Do aspirations and dreams translate into reality ? Can a social movement actually snowball into a profit making industry? Ask Runa Banerji these question and she nods an emphatic and loud "yes". Dressed in a cotton saree, wearing her trademark large bindi, the Lucknow chapter Chairperson of SEWA seems extremely humble about the fact that she has been nominated this year for the Nobel Prize or that 'her girls' have already sold Chikan garments worth Rs 3 crores by June 2005. She attributes these achievements to victory of thousands of women artisans who have dared to dream, step across the threshold of their homes, dug their heels and stared at the dangers and challenges in the eye.
The story goes back to mid seventies. This was the time when the fine Mughal Art of Chikankari was almost becoming in death throes. This fine filigreed needlework worked upon gossamer muslin, crepes and chiffons, is supposed to have been brought from Persia by none other than the Empress Noorjehan herself. What makes chikankari such a distinctive needlecraft is that it is the only embroidery in the world which is so special in its discipline that each stitch is used only for one purpose.
This art was limited to a fast depleting community of Chikankari artisans, mostly Muslims concentrated in muhallas of old Lucknow. Exploitation was rampant as the middlemen grabbed the profits, giving a pittance to the 'kaarigars'. A day of back-breaking labor would yield just about ten or fifteen rupees!
Since the payment was per piece the workers would try and turn out as many as they could, greatly compromising the quality of work. A lot of fine traditional designs and stitches were being corrupted. From among 32 known stitches merely six were in common uses. The good artisans were abandoning the trade for more lucrative zardozi. Crude and substandard shadow work was sold even in Lucknow's posh market Hazratganj in the name of Chikan.
It was in this scenario that Runa Banerji and her friend Sehba Hussain (who later became the State Representative of UNICEF in Lucknow) came to Lucknow to work on a UNICEF aided project on child labor. "What we saw here was so shocking that both Sehba and I lost our sleep. Young children were employed by these contractors, made to work ten to twelve hours and paid as little as five paise per piece. They were people living in abject poverty. Prostitution, alcoholism was common. Many children were suffering from malnutrition even tuberculosis. The living conditions were miserable and we felt the women were the worst sufferers" recalls Runa.
"We took up the challenge of helping out these hapless people and both of us decided to stay and continue working with the artisan community even after the project ended," says Runa, sitting in her office on Sitapur road, taking a break to speak to a prospective buyer over the phone.
To begin with they started a school in Daliganj area of old Lucknow where for a long time Runa was the only teacher! The eye opener came when they organized a health camp in the school. Just as the doctors began to speak, a group of women asked them to shut up and leave! "I was astounded, embarrassed and livid! Then one of them told me that they did not want doctors. What they needed was daal-roti at the end of the day. I went home and thought about it through the night. By morning it began to make sense. Roti first, rest will follow"
With the mothers who came to school Runa laid the foundations of SEWA in 1984. Though they share the name with Ahmedabad's famous NGO, their working and management is entirely different. They both, however, are registered under the umbrella organization SEWA India.
With the beginning of SEWA came other problemsï¿½lack of funds. "We decided to pitch in Rs 8,000 from our own pockets and bought the cloth from a whole-seller in Chowk. As the artisans trickled into SEWA, paranoia gripped the established traders. They began to intimidate the karigars, even tried to physically stop them, but it had become impossible for them to cage hopes and dreams. The tailors and workers came to work in the nights on the sly.
Another hurdle that Runa and Sehba faced was lack of knowledge about Chikan embroidery. "We conducted extensive research on designs and traditional blocks .We rummaged through old Chikan garments in private collections and learnt from the experienced karigars. Restoring Chikan to its original glory, in the best way we could, was our sole purpose," says Runa.
What was their biggest challenge? Says Runa, her kohl-lined eyes reflecting her determination, " It was an uphill task to initially organize women. SEWA teams went door-to-door persuading women, in the bargain inviting the wrath of their families. Constant interactions with the community, however, helped to clear the air of suspicion around. "Our mission for fair wages and living with dignity slowly began to melt the initial resistance," she adds.
Banerji then set up training centers to involve more women Experienced artisans would teach novices the various stitches. Instead of teaching the entire process to each person, Runa decided to divide workers into skills they were good at. They were separate departments for fabric cutting, block-printing, and for each stitch like murri, shadow, tepchi, phanda, hatkati and jaali. The marginally educated girls were to become accountants and man the counters. As an artist excelled in her work, her status would be elevated to that of a supervisor and a trainer. Women began joining SEWA in hordes.
"Marketing what we had produced was our next step. The city was already crowded with Chikan garments. Our work was fine and exquisite. We were also paying our workers a lot better wages. Both these factors made our garments more expensive." says Runa. In 1985, with a few women kaarigars, Runa decided to register the organization with the Cottage Industry in Delhi. She was carrying Chikan garments worth 35,000 at that time. The entire stuff was sold out and SEWA registered its first profit. "This greatly boosted our confidence and also gave me the idea that our product had a large market in the Metros." Says Runa.
Then followed annual exhibitions in Delhi and Mumbai which became socialite's hub. Variants of chogas, jamas,and angarkhas found their way into the celeb circles. Haute couture had finally arrived with it's own distinctive Lakhnawi flavor.
SEWA opened it's first emporium in Lucknow's upmarket Hazratganj area in 1985. Similar centers came up in other smaller cities too. Recently SEWA opened a centre in Delhi from where Chikan garments are sold to both Indian and foreign buyers.
With success came other problems. Fake brands. "At least four emporiums in the city were already plagiarizing our products and misusing our brand name," recalls Runa. It was a case of unhealthy competition. "They had adopted names such as SEVA etc. So we could not do much. However, we have lodged a complaint with the Registrar of firms. We have also applied for patent in the name of SEWA. It should come through any day," Runa assures.
As SEWA's popularity grew many good Samaritans extended help. Mr. K. Khannan, the then Chief of the Bank of Baroda extended a generous loan of Rs 25 lakhs from his bank in 1994. He loaned the same amount in 1997. " Says Khannan, "SEWA paid back the money before the stipulated period proving itself a model creditor." It also allowed SEWA to display its banners in all the branches of the Bank of Baroda in Mumbai.
What actually set SEWA on course was a grant from a German organization EZE that gave Rs 60 lakhs for three years. EZE also paid salaries of 18 staffers and donated a car. Then came help from Ethel Grant, renowned social worker and wife of James Grant, global chief of UNICEF. This grant was bequeathed by Ethel to SEWA and was donated by James after the former's death. "It helped us raise our office building and have a roof over our heads," says Runa.
SEWA stirred a movement of sorts in other parts of Lucknow also. Says Bhagwan Das, who runs a hundred year old Chikan emporium in old city in Lucknow, "SEWA's exquisite work forced us to produce better quality stuff. Our workers too, began demanding better wages. On the flip side we also began to market our products at SEWA rates."
Since they do not have a well-developed marketing department, as part of its strategy to find markets in big towns, SEWA began participating in fashion shows organized by Femina in Mumbai featuring exclusive bridal wear collection. "This has helped give a real fillip to our marketing campaign and we bagged big orders. One of our regular clients is film star Shah Rukh Khan. Shabana Azmi also visits our Lucknow outlet regularly," informs Runa. " They are good marketing symbols for us," she says.
"We are employing the same strategy in boosting our sales abroad," says Ashish Chakravarti, SEWA's senior spokesperson. SEWA has stormed the international arena by participating in the Silk Road Campaign in Washington, MACEF-AUTUMN-2003, Milan, Brides of the Orient in Melbourne as well as holding exhibitions in Barcelona and London. 75%-80% of the annual turnover of SEWA comes from these exhibitions which are attended by internationally known fashion houses . While 18 exhibitions have already been organized inside the country this year, SEWA is also planning three more exhibitions this year in Karachi, London and Paris.
However, her greatest achievement, Runa says, has been the movement she helped start in a small room in Dalibagh has spread to 10 districts in Uttar Pradesh. Most of the 5,000 women have moved from slums into pucca houses with the help of housing loans with SEWA as guarantor. SEWA has it's own hospital and women are standing up against abuse, some even choosing to live single.
It is these happy women which are SEWA's strength . "We scale optimum productivity. Workers rarely take leave. They work with such zest that most consignments are ready well before time. This is a mantra that people should adopt - happy workers make happy business, "says Runa .