Shalini Nair: Your ‘Cloth for Work (CFW)’ project is about using old material as a resource for engaging rural communities in building assets such as roads, wells etc. How did you come up with the concept?
It is about challenging the traditional act of charity. The first thing that (you donate) after any disaster is your old piece of cloth. However, in such a situation, people actually do not need clothing immediately. One wears clothes one at a time and the second pair has to be stored. And, the first thing any disaster takes away from someone is her storage and then it (the clothes) becomes a burden. That is one of the reasons why after every disaster, you see piles of (donated) clothing material all over the place.
The basis for CFW is very simple: dignity is important. There is no place in the world where despite charity being sustained, development has happened. And that is why we wanted to challenge the entire philosophy of charity.
The biggest asset for people living in rural areas is their self-respect, their dignity. You don’t find beggars in villages. Begging is a city phenomenon. So then why do you need charity (in these parts)? When we say that half the world does not get two meals a day… it is a very limited vision. We think people are hungry, but what we don’t understand is that if people are hungry it means they do not have access to anything — clothing, utensils, food etc. Such people are dependent on second-hand material, which has an economic value. That is how the CFW concept came up.
It’s not to say that all villages will have a road, whether that village needs a road or not. All government and big organisations’ schemes work like that, they are not always need-based. In this particular concept, the villages will decide whether they need to build a road, a drainage system, a bamboo bridge etc. There is a huge amount of traditional skill in villages. These are the same people who come to cities and make our houses, but just because we go to good colleges and start speaking in English, we become arrogant.
Shalini Nair: You work in the unorganised sector in rural areas. After demonetisation, have you witnessed any reverse migration in villages because of loss of jobs in urban areas? What has been the impact of demonetisation on the rural economy?
Fortunately or unfortunately, a large part of this country still depends on cash. It (demonetisation) had a very big impact on the clothing work itself, because a large part of the country depends on second-hand clothing that is sold on patris (carts) and in village haats and bazaars (weekly markets). This entire system depends on cash. Women buy utensils from the market with cash and then exchange the utensils for clothing. That’s how this model works. Last year we found that the inflow of the second-hand material to us was reduced, because people like us were not buying new clothes and material was not available on roadside carts and markets because the local economy was not in a good shape.
We can’t talk of Paytm and ATM in areas where we work because they are so remote. In these parts, without cash, one cannot even buy food because that little dhaba owner will not accept anything else.
Shailaja Bajpai: The NGO sector has come under much greater government scrutiny in the recent past, particularly with respect to the enforcement of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) on receiving funds. Have you also faced this problem?
See, the general rules and regulations are fine. If you have to file a return, you must. But then you also need a back-up. I remember, till a few years ago, for filing an FCRA return, there was only this one box at the FCRA office, and one had to just put three copies (of the return statements) in it. However, there was no acknowledgment. How do you then prove that you have done the needful?
I think the media also has a role to play in this. When you say that this NGO has done this, you don’t name a particular entity. If you say an NGO in Uttar Pradesh or another NGO somewhere else has done something wrong, without specifically naming the NGO, it defames the entire fraternity. It hurts. This sector has done some of the best work in the country and even if you put all NGO frauds together, it will not be equal to the Kingfisher scam.
The biggest problem is that the development sector in this country has not got its due. The fact remains that if you have to get an internship for your child, you will look for an NGO; if you have to work for disaster relief, you will look for an NGO; for CSR work, you will look for an NGO; and if you have to give gaali (abuse), once again you will look for an NGO. It hurts because people like us had absolutely promising careers. We don’t come here to mess things up. I would have made a lot more money in my previous career. So let’s stop generalising things, let’s stop defaming the sector. Is it my responsibility to bring notebooks to a government school? Why am I doing what I am doing then? I pay taxes. It is the government’s responsibility or may be of a corporate, which has taken huge amount of land from people. They have taken people’s resources, they must give it back to them. It is not about this government or that, but something which we have been watching for long. And it’s not just in this country but every other country.
Shailaja Bajpai: But why then has the voluntary sector got such a bad name?
Every sector has an equal number of good and bad people. Today, in the media too, half of us may not like the way it’s operating, but can we say that there are no good people in media at all? Or the medical sector, which we know is the most corrupt sector in the country, but then are we saying that every single doctor is corrupt? I can never say that there is nothing wrong in the development sector, because this sector, like any other sector, has all kinds of people. Let’s understand that.
Shalini Nair: For one of your initiatives, ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’, you have come up with the concept of making reusable sanitary pads out of rags. Have you ever tried to collaborate with the government on this, given the recent debate over exempting sanitary pads from GST?
Exempting sanitary pads from GST is just a small part… If people can pay `20 (for a pack of sanitary pads), they can afford to pay Rs 22 also. But the real issue is, can they really afford to pay Rs 20 in the first place? And do we really want a huge amount of garbage piling up in the villages? Around 2004-05, when we started talking about the subject, we realised that clothing is a very acute problem in this country. More than half of the population does not have enough to wear. That is when we began to think about issues such as what is this woman using (during her periods). In 2004-05, if you would have gone on Google and typed ‘sanitary pads’ or ‘sanitary napkins’, there was nothing. There were no products, research or solutions for women of the poorer communities. So we focused on a piece of cloth — the traditional method a woman used to handle her periods.
It has already scaled up in a big way. The government is also watching us, we get a lot of references from government officers and the people who come and visit us, but maybe it is tough for them to tie up with us because, ultimately, we work on old cloth. I don’t think any government in this world wants to be seen promoting something that is created out of old cloth.
If we promote the existing market product, it is going to create a much bigger issue in the villages because every single sanitary pad has one plastic sheet. If every single girl in a village starts using a pad, you need at least 3,000 to 4,000 sanitary pads. The pad disposal will happen within half a kilometre of the water body in the village. If you do not stop this use of plastic (through pads), 40,000-50,000 plastic sheets will turn up in the village’s waste, and the first area where the plastic will go is your water body. It is going to be a bigger disaster that way.
So, ultimately, even if we reduce GST, we will be promoting something which is ecologically hazardous for the villages of this country, and even for cities where there are no disposal mechanisms.
Unni Rajen Shanker: States such as Bihar and Assam battle floods every year. Your organisation works in these parts. Are there any lessons to handle the situation better in the future?
The fact remains that we as a nation are not prepared. We know Bihar, Assam and West Bengal will be flooded every year…. I remember when I was young, I read a small news item that Northeast was cut off from the country. Even today, nothing has changed. We have accepted this as an annual ritual. We are not prepared to tackle it. The infrastructure we are building is cutting villages into two parts. We are stopping the flow of rivers. Earlier, rivers could absorb 5 feet of water, now the river absorbs only 2 feet of water. Deforestation is another issue. I don’t think we have a plan to avoid disasters.
All the low-lying areas of this country have high rises. These low-lying areas were meant for water storage, but these are now the biggest possible sites for corporate buildings. We are messing up. Citizens have to play a much larger role now. We have to make people responsible. We cannot just sit and talk ill about the government. We need to understand that, as nation, in certain ways, we are in disaster.
Sowmiya Ashok: We live in a situation, especially in urban India, where aspirations are linked to the latest gadgets. How is it impacting recycling of products?
I feel that it is an absolutely bad decision to put such high taxes on recycling. I mean, it is a pain when one has to pay 18 per cent GST on checking pollution levels of their car. Why is it polluted? Is it not the responsibility of the agencies to give me the right kind of petrol and diesel? And then when I get it checked, you charge 18% GST. We survive in this country because we really have a robust system of recycling; lakhs of people are employed and they take care of thousands of tonnes of material. I think the system has become very complicated now. The moment garbage is brought under GST, it is bound to have an adverse effect.
In Ludhiana and several other areas, there is a lot of textile wastage being released, and many of us don’t understand what is happening. In winter, when you go from Delhi to Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, you see jaggery being made and thick smoke coming out. You wonder whether this is the residue of the sugarcane they are burning. But then that is grass, then why is thick smoke emerging? The fact is that most of these people are burning textile waste. Can you imagine the kind of pollution this causes?
We make all kinds of rules for plastic to be banned. We have not been able to touch even a single company that is making non-recyclable plastic packaging for 35 grams of bhujia. We are not making any attempt to stop that at the source. Ultimately, they are the biggest polluters.
Shalini Nair: Do you see a systemic withdrawal of the State from issues such as provision of quality healthcare, education and infrastructure, as a result of which NGOs have to step in to fill in the gaps?
Absolutely. The State has a responsibility and in many cases it has failed. There is failure of the system: health, education… That is the reason I say that citizens need to take more responsibility. Citizens need to ask why is the quality of mid-day meals in schools poor, when I paid taxes for a good meal. If the State is not doing its duty, citizens need to raise questions. They need to go to school and ask questions of the headmaster.
Aakash Joshi: With Corporate Social Responsibility being made compulsory for firms, to what extent has funding increased over the years? Does it actually have an impact on the kind of work that is being done in the sector?
It needs a very huge debate and a radical change. The biggest problem in this country has been that whether it is the State or the policy makers, opinion leaders, people like us, we always see problems through our own lens. We have never seen problems through the lens of the people who are suffering. That is what is happening with a large part of the government and CSR money. For a particular village, the road may not be important; they may need only one-tenth of that money for, say, repairing a water body. Do we really understand the priorities of people for whom we are working? Or do we take decisions in our offices and say, ‘let’s work on education’. How do we understand what they need?
Shailaja Bajpai: In metros, there are conversations around GST, Aadhaar, communal politics, meat ban, intolerance, nationhood etc. Have any of these percolated to rural centres? What are the kind of conversations that take place in those parts?
Honestly, we need to understand that half of the country, especially rural pockets, are still in survival mode. For these people, what is important is a meal at the end of the day. They are worried about whether they can send their children to school, whether they can afford their fees or books… A large part of the country still has to think about such matters.
This year, almost one-third of the country’s population has been affected by floods. For the next three years, they have nothing else to think about. We do not understand the rural economy. We don’t realise that when one crop fails, it affects the farmer for 10-20 years because just to make up for the loss of that one year, they get into a big debt cycle.
Unni Rajen Shanker: You work in areas affected by natural calamities. What are some of the things that you have learnt about relief work?
One of the biggest problems in such situations is related to donations — people often give what they have, not what people need. There is a gap there. There is a lot of misunderstanding about relief. Also, relief is quite unplanned in our country. For example, after the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, hundreds of trucks with relief material went from here. Several political parties also sent trucks. But no one realised that beyond Rishikesh, even a motorcycle couldn’t get through. So, it is important to work in a practical manner.