For Wood Cutters and Daily Wagers of Mirzapur's Jungle Mahal, Slippers are a Luxury

Banaras-based activist Divyanshu Upadhyay leads initiative to provide footwear to impoverished communities, with over 2500 slippers distributed so far. Women, members of the Green Army, manufacturing slippers in a small factory in Deura village, have forgone profit entirely, contributing solely to the noble cause.
The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities residing in the village rely heavily on selling woods sourced from the jungle and laboring in stone-cutting units.
The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities residing in the village rely heavily on selling woods sourced from the jungle and laboring in stone-cutting units.

Mirzapur/ Uttar Pradesh- The terrain is rugged, and the life-giving sun appears unforgiving in the month of May. Despite this, 70-year-old Shyambabu continues his daily trek into the forest, his feet parched, rough, and cracked from years of walking kilometers without slippers. While thorns once caused him great pain in his early years of work, they now fail to deter him.

This plight isn't unique to Shyambabu alone but resonates with hundreds like him in the Jungle Mahal village, nestled within Chunar tehsil, approximately 65 kilometers from the district headquarters of Mirzapur.

A striking observation for first-time visitors is the prevalent commonality among the villagers: the majority, regardless of age or gender, walk barefoot. Children go to school without footwear, while women can be seen carrying buckets of water from wells to their homes without any foot coverings.

The Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities residing in the village rely heavily on selling woods sourced from the jungle and laboring in stone-cutting units.

A grueling day's work barely yields them few rupees, just enough to sustain themselves and provide for their families. They do not make much money and the strained finances go into buying food. 

Hence, slippers are a luxury.

Children go to school without footwear, while women can be seen carrying buckets of water from wells to their homes without any foot coverings.
Children go to school without footwear, while women can be seen carrying buckets of water from wells to their homes without any foot coverings.

Many of the poor woodcutters have devised their own makeshift solutions to cope with the scorching ground beneath their feet. When the terrain becomes unbearable, they resort to tying leaves or torn clothes around their feet as a temporary shield against the searing heat.

However, despite their ingenuity, these makeshift "slippers" provide only temporary relief. As the day progresses, the burning sensation beneath their feet intensifies, signaling that their improvised footwear has failed them once again, leaving them to endure the relentless heat of the earth's burning chest.

But life brings some relief for them now. Hope emerges for these marginalized communities as a Banaras-based law graduate and social activist Divyanshu Upadhyay endeavors to alter their narrative.

Divyanshu and his team are spearheading a unique initiative aimed at providing relief to the daily wage laborers of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra through a "slipper drive," a campaign launched approximately two weeks ago. Youth volunteers have tirelessly distributed around 2500 pairs of slippers, offering much-needed relief to the impoverished community.

Blisters, calluses, and blackened feet tell the tale of the harsh realities endured by these laborers, yet one might wonder why they don't purchase slippers. Divyanshu responds with a sad smile, highlighting the economic hardships faced by these individuals.

"People hardly earn Rs 80 to 100 a day," he explains. "This meager income barely covers the cost of food, clothes and sending their children to school." The rhetorical question echoes the profound struggles endured by these laborers, struggles that only intensify as the summer progresses.

"I have witnessed their struggle since my childhood, and it pains me deeply to see that while most of us can barely endure a few minutes of heat when electricity falters during scorching summers, these impoverished individuals must traverse miles upon miles of scorched earth that sizzles like a tandoor," Divyanshu explained when The Mooknayak asked him how the idea for the slipper drive campaign came to him.

A woman carrying buckets of water to her home.
A woman carrying buckets of water to her home.

When Divyanshu and his friend Ravi Mishra established the Hope Welfare Trust in 2015, their vision was clear: to serve as a catalyst for change in the districts of Uttar Pradesh by focusing on education, women's empowerment, health, and sanitation.

Over the years, however, the Trust has evolved into a dynamic movement, with students from esteemed universities such as Kashi Vidyapeeth, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Delhi University (DU) taking charge at the forefront of change.

This summer, Divyanshu and his dedicated team have shifted their focus towards providing relief to the daily wage laborers of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra through their innovative slipper drive initiative.

The team began the drive almost a fortnight ago and raised funds through donations. Hope Welfare Trust's joint campaign with The Better India garnered support from 559 donors, raising 5,08,359 rupees for the noble cause.

With an ambitious goal of distributing 10,000 slippers, the initiative has already made significant strides, providing over 2500 pairs of footwear to those in need.

"Their lives are truly very difficult," remarks Vijay Kumar, one of the inhabitants of Jungle Mahal. "Most of the children walk barefoot to school because their families cannot afford to buy them slippers. The men venture into the interior jungle to cut wood, carrying pieces on their heads as they go from house to house to sell them", he adds.

Divyanshu and his team have actively utilized social media platforms to garner momentum for their cause, appealing to celebrities, film stars, and potential donors to lend their support.
Divyanshu and his team have actively utilized social media platforms to garner momentum for their cause, appealing to celebrities, film stars, and potential donors to lend their support.

"If you were given a pair of slippers, would that help you?" the question is directed towards Vikas, a 25-year-old laborer working at the stone casting site.

He pauses, contemplating the significance of such a simple yet impactful gesture. "It would make me very happy," he responds. "Thorns wouldn't hurt my feet anymore, and the burning sensation would stop. I would be able to walk without fearing that stones will pierce my feet."

Green Army members manufacturing slippers in a small factory in Mirzapur’s Deura village.
Green Army members manufacturing slippers in a small factory in Mirzapur’s Deura village.

"We want to distribute slippers as fast as we can, but there are some limitations as we are procuring the chappals from village women who manufacture them in a small factory in Mirzapur’s Deura," says Divyanshu.

These women are part of the 'Green Army' — an initiative by the Hope Welfare Trust aimed at empowering the women of Uttar Pradesh’s villages, including Khushiyari, Deura, Bhadrasi, Ramsipur, and Jagardevpur.

Crafting slippers is how they earn their livelihood. However, what truly touches the heart is that the women have not kept a single rupee of profit for the Jungle Mahal customers. "We insisted they keep a share, but they denied and said that they would earn profits from other orders, but not this one as this would be their contribution to the cause," Divyanshu chokes with emotions.

With an ambitious goal of distributing 10,000 slippers, the initiative has already made significant strides, providing over 2500 pairs of footwear to those in need.
With an ambitious goal of distributing 10,000 slippers, the initiative has already made significant strides, providing over 2500 pairs of footwear to those in need.

"A pair of slippers costs Rs 100. With the donations, we will be able to buy slippers and distribute them to the laborers and their children," Divyanshu explains.

While the men who work in the quarries will benefit, the slippers will also be a ray of hope for the barefoot schoolchildren and their mothers who trek miles to fetch water from the well.

"As people became aware of the campaign, more needy individuals started approaching us. We received a request for 200 slippers for the elderly abandoned mothers from Vrindavan, and we were more than happy to dispatch a batch for them," the youth shares.

Divyanshu and his team have actively utilized social media platforms to garner momentum for their cause, appealing to celebrities, film stars, and potential donors to lend their support.

Slippers are not the only humble work undertaken by the Hope Welfare Trust. In addition to distributing slippers, Hope volunteers have also provided blankets to those in need, offered scholarships to meritorious students, and provided sports kits for young talents.

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