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Pioneers, straight from the hills

india Updated: Apr 16, 2012 20:10 IST
Aarefa Johari

At the Avani centre in Pithoragarh, a district in the remote Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, natural living is the norm.

Villagers working at this 14 - year - old non-profit organisation, operate solar-powered appliances, make eco-friendly textiles, create natural dyes and soaps from locally grown plants and feed waste water to the vegetable garden, where they grow the food they eat.

For Rashmi Bharti and her husband Rajnish Jain, co-founders of Avani, this is the life, they hope, will someday be a reality all over India.

"We went to work in the mountains because we could not fit in the rat race of Delhi," said Bharti, 45, a mathematics graduate, who met her husband at the Osho commune in Pune.

The commune's tradition of integrating life and work strengthened their desire for an alternative lifestyle. In 1991-92, while working in the Kumaon hills for a community-based NGO, they began to get serious about building an organisation "that would improve the quality of life, create opportunities for people and nurture the Himalayan area," said Bharti. But an immediate switchover wasn't possible.

The couple returned to the city. They wanted to work for rural development but needed help figuring out the practical do's and don'ts. In 1994, a friend introduced them to Bunker Roy, founder of Rajasthan based NGO, the Barefoot College. Under Roy's mentorship, the couple moved to Pithoragarh district and set up Avani.

Starting with two of the poorest districts of Kumaon in 1997, the aim was to bring in power through solar energy and creating livelihoods around it.

In 2005, the couple founded an association of local artisans, the Kumaon Earthcraft Self-reliant Co-operative with more than 1,000 families as its members. The shawls, saris, home furnishings, toys and more, are marketed by Avani in India and abroad. Nearly 98% of the workers are women.

Rashmi acts as their conduit, showcasing their work at fashion shows in Paris and London. "By promoting our natural products at international forums, we are placing ourselves at the top of the pyramid and hope to impact the whole cycle," said Jain. Six of Avani's naturally dyed silk fabrics have received the UNESCO Seal of Excellence for uniqueness and eco-friendliness.

Their philosophy is simple - enable the local community. Working in villages that were nowhere near a town, they saw how the absence of regular power supply affected every aspect of local life - from health and education to farming. "There was need for local power production, so we brought in more than 3,000 solar lights to the villages and trained locals in operation and maintenance," said Bharti.

But the poorest families couldn't pay the monthly installment of Rs 30 for the lights. "That's when we realised the need for income-generation programmes and began reviving traditional handicrafts of the region," she said.

The villages, inhabited mainly by the Bora-Kuthalia community, were traditionally involved in making handspun mats. As plastic mats slowly replaced their products, the community began to lose interest and look down upon the work. Young men migrated or remained unemployed at home.

The couple began working with local women, getting them to spin and weave fabric with Tibetan wool and silk. In a decade, they have changed the lives of hundreds of families. "By working as skilled weavers, many single women have been able to stand on their own feet and feed their families. This has also given them the confidence to opt out of early marriages," said Bharti.

For 26-year-old Deepa Bhauryal, who joined Avani as a weaver when she was 18, the organisation has changed everything in her life - from her household income to her personality. "Before I started training, I never ventured out. Now, as president of Earthcraft, I confidently travel and talk to people," said Bhauryal. She actively supports her family by bringing in at least Rs 3,000 a month. Bharti has received many awards for her pioneering entrepreneurship. But she knows the journey is far from over. "We need more machinery and are looking for funds to be able to scale up," she said. "We still have a long way to go."