Community Development Project
The Auromir project for community development started in July 2018 with a twofold aim: to identify and help revive local traditional arts and crafts that were dying because of industrialization and market forces; and to find women and children who could not afford good education but were keen to learn.
It took us many months of searching and reaching out to people before we zeroed in on what is known as the Motor Market in Manimajra, Chandigarh a crowded place with broken roads and trucks parked all around. An odd area, for sure. But this place suited us best because of its proximity to the sprawling slums of Bhainsa Tibba.
We started off with hiring an ill-maintained local showroom because it was the most inexpensive, and, with an initial team of four, got down to a thorough cleaning and whitewashing of the building, and over a few weeks, bit by bit, we ‘set up’ the place for the project.
We first engaged a couple of traditional weavers to help us start the project. While they set up their looms and began their work, we began systematically reaching out to the slum dwellers of Gandhi Colony in the Bhainsa Tibba area, a colony that grew over the last 30 years as migrant laborers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar streamed into Chandigarh looking for various employment opportunities.
These slums are typically illegal and grow rapidly into clusters of quickly built temporary houses as more and more migrants come in. The living conditions are often pitiable with no hygiene, sanitation, cleanliness, or social safety. Though there are government schools in this area, few children are sent and even fewer stay on for most families, it is better if children stay home to do odd jobs or even beg as that brings some money to the family. Those who do go to school, drop out in a few years as the quality of education is generally poor and discipline is arbitrary or absent. There is widespread drug and alcohol abuse, rampant thievery and prostitution but no one wants to address or deal with these inconvenient issues.
It is very difficult for urban initiatives to be accepted or supported in such areas. Parents actually resist the idea of schooling for their children. Girls are discouraged from venturing out because of the extreme conservative attitudes and beliefs of the families.
However, because of the unstinted support of the head of this colony (known as the pradhan), we managed to open dialogue with several families in the slum. Many school drop outs and young married girls came forward and showed interest in our initiative. Even then, it took us months to build trust and rapport within the community as ours was not a government project but a relatively unknown private one.
As trust built up, several children and young women started coming to us, first tentatively, and then with growing confidence. These were children with talent long suppressed, and eagerness to learn and be productive. I am grateful and happy to say that all the children and women who came to the Centre took to the environment naturally and effortlessly.
Our learning curriculum integrates education, hygiene and health, skills training, and arts and crafts revival. Carefully selected artisans have been given the opportunity and space to revive and restore their skills and crafts while they, in turn, pass on their skills to women and young children who can then use these skills to make an independent living.
Initially, in July of 2018, we had only a few young girls coming to learn basic literacy skills, especially spoken English. Some of them showed interest in learning hand skills too. Meanwhile, young children from the slum, mostly school drop-outs, started coming to us. Though their houses are about 15 minutes walking distance from the Centre, we had to hire an auto-rickshaw for the children as the parents of the girls were insecure about their girls being on the road on their own.
By February 2019 we had 35 children registered with us. Over the year, some discontinued for various reasons; we now have 22 children from age 6 to 15 coming regularly to the Centre. To date, we have not met the parents of some of these children as they are either disinterested in their children’s education or do not get the time off from their daily jobs. Most of the day-laborers leave home for work before their children wake up and return late at night. The pradhan, (head of the slum), however has the names of the regular learners and visits us periodically to take feedback. The facilitators from the Centre working with the children visit the children’s houses regularly and the children love it!
Overview of Courses
Over the last two years or so, weavers (a father-son duo from 4th generation of weavers), a carpenter (3rd generation of traditional Indian woodcraft of carving, interlocking and nail-free designs), a hand embroider and tailors have got associated with the Centre. Because of their association with us, we have been able to design certified courses in weaving, woodwork, embroidery and tailoring.
We are now also offering basic computer classes run informally by volunteers and we have a few government school children who come after school to practice computers. A young boy working in a nearby hotel is also getting trained by us in basic computers. The tailoring department is very popular among the young girls and women.
Two groups of four students each from IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research), Mohali, undertook a research study of the living conditions in the two slums, Gandhi Colony and Indira Colony, of Bhainsa Tibba, in association with our Foundation. These 5th year students did their research as part of their course on Urbanization (Urban theory and laboratory). Two of these papers are published on our website.
Three women are close to finishing an advanced course in tailoring and five will be completing the basic tailoring course.
Marketing and Sales
Since the learners together with the artisans make a range of products, we sell our products to those who appreciate and want handmade consciously manufactured products.
Sales are obviously low as handmade products are always more expensive than the factory made ones because of the extensive labour and time involved. But because of the detailed attention paid to every piece made at the Centre, our products have a degree of aesthetic and functional excellence that is already drawing a lot of positive attention and word of mouth publicity in the city. We have now also started receiving some outstation enquiries and orders.
Going forward, we plan for more active conscious marketing of our products, without compromising the overall vision and purpose which is to empower and build at the grassroots.
For the women coming here to learn, this Centre has become a place of emotional solace. Sometimes, a woman-learner will just come, sit quietly and leave. We are perfectly fine with this. They get a much-needed rest, quietude, and a breathing space where nobody is judging them or telling them what to do. However, they are completely focused while training.
Many children come here because they need the care, love and attention; the academics is secondary.
For the artisans, the Centre provides them a sense of economic security and a working environment of mutual respect, and they don’t have to worry about the future of their crafts.
Blessed with a sincere and dedicated team, we have come a long way. Each floor of the building vibrates with creativity and dynamic energy; each member of the team helps out in any area, whenever and wherever needed. The team is self motivated and doesn’t need to be told what is to be done. Any disagreement or potential conflict is brought out into the open, frankly discussed in the team and resolved.
Ours is a long term vision which demands continuous planning and careful implementation so that no gap arises between the vision and on-ground implementation. Our constant attempt is to keep improving our work environment and enhance our processes and systems to achieve higher levels of efficiency and productivity for all our learners and mentors.