An Uphill Climb

An Uphill Climb

Fearless and focused, Warli artist and trainer Razia has been breaking barriers in her community and enabling other women to restart their livelihoods.

When Razia Falluh Khan learnt that a group of 30 women in Ulhasnagar, a city over 40km away from her hometown Vajreshwari, Maharashtra, needed training in Warli artisanship, she was hesitant. The journey required her to climb a hill. “But then the TISSER program people told me that the women wanted me to train them. At that time, I was training another 30-50 women in a village near Ulhasnagar. So I decided to train one set of women in the first village, climb up the hill to Ulhasnagar and train another set of women there,” recounted Razia, who did this for a month.

Hardworking and resilient, 30-year-old Razia is a Warli art trainer and artisan. Razia loves to paint and during her time as an artisan, she used to make cards, frames, books, bags, tea trays, tea pots, etc. “I started working so that I could stand on my own feet. With whatever I make, I see how I can contribute towards my family expenditure,” said Razia, who is a breadwinner in an 8-member household. 

Razia has been a Warli artisan working under the TISSER program since 2017. Before the pandemic, Razia travelled to Mumbai to learn how to market her products better. But when the pandemic hit, the frequency of orders for her products reduced. To make up for the lost income, Razia switched over to training other women in the craft. She earns ₹275 per day as a trainer. 

A part of the REVIVE Alliance, the skilling program has not only given Razia a platform to earn and grow, but also helps her enable other women to do the same. Before the pandemic, women would congregate in one place to learn Warli art. Now, due to COVID-19 restrictions, trainers like Razia need to travel to villages around the region. 

“Most women don’t travel, and those who do only go to closeby places. I’m the only one who accepts going to far away areas like Vitthalwadi, Bewundi, Ulhasnagar. The travelling can get very difficult…for example, I had to change 6 vehicles to reach Badlapur one way — train, rickshaw, bus,” said Razia. 

Her mother is often very worried when she returns home late, but this doesn’t bother Razia. She stays focused on her goals: she just wants to earn her livelihood and grow. “I want to be recognised for the effort I put in and get compensated/promoted accordingly. I want a regular income. Women need to be supported; men can get a job anywhere. Only if we support women can they be empowered,” said Razia.

This story was editorialised by Raveena Joseph

A Long Road to Recovery

A Long Road to Recovery

For Warli artisan Savita, who was financially independent before the pandemic, the depletion of savings and unstable earnings is a great cause of anxiety.

Savita Vastakar, a 32-year-old artisan, got trained in Warli art when she found out about the TISSER skilling program through a women’s self-help group in 2018. “I always loved to draw. I thought I could take up this work because I have artistic talent and I wanted to earn some money by working from home,” said Savita. 

Being an artisan allowed Savita to feel good about making her own money. But her world changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She went from being financially independent to income-less. “My earning had gone down to zero during the peak of the pandemic. Our TISSER work stopped for 2-3 months when the first series of lockdowns happened. Even though orders were coming in, none of us were leaving home so we couldn’t work,” she lamented. 

Resident of a chawl in Gaikarwadi, Maharashtra, Savita noticed that everyone in her neighbourhood was experiencing similar hardships. “The pandemic has impacted family earnings because work has become irregular. The kids are not going to school, online schooling is not very helpful and the kids are also bored. We are also scared to step out. Coronavirus has ruined everything,” said Savita, distraught and gravely worried about the path forward. 

Though not too optimistic about the future, Savita remarks how getting vaccinated has given her some hope that things will get better.

Her only means of income now is through TISSER — she makes clothes, wood frames, pots, etc. Even though income was irregular for a few months, things slowly started stabilising for Savita when India recovered from a harsh second wave in mid-2021. A part of the REVIVE Alliance, the UNDP-supported program by TISSER helps women artisans like Savita procure raw materials and sell finished artisanal products. “I got an order in June and another for a top in August,” said Savita. 

While Savita is glad to be earning something, the lack of stability in income has left her very worried, as the family has had to dip into savings to tide through the pandemic. 

There is a long road ahead before the lives of artisans like Savita can go back to normal. “Due to lack of money, people like me are unable to dream of a better future. I want to be able to earn a fixed salary so that I can take care of the household expenses and my children,” said Savita.

This story was editorialised by Raveena Joseph

The Power of Painting

The Power of Painting

Through an artisanal upskilling program facilitated by the REVIVE Alliance, one resolute woman has found a way to turn her passion for painting into a means of income that can facilitate her children’s education.

Gayatri Ganesh Gaikar, 38 years old, lives in a joint family which includes six other members. When two of them contracted COVID-19, the entire family had to quarantine themselves for 2 weeks, which not only increased their healthcare worries, but also their livelihood concerns. Gayatri, a mother of two children, shoulders all the domestic responsibilities in the household. Her husband, who works as a driver, lost his job due to COVID-19. “During the pandemic, his previous company shut down. He only gets little work now and only leaves the house for work on some days. Apart from him, in this household, I paint. Since we’ve had to stay at home and not go out to look for work, I’ve only been painting,” said Gayatri, who identifies herself proudly as a financial contributor to the family.

Gayatri’s household income has reduced by more than 50% due to COVID-19 related issues. Determined to supplement her family income, Gayatri turned her passion for painting into an income source after she heard about the TISSER skilling program, a part of the REVIVE Alliance, in her neighbourhood. “Earlier, I used to do some tailoring work like stitching bags along with other women in my bachat ghat (Self Help Group). In 2020, one of my neighbours told me about a TISSER training program and since I was interested in painting, I went to check it out,” said Gayatri. 

Through the TISSER program, Gayatri has already completed 1 year of professional training in Warli painting, and her second year is ongoing. “TISSER gives us raw materials, and we just do the artistic work and give the product — like odhani, kurta, dress — back to them; they sell it. We work in a group, but if there are too many people it gets scary because of Covid. I work in a group with 2-3 women from my village, so that we don’t have to travel much. I like working with them because I can work on the parts I enjoy — like designing. They are also very encouraging about my work,” said Gayatri. 

Her contributions to the household income (now around ₹ 8,000-10,000), helps them meet their bare basic needs — including food and children’s education. However, expenditure always threatens to exceed income. The family is worried about their health, their lack of savings and their difficulties in meeting monthly expenses. “I would like it if work increases. Some days we don’t get too much work and because of Covid, I can’t go out and I can only do this. More income would be nice because the kids are also studying now — 10th standard and 4th standard. I have my family’s support to work as well, so I can work well,” said strong-willed Gayatri.

This story was editorialised by Raveena Joseph

No one likes eating poison

No one likes eating poison

Meet Rameshbhai Ram, an organic farmer from Madhapar in Gujarat, who decided to follow his heart and chart a path different from other farmers in his village.

Rameshbhai Ram, 45, is a farmer in Madhapar village, Gujarat, who shifted to organic farming from conventional methods of agriculture a few years back. But this shift was not planned; it was a result of nature running its course.

In Rameshbhai’s village, farmers traditionally engage in the cultivation of groundnut, cotton and sugarcane. They protect their crop through the use of urea, weedicides and pesticides. However, five years ago, Rameshbhai became acutely aware of the huge burden of expenses he incurred due to the purchase of crop fertilisers and medicines. Fed up, he chose not to use artificial supplements for some of his produce. This led to a surprising discovery: “Once I started eating the rotis from my organic crops, I could feel the difference for myself. The taste and fragrance were remarkably superior, and I felt more energetic and active,” he said. 

A true farmer at heart, Rameshbhai wished to sow the seed of organic farming amongst his customers, so that they could also reap the health benefits and experience what he had experienced. But the road ahead was bumpy.

Imagine being a new and enterprising organic farmer in a village where a majority of the farmers make their living from commercial crops. You have a hectare of land and you have to produce crops that are highly sensitive to weeds. You know that the market for organic produce is limited in your village. You are risking a lower yield for your crops which directly affects your income anywhere between 37% to 75%, depending on the mercy of natural elements. Your family is worried too; they question the rationale behind your actions.

Whenever Rameshbhai’s family nagged him to buy urea and pesticides from the market for a bountiful harvest, he dismissed them with excuses about the shop being closed or forgetting to visit the shop. His conviction about organic farming, he said, stemmed from a place of understanding: “no one wants to eat poison.”

Rameshbhai’s biggest challenge came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Among rampant fears of the deadly virus and an economic standstill, he struggled to make ends meet. He was tasked with ensuring the health of his family, while also taking care of his agrarian activities. 

Resourceful as ever, Rameshbhai applied for REVIVE’s returnable grant and used it to tide over his resource crunch. He invested the grant money, ₹10,000, in farming inputs like neem oil to increase harvest. Soon thereafter, he also purchased a smartphone which he uses to watch organic-farming related videos and to undertake digital transactions through GooglePay. With a resounding “Yes”, he affirmed that he believes in the power of digitization. 

As passionate as Rameshbhai is about his vocation, he bemoans that his two sons don’t want to follow his footsteps. Both of them left the village to live in the city of Rajkot where his older son works in an IT company and his younger son is pursuing a diploma in agricultural studies. Like most youth of our country, they aspire to work in an office as opposed to toiling in the field, because of the low earning potential and stagnant income levels. 

Nevertheless, Rameshbhai firmly believes that organic farming will have a substantial impact in improving farmers’ income in the long term. Having experienced relative income gains over the years, he actively engages in spreading his learnings among other farmers in the village to allay their fears about making the shift. He is now consulted as a master trainer during the occasional mass awareness initiatives on organic farming held in the village. He remained buoyantly hopeful and said, “Kheti ka zamana aayega.” [The era for farming will come someday.]

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph

Beauty & the COVID-19 Beast

Beauty & the COVID-19 Beast

When the world moved to work-from-home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Divya Chouhan ambitiously moved her business to an official premises to establish herself and grow.

When Divya Chouhan heads home in the afternoon after her shift at the Women and Child Department office, her neighbours often stop her on her way. Since she has a government job, they like to consult her about almost everything — recently, the most popular subject has been COVID-19. “They consult me about what medicine to take even if they have a cough or a cold,” she said, chuckling.

But this is only one of Divya’s avatars. “Everyone from my mother’s side of the family has a government job and everyone from my father’s side of the family runs a business; I do a bit of both,” said the 26-year-old from Dewas, Madhya Pradesh.

When she isn’t a government employee, Divya dons the hat of a beauty-preneur. She teaches beauty parlour skills to a small group of women every afternoon, from 1 p.m. to 4 pm. She feels teaching is an art which not only adds to her income, but also sharpens her skills: “Finesse comes from teaching.” 

Divya then attends to clients at her rented beauty parlour in the market area. Pre-pandemic, she used to operate her salon and conduct teaching from her home. But the lockdown urged her to formalize her vocation. “When the lockdown (March 2020) happened, I was home for a long time. I told myself if I want to go somewhere in life, then I have to start a business of my own.” Parlour servicing from her residential premises wasn’t quite the “business” idea she had conceived in her mind while pursuing management studies. During the lockdown, even the services offered from her home took a hit.

Starting a business, however, was not easy due to a paucity of funds. Even before the pandemic broke out, Divya’s mother had fallen severely ill in February 2020. “My mother had to be taken to a private facility that cost us a lot of money. The lockdown added to that financial burden since my father’s printing press was temporarily shut down and I could not teach in person either. Money was very tight,” recalled Divya, adding, “I did not want to borrow money from a relative or ask anyone for help.”

While pursuing her MBA, Divya had heard of Pratham, an organization that works with women micro-entrepreneurs to promote sustainable incomes and financial independence. Pratham apprised her about the REVIVE Alliance, and the returnable grant programme aimed at bringing COVID-hit livelihoods back on track. Divya availed a grant of ₹10,000 to bring her business to life.

Divya now leverages her MBA training to promote her beauty classes on Whatsapp and her parlour business on Instagram. “I designed a course completion certificate for my students and used Whatsapp to spread the word about my classes. I also frequently post pictures of my clients on Instagram to market the different services I offer,” she said.

Even though the lockdowns were lifted in late 2020 to release the economy, many like Divya’s father have struggled to get back to pre-pandemic levels of business. At this difficult time, Divya’s contribution to the family’s finances has been crucial for their survival. “Many in my family have gotten inspired by my journey and want to start businesses of their own,” said Divya. Her sphere of influence now extends not just to her neighbours but also to her students, family and relatives as well. “Everyone looks up to me,” she said, proudly.

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph

Finding Hope in a Pandemic

Finding Hope in a Pandemic

Rakhi found her calling as a beautypreneur after dabbling in eclectic subjects like political science and mathematics. However, no past experience could have prepared her for the fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Before Rakhi Zamre opened a beauty parlour in her village, Chandikapur, Maharashtra, she had experimented with a lot of things. She graduated in political science, taught math for six years, and had even designed and sold sarees. When Rakhi set up her beauty-parlour, she brought together all of her experience to set-up a successful business. 

However, nothing had prepared her to face the pandemic. Before the lockdown, Rakhi’s clientele came from far and wide due to her reputation. But COVID-19 forced her to impose strict restrictions and she only catered to people from her village. “I wanted to ensure the highest degree of safety for my most loyal customers who are from my village,” she said, adding that she regularly disinfects her establishment and ensures everything is sanitized.

COVID-19 crippled Rakhi’s revenues in two big ways – she lost her clients from the neighbouring villages and also from wedding and bridal events. In March, which is a peak wedding season, seven to-be-brides cancelled her services. This important revenue source drying up meant a cash crunch for Rakhi as she could make up to ₹10,000 from one bridal service — an amount she would otherwise earn over the course of a month.

The cash crunch made it difficult to keep running the parlour. One needs to replace beauty products as they have limited shelf life, repair or replace electric equipment, and refurbish infrastructure to get clients to keep coming back. Rakhi desperately needed a loan to upgrade her parlour but traditional bank loans had high interest rates that she couldn’t afford. 

Rakhi kept in touch with her NGO advisor, Pratham, where she got trained under the beautypreneur programme in 2017. The team informed her about Samhita’s REVIVE Alliance, supported by Godrej. Through REVIVE, Rakhi applied for a ₹10,000 returnable grant and will be using the money to purchase parlour equipment such as chairs and blow dryers. Like Rakhi, over 500 beautypreneurs have already availed financial support through REVIVE and over 96% of them make regular repayments. “I am confident my customer volumes will increase in the coming months as I improve my parlour and I will be able to repay the loan,” said Rakhi, as she prepared her parlour to make the post-pandemic world a more beautiful and confident place for women.

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph

Ambition in the Face of Adversity

Ambition in the Face of Adversity

Meet Ritu-ben, a nano entrepreneur and mother of two, who has not allowed the harsh effects of the pandemic deter her optimistic spirit and perseverance

30-year old Ritu-ben lives on the outskirts of Ahmedabad with her husband, mother-in-law and two mischievous sons. She studied only till class 5, after which she had to help her mother with domestic duties. Marrying young, she said, taught her many things that she couldn’t have learnt in school. In addition to being a supportive wife and a proud mother, Ritu-ben is also an entrepreneur.

“Three years ago, my friend took me to a bazaar where they sold all types of colourful sarees. I began to meet the weavers, sellers and traders to learn about the business. Shortly thereafter, I decided to set up my own business from home,” said Ritu-ben. She profits ₹30-50 from a saree sale.

Ritu-ben’s husband, Viren-bhai, is a street vendor. He sells fruits and vegetables that earn their family ₹200-300 per day. “My husband’s income is the main source to meet all our expenses — food and children’s education,” said Ritu-ben.

When COVID-19 swept across the country, Viren-bhai’s daily earnings were reduced by half. And Ritu-ben’s saree business? “That only gets us ₹300-400 every ten days in a good month. Right now, sales are near zero,” she revealed. Pandemics, after all, have never had any mercy.

During the lockdown, Ritu-ben and her husband received a tempo from SEWA (Self-employed women’s association) to help them transport their fruits and vegetables around town to sell them. The three-wheeled automobile was a boon for their family in a time of limited mobility. “For the two months that we had the tempo, we would go far and wide to ensure our products were sold. It was really life-changing for us,” said Ritu-ben.

For the couple, the biggest household expenditures are their children’s education and healthcare expenses. In the past year, both of these have gone up for the family. Because the children now study through Viren-bhai’s smartphone, they have to spend a lot more money to recharge and upgrade their data plan. Her mother-in-law has also been unwell, warranting unexpected doctor visits and medical bills.

Due to rising household expenses and falling income, Ritu-ben decided to participate in Samhita’s finance facility REVIVE, supported by Brihati Foundation (CSR Foundation of Claris Group). She learnt about REVIVE’s zero-interest, no-collateral returnable grant from her advisor at SEWA. She received ₹10,000, which she said would be spent entirely on buying good quality fruits and vegetables. And maybe a few sarees, she added, giggling. “I’ve never felt the need to take a loan before because our financial health has never been so bad. However, if I can pay back this loan on time, I might consider taking another one in the future to grow my business,” said Ritu-ben.

Despite their precarious financial situation, Ritu-ben exudes unwavering optimism and cheery ambition. Once the circumstances are normal and safety concerns around the virus are mitigated, she wants to move her saree business out of her house and into a store in the market where more customers will be able to visit her. “I have a few ideas on what I will do with my saree store. Most importantly, I want to send both my sons to college. I will work hard to make sure I can do both,” said Ritu-ben.

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph

Life is About Facing Challenges

Life is About Facing Challenges

Bilal, a Sozni artisan and entrepreneur with disability from Jammu and Kashmir, is driven to face the many challenges that lie in his path and works to emerge stronger from any adversity

Bilal Ahmed Bhat, 39, is a man of grit and resilience. When his father, a Sozni embroidery businessman, retired after 40 years owing to health issues, Bilal took on the bread-winning responsibilities of the family. He worked for a local entrepreneur for a while, but soon decided he wanted to be his own boss. So he started his own business, and also, with enterprising spirit, obtained a Master’s degree simultaneously. Bilal’s business specialises in Sozni embroidery, a craft he learnt from his father and a style of embroidery originating in Jammu and Kashmir, his home state. From his workshop in Badgam, Bilal makes shawls and garments to be sold throughout India (via wholesale B2B channels) and within his community (via B2C channels).

The success of his business benefits 35 artisans in the region, 5 of whom are disabled. Bilal himself has an orthopedic disability in his lower limbs, but he doesn’t let anything stop him. He said, “I treat everyone equally. Sometimes, disabled people think of themselves as weak, but I think of everyone as equals.”

Bilal’s business, and the community it served, were significantly affected when COVID-19 reached Indian shores. The lockdowns, curfews and fear of infection significantly affected mobility, and also disrupted National supply chains. During the first wave in 2020, Bilal’s shawl sales reduced drastically, to when he left the home or when someone came over to purchase some. This is when he became part of ATPAR (, an organisation that provides support to entrepreneurs with disabilities, and joined their Entrepreneurship Development Training Program (EDP). He also became a member of  NEDAR, a Network of Entrepreneurs with Disabilities, initiated by ATPAR, which provided business counselling, mentoring, market linkages and support through training in financial management, and sales and marketing. Bilal availed all the skilling services given by EDP and was also introduced to REVIVE for financial support. 

The second wave, however, was extremely disruptive. In April 2021, Bilal did not have sufficient funds to pay artisan wages or purchase raw materials. “In Kashmir, the whole year has been bad for business due to lockdowns, internet disruptions, etc. How can we afford to take loans from banks and pay 12% interest rates?”

Bilal’s resilience, hard work and commitment to his community made him a perfect beneficiary for the no-interest, zero-collateral returnable grant offered by REVIVE. He was supported with INR 40,000 (USD 538) in April 2021 in the form of a returnable grant — i.e., there is no legal obligation, only a moral one, as the money returned will circle back to benefit another beneficiary under the REVIVE program. “I wish this type of support is always available — I’ve never seen it anywhere else,” said Bilal.

An astute businessman, Bilal is planning the grant funds carefully and being mindful of market uncertainty due to COVID-19. He has thus used the funds to pay his artisans a basic wage and also purchase raw materials to keep the business thriving. He is also considering innovative means to attract new customers — his most recent business idea is to showcase his work on online marketplaces such as Facebook and Instamojo. “Life is about facing challenges,” said Bilal, “We can’t grow without them.”

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph

Not All Superheroes Wear a Cape

Not All Superheroes Wear a Cape

Sole bread-winner Valarmathi Thangaswami, a 55-year-old sanitation worker from Trichy, works to support her struggling son despite all the hurdles that line her path

To the world, Valarmathi Thangaswami is a 55-year-old sanitation worker who lives in a shanty  in Trichy. But at home, she dons the identity of a super-mother. After her husband’s passing, Valarmathi started working with the support of a self-help group to provide for her three young children. 

Today, her biggest worry is her 24-year-old son who is caught in the menace of drug abuse. With a paltry monthly salary of ₹4,000 she is the sole bread-winnder of her household — she has to pay for rent, groceries, medical expenses, and her son’s upkeep. Her daily job requires her to put herself at high risk, as she goes door-to-door collecting and segregating waste. As the situation demands, she often ends up spending extended hours on duty to earn an extra buck. 

Seeing her son make poor choices, she often wonders if he is worthy of her struggle. When such thoughts cross her mind, Valarmathi tries to take each day in her stride. She said, “Be it coronavirus or any other difficult situation, I have to work and earn for my family.” 

Adjusting to the new normal in the wake of the pandemic, Valarmathi complains about the discomfort caused by the thick gloves that she is now necessitated to wear, despite the scorching heat of Trichy. However, all things considered, she feels she has a lot to be thankful for and thinks of herself as lucky: her employer, the Municipal Corporation of Trichy, has been providing immune-boosting medication, training, and protective gear to frontline workers like herself. 

Additionally, IDFC FIRST Bank, in collaboration with Samhita, provided Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs), and facilitated a government-scheme linkages program to benefit 633 blue-collared workers including cab drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, women entrepreneurs, and other daily-wage labourers. 

Valarmathi was one of the sanitation workers supported by IDFC FIRST Bank. Following a DBT of ₹3,000 Valarmathi was able to buy a sack of rice and groceries for two months. Appreciative of the intervention, she described how each time she comes across the rice bag, it gives her a sense of reassurance that she will get through this crisis. 

Through the second component of the intervention, the welfare-scheme eligibility-screening camp, Valarmathi has been able to connect to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme and get a PAN card commissioned for her son. The CM’s health-insurance scheme is designed for underprivileged families that have low annual income. This scheme provides a cover of ₹5,00,000 to each family for every policy year. 

Having connected to it, Valarmathi is now confident about meeting medical expenses, especially for her son’s health. In the future, she hopes that her income and benefits from the medical insurance will help her sustain her son through the de-addiction. Also, with her son’s PAN card made, he can gain access to other social-security schemes in the future — Valarmathi hopes this will enable him to stand on his own feet in the future.

This story was edited by Raveena Joseph