In one of the 250 districts listed as the most backward in India, Sahaj is making huge strides in ensuring dignity, employment and a life to look forward to for Dahod’s tribal women.
Dahod, literally meaning “two boundaries”, is a small town at the border of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Inhabited largely by the Bhils, a tribal group, the district is listed among the 250 most backward districts of India and has been a recipient of funds from the Backward Regions Grant Funds Programme (BRGF) since 2006. The region is also infamous for its notorious activities, especially along the Indore highway. High rates of robbery and violence often also tie into areas where there is little or no opportunity for livelihood.
Two months ago, I got a chance to visit Dahod and meet one organisation that has been striving to set things right.
When I met Ranvir Sisodia, co-founder of Sahaj India, he very naturally started talking about the villages, the tribal population, the problems, and how the desire to end violence and bring meaningful employment to the people of Dahod resulted in the movement called SAHAJ. All the time that he spoke, I wished I had a voice recorder. His passion completely flowed in his words.
The route to Dahod was picturesque with varying shades of green all around. Closer to Dahod it seemed like we were driving through a lush green valley. Does agriculture not provide sustainably for livelihood? While the landscape is green in the monsoons, Ranvir quickly pointed that summers the land are dry and parched. Water is scarce and agriculture is limited to corn, which provides employment only for a couple of months. There are no industries and locals have little option but to migrate to towns.
A follower of the Gandhian way, Ranvir was certain that the way out of poverty for the villagers was to develop cottage industries. The biggest challenge, Ranvir recalls, was to convince people to learn the crafts and work for a living. The idea of an NGO was also much distorted in the minds of the locals. Their only interaction with NGOs was when certain organisations came to take some signatures and in return gave them some money. 15 years ago, Sahaj started with eight employees and twelve women artisans in one village. It has now grown to 80 employees in 60 villages, 3000 artisans and over 1600 products spanning different crafts like paper mache, jute and bamboo artifacts, quilting, beading etc.
Women weavers at work at Sahaj. Pic courtesy: Sahaj India
Ranvir personally trained the first set of women, and they now teach other members in their community. Jabeen and Ranvir also travelled to different organisations like Shantiniketan and Auroville to understand the marketing of handicrafts. Today craft from Dahod is sold in all the major cities in India, and globally as well, with international designers coming down to contribute new designs and crafts.
What have been key success factors for Sahaj? According to Ranvir, success lies in the way the organisation is run. Sahaj is a “Corporate NGO”, he says. When Sahaj started, it had some support from its parent organisation: Sadguru Water and Development Foundation, and continues to get minimal support from various government schemes like Adivasi Kalyan Yojna and Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojna. By and large, Sahaj is a self-sustaining organisation, is very much the part of the market, and runs in accordance with it. The difference between Sahaj and any other for-profit handicraft business, as Ranvir puts it, is its key asset – the artisans. If the demand for jute product in the market decreases, the for-profit business will stop sourcing from the jute artisan but Sahaj on the other hand will train the jute artisan in newer and contemporary crafts to ensure his livelihood. Fair trade and a commitment to the villagers are the core values that run through the organisation.
Sahaj products at a retail outlet. Pic courtesy: Sahaj
In the market Sahaj’s strengths lie in assured quality, contemporary designs and competitive rates. Sahaj sells affordable handicraft, thus tapping the growing middle class of consumers. Instead of selling one item as an art object for a higher rate and thereby bring income to just one artisan, Sahaj believes in selling 100 items at lower rates and thus bringing livelihood to 100 artisans.
I also got a chance to go into the villages and interact with the working women artisans. Most of the women collect a week’s worth of raw material from the main office and return the finished product the week after. This allows them to work from home, look after kids and family and help in the farms when required. We met Kanta Ben who has been with Sahaj for over 10 years. She proudly recalls how Sahaj not only helped her pay off her loans with the local money lender (who was charging her 120% interest) but the regular income has also enabled her to build her own home and also marry off her 3 children.
Just like Kanta Ben, thousands of women have found pride and a higher social status after joining Sahaj. Their message board rightly says:
“Together we have made a difference
Together we will make greater difference”
SAHAJ is a fair trade organisation working for empowerment of tribal women through art and craft based activities, providing opportunities and choices in life towards an equitable society. Visit online: www.sahajindia.org