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April 2012
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Introducing The Strengths Project and Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative, Kolkata

Posted by: Alex Linley / Avirupa Bhaduri


As some of our readers may be aware, for the last 3 years we have been supporting a Women’s Sewing Co-operative in the Shiriti slum in Kolkata, India. Our focus here was to use our knowledge of strengths and positive psychology and apply this with a less-advantaged community, something which our consultant Avirupa Bhaduri has done to great effect. In this first blog post, Avirupa introduces the background to the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative. In future posts, we will update you on the work of this group and what we are learning about the applications of strengths with disadvantaged communities in India.


Avirupa takes up the story…


Kolkata or Calcutta, the city of joy, is synonymous with culture, charity work, art house films, passionate theatre scene and predictably, poverty. Post globalization the image has not improved significantly even after the introduction of posh shopping malls, flyovers and upscale cars to the city’s menu. Slums continue to thrive inseparably with the condominiums, in fact often at their very fringes. By definition of The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, slums are characterized by non concrete roofing, absence of running water in houses, deficiency of toilet facility, and open drainage system. But contrary to popular perception, a slum neighborhood is a rather integrated social unit which functions within its unique structure.  


Since India’s first census in 1872, Kolkata has generally been India’s largest city( in terms of most populous metropolitan area), although in 1991 it lost that status to Mumbai.It is the chief commercial, financial, and manufacturing center of eastern India.To give a bit of perspective here, let me share some important data. According to the latest census report of 2011, out of the total population of Kolkata’s metropolitan area (4,580,544 people), more than 32.57 percent live in slums.

Shiriti is one such registered slum under KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) at Kalabagan in the south of Kolkata. Inhabited by almost 300 families, each comprising of 5 members on an average, it is really among one of the major slums in South Kolkata. Geographically and sociologically, Shiriti is well connected to the main city, maybe for this reason, we find its residents involved into a wide range of activities from factory worker to rickshaw puller; from golf course attendant to daily labour…the list goes on. Clustered into different groups of houses and forming a block, the slum has its own chowk (local square) and many sub spaces within it where people participate in different community events.

In our mission to take the benefits of positive psychology and the strengths approach out to communities who would not otherwise have access to these resources, we identified the Shiriti Kalabagan slum as our primary focus. Our choice was made on the basis that it was more of a permanent status, more organised, than other slum communities we had visited, and so had some of the community infrastructure that was necessary for our work.

Our first work was focused on exploring the strengths that existed within this slum community. We did so through a survey using an approach adapted from the Individual Strengths Assessments which were developed by CAPP as a means of identifying, exploring and developing strengths in individual people. We had to modify the standard questionnaire though, to make it culturally and intellectually more appropriate. For example people had a difficult time to understand abstract concepts. Thus it seemed a good idea to use“autotelic” variables with questions like:


1. When do you have the opportunity to do what you do best?

2. Do you have someone who supports and encourages you?

3. When you think back to yesterday, did you have the opportunity to learn something new yesterday? What was it?  


So instead of following a strict interview pattern we went for a more relaxed “adda” format. An adda is essentially sharing stories.  We asked a series of 20 questions about the strengths that people had, how they used them, and their visions for the future.


Initially people were hesitant to talk about what is going right in their lives, but as we progressed responses started to pour in. One of the key observations was that, instead of individual strength the slum dwellers were more forthcoming about community strength. So we then added two more questions which for the first time addressed the concept of community strength.


1. When you think of Shiritri, and compare it to what you know of other bustees [slums], what do you think makes it different?


2. What do you think Shiritri has going for it that makes it as successful as it is (or, more successful than other bustees)?


The results from the survey were a learning experience for us, as a team.


The survey highlighted the women group of the slum. They emerged as very positive, full of initiative and enterprise but lacking resource to channel that by playing to their core strengths.  We then conducted a meeting with them, in that meeting two clear facts surfaced. First was the fact that they want extra income and secondly, most of them were keen to learn sewing as they felt there’s a demand for sewing jobs which they can do in their free time sitting in the comfort of their home.

We then decided to start by forming a sewing group. Four sewing machines were donated from Robert Biswas-Diener and a women’s sewing group (in Portland, Oregon).


The women were asked to sign up for an 8-10 months course of sewing. Within the next couple of weeks there was a huge response. A total of 60 women from all age groups signed up. Then the hunt for a teacher began. We found the perfect teacher in Sutapa Paul. Coming from a lower income group family herself, she understood the group very well.



On the inaugural day the women gave a hearty welcome to the machines. A puja was conducted; the machines were decorated with garlands. The tiny room of the local club was filled with laughter and shouts of joy. The enthusiasm was infectious. The class started on 14th March in that small room. The local boys happily agreed to let the women use their room during noon, when it usually remained unused. After a month, some left the group, unable to grasp even basic mathematics which is essential to the course. But most women stuck on. However some of the women, who left, kept in touch and insisted that they wanted to be a part of the group in other ways. Some expressed desire to buy material and fabrics at the best rate; some said they were good at keeping the books. Others claimed that they have contacts with local tailors and will try and get orders for the group. So all of us decided to form a co-operative which will be run by the group, where everyone will do what they liked best.

After about a year we retained a core group of eight women. We conducted random strengthspotting sessions in between the class. At first they were shy to talk about their own strength. The dual combination of humility and lack of self-esteem made them reticent. Then I decided to turn the tables, and let them speak about each other’s strength…and voila!! The response came readily.



Over time, now we have profiled our strongest members, including:


Sharmila who is a perfectionist, high on work ethic, she takes charge not only of the job allotted to her but also takes initiative to complete the unfinished work of the less skillful members of the group.


Mousumi, on the other hand is the book keeper, she is a natural at detail.


Arpita empathizes easily about others, and often brings tea for the group.


Tushi, a multi tasker is very accommodating and has an eye for all things pretty. She often makes useful suggestions about colour combination and patterns etc.


The group was given the first professional order by CAPP for 10 bags and 10 wall hangings. For them this meant a lot. They put together their collective strength and in only 10 days the order was successfully completed and delivered. The articles were highly appreciated by the team of CAPP and when  Dr. Alex Linley came to visit them in November 2010, the pride that they take in their job was apparent.


Alex asked Sharmila “What difference has this initiative made in your life?” Her answer was “We have become self reliant!” The confidence on her face showed clearly the new found strength within her, and I thought Phase I of our mission has been achieved.  In a self sustainable mode, this project surely shows signs of flourishing.

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