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Rediff.com  » Business » From Illinois to Jawhar: Shriya helps tribal women make a living

From Illinois to Jawhar: Shriya helps tribal women make a living

Last updated on: June 18, 2015 16:50 IST

India is witnessing a radical transformation where highly qualified youngsters are giving up cushy jobs to make a difference in the lives of people in rural areas.

Manu A B/Rediff.com tracks the stories of some of the remarkable people who are working in remote villages to change the profile of rural India.

Earlier stories:

After doing her Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Shriya Rangarajan is now working on improving the living conditions of tribal women in remote villages of Maharashtra. 

Image: Shriya Rangarajan in Jawhar.

Shriya Rangarajan has come a long way from the comforts of the western world to a remote village in Maharashtra where people struggle to make both ends meet and live in sub-human conditions.

Struck by the poverty and desolation of the villagers in Jawhar in Thane district -- many of whom are really talented in arts and craft -- Shriya is now training them to create beautiful pieces of paper-quilled jewellery as a better source of income.

She is already in touch with online stores and other retailers who have expressed their willingness to provide a platform for selling these products.

  

Image: Shriya (centre) trains women to make jewellery.

Shriya did her BTech from NIT, Warangal, and then pursued her Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after which she chose to come back and join the movement to build a better India. The country's myriad problems have been a trigger for her to work in the rural development sector.

Instead of being in a cushy corporate environment, she looked forward to an experience in rural India to understand its pulse and take small initiatives that may help those who are untouched by development.

The SBI Youth for India fellowship, which she won, was one of the best platforms for a stint in remote parts of the country. She was assigned a project in Jawhar, Maharashtra, a predominantly tribal area where she has been working with the support of an NGO, BAIF.

Image: Women in Dhanoshi did not have many options to earn extra income.

Shriya found that women in Dhanoshi and Nandgoan villages, who lived on meagre earnings from agriculture and daily wage labour, were keen on an alternate source of income.

Being largely unskilled and given their poor levels of literacy, there were not many options open to them. Sriya started by teaching them simple jewellery making through paper quilling as well as basic maths and financial training.

Though I tried to teach them to make terracotta jewellery which they had initially expressed an interest in, it was too tedious and time-consuming since many of them have small kids too. Then I switched to paper quilling. They expressed greater interest in this, it was supposed to be just for practice but which they found way easier. I also taught them some basic maths like profit-loss as well as record-keeping as it was is essential for them to learn to sell their products,” says Shriya.

As most many of the women only had basic literacy levels, it was a daunting task to make them understand even simple maths. But they turned out to be very good at jewellery-making. They could see the designs and pick up the skill fast, were willing to experiment, and created a number of designs of their own after being trained. They ended up making fine pieces of jewellery, which were well received at exhibitions.

 

I have initiated talks with an online store, which has agreed to buy products made by these women. I am also looking at building marketing linkages for their products in cities. Currently, they are available at a local Warli artist’s store in Jawhar,” says Shriya.

A full day’s wage for a woman labourer is just Rs 100 while net household incomes are often less than Rs 3000-4000 a month. With Shriya’s project coming through, she wants to make sure that each woman gets at least Rs 40 per hour’s work. As a part of their exposure to the world outside, Shriya took six members of the self-help group to Mumbai to meet the suppliers of goods. 

Image: The village women went to Mumbai to buy materials for jewellery.

It was a great experience taking them by local trains. It was a bit scary because I was sure I would lose one of them by the end of the day, but funny as well. A couple of them who had never been to the city were awestruck by Mumbai. Once I told them how to talk with shopkeepers and suppliers, they quickly learnt how to deal with them, collect business cards and talk through the supply details with relevant questions,”says Shriya.

With Shriya’s support, the women participated in two exhibitions of their products.

Image: Women in Jawhar being taught basic maths.

Earlier, Shriya also had made an attempt to mobilise Warli artists to make them understand the value of art exposure. Warli art, which was originally initiated by women, now seems to be dominated by the men. 

Warli paintings have a unique story to tell but most of the printed motifs used in textiles and other products etc do not convey the real story. I travelled across 25 villages and made a database of all the Warli artists I could find, but it was really difficult to convince them to work together. If they stay united and get better commercial exposure it will benefit the entire community,” says Shriya. 

The pace of development in India is very slow, laments Shriya, and the everyday struggles of people living in this area seem to have no end. 

Everyday women and children spend hours carrying water across two-three kilometres. It is heartbreaking to see the drudgery. Toilets and bathrooms built in the villages are often unused because of both cultural issues as well as the additional effort required to carry water and use them. It would have been better if toilets were built near the source of water. A lot of things can be run smoothly if planned well," says Shriya.

 

Lack of planning and improper implementation have led to more stagnation in villages.

There is a complete disconnect between policy-makers, administrators and ground realities. Each seems to be in conflict with the other, and as a result everything takes much longer to shape up,” says Shriya.

For instance, in Jawhar, people sometimes end up waiting for two hours for a bus; filling water is another time-consuming exercise, hours are wasted in utter darkness if there is no electricity. Lack of infrastructure and efficiency in the system lead to several hours being wasted on mundane things. How can students devote time to studies when they are caught in a web of problems,” asks Shriya.

There is also a general perception that if you give money to villagers their problems will be solved. She is highly critical of the government doling out subsidies and leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Money helps, but it doesn't help to solve their problems, she says.

 

It has been a grounding experience for a city-bred person like me. I had prepared myself for the worst but things were not as bad as they are portrayed,” says Shriya.

Unlike the general perception of girls not being encouraged to study, here, despite all the hardships, there are a fair number of women and children who do think of a better future. “I came across a confident girl who scored 85 per cent in her 10th standard and is studying science with hopes of becoming a doctor,” says Shriya, who believes that the students in rural areas have great potential. “If they get the right opportunities and exposure, they can really come up well in life,” she adds.

Language is a huge barrier for these tribal students. “The lack of qualified teachers, poverty and lack of facilities make matters worse for them,” explains Shriya.

Shriya plans to continue her work in the development sector. As an urban planner, she hopes to put into practice small ideas, take baby steps to bring about changes in cities and villages.

 

She hopes to see cleaner cities and better infrastructure in India. “Building smart cities is a good idea: it harnesses technology and facilitates better dialogue between people and their places to make things more efficient. So it’s a good initiative. But India has to improve on a range of things from proper drainage, good transport, better restructuring of the informal workforce, the list goes on,” says Shirya.

Education is one field close to her heart. In future, she hopes to be able to contribute to making school-level education more kinesthetic and application-oriented and university education more research-oriented and productive. 

Indians are still obsessed with engineering and medicine, with very few opting for non-traditional fields; also, there are not many avenues for students to pursue good research. The research output is minimal, which needs to be changed,” says Shriya.

To know more about Shriya’s work, mail her at shriya.rangarajan@gmail.com

If you wish to join the movement to bring about a change in rural India or would like to contribute in any way, you can send a mail to shuvajit@youthforindia.org

Manu A B