Kushalgarh, Banswara-With exceptions to dedicated women run markets, have you ever encountered a city in India where every second or third shop in the bustling markets is operated by a woman or a girl? It's a departure from the norm, where women's clothes are predominantly stitched by men. In both big cities and small towns, the landscape is dominated by male tailors, even in the shops specializing in ladies' tailoring. However, stepping into the markets of Kushalgarh, nestled in the Vagad region of South Rajasthan, presents a refreshing contrast. Here, the vibrant business of tailoring is primarily driven by the skilled hands of tribal women and girls, creating a surplus of thriving units.
Venturing into this remote enclave of Rajasthan, one can't help but feel that the lofty slogans of 'Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao' exist merely as decorative inscriptions on walls. The plight of educated girls in this region exposes a harsh reality — a lack of viable employment opportunities leaves them feeling powerless. Despite the town's proximity to the borders of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the male populace grapples with an acute employment crisis, placing immense pressure on women to bear the burden of household responsibilities.
The struggle is palpable as school and college-going girls are compelled to abandon their studies to support their fathers. Additionally, a significant number of women find themselves in the unenviable position of running households when their husbands, primarily seasonal farmers, face unemployment for extended periods—seven to eight months each year. The rhythmic hum of sewing machines becomes a constant backdrop as these women engage in the demanding task of tailoring to make ends meet.
Amidst this challenging landscape, the claims of tribal welfare and women's empowerment echoed by state and central governments appear scattered, much like cloth pieces strewn outside the tailoring shops. The Mooknayak reached Kushalgarh, the largest town in Banswara district, to take stock of the situation and delve into the lives and struggles of the Adiwasi populace here. The scene was both surprising and poignant. Women with measuring tape around their necks work with determination, swiftly maneuvering sewing machines, taking measurements, and skillfully sewing clothes.
While the markets here showcase a diverse group of women from communities such as Jain, OBC, and Brahmin engaging in sewing and embroidery, the predominant presence is of tribal girls. The sight of a large number of women exercising their skills in the market sparks curiosity, but a closer examination by The Mooknayak reveals a nuanced and somewhat painful aspect of this seemingly empowering scenario.
On the positive side, these girls, predominantly from tribal communities, exhibit commendable self-reliance. They not only sustain their families but also bear the financial responsibilities of educating their younger siblings. However, a somber reality surfaces—these tribal girls aren't necessarily choosing this work out of personal interest or passion. Instead, they are driven by family pressures, the compulsion of limited job opportunities, and challenging economic conditions. Every morning, they embark on journeys spanning several kilometers from their villages to the markets of Kushalgarh to engage in this labor-intensive occupation.
Some manage to juggle this work with their studies, while others are compelled to relinquish their educational pursuits. Whether arriving by auto-rickshaw, bus, or walking several kilometers daily, their commitment to sustaining their families and pursuing education is evident, albeit under challenging circumstances.
The Mooknayak spoke to Reshma, once a daily wage laborer, who used to work as a picker at construction sites. "I am not educated at all; earlier, I used to work as a laborer, earning Rs 30-40 a day. Then I learned tailoring, and now I have been doing tailoring work for four-five years. My earning depends on the customers, averaging Rs 250-300 a day," Reshma explains. In discussing her family situation, she reveals that her husband is unemployed and, when work is available in Gujarat, he travels there; otherwise, he stays at home. In terms of government schemes, Reshma acknowledges receiving wheat and food packets for two months.
Champa Katara, a skilled tailor running a nearby shop, specializes in crafting intricately designed blouses and ghagras. She candidly shared with The Mooknayak that her husband, despite being educated with a B.Ed, faces the challenge of unemployment. In the absence of job opportunities, he tends to their children and tends to their goats. Champa shoulders the entire household's financial responsibilities and her children's education through her earnings. Despite her husband's education, the lack of employment opportunities leaves him unable to secure a job, compelling him to take on domestic responsibilities while Champa contributes to the family income.
Jingu Rana, a resident of Talaipada, along with two friends, recently established a tailoring unit. Having completed her education up to the 12th standard, Jingu couldn't pursue further studies due to family circumstances. Her father's income from farming, supporting four younger siblings' education, proved insufficient to sustain the household. Thus, she embraced sewing and embroidery to contribute to the family's financial well-being.
Pooja Khadiya, a third-year BA student, shares her motivation for joining the tailoring workforce. Facing financial constraints and bleak prospects for employment post-graduation, Pooja decided to learn sewing to gain financial independence. Despite the challenges, she recognizes the opportunity to stand on her own feet. The cost of running the shop, including rent and utilities, amounts to Rs 4.5 thousand per month. Pooja stitches blouses for Rs 200-250, completing a suit in two hours for an earning of up to Rs 250.
Social researcher and activist Dr. Nidhi Seth has been spearheading the impactful Sakhi project since 2016, aimed at empowering students and women towards self-reliance. Through her institute, Pratidhwani, Nidhi has established a robust network in the region, providing training to around 5 thousand women in skills such as sewing, cutting, clay art, and computer literacy. The initiative has enabled these women to stand on their own feet, with many tribal girls, after completing the 6-month course, receiving sewing machines from the organization with government support.
As a seasoned researcher in social studies, Nidhi emphasizes that unemployment remains a critical issue, leading thousands of men and women to migrate to Gujarat. Despite this, both the BJP and Congress governments have, according to her, failed to comprehend and address the challenges faced by the tribal community.
The concept of 'Sakhi' emerged during Nidhi's field trips, where she observed the dire conditions of tribal women in remote areas. Troubling research findings revealed significant migration of men to Gujarat in search of employment, leaving women to manage households with meager remittances from their husbands. Thus, 'Sakhi' became a skill development program aimed at empowering women in the region.
Initially seeking support from government officials, Nidhi faced disappointment, prompting her to invest funds from her savings to embark on a mission to empower women in 2016. Despite seven-eight years of effort, a workforce of 5 thousand women, ample sewing resources, and a strong work ethic, these women have struggled to secure significant work orders from state or central government agencies.
The Tribal Development Department of the Rajasthan Government has only provided orders worth Rs 7 lakh over the years, pushing women to work in the open market where income is seasonal and lacks a guarantee of stability.
The government's apparent disregard for this significant economic contribution has left the women disillusioned to the extent of considering boycotting elections. Nidhi highlights that during the pandemic-induced lockdown, when many migrants returned home, the families associated with the Sakhi program didn't have to worry about meals, thanks to the financial support provided by the women who had earned through the program.
The government's indifference, as described by Nidhi, is disheartening for the women power that has emerged through this initiative. Despite reaching out to officials at various levels, from the chief minister's office to the divisional commissioner, tribal welfare department officials, MLAs, and MPs, Nidhi laments receiving only false assurances without tangible support. The skilled team, capable of creating fashionable clothing and intricate embroideries, remains overlooked, leaving Nidhi frustrated and disappointed.
Pinal Damor, a second-year student in Kushalgarh pursuing tailoring, highlights the daily challenges faced by girls commuting to the town. The absence of proper road transport forces them to rely on private vehicles and jeeps. With buses unavailable, these girls are at the mercy of private vehicle drivers charging arbitrary fares, compelling them to embark on risky journeys along dilapidated roads.
Pinal expresses frustration with the government's lack of support, deeming the 'Beti Padhao' (Educate the Daughter) slogan a mere deception. According to her, the educational infrastructure is subpar, with teachers not dedicated to imparting quality education. The absence of well-stocked libraries and difficulties accessing required books further impedes the learning process. Pinal laments the discouragement from family members who question the utility of education, urging the government to genuinely empower girls with knowledge.
With tears in her eyes, Pinal shares the challenges faced by girls like her and questions the intentions of leaders seeking votes. She emphasizes the economic hardships, including leaders demanding money for signatures. Pinal's emotional outpour underscores the frustration and disillusionment prevalent among aspiring students.
Khushboo, a graduate from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, now residing in Kushalgarh, had aspirations of becoming a teacher through B.Ed. However, financial constraints halted her education. Despite her attempts to secure private jobs using her computer skills, Khushboo faced repeated rejections. Desiring to contribute to her family, she turned to learning tailoring.
Khushboo narrated about the perilous journey she undertakes daily, crossing a valley on foot for 2-3 kilometers. Fearful of the area's unsafe conditions, with incidents of alcohol consumption and harassment by local youth, she emphasizes the urgent need for improved safety measures. Additionally, Khushboo highlights the everyday struggle for water, which must be fetched from a distance using hand pumps, adding to the multitude of challenges faced by the residents.
Malnutrition Plagues Families: A Grim Reality in Kushalgarh
In the impoverished region of Kushalgarh, the majority of women and girls endure the harsh consequences of malnutrition due to dire economic conditions. Families, typically consisting of five to seven members, struggle to secure even two square meals a day, given the absence of a stable source of income. Early marriages and successive births contribute to widespread anemia among women, while children suffer from weakness and malnourishment. For many families, the prospect of green vegetables, milk, and nutritious food remains a distant dream, and daily sustenance often comes down to eating roti with salt and chilly. Girls pursuing tailoring work sometimes leave their homes on an empty stomach, with uncertainty about earning for the day. Returning home hungry and having only one meal has sadly become a routine part of their lives.
Nidhi, the social researcher and activist, critiques the lack of substantial efforts for women's welfare in tribal-dominated areas, pointing out the absence of tangible support during Vasundhara Raje's tenure as Chief Minister. Despite Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot identifying with Gandhian ideology, Nidhi contends that his governance has not aligned with Gandhian principles in terms of supporting initiatives like hers. The center and its extensive network, despite being run by the Central Government, have not received encouragement or projects from the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED), operating under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. This, despite the fact that the talented girls she works with could compete with professional designers if given the opportunity.
Mehtab Khan, an experienced tailoring instructor in Kushalgarh, discusses about the challenges of teaching tribal girls. Hailing from Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh, Khan notes the difficulty in imparting sewing and weaving skills to these girls due to weak foundational knowledge. He emphasizes that, despite government schools and colleges being present, the education provided is inadequate. Even with degrees, these girls lack essential knowledge, illustrating the prevailing educational shortcomings in tribal areas.
Despite the existence of tribal sub-plan areas ostensibly designed for their welfare, a dedicated Tribal Welfare Department, and substantial annual budgets running into crores of rupees aimed at empowering them, the plight of the tribal class, particularly girls, in South Rajasthan remains pitiful.