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Home > India > Business > Special


Prisoners turn entrepreneurs in Tihar

Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi | March 15, 2008

Mohammed Ehsan stands next to his weaving loom as he poses for the photographer. Working eight hours for six days every week, the 40-year-old father of two weaves 12 metres of cloth each day.

"The daily target," he says, slouching over to take a closer look at the yarn, "is to create seven metres of fabric, but I invariably end up making more." He's been in a good mood ever since the recent visit of his wife and children from Moradabad.

He speaks so softly that I have to lean across the rickety stool on which I'm perched to hear him more clearly. For someone who's not a weaver by profession but is still good at it, circumstances, he says, forced him to pick up the craft.

Though he's been quiet through most of the interview, he eventually smiles faintly. "In the outside world," he says, clutching some thread in his bare hands, "I'm a dacoit. In here," he looks into empty space, "I'm a weaver."

Having spent close to three hours in Tihar Jail, South Asia's largest prison, spread generously over 400 acres of -- surprisingly --  green land, and close to 30 minutes with Ehsan, we learn some of life's most basic yet important lessons: a) unlike Ehsan, we're lucky not to be mere statistics buried in prison files, we are individuals; and b) every moment of our existence allows us the luxury to experience freedom.

But what we also learn is the success story of Tihar's factory, the wheels of which are being turned by the 520-odd convicts housed in the prison's jail number two.

The numbers are fascinating: 1,200 packets of bread are made everyday at the factory, besides 300 kilos of chips and 500 kilos of different sorts of namkeen manufactured every day at the factory's bakery unit along with the 90 kilos of biscuits which are baked in the oven in one go.

An initiative that began in the '60s, it is only over the last decade that TJ's has become a brand to be reckoned with at least in and around the capital. "I've been here since 1973 and I know how this factory has invariably changed lives for the better," says A R Thakur, instructor with the Tihar factory.

Despite having retired, he keeps coming back to teach and manage the inmates who work here. Fondly called Guruji by the residents of this jail, Thakur remembers a couple who were trained in the kitchen and bakery unit. "Both were in jail for different crimes but today they are law-abiding citizens running a modest dhaba in Delhi," he says.

Time was when what prisoners at Tihar Jail produced fetched a modest income of Rs 2.5 lakh per annum. Compared to that, the current revenue is a whopping Rs 4.5 crore (Rs 45 million) , the highest turnover Tihar has seen. "This year," says Thakur, gloating with pride, "we are targeting revenues of at least Rs 6 crore (Rs 60 million)."

While inmates like Ehsan make this a possibility by working non-stop from 8 am to 4 pm, authorities at Tihar, confirms Thakur, are working to make the target of Rs 6 crore a reality. For starters, by September 2008, the Tihar factory will get its ISO 9002 certification, a stamp of approval for its A-grade quality products.

Around the same time, it will also get its patented TJ's logo, mostly seen on the factory's packaged bakery products and recycled paper goods from its paper unit. The daily wages for prisoners too has increased from the Rs 10-12-15 bracket (for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labour) to Rs 40-44-52 respectively, 25 per cent of which will be reserved for Tihar's Victim Welfare Fund.

There are also plans to take up some space in the new Dilli Haat, coming up in Delhi's Pitampura area. Vivek Kumar Tripathi, superintendent, central jail (Tihar), confirms that close to Rs 1.5 lakh will be spent this year alone in revamping Tihar Haat, the place outside the prison where finished goods from the factory are displayed.

One of the major contributors to the success story of the Tihar factory has been the India International Trade Fair. At IITF 2007, products worth Rs 2.25 lakh from the factory were sold and orders worth Rs 5 lakh booked.

These included candles, paper products, foodstuff, clothes (including shirts and kurtas), and furniture. "Our carpentry unit is very successful and prisoners are already working overtime to finish an order of 50,000 school desks for the education department," says Tripathi, pointing his finger at a bookshelf in the room also prepared by the carpentry section.

"The chairs on which you're sitting have been made at the factory," he adds, while urging us to try some cookies from the factory's bakery unit that saw a record turnover in sales over the last three years, from Rs 75.23 lakh in 2004-05 to Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) in 2006-07.

In the bakery unit, the aromas are appetising, to say the least, and we find ourselves chatting with Vinay in impeccable English. "I was in college when I came here years ago," he says, fine lines clearly visible on his face, an indication of the years gone by.

And it's while searching his face that I discover the reason for the factory's incredible success. Tihar Jail doesn't boast of the best equipment, world-class technicians or workers.

Ironically, everyone who works in the factory's varied units (weaving, carpentry, stitching, bakery, paper-making, and pottery) are murderers, dacoits or kidnappers.

These are individuals who have committed heinous crimes, or acted in a fit of rage leading to dire consequences, or are plain unlucky as they serve sentence for crimes not committed by them (or so some say).

Whatever the case, eventually all of them --  celebrities, the well-educated (including MBAs) and those belonging to poor families -- are individuals awaiting their freedom. And the factory is the only hope that brings them closer to their dream of walking out free.

Take Raji, for instance. He's serving a life sentence for murder and came to Tihar six years ago. "Whatever happened was unfortunate," he says, "and I can't turn back the clock. It's also too late for me to shout from the rooftop and say that I was maligned for an act I never committed."

"If the factory hadn't been there," he adds softly, "I would've gone mad." So Raji teaches other inmates everything from wood cutting to polishing. "Thanks to this factory, I can at least look forward to another day."

Unfortunately, not everyone is like Raji. Some like Mehboob Alam (he came here late last year) are still trying to adjust to life in jail. He is regretful of his crime, a murder he says he committed in a fit of rage, but still wishes to get back his freedom.

"At times I feel like breaking down," he whispers. "I know the factory helps in diverting our minds, but there are times when it's so tough to live this nightmare."

Like Ehsan, who will be in Tihar till 2015, he finds solace in reading the Quran but wonders what's in store for him. "Don't get me wrong," Alam says, "the factory is a boon, but there can be no price for freedom. Even if I get Rs 1,000 every day for my weaving, I'll still be happier with my family."

It's a statement that will haunt us for the rest of the week, maybe months or even years. But for now we force ourselves to move towards the paper unit where Keshav Tyagi, a former Meerut resident, shows us close to 40 tonnes of cotton waste hosiery and waste paper, all of which gets recycled in the paper unit.

"I've been here for 13 years, serving a life sentence," he says candidly. With two more years to go before he walks free, Tyagi is keeping himself zealously occupied at the paper unit, work that he'll eventually master here and begin in the outside world.

Waiting to meet his family, Tyagi admits that his fellow-mates think of him as a privileged person. "Each time a prisoner has walked free, we've felt as though we've walked down a free path," he says. I suspect he's brushing away tears when he informs us that the chain of Apollo hospitals [Get Quote] and the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute, Delhi, in particular, buy their paper products.

That apart, government files, stamped on which are the futures of many of these prisoners, are made at the factory's paper unit. Ironically, even the chairs on which the judges sit to make the life-altering decisions of these individuals are made at the factory's carpentry unit.

On our way out, we meet Rai Singh, a young lad from Aligarh who's been in Tihar for nine years and is part of the factory's pottery unit. He says the unit can make 100 pitchers on a daily basis but needs better equipment.

"The reason why the factory succeeds is because all of us here put our heart and soul into the work. It's a no-profit, no-loss venture. With every piece of pottery, I feel like I'm responsible for creating a perfect shape and future," he smiles, showing us some of his completed works, including a few beautifully, if gaudily, hand-painted vases.

When we walk out of the prison, a bird takes flight over the tall, concrete walls that shut out the world of Tihar from us. That's freedom. And till the time the inmates can achieve that, till such time as Tihar is their home, the factory is the only hope that makes their hard days seem somewhat easier to handle.



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