No Longer 'marginal'

Across India, Devika Krishnan’s business units save people STUCK in vulnerable predicaments 

By Sujata Devadas, July 25, 2018

Lying below subsistence

“Our whole purpose was not wildlife at all.” 

And yet, just by association, from saving tigers with her first project near Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in 1993, craft design and business consultant Devika Krishnan’s resolution to help set up autonomous micro-business units to raise outcasts up from below the bottom of the curve multiplied and dots India. Whether as a commitment to Kashmir or in Bangalore’s notorious slums and shanties, it is now her métier. 

Bakarwal rootless nomads in the Kashmir valley, marginalised by the marginalised.

“Relocated, alienated, marginalised by the marginalised, rootless nomads, financially illiterate - from project to project, the central predicament or vulnerability of those lying below the subsistence curve differs each time. I don’t split hairs. I equip them with craftsmanship skills AND financial literacy.  Each of these businesses have an e-commerce portal that shows what the resulting competence and confidence has produced.  They manufacture global-level quality products and own a business.”

Saving the vulnerable

Bengal tigers faced obliteration in the private and exclusive hunting reserve of the Jaipur royal family at Sawai Madhopur, south-eastern Rajasthan state of India. When traditional black fire pottery in that area also collapsed, Lyla Tyabji, founder of Delhi’s Dastkar organisation assigned newly recruited industrial design graduate, ceramics specialist Devika to find ways of reviving it. 

By this time, the nationalisation of Jaipur royal family’s private hunting reserve into the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in 1974 resulted in shifting thousands of villagers from this forest to barren land or were left in other villages to reduce tiger-human conflict. They were expected to adjust after losing their ancestral home and their former way of life. 

“Scream your heart out, put up the tallest fence, give shoot-at-sight orders, enforce every law in the book to stop a man from entering the forest,” says Devika, “but without the money to buy gas, they will still enter the forest to cut wood, risking being shot or electrocuted.  Address the human plight; only then are the tigers protected.”

Altering circumstances

Understanding and grasping the precarious situation of these people, Dastkar’s chief Layla formed Dastkar Ranthambore to teach rural women craft skills and finance their homes with that income. It broke their reliance on the forest.  As their trainer, Devika witnessed at first hand how by ameliorating the distraught circumstances of relocated people, ironically, they promoted the survival of Bengal tigers.

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Cots, clothes, cuddly toys, trendy bags with recycled material, leather footwear, traditional black pottery, exquisite mandana wall and floor paintings, hand fans, pot holders, patchwork, block printing, bandhini tie-and-dye wear, sequin work, lac bangles at affordable prices for the urban elite attracted global customers. Male and female artisans smile with satisfaction when shoppers go berserk. Devika continues developing new products at Dastkar Ranthambore, doing business planning, sales projection and training new craft groups.

Marginalised by the marginalised
 

Many such projects have sprouted across India. Dr.Lalitha Reji spotted the traditional geometric embroidery heritage of nomadic Lambadi tribal women migrants from Gujarat and Rajasthan states who settled in Sittlingi valley, Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu and revived it in 2011. This business enterprise, ‘Porgai’, run by 55 Lambadi women made 42 lakhs last year.

When friends and acquaintances request to see a project, Devika arranged tours. One such Kashmir tour in June 2010 gave rise to the Shepherd Crafts project. 

Nila akka's memory of traditional  geometric  embroidery brings Sittlingi women an income under the brand name 'Porgai' now.

A Kashmiri Sikh family offered sponsorship to help the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes that camp their tents along the meadows next to Lidder river, close to their own ancestral home in Pahalgam, a small town in Anantnag district.

“These tribes live on the fringe of human society,  marginalised by the stereotyped, suspected, persecuted, marginalised Kashmiris, untouched by literacy, free school education or healthcare services.  At times visible, these nomads are most times inconspicuous.” Devika explains.

ONE home with livestock, no identity

“Gujjar families share their home with their goats : just a wooden chest separates the two spaces in their traditional mud and log hut lodged in the midst of tall forest trees.” she continues. “As required by the weather, the tribe migrates with their livestock up and down the southern Kashmir mountains. The Bakarwals travel 300 kms further along the Chenab and Jhelam rivers, in the Himalayan range. Neither tribe registers births. So in official records, they have no identity.”

The nomadic Bakarwal tribe roaming the Himalayan range

Free hand resourcefulness
 

Amazed to discover that generations of Bakarwal women knew a free hand embroidering and braiding technique, Devika and Kashmiri Sikh Ramneek Kaur chose it as the resource on which to set up the Shepherd Crafts project in October 2011. Grooming tribal women towards a good work culture began in Feb 2012.

Sponsored by Ramneek, 4 years built up the project’s foundation. It accorded 56 Bakarwal families an Indian identity.  A plan to do a travelling exhibition worth Rs.20 lakh through Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata in the 2014 November to February 2015 winter months took shape.  The test run with Rs.1 lakh worth products in December 2013 at Plantation House Boutique in Leela Galleria, Bangalore, met with resounding success.

To attract wider attention to the Bakarwal story, Bakarwal women began creating products for this travelling exhibition.

Impacted by Kashmir’s worst flood

With uncanny conviction, in mid-August 2014, the Bakarwal tribe elders stated that the weather was sure to change. They closed their Pahalgam camp and moved to another location much earlier than migrating to warmer plains in September/October as they usually did.

Kashmir experienced its worst flood on 4th September 2014. “Shops that sold threads, fabrics and raw material to Shepherd Crafts went under.  28 feet of water submerged Ramneek’s home.  All stock built up for the travelling exhibition became worthless.” In ankle deep water, Devika who was in Kashmir to put the finishing touches prior to the travelling exhibition, took the last flight out.

Dastkar organisation helped sell bits and pieces untouched by the flood at its actual price at an exhibition in November 2014.

2018: stuck without reason : SQUARE ONE

Today the whole Shepherd Crafts project remains deadlocked by perfectly purposeless pointless incidents of aggression, from September 2014 floods onwards, stopping tribal women from meeting at a hut in Langanbal village to embroider and earn. Because:

  • winter followed Kashmir’s worst flood.  Once the snow melted in March 2015, the project’s founders reassessed, replanned, repaired and reconstructed it.

  • better tourism in 2016 April, May and June summer vacation brought Rs.1.5 lakhs per month in sales revenue, an annual income Rs. 7 lakhs, just inside the limited scope of Pahalgam. 

  • Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died January 07, 2016.  Volatile political unrest and wrangling hampered Shepherd Crafts workforce to produce well below capacity.

  • security forces shoot Hizbul Commander Burhan Wani dead in Anantnag District on 7th July 2016. The ensuing turbulent situation and meagre tourism makes it unsafe to work at the Shepherd Crafts hut.

  • GST implementation in July 2017 raises zero to 5% tax on handicrafts to 18 to 28%. It is lower now at 12%, much higher than 0%.

  • Gujarat pilgrims are shot by militants on 10th July 2017 in Anantnag.  The area is cordoned off after combing operations, ‘encounters’ and political disruptions. 300 Indian army troops camp on the Sikh family’s land with the Shepherd Crafts hut for 6 months to prevent another militant assault. The hut cannot be used as a workplace.

  • Shepherd Crafts workforce is down to 30% by October 2017. Some women settled at Langanbal village resolve to work through the winter.  

  • good April 2018 tourist season brings in Rs.1.5 lakhs.

  • editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat Bukhari is shot down in June 2018. The state govt. collapses and the militancy in south Kashmir continues. 

 

Shepherd Crafts would be a thriving project in a state that functions with normalcy. Due to the lack of 300 working days, Shepherd Crafts project now faces liquidation.

Commitment to Kashmir, CtoK

Two C2K beneficiaries; the work they do 

No private enterprise, a stranded tourism industry, rampant unemployment causes dismay in educated capable Kashmiri youth.  Lucrative commercial projects form the trust bridge to remove them from the centre of conflict, giving them peaceful ways of living in their home state. Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK) Trust has this view.

 

 With the assistance of The Craft Development Institute in Srinagar, it identified 12 Kashmiri craftsmen running a stand-alone business in 2012 to provide them with designs, business and entrepreneurial skills, market linkages too to own and run micro-enterprises profitably furthering employment opportunities in Kashmir. The 2014 flood adversely affected the initial 12 beneficiaries. 5 of them achieved success. 

 

60% of the families in Kashmir are engaged in crafts and hand made goods. Along with 4 other designers, Devika joined CtoK last September to add 25 more artisans as beneficiaries. CtoK will hold its first exhibition in Delhi in November; a second one in Bangalore in December.

Joy@Work upcycles trash

Alienated migrant women subjected to ruthless exploitation in slums and shanties needed their circumstance altered. So Devika invested 2 lakhs in 2013 at Nallurhalli in Bangalore, to lift them out.

That Joy@Work business unit broke even in the first retail season and returned her invested capital over the next two years. “11 women trained in non-traditional crafts, band together to create new home décor and fashion accessories with low value solid waste that have no recycling value and end up in landfills (plastic straws, old clothes, juice cartons) in 2 or 3 days. Their proficiency in the upcycling science enabled them to train the next Joy@Work unit in Odisha.” says Devika.

Joy@Work team and their products

Nallurhalli Joy@Work earned Rs.6.3 lakhs last year. Out of 11 members, 6 are regular in creating the upcycled craft, do the inventories and bills, the book-keeping and sell their products through India’s first upcycled store, Rimagined, owned by Shailaja Rangarajan.  “Based on the quantity produced per day by artisans with upcycling craft experience, products are priced such that each member in the collective earns Rs.200/- daily.” explained Devika.

Solving it

Through her occupation, Devika is connected to a huge underprivileged, underserved big vulnerable community. “The whole purpose is to address their predicament and vulnerability context. Money is just one tool with which people figure out their self-worth.If that also accords a social network, respect and protection, my job is done.”

Devika Krishnan

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