Going on a field visit and meeting with the artisans gives one a real sense on the kind of backgrounds they come from, their reality, their challenges and what keeps them going everyday.
Our CSR project with Jindal Steel Ltd (JSL) entailed working with a village community in Orissa to help uplift their skill levels, both in tailoring and a local craft, Golden Grass. As part of the work, I traveled to a place called Jajpur in Orissa, approx 140kms away from the capital, where I had to assess the current skill levels of the women in the community around the JSL factory. These were local women of the community who had inherited some of these skills over the years, but had never been through a professional training for the same. I was accompanied by a designer, who’s primary role was to train these women on design and finishing, so as to increase the marketability of these products, thereby improving their livelihood.
Most of the women stitch for a living. They stitch garments on a daily basis and sell them for Rs100 or less per piece in their local markets. As for women involved in golden grass, they take a day to make a basket and sell it for Rs30 or less. Their average income for a month is Rs1000.
Training started on a day that happened to be a big local festival there, Shivratri, where all the women fast until the break of dawn. They all looked lovely, wearing their best and displaying their precious jewels. They didn’t look deprived or unhappy with their circumstances. At least on that special day, they seemed to have left all their worries back home and all they looked was, pretty! They quickly understood why we were there, and it didn’t take them long to start the work with full enthusiasm and energy.
The first few days saw a bit of chaos where the women were excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because they were getting an opportunity to learn something new, and nervous because they had to perform to stay in the program.
I realized one thing. Whether one is working with a small village community or a team within a big corporation, organized competition works everywhere. Keeping this in mind, we organized a test for elimination to ensure that the women were giving in their best to be part of the program and that one had to qualify to be trained. Truly incredible to see how the ownership and importance of something increases when you’ve ‘earned’ it. As expected, the preliminary round did actually increase the level of seriousness in the program, where conducting the training became far more effective by the second day.
The training was rather rigorous where these women worked from 10am to 5pm. Upon seeing the amount of detail that goes into tailoring and golden grass, I realized that one needs a lot of patience to pursue each of these crafts. This was when a question struck me. What if they don’t wish to pursue any of these crafts? What if they don’t like being patient? Would they much rather do work that is fast paced? What if they don’t enjoy stitching clothes? The answer was simple. They didn’t have the ‘choice’. They never had it.
Shangeeta, the designer, was incredible with the way she handled the women. Asserting the right amount of authority for them to perform well, while conveniently striking personal conversations to maintain the human touch. She did it with such ease. She also ensured that the products made by the women for the first few days were easy and high on usability, so as to keep the motivation levels intact. As the days went by, I saw what a challenge it was to keep the momentum going with a lot of the women. That’s when her experience of working in Fab India for close to 15 years came to use, where she knew exactly what to do and how to handle tricky situations. On her suggestion, we divided the tailoring group into 5, smaller groups, with one team leader for each group. Each team leader was given team members with varied skill levels, so as to ensure equitability, and tasks for the subsequent weeks.
All it took was a little bit of organization and instill a sense of teamwork, and the results were for us to see.
By the end of the week, seeing the women progress was heartening. From cushion covers to hair bands to buttons to tablemats, each of the women had products to take back home everyday. For us, it was the pride in their eyes, which we wanted them to take home. Upon requesting a few samples to take back to Delhi, we were overwhelmed by how many women offered their pieces of work. This was a moment of recognition for them and a ray of hope that somewhere somebody will reward them for their efforts.