The Strengths Project: Strengthening Tea Plantation Workers in Alipurduar, West Bengal
Posted by: Alex Linley & Avirupa Bhaduri
In her first post of 2013, Avirupa updates us on the New Year celebrations in Kolkata, while also recognising how the horrendous rape in Delhi, which had made the international news, also had its own reverberations in Kolkata.
Avirupa then goes on to share her experiences of working with tea planters, enabling them to realise more of their strengths and apply these to the pressing challenge of getting better medical provision for their work. To see how she did this, read on…
“A New Year is ushered with celebration in Kolkata. Park Street, the erstwhile posh commercial hub of the Raj, retains it’s charm even now, each year it is decorated with fairy lights, people throng the road at midnight, cars honk loudly, drunk party crowds erupt with celebration, confetti, cheer, greetings and the like.
This year though the mood was less cheerful, a couple of week earlier a girl in Delhi was brutally raped, and left to die, following which the youth of India took the capital by siege demanding justice, safety for women. The repercussions were felt in Kolkata too. People were scared to venture late at night.
In fact, the Delhi rape case had made a mark at every sphere of life, I was surprised to see the concern in Mousumi, Arpita and Sharmila. Mousumi expressed deep anxiety, since she was the mother of a 9 year old girl. Women and safety was all we could talk in the 1st week’s meeting of the New Year. I was interested to know their take on the safety of women in Shiriti. The answer came as a surprise.
Although Shiriti is a slum, alcoholism, petty politics, clashes between groups were not uncommon, in fact, when I visited Shiriti as an outsider in the initial days, I felt uneasy. However the women said they still felt safe within the community than outside, even though the vices exist, and they make sure to reach home by evening. They knew that they would not be assaulted by local boys, rather they said it was more unsafe for young boys, as the chance of being involved in drug, alchohol, gang war is more likely.
I found the answer pretty intriguing, wondering where their strength of faith came from; perhaps a sense of community, a social safety net was active.
Next week I was scheduled to leave for Alipurduar, for the last of the leadership workshops. The NGO project was to wrap up by this month. They’ll resume their good work once the project renewal is sanctioned. As I boarded the train I felt a little sad, as I was getting attached to the workshops. Anyway the train left Howrah station at 10p.m. It was to reach Alipurduar, the eastern border district of West Bengal by noon.
Our session was to begin from 2p.m. on the 1st day. We woke up at 8a.m. to find the train stalled at Maldah, a station which we were supposed to cross at 4a.m. Finally the train left Maldah at 9a.m. We were much tensed as the delegates would reach the venue from several places; the whole time during our journey was spent on co-ordination, battling a terrible mobile network problem.
I was delighted to find the strengths of Detail and Efficacy in my colleague, who managed to keep the organiser abreast of our situation and all the time assuring of a great workshop, whenever we reached them. We reached Alipurduar at 6p.m. A car was waiting at the station; we drove for 20min after which we reached the forest checkpost of Buxa Tiger reserve. Our venue was inside the Tiger Reserve, at No. 28 Forest Basti.
We had to take special permission from the ranger as entry was restricted after 6p.m. I was tensed as the car sped through the only motor-able road inside pitch dark forest, all the while the boy who was our escort kept telling stories of how he, and his friends and family have encountered herds of wild elephants, and sometimes even tigers!
Anyway we reached a clearing amidst the forest braving the jungle and I felt relieved to see lights and hear human voices. As we got down we saw 30 delegates sitting and waiting for us in the cold. There was electricity, but due to low voltage we could hardly see each other’s faces. The organiser held a small ceremony to felicitate us with locally made shawls.
We had to start immediately, so I began with the concept of introduction by strength. I briefly explained what strength is and introduced myself with my strengths, and asked my colleagues to do so, followed by the delegates.
The delegates this time were all tea plantation workers from local tea estates. They are a unique community, their problems and even their ethnicity is different from all other under-privileged people that I have worked so far. The hill people have traditionally been considered “other” by the majority of Bengalis’ and vice versa. So a lot of time was spent in breaking the ice.
It was late and we were tired after the journey but as night progressed we found ourselves in conversation, over a lot of issues. There were a big group of youth, who were quite enthusiastic about accepting new ideas. They were most responsive when I talked about strengths. Then I talked to them how in other workshops people initially skeptic about the idea have later realised the strength of strengths.
I thought of implementing what worked best last time, i.e. staging a skit performance, to mock tackle a real issue (unavailability of medical facility in the tea gardens) by banking on group strengths. This time also 4 groups were created, given time to discuss and form a strengths bank, following which they will stage a plausible solution to convince the managers/owners to give them their rightful medical provision.
This worked wonderfully well, each group tried their best and it was heart-warming to watch their pent up anger frustration being given a voice, with logic, earnestness and resilience. After the performance spontaneous animated discussions followed which continued till dinner was announced and spilled over.
A number of young men and women came up and asked about Capp and my role. It was then that I once again found the conviction to spread the message of strength, seeing how it impacts and changes the lives of all people.”