Twenty-year-old Bidyabati Meher says, “After my exposure to computers and internet, I realised how little weavers know about the outside world, including the market for which we make sarees. This lack of information, besides poor direct access to market, has been the reason for our exploitation. People in our community don’t value education highly either. I want to change that so that people here are empowered to improve their lives.”
Bidyabati Meher belongs to a weaver family that lives in a small village called Barpali in Odisha. Famous for hand-woven ikat sarees, the village is home to about 20,000 handloom weavers. Bidya completed her school from Barpali. Losses in the family vocation of weaving restricted her from paying her fees for further education.
But that hasn’t stopped Bidya from achieving her dreams. When Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) opened a digital resource centre in Barpali, Bidyabati was one of the first few students to enrol for digital literacy. With so much to learn and access, Bidya enrolled for digital literacy and soon became one of the most active and fast-learning students at the centre. While the classes lasted an hour, Bidya was usually seen at the centre until much later.
The weavers in Bidya’s village lacked the education, business practices, and modern technologies to earn a decent livelihood. Traditionally, most designs from weaver households in Barpali are based on memory and mental calculations, as they are throughout India. This restricted experimentation and innovation in designs. Bidyabati wanted to give the weavers freedom to experiment.
With support from the Digital Empowerment Foundation, Bidyabati became a digitally-literate weaver, allowing her to introduce various digital interventions in the community. She is part of a mobilisation team that encourages more weavers to adopt digital tools, and trains scores of youth from her community in digital literacy and design.
Today, Bidya is a digital designer and trainer at the centre where she started as a trainee less than a year ago. She not only trains other young people like her in basic digital literacy and digital designing using advanced software, but also mobilises community members to adopt digital tools and accept digital interventions to improve their livelihood.
Bidyabati’s efforts were recognised last month by the Internet Society’s 25 Under 25 platform programme. The international award aims to recognise, honour and celebrate young people who are shaping the future by using the internet as a force for good today. Bidya was one of the 25 individuals, all under the age of 25, who were felicitated in Los Angeles, USA, on September 18.
Bidya’s parents, Hemsagar Meher and Hemabati Meher, recall, “There was a time our neighbours made us feel we had made a mistake by investing in our daughter’s education. Today, she’s working for the same people and has proved them wrong.”
Let’s take a look at her journey of digital transformation so far.
Barpali gets its first Weavers’ Digital Resource Centre, established by DEF, in late 2015. Never before were computers so accessible to the people of Barpali. Like many other young people from her community, Bidyabati, who comes from a family of weavers, enrols for a digital literacy course.
Eighteen-year-old Bidya begins to learn computers for the first time. Besides her formal classes in college, she starts learning computers in her free time. YouTube, MS Paint, Facebook and shopping online widen her imagination. She is a star student.
Bidya always has a lot of questions about computers and the internet. She wonders if handloom designs made on graph paper for sarees and dupattas can be made on a computer. She starts collecting old graph papers from her home and neighbours to recreate them on MS-Paint.
Bidya starts enjoying replicating designs on computers. The trainers notice her knack and introduce her to specialised design software, such as CAD and Swati, for weaving. She becomes the first digital design student in Barpali.
Bidya’s keen interest in computer designing and community mobilisation makes her stand apart from the rest, and DEF offers her the job of a Digital Design Trainer. Middlemen begin to oppose her as they realise weavers can now bypass them for designs and market access.
With the help of resources and strategies provided by DEF, Bidya realises designing on computers is not a challenge. However, convincing weavers to adopt digital graphs or allow digital interventions are barriers. Bidya learns that in traditional communities, even small changes can feel overwhelming and change is a slow process.
She says, “I faced a lot of opposition from master weavers and criticism from my community when I started working but my parents stood by me. So many people tried to divert me from my goal, but failed.”
Tie and dye is a defining process of the ikat weaving that Odisha is famous for. Bidya discovers her persuasion skills to encourage artisans to access the Internet to look up innovative design ideas and contemporary colour schemes.
After designing her first few patterns on the computer, merging traditional art with contemporary tools, Bidya weaves her first duppata. It is also the first duppata that is ever made in Barpali, a village known exclusively for sarees until now.
The predictability and accuracy achieved through the digital graphs by Bidya leads to increase in adoption of digital tools among the youth. They also want to learn digital designing and digital marketing. The digital resource centre becomes a hub for weavers to access information services, archive traditional designs and get contemporary designs.
Bidya mobilises a group to learn photography and shoot products produced in the cluster. DEF carries out the training. Bidya even models for a few products, a bold decision given the conservative background she comes from. However, Bidya stands her ground and convinces the family.
Following a few initial photo shoots, the photographs captured are used to attract customers via social media channels, including WhatsApp. Bidya and other young people from the community are trained in using these channels for outreach and marketing.
Bidya leads DEF efforts in Barpali to teach tie-and-dye to youth from castes that traditionally do not engage in the craft. This not only leads towards breaking caste barriers, but also helps youth from various castes to work with each other and learn computers together, thus eliminating room for biases, inhibitions and stereotypes.
To expand their outreach and showcase their products directly to potential customers, Bidya exhibits a range of dupattas and sarees at a major fair in New Delhi in February 2017. The sales encourage weavers back home and they begin to trust Bidya and DEF more.
Bidya is now busy mobilising weavers in her community to showcase their products through an exclusive eCommerce portal for weavers of Barpali. While Bidya is helping to create an inventory in her village, DEF headquarters is developing an eCommerce portal to enable weavers to directly receive orders and sell products online.
In just a few months, Bidya has become a symbol of youth weavers in Barpali. She is proof of how digital interventions can impart education, improve livelihood and bring about positive behavioural and social changes. She hopes more women from her community can become leaders like her.
Bidyabati says, “Today, I’m the only woman master weaver in our cluster. People who criticised me earlier for choosing this occupation now call me ‘Lady Master Weaver’.”