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India

Teaching Strengths in West Bengal

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In her latest blog below, Avirupa shares with us her experiences of teaching strengths approaches to future managers, and contrasts this with her further work in developing strengths in underprivileged communities, through the Action Aid-sponsored workshops that she has been delivering in the remote Bankuria and Purulia districts of West Bengal…

 

“March is quite pleasant this year, the mercury hasn’t been cruel. Spring is in the air, and I feel fortunate to wake up every morning to a cuckoo’s call living in a city. By now I’ve settled down to the changes and have begun to enjoy my new life. However, I wanted to push my role as a strengths practitioner further.

 

With that positive note I sought counsel from Alex. We spoke after quite a long time, for over an hour, during which a number of significant pointers came up. That conversation helped me immensely to set my direction ahead with clarity and constructive plans. We decided to pursue the options available to generate work, however small, for Shiriti group.

 

But alongside I wanted to integrate my other assignments to strengths. I teach Human Resource Management in a college, as a part time lecturer. My students are young graduates studying to be future managers. I go to class the next week armed with “The Strengths Book”. We were to cover chapters on motivation and leadership. As I speak on different theories of leadership and motivation, I notice the usual loss of interest.

 

This time though I start speaking about the strengths theory. I explain how each one of us is in possession of unique strengths, which if realized and applied intelligently can unlock latenpotential. It piques their interest and they start asking questions, like if this is just a theory or is it functional. I talk about Capp, Aviva, Ernst & Young and show them The Strengths Book. I read excerpts and stories of some of the most common strength they can relate to. It always works.

 

After class I gave them the assignment to think about their own strengths and at least one perceptible strength of their best friend. After class 3 to 4 students came up to ask where they can find the book. I advised them to use the internet.

 

Next week more good news followed. The Action Aid supported workshops in marginalized communities have started again, and they once again invited me to take a workshop in Bankura district of West Bengal. I gladly agreed. By now the weather has worsened. Bankura and Purulia are the hottest districts of Bengal. The day we board the train it’s sultry and uncomfortably hot. I was worried whether the participants will attend the workshop braving the heat.

 

We reached Chhatna around noon and from there it took 20 min on a motorbike to reach the venue, which is a Govt. sponsored primary school. As I was getting down, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the delegates, many of whom I realized had participated in my previous workshop in Baghmundi. They seemed happy to see me again!

 

The first class was on rights. Surprisingly the group showed their awareness of rights quite well. It definitely proves the success of this project, and I feel proud to have contributed to it. I began my session by asking those who had attended the previous workshop to identify themselves. There were quite a few members, I then asked them to relate to the others what they felt were the take aways of that seminar.

 

I was amazed to find a lot of the women articulating about positive attributes about themselves, albeit mostly related to their performance as a homemaker. Then I asked what strengths have they used this time, if at all. The group answered that since for most of them cooking is a great strength area, they told the organizers not to hire a professional cook, instead they themselves took the collective initiative to cook for all 50 of us. It was wonderful!! I cheered!! Lunch indeed was delicious!!

 

However, I observered that although they are conscious of their rights, they lack confidence to talk about it, let alone exercise them. So I decided to design this workshop around one of strength area, i.e., Spotlight. In my experience, theatre is a wonderful medium that brings alive people’s strength.

 

So this time again I let the pilot group do most of the briefing about strengths back to the 1st timers. Then like before I divided the group into 5 teams, to compete about the best approach to solve a crucial topical problem, boring deep tubewells for water.

 

Bankura and Purulia are worst hit during summer as rain-fed rivers dry up and ground water supply drops drastically. The only relief is boring deep tube wells by the Govt. agencies. But the contractors often dupe villagers by setting up tube wells without adequate depth, so that water is not available.

 

We try to find a way through role play where I pose as Govt. officer, a colleague as contractor etc. The participants come in groups and try to use their collective strengths in order to force the officer to inspect the faulty tube well, and thereafter sanction another. The members of pilot group are distributed evenly among the teams. The teams come one after another and try to overcome the intimidation and poor self-esteem to fulfill their target in 15 mins.

 

The performance as expected was much better this time thanks to the pilot group, who acted as catalyst, and energized the teams. I felt it is easier for people coming from marginalized communities to open up to the idea of strength if it came from one of their own. I resolved then and there to develop as many pilot groups as possible to take the torch of strength based living ahead.”

 

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – October 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

This month Avirupa provides us with an update on the outcomes from the Sewing Exhibition, as well as sharing her experiences of using strengths and strengthspotting in leadership development training with a group of rural Muslim women in Hasnabad, located 4 hours from Kolkata. This was on behalf of another NGO, partered by Action Aid.

 

On reading Avirupa’s blog I was struck once again by how the issue of gender preconceptions about leadership are prevalent. See below – and also see how Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Kolkata and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, describes the importance of strengths in one of his songs…

 

“October is the month of festivities for India, especially for Bengal, and more specifically for Kolkata. Durga Puja the greatest hindu religious festival takes place around October. Although the days are calculated by Bengali calendar, most of the times it falls in October. Durga Puja is closely followed by Eid, Lakshmi Puja, Muharram, and finally Kali puja & Diwali. So the fiesta lasts till mid November.

 

This is the time when people try to buy new clothes for children, give gifts to friends & family and spend much of their income for related activities. The main puja is for 6 days, but preparations are a month long, even more.

 

So when we met in the first week of October, it was pretty much decided that we will get to meet again only after Kali puja. However we thought of giving ourselves a little bonus. The women suggested that the remuneration for volunteering in the exhibition will be Rs.50 per day, per person plus conveyance.

 

It seemed only fair enough, so Arpita was awarded with Rs. 150, for being present on all 3 days, and Mousumi and Sharmila Rs. 100 each. This money was deducted from our total sale worth around Rs. 1100. The women vowed to prepare for next year much in advance.

 

Meanwhile unexpectedly I found quite a new opportunity. A friend of mine recommended my name for a project of another NGO partnered by Action Aid. The objective of the programme is to make the marginalized community realise their basic human rights, by capacity building through competent trainers.

 

My session was on Leadership training, and the target audience was a group of muslim women from the suburb. Naturally I was quite excited with the idea. I boarded a local train and reached Hasnabad, a small township, 4 hrs from Kolkata, at noon.

 

I met with about 25 women, who had come from villages near Hasnabad. They were very different from the women of Shiriti group. The first visible difference was that all of them were veiled, as is common for rural muslim women. For some, coming to Hasnabad was the biggest step they have taken outside their village, without being accompanied by men.

 

I began with an ice breaker, by asking them to think of a leader, and then announced that by magic I knew that most of them have thought about someone who 1. Is a man 2. lives in a big city, far away and 3. that he is most likely to be a political leader.

 

Then I subverted their preconceived notion of leadership by giving the example of their community leader, Afsa, a girl in her mid-twenties, herself a co-worker of the NGO and who is from the same village as them, and one who has been instrumental in bringing them to the workshop.

 

The earlier session was a lecture on the relationship of power and marginalisation, so I referred to that and then started talking about strengths. Incidentally strength and power have similar words in Bengali, shakti, khomota. The idea was to make them realise their own strengths and use them to their benefit, to change power equation.

 

The task was harder than I imagined. I started with the strengths story of Ashok Shah (from The Strengths Book), with a slight twist. I made Shah a factory worker, who lost his job, to make them relate to him. They listened with rapt attention and reacted positively to the perceived happy ending.

 

Then I started a strengths spotting exercise. Here again the biggest hurdle was to make them speak about their own strengths. I think the phenomenon may be cultural, because people, (the more marginalized, the worse), often find the idea of talking about one’s own strengths contradicting with ideals of humility.

 

It takes a lot of coaxing to get it out from them, as a matter of fact I had to explain as many as 10 strengths from the CAPP inventory, and talk at length about all of my own strengths before I could build enough confidence in them to spot even one in themselves.

 

Also I emphasised the fact that strength is inherent in all of us, that we are all born with one or other strength/s. Then I tried to shift the focus from self to others. This worked much better, women giggled and started to talk about the strengths of their friends, who in turn giggled even more and complimented back by strengths spotting for the appreciators.

 

One woman said she has strength of competitiveness, and can make 100 bidis (small local cheap cigars) in 15 minutes, more than anyone in her neighbourhood. She has even given a demonstration in front of Govt. Officials in the local municipal township office, in order to obtain a Govt. Aid for health insurance.

 

A woman said that to be present in this training workshop away from home without men is a proof of her strength of adventure. A group of women pointed out to an elderly woman, and said she has wonderful strength of counselling, and is very compassionate.

 

Another smart widow stood up and said that she is full of drive, as a proof she cited the example that she always attends social welfare workshops and conference, and once have even travelled to Siliguri (a town in north Bengal, which is about 20 hours journey by train from Hasnabad).

 

We then talked about collective strength and how powerful tool it can be, and roughly introduced the idea of the Realise2 quadrant model, to describe how it can be used to the fullest advantage.

 

The session ended in song of Rabindranath Tagore mukto karo bhoy, apona majhe shakti dhoro, nijere koro joy” (break free from the shackles of fear, realise your own strength to be a winner) wherein some of the women joined me.

 

I ended the session by asking them to make a promise, to be alert about their own strengths, look out for strengths in others, and to make strengths part of their vocabulary.

 

The group looked visibly happy and hopeful and cheered me in chorus to assure me that they will keep their promise.”

 

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The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – Update – September 2012

Posted by: Aviurpa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In September’s update from Avirupa, she shares with us the success of the exhibition sale in which the Women’s Sewing Co-operative of Shiriti slum participated, together with their review of what went well and what lessons they can learn and apply for the future.

 

If you’re not familiar with the background of Capp’s work through The Strengths Project with the women of Shiriti slum in Kolkata, follow this link to read more of the history of what we have been doing.

 

Here is Avirupa’s update about the success of the exhibition sale, and what the Women’s Sewing Co-operative were working on in September:

 

“The month of September began with a flurry of activities. We were all gearing up for the exhibition which was due to be held for 3 days on 10th, 11th & 12th September. All days being weekdays we had to plan out a schedule which ensured that at least one member of the group was present at the venue from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

 

Predictably the most initiative was taken by the three most active members of our group, viz. Sharmila, Mousumi & Arpita. But while Mousumi & Sharmila said they could only manage half a shift per day, Arpita surprised us all by declaring that she will be present everyday from start to finish, and she was confident that in her absence, her husband, who is supportive of her work with TSP, will take care of house chores. We were busy putting tags and readying our assortment of clothes.

 

On 10th I got my car and we set off for the venue, the women wore their finest clothes and looked radiant and proud. Smiling faces rarely betrayed the underlying anticipation we all felt. Once in the venue, we quickly located our table. As mentioned earlier, due to budget constraint, we had to share a table with a cousin of mine. Nevertheless we were happy to set up shop and soon were ready to do business.

 

There were quite a number of enthusiastic visitors and shoppers. This is quite an intimate but well known exhibition organized by a reputed Govt. aided social welfare organization, held in the premises of one the oldest women empowerment organizations of Kolkata.

 

The publicity for the event is mainly by word of mouth and old loyalists look forward to this occasion to stock up on their Durga Puja shopping. The official ribbon cutting ceremony was performed by a local celebrity, Papiya Adhikari. She visited every stall paused to admire our display. Sharmila, Arpita & Mousumi were delighted to pose for a photo with her.

 

Our table was quite busy on all days. All our petticoats were sold out by Day 2. Sensing the popularity of our product, Arpita proposed that we hike our price by Rs.20. In fact we had the cheapest price among all the stalls.

 

Arpita lived up to her promise by coming on time on all 3 days and staying till closing time, taking care to keep track of our bills and neatly folding and rearranging the garments everyday. Sharmila & Mousumi gave her company on alternate days. Mousumi even got her daughter with her on Day 3. By the end of the exhibition we had sold products worth Rs. 1105. This was indeed a considerable achievement for us. On the last day we decided to take the next week off and assemble on 27th.

 

On 27th there was full house and we started discussing what went right and what could have improved. A lot of things we felt were working in our favour, like price, the quality of the fabric, handmade tag, etc. That fact that we competed with other more veteran stall owners and did brisk business spoke a lot about our collective spirit.

 

We were happy to receive such recognition in a somewhat open market without any advertisement, that too participating for the first time. The factors which could be improved included our lack of planning, we decided to tackle that with what we learnt from this experience.

 

Our untapped potential turned out to be Arpita, who was not a great contributor in terms of making clothes, but proved to be an excellent sales person. She was ready with a quick smile and her
customary quips which were very effective to catch the attention of a hurried customer and converting intent into a confirmed sell. We felt we needed to explore her talent and strength for this more in all future ventures.

 

Our weakness was the poor quality of finish, since most of the garments were made by novices. Also our lack of knowledge about the kind of products that would sell well, contributed to the weakness factor. This could easily be tackled since we knew now by designing small embroidered items like table covers, baby clothes, about which there was a clear demand, plus petticoats, our prized item needed to made in larger quantities.

 

All in all, by the end of the meeting we were indeed very happy and were already looking forward to the next exhibition.”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – August 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

This month Avirupa brings us updates for how the weather has been affecting the people of Shiriti slum in the month of August, combined with the excitement of preparing for the annual exhibition, where the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative will showcase their products:

 

“Erratic weather finally took it’s toll in August. Inconsistent rain, high humidity and hot sun coupled with the dirt accumulation in our city resulted in a number of tropical diseases transmitted by mosquito, the most threatening being dengue fever. It has affected more that thousands, with the official death count at 5. It is serious enough to be considered as epidemic.

 

The mood at Shiriti is sombre, the women are worried about their children. I bring a ray of good news; the annual exhibition of a reputed Govt. aided women and child welfare organisation was scheduled for 3 days in September, 10th to 12th. I had asked one of my aunts, who is a freelance social worker, to book us a table. However the cost of one full table came to Rs.1500, but we have only Rs. 800 in our common fund. So I thought of inviting a cousin to share half a table to sell home-made snacks. That brought down our investment cost to Rs. 750.

 

Smiling faces greet me and we soon get busy discussing what needs to be done to spruce up our humble collection. Robert had donated some fancy ribbons, buttons and sequins which were lying idle all these while. Mousumi had the bright idea of using them to make our batch of baby pinafores look pretty. The petticoats were our prized items, but even they need to be washed and ironed, as they have become dusty and lost the sheen of newness.

 

In the second week, we were delighted to see Sharmila back resplendent with vermillion and “shankha-pola” (a pair of white and red bangles, traditional symbols of hindu married woman) she happily joined our planing process offering valuable suggestions off and on. The women took home the entire collection in parts, each making an entry in the register for the number of clothes that she would be responsible for. The plan was to share the load of washing, so that each woman will be comfortable washing a few clothes with their own laundry.

 

The next week Mousumi was ready with her chore but none of the others could complete. So we decided to give one more week for washing following which the primping work would start. On 23rd August all but Arpita were ready with freshly washed and ironed clothes, so we sat down to decide on design ideas. The cut and fit of most of the clothes were fine, we left it to Sharmila to put the lace on baby suits. The energy and excitement was palpable, finally our much awaited exhibition looked like a reality.

 

In the last week we gathered together to finalize who will share which responsibility especially about time, since someone from our group need to be present at the venue at all time during the work hours for 3 days. This was cause for much debate, and it remained unresolved, but we were confident that we will somehow find a workable solution in the end.”   

 

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – July 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

As regular readers of The Capp Blog will know, for a number of years through our charitable arm, The Strengths Project, Capp has supported the establishment and running of a Women’s Sewing Co-operative in Shiriti slum, Kolkata, India. The Women’s Sewing Co-operative was formed through strengthspotting and identifying the women’s strengths, then harnessing these strengths to improve their life circumstances. The project is supported by Avirupa Bhaduri, Capp’s consultant in Kolkata.

 

In her update for the month of July, Avirupa tells us about the impact of the lack of rain in the monsoon season, together with the implications for the Women’s Sewing Co-operative of both a price rise in the cost of a reel of cotton and the impact of the upcoming wedding for one of the senior members of the Co-operative…

 

“July is officially height of monsoon, but this year the south west monsoon winds have been very unpredictable. There was hardly any rain in June and if the first week of July was any indication, then India is about to face serious crisis in terms of rainfall. We were discussing the impact of so less rain for crops, in our first meeting. It is interesting to note that somehow, although Sharmila, Mousumi, Shyama, Arpita and others have lived all their lives in the slums of the city, they seem inexorably drawn towards village.

 

The discussion turned to the steep price hike that has hit us hard in recent times. We were discussing how a reel of thread which six months back cost Rs.3 have become dearer by Rs.2. Therefore the women agreed that it is imperative that we scout for work now, as we will be able to offer cheap labour cost, and it will be a relief for the women if they can add a little extra money to support their family income. We promised each other that we will each think about a strategy for getting work by the next week’s meeting.

 

But on 12th a surprise awaited me. As I approached the group Sharmila shyly announced that the date of her wedding was finalized for 29th. All of us congratulated her; she was indeed the best of the group; sincere, hard working, talented and efficient. I was apprehensive about what it will mean for our group, whether she will be able to be part of us after marriage. But Sharmila confidently assured that her husband lives in the same community, which means she won’t migrate to a different part of the city. She also said that she had known the boy for a long time, he is very supportive of her every endeavor, and in fact always encourages her about being part of The Strengths Project. I felt happy at the pride she feels about her role with TSP. We only discussed Sharmila & her marriage in that meeting.

 

The next Thursday Sharmila was busy with pre-wedding preparation so she was absent. The rest of us discussed the possibility of generation of work, but the only idea that kept recurring was to have an exhibition…somehow. The boys of the local club have not summoned us, so the pressure to garner money for donation was not there immediately. But all of us really wanted to showcase our work to the world. Sensing their strong desire, I once again resolved to do something, however small, about the exhibition. Our meeting for the following week was adjourned for the occasion of Sharmila’s wedding. It gave me some time to explore options and speculate about how to arrange the elusive exhibition.”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – June 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In her post for the month of June, Avirupa shares with us the long-awaited arrival of the monsoon season, although this also brings with it its own challenges. Further, the changing political situation in Kolkata is having its own impact on Shiriti slum and the activities of the Women’s Sewing Co-operative:

 

“Monsoon finally arrived in the second week of June much to the relief of one and all. Every weather though brings forth its share of tribulation. Rain is welcome in our country, since prehistoric times, as ours is a primarily agriculture based civilization. In villages in fact the first day of rain is celebrated through rituals. But in urban shanties, the romanticism of rain is but a distant memory.

 

Shiriti, for example, gets water logged if rain lasts for days. Filth, animal waste, overflowing garbage, plastic packets, all clog the open drains, clothes refuse to dry, children fall sick, and water gets contaminated. Water-borne diseases are very common during this season.

 

But our month started on a high note as all of us were quite upbeat about the successful completion of the costumes in the 1st meeting of June. On the second week Sharmila informed that she had inquired about the price of covers for sewing machine. The local carpenter has given an estimate of about Rs.300 per machine. This seemed a lot of money for our paltry fund. The collective decision was to start with two and then make the rest one by one, subject to availability of funds.

 

The next week however turned out to be difficult. A new problem has cropped up. As we approached the club, a local youth came over and wanted to talk to me. I was surprised as I haven’t met him before. He introduced himself as Tinku, member of the new club committee. He asked me to meet them, to discuss the status of our sewing group. He sounded self-assured, even to the point of being arrogant, and I had a feeling he wanted some kind of monthly donation for the club, if we wish to continue with our activity in the club premises.

 

I immediately called Babunda, our ally and friend, the erstwhile chairman of the club committee. He informed that apparently the old brigade has been asked to leave in the last committee meeting. This change of guards was anticipated, following the state elections. The old members were veterans, all supporters of the communist party, which was in power. The new members are relatively young boys, eager to assume position of authority, owing allegiance to Trinamul Congress, the party in power now, in the state.

 

I told him that the boys hinted at donation, or rent, as they liked to put it, for keeping the sewing machines in the club, and for the women to assemble on Thursdays. He advised that selected members of our sewing group should accompany me when they call for the meeting and explain that the sewing project is for the benefit of their own sisters and mothers. We then called for an urgent meeting the next week to talk about the impending issue.

 

Sharmila, Mousumi and Arpita all wanted to be present when the boys called us. They added that if it seem unlikely that they become convinced that it’s for their family’s interest and relent, then we should offer a small amount as rent, which we will then try to generate each month through work, as a compulsion. This would be the eustress we need to get work.

 

We were all happy to garner some positive targets from a negative situation. With this encouraging parting promise we concluded the month, with hopes high for the future.”         

 

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – May 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

In her May update, Avirupa shares with us the horrendous heat challenges in Kolkata during the month, but also a great opportunity that she was able to create for the Women’s Sewing Co-operative in Shiriti slum:

 

“This month has been by far the cruellest of summer in the last 25 years. Temperatures have soared to maximum of 40 degrees C (i.e. 104 degree F) and refuses to budge for weeks. This is 5 notches higher than normal. Everyday the newspapers are bearing stories of lives lost due to heat stroke. So far 25 deaths have been reported in the state of West Bengal alone, out of which 7 people dropped dead in the streets of Kolkata.

 

It hasn’t rained in months. Met office has not been able to give any hope for monsoon even in the 1st week of June. What is making lives unbearable is the humidity quotient which is about 70% on an average. This means sweat is draining out precious body fluid, thus everyone is suffering from dehydration.

 

Life at Shiriti is worse due to frequent power cuts, scarcity of water, as there are not enough public running water taps in the locality. Plus most of the roofs are made up of tin or asbestos, which gets heated up abnormally during the day. We could not conduct more than two meetings this month because of this unbearable weather condition. A heat wave warning is announced, and repeated announcements are made in media, asking residents to remain indoors between 10a.m. to 4p.m.

 

We had to put our plan to transfer materials on hold, as none of the boys can be found during day, and in the evenings the women are too busy to meet. However, a new opportunity has suddenly landed with us from unexpected quarters. I am involved in the costume department of an upcoming Bengali feature film, and for that I had, in my capacity to allot some of the costumes to be tailored and embroidered.

 

Instantly I thought this would be a fantastic chance to offer some work to the Shiriti women’s group. To this effect, on 17th May, I took 3 Kurtas to the women and explained what needs to be done as per the designer’s requirement. When they learnt it is for a film, naturally everyone was very excited. Mousumi junior, who happened to be present wanted to know the name of the actor who’ll wear the kurtas. We had a laugh over it.

 

Sharmila Mousumi got busy deciding on responsibility chart. Arpita wanted to buy the materials. The shooting is to start from June 11th. So deadline was fixed at 1st June. On May 24th when we assembled I found one kurta was ready. The second needed finishing touch and the group was yet to start on the third. By 1st June two kurtas were completed, the women complained of the heat and power cuts for the delay of the third. Finally on 6th I got the third.

 

The quality of the kurtas were very high. The film unit gave hearty compliments to the women, which I later conveyed to them. They were delighted to get a job which was fun and were hopeful to get other such works in future. This project lifted their spirit and gave them hope for the future through the sewing co-operative.”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – April 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

With our April update from Shiriti slum in Kolkata, Avirupa tells us about how the women of the Sewing Co-operative negotiated for the chest in which they could keep the valuables of the Sewing Co-operative safe:

 

 “April marks the end of the Bengali calendar. Throughout Chaitra, the last month of the year, the shops traditionally offer huge discount, known popularly as “Chaitra Sale”. We decided to take advantage of this. So in the first Thursday of April, Sharmila, Arpita and I ventured out in the local market on foot to buy the chest. Mousumi could not accompany us being down with fever. Our effort paid fruit. After scanning different shops we were easily able to get the chest @ Rs.300, instead of Rs.500 as anticipated. This was our moment of victory. So we decided to celebrate with ice lollies, from roadside.

 

We had a wonderful fun time, which brought out the witty side of Arpita. While haggling about price, we were inquiring about the durability of the chest, when Arpita quipped that the chest looked like it will outlive the shop owner (who incidentally was a chirpy old man). We took turns to carry the heavy chest on our way back. This time we took an autorickshaw to Shiriti. The women decided to inaugurate the chest on poila boishakh, the Bengali New Year day, since it is considered auspicious. The chest was temporarily kept in Arpita’s custody.

 

On the next week Arpita and Sharmila decorated the chest with regilious symbols with vermillion mark to offer a small puja, before we start transferring our belongings. Poila Boishakh being a traditional holiday, women of the house go for spring cleaning, children wear new clothes, special meals are cooked, and the day is generally utilized by spending quality time with family and friends. So we did not organise any meeting that day, just exchanged greetings and left early as the women had to attend to their respective homes.

 

On the third week we encountered another problem. The boys in the club were reluctant to part with keys of their cupboard as the secretary was not present, and money collected as donation for a football match was kept inside. Our materials and registers are kept in the cupboard, so we could not transfer them that day. We then brain stormed how we can avoid such a situation, finally it was agreed that by April we will transfer all out material and documents from their cupboard, and we will keep everything in the chest, which will be kept locked.

 

The group settled on the decision that one key will remain with me, while the other will alternate among members. The chest however has to be kept within the club. So we looked for a safe place inside. We found that there is a built in cement shelf high up the wall, which is empty. That became the place of choice. We were happy to resolve the problem, in this way we can minimize our interface with the boys, and it will be less bothersome on their part to hand over the keys every time.

 

The carpentry work though needed more time. Firstly we did a rough budgeting. We had in the collective fund (generated by the sale of bags to CAPP) about Rs.800, out of which Rs. 300 was used to buy the chest. We have about Rs.500 to make the wooden boxes for machine cover. This is not enough, so Mousumi suggested that we start selling our petticoats to interested customers, including members of the group, without waiting for an exhibition.

 

Since petticoats were in high demand and in fact a lot of local women have expressed their interest to buy those, we indeed have a ready market. This was a very practical proposal and everybody voted for the motion. Thus we now have a financial plan ready to fund our “ensuring sewing machine safety” project.

 

This is what I call a classic example of strength-based sustainable development!”

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – March 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

Continuing our updates of our work through The Strengths Project with the Women’s Sewing Co-operative that we established in Shiriti slum, Kolkata, India, Avirupa is pleased to share the news from March this year:

 

“March is the time for “Holi” or “Dol” in Bengali. It’s the festival of colour celebrating the colours of nature in springtime. The weather is generally pleasant, but can get quite scorching for days culminating in “kalbaishakhi” (norwesters) thunderstorm accompanied by spells of showera.  Although people welcome “kalbaishakhi” for bringing temporary relief, in Shiriti it is anticipated with apprehension, as it results in uprooting trees, disrupting roofs and more often than not, long hours of power-cuts, as illegally hooked electric wires get tangled and rip. We had to cancel two meetings in the beginning of March due to the “kalbaishakhi” that followed “Dol”.

 

In the second week when we assembled, Shyama had already made a survey of sorts in the local market for the price of steel chest. A medium sized chest was estimated to cost between Rs.400 to Rs.500. Subsequently Arpita volunteered to take the responsibility to buy it, but she wanted at least one other member to accompany her. It was decided that we will be ready with the chest by end of March.

 

But we had a different problem at hand now. With the change in political party in the state, the local club committee has also revised, making the older lot, with whom we were acquainted with, being replaced by a new group of people owing their allegiance to the new ruling party. The women said that the boys now were not careful about our machines kept in the club, and indeed we saw that the four machines were dusty, some small parts missing.

 

We figured the best way to ensure that we maintain cordial relationship with the boys and make sure that they do not mess with our machines would be to offer them a token gift. The women decided to make a cover for the carom board which is kept in the club, by stitching scrap left over fabrics.

 

Next week we were almost ready with the carom board cover, but none of the club members were available to receive the gift. I asked the women to inform the men in advance, so that we can hand over the gift next day. The chest buying project however received a setback because of lack of coordination between the women. We decided to keep the target for the end of March as final. So dialogues were initiated between the women to find out the best solution. We talked about how united in our mission we were to buy the chest in the interest of our group. Each of them then narrated to what extent they can adjust time with the other women, so that they can go and buy the chest together.  Finally Sharmila agreed to take responsibility to see through the process with Arpita and Mousumi as companions. We were happy.

 

In the last meeting of the month we gave the carom board cover to the boys, unfortunately the men of the club committee were busy in their workplace. The boys were delighted with the gift and promised to take care of the machines henceforth. However we felt something more was needed to protect our precious machines. Mousumi, Shyama, Sharmila and I came upon the idea of manufacturing little plywood box covers for the machines. Tushi gave a clever suggestion to add hatch bolt with a lock and key to make safety a certainty.  We were enthused at the idea and the women said they will ask for price quotes from their neighboring carpenters.

 

Thus in April we had two projects: i) to finally buy the chest, and transfer all our products to it, before we organize a sale and ii) to scout for the cheapest quote for making safety boxes for the machines. With these dual agenda, we march onto April.”

 

Further updates from The Strengths Project will follow shortly. Watch this space!

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Update from The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – February 2012

Posted by: Avirupa Bhaduri & Alex Linley

 

We’re pleased to bring you another update as we catch up with what has been happening with The Strengths Project in Kolkata, India. This update is from earlier this year – February to be precise – and over the coming weeks we will catch up with updates to the current day. Here is what Avirupa has to report from February:

 

“It’s springtime in Calcutta. Though winters are quite pleasant in this part of the world, yet Bengalis are forever hostile towards any reading of the mercury below 23 degree Celsius. So once “Poush Shankranti” marks the official beginning of spring, the mood is of relief and joy. According to the Bengali calendar poush is the last month of winter, and shonkranti i.e. the last day of the month is auspicious.

 

Traditionally the day is celebrated by “nabanna” festival, to observe thankfulness for the harvest of new crop (chiefly rice). Delectable rice based special deserts of the season called “pithe” are made in every home, quality and quantity varies depending on economic condition of the family. So when I showed up in Shiriti on 16th February, the day after “Poush Shankranti” for our Thursday meeting, I was treated with a bowl of puli pithe, prepared by Mousumi.

 

On that sweet note we started our assembly, with the agenda to itemize, catalogue and decide on the price of all the items of clothing produced by the group till date. The clothes were in possession of different people, some of whom have left the group since, so the first task was to collate all the items. We looked up our register to identify the people and every member took it upon herself to get the materials from each one of the absent people.

 

The next week we had almost all the items in hand. But the condition of the lot was deplorable. Most were dirty,  some were moth eaten, and stained, due to lack of proper storage facility. So Mousumi, Sharmila and Shyama divided the lot among them and took home for washing and ironing. In the light of this problem, we decided to buy a trunk, and packs of cheap insecticide to keep all the materials together. The money for the trunk was to be provided by our group fund. 

 

In subsequent meetings we then made the following list:

Shirt (boys) 4 pcs.

Shirt (girls) 7 pcs.

Short kameez (girls) 6 pcs.

Baby pant suit 11 pcs.

Petticoat (white) 7 pcs.

Petticoat (colored) 7 pcs.

 

While we were making the list, a few local women dropped by, and offered to buy items. The demand for petticoat seems to be quite high, followed by baby clothes. Many of our members also were keen to buy our own products, esp. petticoats.

 

When we sat down to decide on the price, a couple of issues came up. The women were frank about the poor quality of cut and fit of their product, as they were made when they were students. The fabrics were donated by CAPP and Robert, so cost of production is very low. Based on that logic, we decided to keep the price of individual items lower than the market value of similar products. Another bright idea suggested by Tushi, was to offer a discount on the less popular items, to attract consumer. Thus price was fixed at:

 

Shirt (boys) 4 pcs @ Rs. 50/ pc. Less discount 20% Final price: Rs. 40 per pc.

Shirt (girls) 7 pcs. @ Rs. 40/ pc. Less discount 25% Final price: Rs. 30 per pc.

Short kameez (girls) 6 pcs. @ Rs. 100/ pc. Less discount 30% Final price: Rs. 70 per pc.

Baby pant suit 11 pcs @ Rs. 30/ pc.

Petticoat (white) 7 pcs @ Rs. 100/ pc. Less discount 10% (only for stained pieces) Final price: Rs. 90/ pc.

Petticoat (colored) 7 pcs @ Rs. 100/ pc.

 

A surprise awaited us on the last meeting of the month of February. On that Thursday, Mou, our one time active member joined us again. She is now married, and pregnant, and had come to visit her mother. We had a fun time with her, the other women joked and teased her, and she was chirpy and lively like before. She brought with her the clothes that were in her possession.

 

She said as soon as she heard that we were collecting the items, she on her own came to submit the stuff which she couldn’t return due to her hasty marriage. She rued the fact that she cannot attend our Thursday meetings as her “in-laws” house is at a different part of town. However she promised to drop by as and when she visits her mother. Once she departed, the group planned to gift one of the baby clothes for her child.

 

Thus we ended February with hopeful plans for March.”

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