In July 2016, I resigned from my job as a systems engineer. Today, I am living in a village to help 45 rural women, struggling below the poverty line, start their own enterprise.
I have always wanted to do something more meaningful in life, irrespective of money and comfort. I got this opportunity with the SBI Youth for India fellowship, 2016–17. After a brief induction held in Pune in August 2016, I was sent to my designated NGO – the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India). I would be working in the Mandvi cluster (which is a block in Surat district).
The place where I chose to work was Karachka. A small village with a population of 1500, Karachka is located in the interior-most part of the district of Surat (the diamond cutting-polishing hub, and one of the fastest growing cities in the world) in southern Gujarat. Away from the glamour of the city and the glitter of diamonds, lurks the lives of more than a thousand people who are not the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ of the socio-economic development of our times.
These people are landless labourers who earn as low as ₹80 a day and work in the nearby fields, getting work up to a maximum of only 25 days a month – and almost no work in the summers. The standard of living remains extremely low, and hunger is a major problem.
Working with these people has made me believe that indeed, life is not fair. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer by the day. Though Gujarat has always been a well-governed state and the government is doing its part, even the penetration of government schemes remains extremely low.
These people belong to the Halpati community, one of the scheduled tribes in the country, and work in the nearby fields of people of upper castes. In return for their work, they are not even paid the bare minimum wage per day of unskilled labour – which is close to ₹300 a day – and since the village is in a remote part of the city, connectivity is minimal and finding alternate work is extremely difficult.
To understand the problem better, I chose to survey all the 300 homes in the village and after lot of effort; I submitted a 30-page report to my NGO. The issues which I mentioned in my report were:
1. The village was almost eight kilometres away from the main town. Though the connecting roads were in good condition, transport facilities were extremely limited. Only one bus travelled between the city and the village. This, coupled with the high level of illiteracy, left the community with few employment opportunities.
2. Consequently, the people here are bound to work in the nearby fields. These fields belong to upper caste people, all of whom are NRIs. The labourers are paid wages as low as ₹80 a day, compared to the daily minimum wage of ₹350, specified by the government.
3. Land-holdings among the Halpatis are nearly non-existent. This has also lead to the severe lack of business opportunities here.
However, I was determined to improve the daily earnings of these people. Hence, I chose a business model which required minimum space and could easily be started in the village.
After receiving help from the local women and my NGO, we have set up heavy machinery to grind spices. We then sell the spices in areas around the village and in towns, nearby.
We have even set up stalls at posh market places to help ensure maximum sales. Moreover, the fact that even the women are earning good profits satisfies me highly. In fact, we are planning to get a license from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
To know more about my work and the Halpati people, please visit here.