We live in a society that is full of paradoxes. This harsh reality is more evident in India than many other countries and it is one of the prime concerns shared by most travellers.
Some choose to overlook the disparity and others look for a deeper interaction that would enable them to leave a positive footprint. I am driven by the latter, as I am fortunate enough to have been born in a family that has been involved in causes, no matter how big or small, related to social welfare and heritage conservation.
I believe that travel is an incredible tool for betterment. Although a majority of travellers remain confined within the commercial mechanisms benefiting a select few, if planned and implemented with appropriate sensitivity, the tourism industry has the potential to be a great educator.
I am passionate about using travel as a catalyst to bring about a long-term and meaningful change in areas related to conservation and welfare.
SEWA is the Self-Employed Women’s Association, an accomplished Indian trade union established in 1972 by Ela Bhatt, which has been working to organise, support and empower self-employed women workers from underprivileged sections.
This organisation is very close to my heart and over more than two decades, I have personally seen the remarkably positive change it has managed to bring about in the lives of its members.
Elaben, as she is lovingly called by the members of SEWA, has received global recognition for her work with several national and international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Right Livelihood Award and the Padma Bhushan – India’s third-highest civilian award.
Of the female labour force in India, more than 94% are in the unorganised sector. These women earn a living either through hard labour or by running small businesses.
Although this number is substantial, these women and their work have remained unaccounted for, depriving them of the security and benefits enjoyed by the workers in the organised sector and leaving them completely vulnerable, marginalised and exploited.
Since its foundation in 1972, SEWA has been working at the grass root level to empower underprivileged women workers through education, training and social and economic support. Most of the members come from an extremely deprived rural background and face tremendous economic as well as social challenges.
Over the years, SEWA has succeeded in creating a support mechanism that has enabled its members to become completely self-reliant. The organisation operates a microfinance bank offering savings and credit facilities, health and child care co-operatives, various entrepreneurship initiatives amongst rural artisans as well as a range of professional training and development programmes.
From a very modest beginning, today the organisation supports more than two million women across the subcontinent. However, its largest base remains at home in Gujarat.
The most significant and positive upshot is that SEWA’s members, many with young families, are able to afford basic education for their children, enabling their future generations far better prospects for growth and better social standing.
Some of SEWA’s prominent initiatives include:
Waste picking is considered to be one of the lowest trades in the society and is usually taken up by workers who do not have any other skills or means of livelihood. This sector is predominantly dominated by women belonging to the lowest strata of the society.
When some of the waste collection services were privatised by the local administration, many members lost their sole livelihood and were left without any alternatives due to lack of skills and knowledge.
SEWA started the Gitanjali Cooperative and trained these women in stationary making using recycled material. Today, the members produce pens, notebooks and files that are sold to various private sector organisations using contracts set up by SEWA, giving them an alternative source of income, a higher social status as business owners and completely financial independence.
For those visiting the Historic City of Ahmedabad, India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City, I highly encourage visiting the cooperative located in the old city to learn more about these inspirational women and how their lives have been transformed.
This region is one of the largest salt producing regions in India. At present, about forty three thousand salt farmers live in more than 108 villages scattered across the region.
These farmers belong to highly traditional and undeveloped nomadic tribes and due to very high salt production costs, majority of them are stuck in persistent poverty with high debts, harsh living conditions, minimal education opportunities, extremely poor healthcare and sanitation infrastructure and high child and infant mortality rates.
Unlike many other farming processes, salt farming in India hasn’t seen much modernisation over time. The only machinery used in the process is a diesel pump used for pumping out of the sub-soil brine.
High fuel costs leave the farmers with near to nil savings, which means that in spite of working for about eight months in the desert under extremely challenging conditions, they remain poor and many are being forced to migrate to towns and cities to take up manual labour.
SEWA has introduced solar pumps which has completely eliminated fuel expenses and through the community centre at Visavadi village, various initiatives have been introduced focusing on clean drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and alternative skill training and development projects for salt farmers and their families.
Little Rann of Kutch is located about two and a half hour’s drive from Ahmedabad. It is home to India’s only Wild Ass Sanctuary and attracts a variety of migratory birds during winter including the famous flamingos. The tribal villages in the region are also renowned for their intricate textile handicrafts.
Gujarat is renowned for textile crafts and the villages in Patan and Kutch districts are filled with highly-skilled artisans producing some of the finest handmade embroidery work in the country. However, the majority of rural women did not see any value in their traditional crafts and used to give away their beautifully embroidered pieces to traders at throwaway prices.
Their husbands remained the main bread earners and most communities were entirely dependent on seasonal agriculture. Successive droughts and irregular rainfall started to force the communities to migrate to towns and villages threatening their highly unique traditional embroidery skills.
SEWA started working with the women artisans in 1989. Local district associations were formed in Patan and Kutch districts and eventually Banascraft, the retail and direct marketing outlet was set up in Ahmedabad in 1991 to help the rural artisans overcome the exploitative trade nexuses and have a platform to enter the mainstream market.
Today the women artisans have set-up their own company - SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre and are able to earn a sustainable livelihood using their traditional embroidery skills and also market their products under Hansiba brand.
This has significantly reduced their dependency on agriculture and now the women are able to take charge of their families and counter critical issues including domestic abuse, alcoholism and social inequality.
SEWA has also set-up a community museum in Radhanpur village in order to revive, preserve and showcase the region’s beautiful handicrafts.
Those interested in textiles can visit the main Trade Facilitation Centre in Ahmedabad or the villages in Patan and Kutch to interact with the artisans and learn more about their unique heritage. Similarly, the organisation works very closely with women artisans in Lucknow specialising in intricate chikan embroidery work.
I feel strongly that SEWA and other similar organisations change so many lives. The Explorations Company aims to help them in their efforts not just financially but also by promoting awareness by way of travel philanthropy.
Wherever you are planning to go next, I would be delighted to discuss how you can incorporate into your plans a cause that you are passionate about. We like to call it “travelling with a heart”.