By Anwesha Dhar:
When I was a child, we used to have Art and Craft classes in school. I was quite terrible at it – In fact, I was one of the very few kids in the history of mankind who managed to flunk drawing in kindergarten. There was no hope for me to develop any artistic talent at all. Years later, when I went to teach children at a shelter home, the first gift I received from a student was a paper frog. I was really fascinated by how something made of paper folded fancifully, can catch one’s attention so strongly. Later, while continuing as a teacher in the same shelter home, I saw paper-quilling being taught to the kids as a part of life skills. I often wondered how something like that can help kids to earn their livelihoods on growing up. It was just a hobby, after all. And then, after years of reeling under this confusion, I finally met Shriya.
Shriya grew up in Dubai; material comforts were not alien to her. After completing college in Chennai, she took the decision of shifting from engineering to development studies. This proved to be a stepping stone for her. “I knew I wanted to do something for the development sector in India, but I did not know what”, she said. That was till she chanced upon the SBI Youth for India Fellowship, while looking for jobs online. She took a chance and before she knew it, she was stationed in a remote village in Maharashtra. Once stationed, Shriya started working on her project. This project involved several communities in the village coming together and working as one composite unit to earn an additional income. “I was earlier working with Warli artists to try and promote their Warli art and connect them to markets.” However, she soon found herself grappling with obstacles and had to abandon the project midway. “There is a lot of fake and printed Warli in the market which is very easy to replicate by the people outside the community. The artists are spread out geographically and I struggled with community mobilization.”
But this initial hindrance only worked to strengthen her resolve. She undertook a second project, this time with a small village community to prevent it from becoming too large and unwieldy. The project involves making paper quill jewellery and selling it as a means of an additional source of income. Shriya recounts, “The second project was not really related to the first. There are women self help groups here who are seeking an income source in addition to agriculture. It had to be something that they could do for a few hours each day in addition to their farming or daily wage work – something that requires minimal investment, which needs little or no skill.” The women earn a hundred rupees as daily wage labourers and they get work only once or twice a month. That would tantamount to 4000 for two people per household. “Where they are currently getting 5 rupees an hour for labour, we are pricing the jewellery such that they get at least 45-50 rupees per hour.”
Also, the only raw material needed being some paper, the cost of production per household hardly exceeds a few hundred rupees. This worked towards removing any financial impediments there may be for the villagers to start working on a new project to increase their income.
This time, the project being well thought out, the response was much better than the previous attempt. Since it is less time consuming and involves very less production cost, the villagers have readily accepted her project. Shriya also credits BAIF MITTRA and Youth for India, two NGOs that have been helping her in her work, “They provide a lot on field support: connecting us with people, logistics, finance if required and so on.”
Running away from reality is not a solution, Shriya believes. One must fight it, even if it’s just one day at a time. “I do not know how long this will go on or whether they will still enjoy it once my fellowship is over”, Shriya said, “But we must try. We can never stop trying.”
Realities are not always pleasant. In fact, most of the times they are too scathing to live with. However, what this story has taught me is that without jumping into the fray, we cannot root out the problems. People like Shriya work, fall and then rise up-just to see that for some people, this harsh reality becomes a little more acceptable.