MUSSOORIE, Tue 9
Forty three years old Sunita Devi grew up like any other girl in the hills of Uttarakhand. Not being able to attend school for more than a few years, she ended up helping her family with farming. That she was married off early and then abandoned by her husband did little for her ego. A young mother, she was left to fend for herself.
And that is when she heard of a small factory that employed local women to help make squashes and pickles of local products like Malta (of the orange family), burans (rhododendron), amla (gooseberry), garlic etc.
Of course she had never stepped out of the house to earn a living and yet that is all that she wanted to do desperately, to help bring up her two children.
Class five dropouts that Sunita Devi might be, today she earns a salary of Rs 18,500 per month and leads the all women team at this 16 year old manufacturing unit that provides employment to over 500 families.
“We’ve made all of these, right here” says a 40 year old Sunita Devi, displaying the brand ‘Pahadi’ not without a hint of pride.
About three kms from Gopeshwar in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is a small village called Sagar. And it could be yet another blink and miss village if it wasn’t for an indescript board of ‘Ghanshyam Shiksha Evam Kalyan Sansthan’ on the roadside. A small shop near it displays colourful jams and juice concentrates, pickles and local seasonings.
Villagers have been trained to collect locals produce (flowers, fruits, grass, bushes, condiments) that are then processed by the trained staff and locals who are given training (depending on the load of the lot) to make the various products on offer.
Brainchild of Rakesh Gairola who runs a school by the name of Subodh Prem Vidya Mandir in Gopeshwar and was a moving force in the literacy movement in the 90s, Gairola sees the manufacturing unit as a double winner for locals. “Not only are we trying to popularise local products but also giving locals financial independence. Take Sunita Devi for example. She was a single mother who had been abandoned by her husband and had the responsibility of bringing up her two children. Today she keeps is a moving force. Not only does she keeps records but also supervises and operates machines. The idea is to empower the locals.”
And empowerment is happening for sure. For these young individuals today are not only more self aware but also apt at problem solving, critical thinking etc.
So for example after 2013, the factory suffered losses of 28 lacs that simply got dumped during the disaster. What was not helping was the climate change. “Rhododendrons were not flowering on time and no matter how much our women collection heads from various villages tried to get good quality Malta from the villages, it simply wasn’t growing juicy enough,” says a confident Sushila an employee for the past decade.
The team was quick to realise they needed to diversify.
Led by Gairola, they did, just that.
They decided to widen their product basket to four products and another two are in the offing. Pickles which were so far a very small portion of their readymade section were upped in their variety. They began focusing on pickles of ingredients grown locally. Green chilies, amla, garlic, lingra (local fern vegetable) and lemon pickle followed. As did apple jam and chutney. Local representatives and experts went from village to village training people on newer crops and upping their present produce. This helped them add oils-Apricot oil (from local apricots) and mustard oil (Still not in very large quantities though). The other focus area was local grains, pulse and produce. “Traditional produce like koda (finger millet), jhangora (Barnyard millet) and local pulses are being grown less by farmers of late, thanks to lower demand. We decided to focus on this area as well. It will have a two way benefit. Not only will the traditional produce be saved from extinction but also when the villagers will see a demand they will grow it more, resulting in better prices” explains Gairola.
A section of spices and condiments (chilies, turmeric ,jakhya and choru fharan (local seasonings) has been added. Cattle feed (grass and soybean) and milk will be added soon, he shares.
Ask Sunita Devi why people prefer their pickles or spices to the ones in the market and she explains like a professional, “That’s because we’ve experimented and gotten better wit time. For example our pickles also have ginger garlic puree; our Haldi for example is a combination of two places. Turmeric from Okhimath has a better colour and the one from Mandal has better taste. We combined both and powdered it. The result is turmeric who anybody will want to come back and buy more of.”
Deepa Chandola an employee for the past six years says, “A few years back, I couldn’t imagine being paid for things I always did at home. Today, with a little hand holding and training, I use my traditional knowledge of crops and cooking to earn a decent living. I can think of supporting my family with pride” she says with a smile, moving a mound of peeled garlic in front of her.
*The story is a part of OneWorld-Dream a Dream Media Fellowship on Life Skills-2018