Much before Slumdog Millionaire or Shantaram turned spotlight on Mumbai’s slums, Sister Isabel, a small frail woman from Spain, would queue up everyday patiently in front of the public toilets and water tap for her turn in a Jogeshwari slum. She lived there for 15 years for a first-hand experience of life in a slum.
This “most enriching time” did not win her nomination to Oscar or Hollywood offers, but it did give her reason to start Creative Handicraft, a charitable trust that helps women from the slums earn a decent livelihood through the Fair Trade label.
What started in 1984 with three women learning sewing to make a living is today an operation involving some 1,000 women that boasts of buyers in Europe, UK, Japan and Australia. Toys and garments made by Creative Handicrafts are sold in boutiques and stores like Carrefour and Monoprix.
From Rs 35 lakh sales in 2002, Creative Handicrafts’ annual sales rose to Rs 3.7 crore in 2008. Sister Isabel, now 83, does not live in the slum. In fact the shantytown
has transformed under the slum redevelopment scheme. But in the shantytown of Achanak Nagar in Andheri East, where the many units of Creative Handicrafts are located, the octogenarian moves from one small workshop to another surefooted as a goat.
In the conference room, a consignment of garments is being readied for Japan. In another room, women sit around embroidering small motifs on fabric. In another workshop a group of women are busy packing some 500 lunch packets for the many offices around. Asli Food was the brainchild of one of the women who despite training, could not perfect her sewing skills. “There were many such women. Cooking was the only skill they had. So they decided to make and deliver lunch packets to office goers,” informs Anjali Tapkare, chairman of Creative Handicrafts centre.
Twenty or so women work here from 8.30 to 5.30 pm while their children go to school or stay at the crèche and balwadi run by Creative Handicrafts. They earn Rs 3,000 a month and twice or thrice a year, they share the profits from the operations that could be a lump sum of Rs 6,000 or more. But the main occupation for the women in the centre is the garment and handicraft that they make for foreign buyers, says Reggie Varkey as he rushes from one workshop to another to meet the consignment deadline.
But with the global recession, the orders from abroad may soon dry up. So, the centre has now trained its eyes on domestic supply through its store in Hill Road, Bandra and by taking the order for sewing uniforms for schools. And that is what Creative Handicrafts does, says its director Johny Joseph, a trained social worker. “Creative Handicrafts acts like an entrepreneur, taking risks on new business and provide a market for the goods made here. After all each woman working here is capable of making goods worth Rs 1 lakh.” Of Sister Isabel he says, “She picks the right people for the job, trusts them and gives them freedom to do their work. And she is full of ideas to find new ways to generate income.”
And to think that she actually studied medicine before she came to India as part of a volunteer for Missionaries of Christ Jesus 53 years ago in 1955.
A voracious reader, Sister Isabel says of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, “There is no hope at the end of the book. That is not my experience. Even in the slums there is joy and life and hope in India.”
Sister Isabel may not have created a millionaire overnight as Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire does but she has created a 1000-strong army of women from slums who earn respectable wages on their term.