Jul 5, 2008

Women Scavengers From India Walk The Ramp In New York

Usha Chomar is just one of the 3, 40,000 toilet cleaners in India. Born in deprivation, living in neglect but with a for upliftment. This is her story and many like her.

The word 'scavenger' has two different connotations. The first - Any animal that feeds on refuse and other decaying organic matter. And the second - Someone who collects things that have been discarded by others. It is sadly the second that is the kismet of many women (and kids) in India. Coming from the least economically privileged part of India's society they grow up with the sobriquet 'untouchables'. It is as damning for them as it is for the race which calls itself humans.

But this week some 36 of such women made there way from the bylanes of India to the ramps of New York. They sashayed down the catwalk alongside professional models in a display of recognition and respect courtesy the United Nations. The 36 women are special invitees at the conference to mark the UN's International Year of Sanitation. The special fashion show, Mission Sanitation was part of the U.N Program. The women walked the ramp with models who wore some of the clothes stitched by these workers.

For 36 year old Usha Chomar this was a memorable experience. Though she gave up scavenging three years ago, the memories of her own personal struggle are fresh.

"I have always done the work of scavenging and have faced humiliation all my life."

But with the offbeat 'recognition' given to her by the U.N, she felt finally respected...and like a human. Usha feels that if she could turn around her life so can others of her ilk.

"I tell all scavenging women that it is not impossible for them to change their lives and command just as much respect as any other human being."

Recalling her experiences since the age of seven, experiences which would make most of us cringe; she harks back to the days when she carried human excreta in buckets on her head. With the arrival of the rains the excreta would come down on her head and her body. She used to get vomiting, nausea, pain in the stomach and never felt like eating anything. But her work managed to feed her family of four.

Her life changed for the better when Mr. Bindeshwar Pathak, the head of sanitation specialists Sulabh International, an Indian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) visited the locality. Bindeshwar Pathak gave them a chance to forego their past and start a new life of purpose. He established Nai Disha (meaning ‘New Direction’), a branch of Sulabh International, in Alwar which became the centre for the production of pickles, noodles and other eatables. This gave them a modicum of financial security and more importantly removed them from a demeaning occupation.

The change in there lives exemplifies also the changes in Indian society. After years of isolation, India's socially marginalized classes are being brought back into the mainstream. Governmental legislations coupled with pioneering work done by NGO's like Sulabh International is furthering the change. It is time we reclaimed the word - human

Jul 3, 2008

A Top Business Graduate Peddles A Dream On A Hand Cart

After graduating from India's top business school, this unique individual returns to his roots to fulfill a dream of making his home state the vegetable hub of India.

Indian Institute Of Management is one of the most elitist institutes in the world, comparable to the best anywhere. Churning out IQ blessed business graduates every year, who go on to occupy the top echelons of the corporate stratosphere. Kaushalendra could have easily chosen this as his destiny and nobody would have begrudged him that. An IIM graduate of the 1997 batch, he chose a different road to follow. The road lead to his home state of Bihar, a state blessed with a bounty of resources but cursed with under-development and mismanagement.

His mission - to make Bihar the vegetable hub of India. From a white collar job to the dust and grime of the rural hinterland, his journey with a pushcart is of one single minded purpose.

Kaushalendra says,

"I am here to do something. It was my childhood dream to contribute to the development of rural Bihar. I have opted to make vegetables the new brand of Bihar."

He is fondly called as the 'MBA sabzivallah’, literal for MBA vegetable vendor. Here is the story of this remarkable social hero.

It was 10 years ago that Kaushalendra started his 'enterprise'. Hailing from a farmer family, the roots of his thoughts and motivation originated from the state of affairs in rural Bihar. With a business degree from the prestigious IIM, Ahmedabad he started collating grassroots knowledge through extensive research and fieldwork. He met farmers and studied their cultivation methods.

In India, vegetable distribution is a complicated chain of processes. It finally culminates at the hands of the local vegetable vendors who sell the vegetables and fruits from manual push-carts made up of cycle wheels and a wooded platform. Often rickety at best, the push-cart system of vegetable distribution has existed for decades. This is where Kaushalendra focused his attention.

Drawing upon a project he had initiated early in his career to develop a push-cart capable of taking heavy loads (up to 450 pounds); he launched his 'line' of push-carts under a brand name. His pushcart is made of fiber with an attached weighing machine, is ice cooled to keep vegetables fresh for up to five days. He plans to take Samridhi, launched by his NGO Kaushalya Foundation, across the country and abroad within five years.

Under his business model, vegetables are priced slightly lower than those sold by other vendors. To further synthesize demand and supply, his organization has tied up with 250 vegetable growers in different villages around the region. He has also tied up with the Agriculture Training and Management Agency (ATMA) to take his dream to vegetable producers in different parts of state.

It is his belief that Bihar has a unique potential to harvest and profit from the untapped potential of its natural resources. If marketed properly, vegetable growers and consequently the entire state will gain from the nature's bounty which the river Ganges provides.

It is difficult to imagine this bespectacled IIM graduate pushing a hand-cart and promoting a cause which many of his peers and perhaps a progressive nation on the warpath of industrialization gave up long ago. But for the farmers in Bihar, the success of his venture could again bring renewed respect for an occupation which literally brings the food to our tables.

*According to a survey published by the prestigious London-based weekly Economist's "Intelligence Unit". IIM Ahmedabad has been ranked 64th in the list of the Top100 Business Schools in the world. Only four other Asian schools figure in it. Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, U.S was at the top.