Roots and fruits


It’s a cool winter morning in Naini, a small village overlooking the snow-capped Himalayas in Uttarakhand state, northern India.

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Everything works like clockwork at Mahila Umang Producers Company. In a small white cottage with the blue door, Radha weighs and wraps the chamomile in tea bags.

In the adjoining cottage, Kala is bottling honey. A little uphill, Shehnaz and Basanti peel mounds of kiwi fruit to make jam later. In the nearby village of Majkhali, a small group of women sit in a circle and knit in a sunny courtyard.

Workload

In recent decades, the Himalayan region has seen an increase in deforestation, urbanization, pollution and the construction of dams, threatening its ecosystem, which is very vulnerable to climate change.

In 1992, Anita Paul and her husband Kalyan established the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation, also known as Grassroots, to work towards sustainable development within the mountain community by promoting renewable energy, forestry and water conservation.

In the hills where everyone once grew indigenous crops on rain-fed terraces to feed their families, the introduction of chemical agriculture, coupled with extreme weather events, has led to smaller harvests.

The frequent instances of human-wildlife conflict have also made agriculture an undesirable profession. Poverty, lack of jobs, and lack of infrastructure such as hospitals and roads have forced many people from Uttarakhand to migrate to cities for work.

It is mainly the men who leave, leaving the women in charge of the household and thus doubling their workload.

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Fashion

In 2001, some female Grassroots members decided to branch out into another organization called Mahila Umang Samiti. Their aim was to create livelihood opportunities for women. Eventually, they registered as Mahila Umang Producers Company, also known as Umang, in 2009.

Umang has 2,354 rural women members of 161 self-help groups, which form its supply chain. Of these women, 38% are also shareholders of the company.

The work done in Umang is rooted in the understanding that ecology, livelihoods and women’s lives are deeply intertwined. Self-help groups provide small loans to their members and provide them with income by providing organic food and knits.

While traveling the winding road that connects the small town of Ranikhet to Naini, it is difficult not to miss the House of Umang. On the ground floor of the white building is a food processing plant and a storage unit. Above is a spacious store selling native food and hand-knitted clothing.

Behind the store is the room where woolens are stored and shipped to Indian fashion brands such as Fabindia and Jaypore. The company also sells its products online and through retailers in major Indian cities. It generated revenue of 16,397,900 rupees (161,716) £ in 2019-2020.

Chutneys

In addition to being producers, the women of Umang also work as ‘keepers of regenerated vegetation’, protecting the trees they have planted in the past with Grassroots.

Women monitor tree growth, appoint guards to control forest fires, and make sure livestock do not graze on trees. They also preserve the natural sources that provide drinking water by desalting them regularly.

Grassroots has also done important community work to restore the Gagas and Palor river basins, which cross the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, respectively.

“We have planted over a million trees and continue to plant 10,000 each year,” says Anita Paul, director of community initiatives at Grassroots and a member of the Umang board.

Umang also promotes sustainable agriculture by encouraging women farmers to cultivate indigenous crops. The company produces spices, nuts, seeds, lentils and millet under its Himkhadya brand. Its other brand, Kumaoni, offers a variety of jams, chutneys, pickles and hill honey. Women farmers in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya supply the business.

Stigma

In Umang’s food processing unit, five women separate ripe and unripe kiwis brought in crates from surrounding villages, put them in colorful bins, wash and peel them.

“I used to be just a daughter-in-law at home. By working here I can earn my own money and pay for my expenses, ”says Deepa Adhikari, who was previously a farmer.

She has struggled to cultivate because wild monkeys have ravaged her crops and now she prefers a job indoors. Her colleague Hema Mehra shows her little gold earrings and says, “I was able to save money through this work and knitting and I bought them for myself.

India is a deeply patriarchal society in which women, especially those who are single, widowed, separated or divorced, remain extremely vulnerable. They face social stigma, lack family support and struggle to make ends meet.

“From the start, Umang wanted to engage with single women,” says Sunita Kashyap, founder of Umang, as she walks down a narrow concrete path in the village of Majkhali to the tailoring shop and residence. by Geeta Mehta. Geeta is a single woman and leads the women’s group in her village.

Sting

One after another, the women of the neighborhood flock to the courtyard in front of Geeta’s cottage. They are sitting on a carpet with balls of wool in front of them.

“Knitting is convenient because I can work from home. I am able to pay my children’s expenses with the money I earn, ”explains Soni, who knits a black cardigan.

The group goes beyond knitting by providing micro-credits to members in need. The group loaned 20,000 rupees (£ 200) to Soni’s sister-in-law Noor, who needed money for her children’s school fees and her husband’s medical care.

After the knitting circle is finished, as Geeta rushes into her store to start sewing again, she says, “If the women don’t help each other out, who else will?” “

This author

Vandana K is a freelance journalist and producer based in New Delhi, India. This article first appeared in the latest issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.


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