Clad in his indigo-dyed shawl, Samajhdar Chacha (wise uncle) is a popular figure among the women and children in the Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts of Uttarakhand. When he comes around, the women greet him with a ‘Namaste’ and a smile, while some even go ahead and shake hands. Even the children have grown to love him, and the initial awkwardness around him is replaced by a sense of excitement – because when he visits, there’s always something new to learn.
Samajhdar Chacha is a man on a mission. Or rather, a puppet on a mission. He was born of my need to raise awareness on concepts like climate change, rainwater harvesting, and pollution, among those who are possibly the most directly affected by these events. Unlike in Rajasthan, here in the villages of Kumaon, puppets are a novel concept, and hence, he is also my champion when it comes to talking about green livelihood opportunities.
These conversations, as I discovered during my 13-month SBI Youth For India Fellowship, are especially important as most of the men in the villages have migrated to cities to make a living, leaving the women behind to support themselves and their children.
Irregular rainfall and the unavailability of irrigation facilities have forced many women farmers to leave their land uncultivated. But Samajhdar Chacha outlines a bright new alternative; the cultivation of natural dye yielding crops like indigo that are not water intensive, and which can generate an income. This is an appropriate choice, as globally, there has been an increased interest in natural dyes due to the environmental concerns and health issues related to the use of synthetic dyes.
Chacha also educates them on the indirect benefits of indigo farming – the revival and preservation of traditional handicrafts, a good way to provide livelihoods to local artisans. Thus, these women in the rural areas of Kumaon need not be mere consumers; they are being empowered to be the sentinels of our natural resources.
Though it’s still too early to see a change in the lives of people, the glimmer in their eyes when they eagerly discuss the concepts of the world around them, and the enthusiasm they have shown to grow natural dye yielding plants, is a sign of hope for a better tomorrow and I am grateful to have been a part of this journey with them.
Since their children also participate animatedly in SHG (Self Help Group) activities, the seeds of consciousness for a sustainable future, are sown in them, too.
On a more personal level, engaging with these women every day through the Fellowship has helped me learn too – everything from making solar lanterns and working in the farms, to natural dyeing and public speaking, even puppetry; I made Samajhdar Chacha myself, a process that helped me unleash my creativity!
However, the greatest learning for me, really, is that I can be so much ‘more’, and my inspiration for this is these women whom I meet every day – single mothers juggling housework, farming, jobs and bringing up their kids, all at once.