Thousands of migrants from Pakistan, who settled in Chohtan block of Barmer after the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, faced financial difficulties due to limited opportunities for work in the desert area. The societal norms didn’t allow women from this Meghwal community to step out for work, but they knew kashidakari, a type of embroidery that creates natural motifs with multi colored threads and beads.
Their fortunes changed sometime in the mid-80s when Lata Kachhawaha brought in trainers from India’s premier design institutes to teach them new designs that could be used in clothing and linen. And, there was no looking back.
Today, over 40,000 women in Rajasthan, including Pakistani refugees, are earning a living through traditional handicrafts, animal husbandry and agriculture, thanks to Kachhawaha’s efforts.
While women knew some traditional designs, experts from National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, NIFT Delhi and Institute of Craft and Design, Jaipur held around 50 design workshops with them and developed 250 new designs in line with consumer demand. “Around 12,000 women have been trained in kashidakari and patchwork,” says 68-year-old Kachhawaha, whose broken engagement over her dusky complexion changed the course of her life.
She has been the driving force behind the Society for Uplift of Rural Economy (SURE) that was set up by her mentor Magraj Jain in 1990. SURE has skilled the women and linked them to buyers who give regular orders, resulting in stable income. It also organises exhibitions within India and abroad to give artists exposure to the latest trends besides popularising the crafts.
“We have held exhibitions in Germany, Japan, Singapore and Sri Lanka. This helps women gain confidence and get an understanding of the market and consumer preferences,” she says.
Learning & Earning
Leading outlets such as FabIndia, Ikea and Rang Sutra source clothes and home furnishings from the women associated with SURE. The women work three to four hours in their free time and earn between Rs 3000 and Rs 5000 per month. “For women who are not literate and have never stepped out of their homes, learning a new skill and earning money is a big achievement. When I started working with them, they were earning Rs 200 per month,” Kachhawaha adds.
While she has improved the lives of thousands of people, it has not been an easy path. When Lata began her work in 1985, the situation in villages was very harsh. People were suspicious of outsiders and skeptical about a woman telling them about livelihood, health, education, she recollects.
“There was no electricity or telephones. Government services had not penetrated. The hamlets were remote and there were no schools or hospitals. People would not bathe or wash clothes for several days,” she says. Reaching some of the remote hamlets was a challenge.
But that did not deter Lata as she continued her work. Her organisation SURE has also set up 3,000 self-help groups with 14,000 women who are involved in animal husbandry and agriculture. They sell milk to the local dairies and goats for meat besides cultivating cash crops like jeera and isabgol (psyllium husk). It helps them earn around Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 per month.
SURE has helped another 14,000 women in Jodhpur set up kitchen gardens and grow plants such as amla (Indian gooseberry), ber (Indian plum) and pomegranate, earning around Rs 5,000 per month.
It was a chance meeting with Jain that set the future course of her life. At 22, she had completed her post graduation and was pursuing law and was engaged to be married. But stray comments on her complexion by her fiancé angered her. "We were both educated and from good families. But I did not like his narrow-mindedness.” And that’s when she resolved not to get married.
After her parents’ demise, she visited Barmer with her brother. It was her brother who introduced her to Jain, who was working to provide stable sources of income to villagers. Kachhawaha was inspired by Jain's vision and threw herself into social service. Since the past 40 years she has been working with women to provide them with livelihoods, improve literacy and health, educating village children, including those with special needs.
Her own experience with women in Rajasthan continued to inspire her to work in newer areas. She recalls a village sojourn. “I woke up early one morning. It was still dark outside. The women of the house were going out. They said they were going to answer nature’s call. They had no water and they said they used sand to clean-up. Some even used sand during their periods,” says Kachhawaha.
“Women had to travel for hours to fetch water for daily chores. We taught the women to build tankas or tanks to store water and reduce their labour,” she says.
Education & Health
The Non Government Organisation (NGO) opened education camps at two locations for girls where they were given basic training in math and Hindi and were later admitted to regular schools. They also opened two residential schools where children of migrant labourers could study while their parents went to other states for work. SURE also has a residential school in Barmer for the deaf-mute and visually challenged children.
Many of these children are now teachers or employed in small jobs, she says.
SURE also helped train 250 local midwives in 18 villages in Chohtan block of Barmer district. They were trained on safe deliveries, immunisation and hygiene. Besides, SURE’s work includes awareness generation around TB, malaria, diarrhoea, importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene.
Jain was awarded a Padma Shri in 1989 while Kachhawha has also received several awards including the International Prize for Women Creativity in Rural Areas by the Switzerland government and the Mahila Shakti award and Senior Citizens Service award by the Rajasthan government.
The NGO, which has an annual turnover of Rs 8 crore, now has around 65 members and works in Barmer, Jodhpur, Jalore, Jaisalmer and Tonk. It gets donations and contributions from individuals, government and companies.
SURE is also working in Jammu and Kashmir with Dabur where they are carrying out renovation and sanitation drive in schools. They also did a project in Himachal Pradesh with JSW group to train 1000 girls about personal hygiene and nutrition. Good work, surely, knows no boundaries.
(Mona Singh is a Rajasthan-based freelance writer and wanderer)