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Kolkata

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.”

 

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The Strengths Project, Kolkata, India – December 2012 Update – Part 1

Posted by: Alex Linley & Avirupa Bhaduri

 

In the December report from Shiriti slum in Kolkata, India (which we will post in two parts – this is Part 1), Avirupa describes Christmas in Kolkata, and sets the scene for another strengths-based community development workshop that she developed in Baghmundi, a town in Purulia, one of the poorest districts of West Bengal. As Avirupa reports:

 

“December, the last month of the year, and a month of festivities. Although Christmas is essentially a Christian religious ceremony, we in India have somehow internalized it, in true spirit of our fabled “synthetic culture”. To most Indians, especially for Bengalis, it is a holiday which has curiuosly become associated with cake eating. Winter in the subcontinent is fairly warm, the average temperature lies between 13 to 15 degrees.

 

When I went to Shiriti on 6th December I met only Sharmila, the mothers were busy preparing their children for terminal exam. We spoke for a while and I told Sharmila that I’ll take the last week off for annual holiday. She was happy for me and asked me to call her before coming next week, so that she will inform the others about the time.

 

It so happened that I got invited for taking another leadership workshop by the same NGO, apparently propelled by the success of the previous ones. I was very happy to be part of yet another enriching experience, so readily agreed. But this time the workshop was to be held at Baghmundi, a remote village at the heart of Purulia district in West Bengal. The workshop schedule is for two days and we have to travel by train for a night. I had to therefore cancel the next week’s meeting at Shiriti.

 

So, on 12th December I boarded the train from Howrah station along with representatives of the NGO. Next day early morning we reached Borabhum, the nearest railway station to Baghmundi. A jeep was waiting for us at the station, and we started our onward journey. The road from the station was suprisingly great, largely devoid of potholes and bumpy ride, which is common in almost all roads including the highways of West Bengal.

 

On hearing me complement, the local representative proudly announced that this road was in fact built by a Japanese construction company, thus the quality assurance. So after about half an hour, we reached the main market area of Baghmundi, from there we took a left turn and as expected the road became non-existent. We continued with our journey through what seemed like village courtyards, the jeep manouvering with supernatural dextrousness amidst mud, washclothes, children playing, and mounds of paddy kept for drying in the sun.

 

After this adventure we arrived at a big iron gate. A perfectly urban looking three storied pucca (made of brick) with a lovely garden front. This was such an exceptional sight that the city girl in me almost gasped in wonder. I eventually learned that this building was built and manintained by the Lions Club and acts as a social community centre and a place for convention of various social service activities, both government and non-government organizations. We weare served a cup of steaming hot tea while we waited for the delegates to arrive from nearby villages across the hills, as well as from the adjoining district of Bankura.

 

A little backstory of the area would be helpful here. Purulia and Bankura are two of the poorest districts of West Bengal. The soil in these regions is not as fertile as the rest of the state, the rivers are seasonal, i.e., they flood in monsoon and dry up in summer and winter. The majority of the population is composed of tribal peoples, one of the most marginalized communities in our country. Their language is Santhali and even when they speak Bengali, their dialect is quite unique.

 

In recent times these areas have been riddled by Maoist insurgencies, which allegedly is a fallout of the lack of development initiative taken by the government. As a result, there is a heavy police and military presence in the area, and the common people are the worst sufferers.

 

In this context, we were poised to hold the workshop to empower the villagers with positive life skills. The first day’s workshop started late as the delegates, many of whom cycled miles crossing the hills to the venue, arrived close to noon. On humanitarian grounds, after a brief introductory session, the lunch break was announced. Post-lunch, one of the key speakers takes an exhaustive session on “awareness of laws and  rights”. It’s winter, so it gets dark early and there’s not enough provision of electricity, thus we concluded the day.”

 

On day two, we’ll learn more about Avirupa’s strengths session with the delegates. This follows in Part 2 of this blog…

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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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