Nestled in the impossible verdant hills of distant Kumaon and flanked by the sky kissing snow-covered hills, this distant region looks like a gem in the paradise. But, this picture-postcard perfect hill corner was an abyss of neglect and under-development and was falling off the map, until a few years ago when Avani, a Voluntary Organisation, decided to ‘exploit’ nature to provide livelihood opportunities to the people, along with sustaining, conserving and enriching nature!
That’s what Neema Devi, 32, a homemaker and farmer from Banoli village, Pithoragarh district, is doing since years as she walks from her small, 10 nali (about half ha) field to Avani’s colour processing unit, with a bag of pomegranate that also grow om her field, “I’m going there to make yellow colour from it with others to make natural water colours, crayons and even kumkum or sindoor,” tells Devi. Besides pomegranate, other plants like turmeric, marigold, Myrobalan, growing in the surrounding areas, are also used to produce a range of natural colours for textiles, art supplies (crayons, water colours), cosmetics, wood stains and organic or non-toxic kumkum or sindoor, while the one that most married Hindu women fill the parting on their heads has mercury, a known carcinogenic element.
While pomegranate rind and marigold flowers yield yellow, green is from basunti leaves, brown from walnut hulls, black and grey from myrobolan fruit blue from indigo. Most of these plants were grown locally, but indigo was bought from outside, mainly from Bihar, initially. But, as the ‘business’ progressed, they decided to grow it here and commenced Himalayan Indigo Project, 44 farmers took to cultivating Indigo for dye extraction. And, farmers are thankful for it, “I grew 347 kg indigo leave and earned an income of Rs. 7,278 and as it can be grown just in 90 days on my wastelands with little labour input with no monkeys damaging it, I can also grow other crops,” says an elated Savitri Devi of Maana village, Bageshwar district.
These organic dyes aren’t used just for making water colours, crayons and kumkum, but also to dye woollen and silk yarns that the local artisans convert into gorgeous and striking shawls, stoles, mufflers, home furnishings and garments for men, women and children, “We use plants growing in the surrounding area also for dyeing many fabrics that we produce. These plants are grown and collected by women’s groups, providing an additional income source in the villages,” says Rashmi Bharti, co-founder, Avani.
Exploiting nature and extracting earth alongside nurturing it was the principle on which Avani stood for, living true to its name as it means Earth! “Today, Avani creates opportunities for rural people to find viable employment through a self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable supply chain that is sensitive to the cultural context of this region as we want to leave the Earth behind in a better shape than what we found when we came here,” says Bharti.
Promoting organic Kumkum and extracting essences from the locally grown plants to make water colours and crayons and indeed sensitive to then local culture as small farms are the only source of income for most households, but they want to augment their incomes from their limited resources, without migrating and Avani provides them many opportunities through its sustainable, conservation-based livelihood generation.
When Avani was founded in 1997, originally as the Kumaon chapter of the Barefoot College, formally known as SWRC, then as a VO in1999, it spotted just not the immense natural wealth of the region, but also the craftmanship of the locals and began working with the Shauka community, also known as Johari or Johari Shauka, of the Bageshwar and Pithoragarh districts, who were nomadic and were a part of the thriving Indo-Tibetan trade before Tibet was taken over by China. As they settled down, they became increasingly dependent on spinning and weaving that they’d traditionally practiced to process animal fibre for their use and commerce.
Avani recognized their traditional, genetic skill and decided to make it more ‘modern’, market-friendly and profitable and replaced their traditionally used raw-material hemp that they were abandoning because of the ambiguous legal framework around the growth of Indian hemp and were abandoning their craft and the VO trained them to work with silk and wool, instead. The raw materials: wool, silk, pashmina and linen, are dyed using natural dies as a wide range of colours such as brown, yellow, orange, and green are extracted from locally available plants, while red and blue are made from indigo and shellac, procured from other parts of India, “Bharti tells.
Textile remains their main initiative where they work with 1100 artisans in 52 villages of these two districts and more than 63% of Avani’s artisans come from the Bora Kuthalia community with whom they are currently involved with. They are happily contended that their traditional skill has reached to the world at large, also yielding a good income to them. Hema Agri, Beladagar village, Begeshwar district says, “Today, as a skilled weaver of shawls, stoles and mufflers in silk and wool. I make a neat Rs. 5,000 in a month.”
So are others like Deepa Bhauryal, once a shy girl, joined Avani, when she just 18, is one of such life, transformed as she became an excellent weaver and works at a managerial level where she supervises other weavers at Avani as the VO is reviving the beautiful art of weaving.
Respecting local culture was the motive behind its work as it went for the preservation and revival of the traditional craft of weaving, spinning and natural dyeing. The philosophy has been to introduce modern raw materials to make contemporary products while conserving the handicraft skills as livelihood options. Hence, spinning and weaving of wild silks such as tussar, eri and muga as well as pashmina reintroduced and today scores of women land at its three-acre campus where they die wool and silk in natural colours and take the fibre back home where they spin them on solar powered spinning wheels, developed by Avani that women are find highly convenient, “I can spin clothes at my home at my free time as I just made this stole,” tells Manju Bora, Digoli village, Pithoragarh district. This system augments women’s productivity. Her stole was stunningly bright green, made in Tibetan sheep wool and blended with the matching light green merino wool, procured from Indo-Tibetan border area, is easily spun by local people, gets softer with use and is very durable and at the VO, it is often blended with other fibres, including merino wool and silk.
Others like Kaushalya Bora, Sukna village, Pithoragarh district, prefer Harsil wool, produced in Harsil, near Gangotri in Garhwal that she spun to make eye-catching maroon coloured sweater. Others use Australian merino wool, produced in India and also imported from Australia to make sweaters, mufflers and shawls.
Besides wool, silk is another raw material, Avani indulges with and it is called Ahimsa or non-violent Silk as this wild silk—not the cultivated silk—where cocoons are collected in the wild, from local plant species and traditionally silk yarn is reeled with machines using un-pierced silk cocoons, in which the cocoon is steam boiled to kill the pupa to stop the emergence of the moth, which would have pierced the cocoon if natural processes were allowed to occur. “But, we allow the pupa to metamorphose into a moth then hand spin the silk to make Ahimsa Silk. The moth pierces the cocoon to escape, breaking the strands of the cocoon, and resulting in fibre that needs to be spun by hand, tells Bharti.
They also use hand-spun tussar silk that has a unique, pebbly texture and natural beige colour and eri silk, whose cocoons are collected in the wild from castor plants. With its success, it decided to indulge with muga silk, the most expensive and finest of India’s wild silks, collected from the forests in the North-East and naturally gold silk clothes such as exquisite saris are made and the customers just love its extremely rich texture.
Pure linen and is also blended with silk and wool and pashmina are the other raw materials procured from Belgium, Tibet and Ladakh are used to make clothes that the local weavers weave and Avani sells them nationally and internationally through a self-reliant cooperative organisation called EarthCraft, that is owned and operated by the artisans themselves.
Earthcraft markets products like shawls, stoles, mufflers, home furnishings, and garments for men, women and children in addition to organic detergent, organic kumkum, and eco-friendly art supplies from natural dyes, both locally and globally. While textile products are sold under Avani brand, kids products carry the Goraiya brand. Earthcraft became a self-sustaining business in 2009 and is now upscaling to increase its outreach. Now, it also has a sustainable fashion hub that can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com, a certified apparel brand and a series that examines shifts in the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India.
Customers just fall for the innovative and dazzling designs of textiles with exclusive colours and inimitable patterns that’s usually Rashmi’s brainchild and she has no formal training in design, but learnt through experience!
All clothes must be washed and Avani found an organic, eco-friendly detergent for it also! It is reetha (soap-nut or Sapindus trifoliatusis), an indigenous Indian tree, whose fruits contain saponin, a natural and active cleaning agent that can be used for laundry and keeps colours bright and intact. It is a natural wash with antiseptic properties, good for eczema and sensitive skin. “We discovered that it is exported to Germany in a big way as they used it for bathing and washing and we use chemical detergents like Ariel and Surf,” exclaims Bharti.
And, they decided to market it. Today, Avani procures and processes reetha and sell its fruits abd powder. Reetha plants are grown locally and all steps like collection/ harvesting, drying, deseeding and making powder. While dried reetha fruits are sold for Rs. 18 a kilo, de-seeded reetha for Rs. 30 and reetha powder for Rs. 60.
There is another side of the coin too in Avani’s story and this is the story of Rashmi’s soulmate, Rajnish Jain’s craze with energy production. He too ‘exploits’ nature by producing electricity from pirul (pine-needles), a totally waste product and a menace in hill villages, being a major cause of forest fires. Yes, the VO has a gasifier in the village that turns this menace into electric current that is supplied to the grid of Uttarakhand Power Corporation Limited (UPCL) and pays the villagers who collect it from the fields and forests are paid Rs.2 a kilo.
The VO has a 10KW gasifier that converts pirul into since 2005 along with a by-product that is also used. While, the electricity goes to the grid of Uttarakhand Power Corporation Limited, the by-product; tar is mixed with charcoal and is turned into coal that the villagers lap and buy for Rs. 10 a kilo.
Encouraged with its experiment in its he main Tripuradevi and another plant at Simalta village, “Avani is determined to take the electricity generation forward in four neighbouring villages of Chankana, Seli, Bhatijer, and Daangigaon, where people donated land for power plants and these villages are remote, located from 30 minutes to four hours walking distance from the nearest road,” tells Jain, co-founder, Avani.
Her efforts to promote traditional weaving skills and handloom won her many accolades such as Janaki Devi Bajaj Award for Rural Entrepreneurship in 2011, Most Innovative Enterprise of the Year –Citi Foundation Award, 2012, Sustainable Fashion award 2015 for the contribution in the area of Sustainable Development in crafts by the Government of India.
As a deciding step to extend the gift of 3Rs to the villagers, the Avani campus also has a primary school in its backyard where their only daughter, Tanvi, studies in Class V, “You cannot separate social and professional life. Even one’s personal life is also a part of his social life and both had immense belief in individuals from the very beginning,” reasons Jain. The school within its campus is the reflection of their commitment of uniting their professional and social lives, so is the life in the campus as almost all of its 25 workers are locals, many of them live in the campus and eat in the community kitchen. Then, it harvests millions of litres of rainwater and all used water is recycled and used for irrigation and not a single drop is wasted and while it has the electric connection from the UPCL, it also generates 9 KW solar electricity for its uses, “As we want to leave the earth in a better condition that we got,” says the couple in unison.
Already the microcosm of earth is in a better shape since the campus now boasts of a mixed forest, having hundreds of broad-leave plants like oak, rhododendron, utis and tun, while earlier, it was had just pine.
The determined couple, indeed, would leave the earth in a better shape!