms of disabilities, as I demonstrate in the following section.

Small Enterprises and Big Hopes

The inclusion in microfinance was structured in gradations. While some definitely succeeded and most others failed, there were those in the middle who aspired to be entrepreneurs. These in the middle were aspirational subjects who were caught in the liminal space with some skills but clearly not enough capital and structural preconditions to surmount the market pressures. Though they were actively wooed by neoliberal development projects, they were a mixed group, coming from land-poor and low-to-medium income households. Some of them were young, educated, and wanted to try their luck at entrepreneurship but also experienced greater disabling barriers due to their marginal caste-class positionality. Unlike the "ultra-prime participants," these in the "prime" category did not have existing land, capital or other assets and they did not invest in their native skills. Instead they started small enterprises, with mixed results. Setting up a new enterprise was arduous and many were not trained or well prepared for the undertaking. Yet the project staff lured disabled clients into the thorny world of small-entrepreneurship with big hopes. As the following stories highlight, the financial inclusion of these participants through microfinance was fraught with contradictions, as they were stymied in their efforts by the interlocking nature of disablism, capitalism and rural impoverishment. While some could stay afloat, others had to close their shops. In the final analysis, many of these interlocutors preferred a steady stream of employment to the illusive promise of entrepreneurship.

The majority of the disabled people participating in the project used their microfinance loans to start up grocery stores, or "Kirana" shops, with varying levels of success. Two Dalit 10 women with disabilities from the same village, Lakshmi and Isha, both started grocery shops, with one managing to survive, while the other could barely stay afloat. Lakshmi, who acquired polio in childhood, came from a poor, landless household. She worked as a daily-wage worker on others' farms; however, she could not secure consistent work on the farms owing to the physically demanding nature of the agricultural work, and thus decided to explore entrepreneurial options that did not require manual labor. She took a loan of Rs. 15,000 ($250) and started a small grocery store on the premises of her home, which her siblings helped to run. While the microfinance loan was used to supplement working capital for this small business, the income from the shop was barely sufficient for her to break even. In fact, she had to take another internal loan from the group when a family emergency arose. Thus, there was no possibility of re-investing the earnings in new technology, hiring waged helpers or non-household labor, any of which would have helped the business to grow.

Though Lakshmi's shop managed to stay afloat, Isha struggled to keep her own shop open. Isha had taken two loans, the first of which she used to buy 10 sheep, all of which died, and the second of which was used to set up a small grocery store. Isha acquired a disability in her arm due to an accident in childhood and also experienced serious mental illness. As a single mother raising two sons, she lived with her biological family and worked on their land (when her mental health permitted). Though her family was supportive, she wanted to be financially independent, and decided to try her luck with entrepreneurship. With much encouragement from the microfinance project team, she took a loan of Rs. 15,000 ($250) to start the grocery shop. However, the pervasive stigma surrounding her mental illness in the village marred her business and hindered sales. Her hopes of gaining financial independence were thus crushed under the weight of her "spoiled identity" (Goffman, 1965) and aggravated by the stigma of her mental illness, physical disability and caste positionality. In a close-knit rural community, the "spread-effect" from her stigma was intense, impeding her further in an already oversaturated rural economy. In the end, she struggled to repay the microfinance loans that she had borrowed to start the Kirana shop–even contemplating foreclosure in the face of enormous pressure to re-pay the loans.

While these disabled entrepreneurs lacked educational and other forms of capital, there was another group of physically disabled people who were educated and had started home-based livelihoods. They bought equipment for their home-based projects—a lentil grinding machine, and a telephone booth—with the hope of generating self-employment opportunities that would be more accessible and require less mobility than traditional farm-based work. For example, Yakub, a disabled Muslim man, together with his disabled wife, started a daal (lentils) grinding business with the microfinance loan. Relatively more educated than the rest, he was trained as a rural health practitioner. However, after an accident, he could not practice rural medicine as it entailed extensive traveling to different villages. After acquiring a physical disability, he became the project's community social worker and supplemented his household income with the daal grinding business. However, the business did not do well as there was more supply than demand of daal in the village. His wife lamented, "Seeing us, two more people got this machine in the village. Theirs is making good business, but not ours…"

Similarly, Navin Reddy, a relatively upper caste disabled male participant had to shut down his phone booth, which he had started with the help of microfinance loans. Since there were many "coin boxes" in the village, it became a financial liability for him to sustain the business infrastructure, i.e., paying the monthly rental and such. However, his entrepreneurial failure did not translate into distress, as he was educated and managed to secure employment with the project as an accountant. His caste-class and gender privilege enabled him to withstand the market risks, yet, his precarious disability embodiment and the saturated rural economy disrupted his entrepreneurial aspirations.

As illustrated above, microfinance abetted imbalances of supply and demand, and many disabled interlocutors complained about incurring losses on their micro-enterprises. The non-farm sector economy was saturated with small-scale enterprises fueled by microfinance, making it increasingly difficult for disabled people to withstand the competition. In general, there were so many small businesses flooding the village economy that there was more supply than demand, which pushed commodity prices down to unsustainable levels. As a result, people could not make any profits and frequently ended up consuming their own commodities rather than selling them in the market at loss. The impact of microfinance therefore, remained confined in redistributing the prevailing volume of business rather than increasing it.

These realities stand in opposition to the claims made by the champions of microfinance such as Yunus (1989, p. 156) who argued that microfinance has the power to create "limitless self-employment through the production and selling of unlimited goods." However, as scholars Bateman and Chang (2012) and Kalpana (2015) have maintained, microfinance has often operated contrary to this expectation, actually impeding the sustainable growth of the microenterprise sector by creating an overabundance of inefficient enterprises. These enterprises have no other way of competing with each other than through drastic cost cutting, which renders them even more susceptible to failure. This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that all microfinance activities inevitably move towards an already saturated informal sector, where demand constraint leads to the displacement of profits, jobs, and incomes in existing microenterprises, and ultimately, to their closure.

Disabled interlocutors pointed out additional capital inadequacies within microfinance by noting that the loan amounts were grossly insufficient for investment. A single loan, which could not even cover a month's expenses for a family, was not sufficient for either an individual or a collective to start a sustainable enterprise. Thus, neoliberal claims of financial inclusion and independence were disproved by the reality of rural disability and poverty, as the pathway through entrepreneurship was not tenable for the majority, making failure more likely. Tracing their pathway to failure, I now turn to the experiences of disabled people who remained entangled within the webs of ableism, capitalism, debt and debility in microfinance.

Debility: Surviving at the Margins

Many of my disabled interlocutors did not choose the entrepreneurial path laid out by microfinance—as many as nine of the 20 participants opted out of the CIF loans, which were strictly income generating loans. They regularly saved in the self-help groups, yet only took internal loans for consumption purposes. Perilously located at the intersection of caste-class, gender, age, disability and other marginalities, they were not in a position to embark on the treacherous terrain of entrepreneurship. With no preexisting wealth or land, often limited education, and no access to forms of cultural capital, they barely had the means to subsist, let alone the capacity to absorb the financial risks of starting a business. They saw entrepreneurship as a debt trap that could deepen their state of debility and threaten their very survival. Thus, despite dire poverty, many disabled people took the unexpected but strategic step of refusing microfinance loans to protect themselves from potentially aggravating their already precarious circumstances. These disabled participants were deemed by the microfinance projects to be "failures," with banks further redlining them and preventing them from taking future loans. Yet, what was labeled a "failure" by the microfinance institutions was actually a survival strategy that disabled people relied upon in an increasingly financialized milieu.

Those who eschewed the microfinance loans were disadvantaged by caste, class, impairment type, gender, and familial-kinship support. Unsurprisingly, the multiple forms of vulnerability this group experienced in these domains overlapped and intersected to magnify their debilitating conditions. For example, Chandar, a physically disabled young Dalit man who worked as a community organizer with the project, did not feel confident pursuing an entrepreneurial venture by himself. With no land and limited support from his family, he lived in low-income housing allotted by the government and subsisted on a small disability pension (social security)—both of which he had struggled hard to secure. He also received a small salary from the project. Although he took internal loans to meet basic needs and for consumption purposes, he shied away from the microfinance loans, as he felt he did not have the "time and capacity" to invest in an enterprise that had limited chances of success in an over-saturated rural economy. As an SHG organizer, he was all too familiar with the effects of entrepreneurial failure and had witnessed many spiraling into a cycle of debt and debility. He thus protected himself by opting out of entrepreneurship, instead pursuing safety nets offered by the state.

Narsimha was an older blind man with leprosy who also followed a path towards social protection through the state and community, and away from microfinance. A widower, Narsimha belonged to the weaver community, a marginalized OBC caste community that has been experiencing extreme economic and social hardships due to their dwindling caste occupation. He lived by himself in a small dwelling provided by the government under a welfare housing program called Inderamma housing policy. He had secured a disability pension of Rs. 500/month ($8) and had arranged to receive cooked food in lieu of rent from his tenant, who lived next door in a dilapidated family property. With multiple disabilities and no agricultural land, assets, or family support, he lived under grave conditions of precarity and survived only because of the government safety nets and those that he created for himself. He could not afford to risk his survival by venturing into the uncertain terrain of entrepreneurship with microfinance loans. Since he regularly experienced stigma and alienation in social settings owing to his multi-sensorial impairments, he was certain that his precarious embodiment posed a real challenge and could only deepen his experience of debility. As he explained, entrepreneurship was a direct path to failure, and he could only foresee "going into debt," as he felt incapable of running a kirana shop by himself, for "nobody would come near the shop."

As the experiences of Narsimha and Chandar illustrate, both young and old disabled men shared unique vulnerabilities of debt and debility that made it harder for them to maneuver the financial volatility of entrepreneurial loans. Yet, in rural India, the socially situated character of disability is most strongly felt among women who are also disadvantaged in the ways noted above–i.e., by caste, class, impairment type, and familial-kinship support. The positionality of disabled women vis-à-vis gender and generational roles scripted their material and discursive possibilities, and as such, they were even more constrained with regard to micro-banking than their disabled male counterparts or their able-bodied female peers. In other words, disabled women experienced unique forms of structural precarity that compounded the risks of their involvement in the microfinance project. In fact, the microfinance approach underscored structural and cultural biases and the norms of embodiment that further pushed disabled women to the margins. I now turn to the life stories of two women who found themselves living at the edge, exploring how they protected themselves from the perceived financial risks by de-linking from microfinance itself.

Meena experienced acute financial pressures and distress as a blind widow raising two children in extreme poverty. The death of her husband and mother-in law, the family's main breadwinner and primary caregiver respectively, further burdened Meena and her children. Meena's widowhood affected her even more as she belonged to the butcher caste, and meat-cutting work is traditionally seen as a male occupation that is unfit for respectable women. She received a monthly disability pension of Rs. 500 ($8) per month, which provided some assistance, particularly in the context of declining caste-based occupations, and allowed her to save in the self-help group; however, her financial circumstances were still dire. Nevertheless, Meena was apprehensive about taking a microfinance loan. Her apprehension was in part due to the fact that she had once taken an internal loan, which she had grave difficulty repaying out of her disability pension—her only source of income. This experience discouraged her from taking any microfinance loans in the future, as she could not afford to repay the loans along with the interest. Upon probing why she had not thought of starting an income-generating activity such as a kirana shop or a dairy activity, she explained that because of her blindness and the added responsibility of raising small children, she was worried that she could not run a shop without assistance. Furthermore, the nature of other enterprises such as caring for cattle would be difficult given her disabled embodiment and limited family support. Her response illuminated the gendered nature of embodied and structural difficulties faced in the context of rural economies, difficulties that were much greater for disabled women.

In contrast to Meena's socioeconomic circumstances, other disabled women avoided the microfinance loans despite the fact they were relatively young, educated, self-employed, belonged to households with some assets, and had minor physical disabilities. One such woman was Rupa, a young disabled woman who acquired polio as a child because of a lack of access to the vaccine in the village. Rupa had studied at a boarding school in a neighboring town until 12th grade, and later she had learned stitching. Eventually, she was able to move out of her village for work, living by herself in a small, single-room occupancy. Her disability made it hard for her to navigate physical spaces while her unmarried status made it difficult to navigate social and public spaces, including the market. In other words, as an unmarried woman with a disability living alone in a different village than her own, there were cultural constraints on her financial opportunities and limits to what she could do with the microfinance loans. She did not feel safe expanding her stitching work or starting up a new kirana (grocery) shop with the microfinance loans, as she felt that might invite unnecessary attention from men in the community. Though to some extent she managed to break away from the limiting "geographies of disability" (Gleason, 1999), her status as a single disabled woman posed limits that microfinance loans did not allow her to overcome. In particular, the question of unwanted male attention and respectability, carved a negative space of embodiment around ideologies of femininity, and acted as a gender-based constraint on her mobility and opportunities.

Taken together, the experiences of Meena and Rupa highlight how gendered and political-economic constraints created a double bind that enjoined disabled women to a status of precarity and poverty that were ill-matched to the form and function of microfinance loans, and the norms of productivity, circulation, and able-bodiedness that the loans supported. The experiences of these women articulate the centrality of both the domestic sphere, itself a "gendered space," and family relations to decision-making processes regarding microfinance and market performativity. These women also lacked the same familial support networks that some of the other disabled women discussed earlier, and this profoundly impacted the choices they made. Challenging the very claims of gender empowerment and free-market entrepreneurialism espoused by the neoliberal microfinance approach, the experiences of these disabled women show how microfinance fails to account for the gendered dynamics of domesticity, familiality, kinship and rural sociality (Chaudhry, 2016a). Instead, microfinance is mostly geared towards the public sphere, which it views as a gender-neutral space where anyone can be an entrepreneur. In particular though, their socioeconomic precarity and their reluctance to participate in the microfinance project reflected their marginalization in the domestic sphere of family and kinship. Given their household realities, they decided to de-link from microfinance, as it remained anathema to them. Their narratives thus bring to light the dangers of microfinance as a strategic neoliberal panacea for poverty alleviation: by excluding the poorest, it benefited those who already had assets—material, positional, and relational.

In closing, this article has offered an ethnographic window onto the life worlds of disabled people, revealing the contradictory processes of inclusion-exclusion in microfinance, thereby challenging current practices of microfinance and their complicity in promoting ableist, capitalist market-oriented interventions. As I show through a gradational approach, microfinance worked through the politics of differential inclusion. Reproducing inequalities, class mobility through microfinance remained unattainable for the majority of my disabled interlocutors, as their intersectional realities could not turn them into entrepreneurial subjects. Their class-caste, gender and familial realities uniquely coalesced with the rural economy to produce success and failure, capacity and debility—disrupting the democratizing claims of microfinance. Rural poverty and disability materiality were structurally entrenched, conditions that were further aggravated by the financialization of development. Yet, disabled subjects protected themselves by pursuing safety nets through the state and the community, and by de-linking from finance itself.

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  1. Telangana, located in southern India, gained its statehood from AP in early 2014 after a prolonged separatist movement. Largely considered to be underdeveloped, it is a semi-arid, drought-prone region.
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  2. The concept of debility was first advanced by Julie Livingston (2005) in her work on Tswana men who had been disabled by mining accidents in South Africa. As an alternative to disability, Livingston proposed the term debility to describe "impairment, lack, or loss of certain bodily abilities" and to account for "experiences of chronic illness and senescence, as well as disability per se" (2006, p. 113). Puar's analysis builds upon Livingston's work, and takes into account how neoliberal capitalism is deepening the process of debility at a structural level, whereby populations are disproportionately exposed to loss, violence and disability, resulting in collective precarity—experienced as debility.
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  3. In India, SHGs refer to small, unregistered groups of 10 to 20 members involved primarily in savings and credit activities. Members save periodically in the group and use their group savings to get microfinance loans, which are then rotated amongst the members. Various forms of bank linkages and microfinance models exist in the developing world, with SHGs as their core structure and function. Owing to their scale and outreach, microfinance self-help groups (Sanghams) are now also being used in the implementation of other rural development programs in addition to the financial activities under the APRPRP.
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  4. The percentage of persons living below the poverty line in 2011-12 has been estimated as 25.7 percent in rural areas and 13.7 percent in urban areas (GOI, 2013)
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  5. Disabled people also have lower employment rates than the general population, and the gap has consistently widened over the past 14 years. According to the World Bank 2009 survey, having a disability means men are 30 percent less likely to get a job, although the effect is lower for women (O'Keefe, 2009). Moreover, 46 percent of the households with a disabled member in rural areas reported having lost an average of 2.5 hours of workday for taking care of the disabled member.
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  6. For example, the World Bank survey finds that households with disabled members are not only more likely to be poor in terms of income and assets, but also are more probable to do worse in non-income indicator like have lower frequency of three meals a day (GOI, 2016).
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  7. $1 = approximately Rs. 60-65
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  8. This construct of capacity under neoliberalism (Puar, 2012) differs from the holistic concept of capability advanced by Amartya Sen. Sen (1989) has theorized capability as an individual's ability to maximize their potential given real opportunities, which, in the case of disability rurality, translates into a holistic development approach, including socio-economic and political wellbeing.
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  9. In India, the lower castes communities include both Dalits, referred to in the constitution as "scheduled castes and tribes," and a heterogeneous cluster of caste communities known as "other backward classes" (OBC). Dalits, who were once known as "untouchables," form the lowest-ranking caste group and have historically been understood as falling outside of the four-part varna system. An official term, OBC is used in reference to a number of caste groups that are the lowest of the "clean castes," once known as the shudras. The OBCs are largely involved in informal occupations; however, within this categorization there is an economic hierarchy, with some involved in more lucrative occupations than others. Many traditional OBC occupations are disappearing under the pressures of modernity, thus making many members occupationally vulnerable and leading them to employment in manual labor, low-paying wage work and agricultural work. Most of my interlocutors were members of the OBC.
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  10. The constitution refers separately to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes under the 89th Amendment Act of 2003. Since independence, the government has actively worked to improve the educational and professional opportunities for Dalits. While at one time considered a derogatory expression, the term Dalit has been reclaimed and repurposed by the caste community itself. The "other backward classes" (OBC) are distinct from the Dalits in part because they fall within the four-part varna system.
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Copyright (c) 2018 Vandana Chaudhry

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Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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