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USHA Silai Schools Are Providing Livelihood To The Marginalised Communities Of Assam

What is Majuli best known for? For being a natural paradise covered with trees and lush paddy fields? Or for its rich Vaishnavite culture, preserving its heritage through Satras and traditional practices of art, literature, dancing and theatre? Clay pottery and mask making? Or its ancient art of hand looming to make Assamese tribal patterns? The world's biggest river island, Majuli is traditional in its culture and values. Surrounded by the mighty Brahmaputra, and accessible only by ferry, Majuli is home to a multiplicity of ethnic tribes, amongst them the Mising, Deori, and Sonowal Kachari tribes.

While Majuli is a haven of peace and culture for travellers, every passing year underlines the fragility of life for the locals who live on the island. The frequent and violent floods not only erode the island and threaten its future, but they also wreak havoc on the livelihoods of the people of Majuli. In these circumstances, 48-year-old Diparani, from the Mising tribe, sustains her household by doing what she loves most - stitching.

Talking to NDTV about how stitching helps her earn a living, Diparani Payung, USHA Silai School Teacher said,

I have been living in Majuli since I was born. In the morning, I wake up between 3:30 am and 4 am and the first thing I do is stitch. In this manner, I have earned around Rs 60-100 before the others even wake up.

Diparani is the youngest of eight siblings. As it happens, stitching was her favourite activity in childhood. Stitching, or silai, may seem like quite the chore to many, but for Diparani it was the forbidden fruit. At 13 years of age, she stealthily satiated her appetite for stitching by running several experiments on skirts and frocks using her sister's sewing machine. Little did she know that later in life, she would upskill 36 girls in what she considered only a hobby.

Recalling her initial experiments with stitching, Diparani Payung said,

My elder sister owned a sewing machine. When she used to go out for work, I would stitch together paper cuttings in order to learn how to sew. My sister would not let me touch the machine because she was scared I would damage it. Then, I started using the cloth left over from my sister's work to make small frocks, skirts and other pieces of clothing.

When she heard about USHA's Silai School in Majuli, Diparani joined the training programme to enhance her income. After seven days of training, she opened her Silai school. Now she earns Rs. 8,000 a month from the Silai school. What brings her the most joy is watching her skills spread through her village, thanks to her students.

Explaining her journey, Diparani said,

In the training of USHA Silai school, besides the stitching training, I got training on mechanical servicing also. This training helped me a lot. If a woman from a nearby village is trained by me and buys a sewing machine, I visit her house to assemble it. Then the neighbours come to meet me out of respect and my students introduce me as their teacher.

Mrinalini Dutta is one of the beneficiaries and students of Diparani. Sharing her experience of training under the able guidance of Diparani, Ms Dutta said,

I joined Dipa Ma'am's Silai school in April 2013. I used a sewing machine for the first time there. I could not operate it properly but she helped me a lot in teaching me how to run the machine, and put the needle. I learnt cutting and stitching on paper, and when I could do that properly, she gave me a piece of cloth to cut and stitch. After receiving training for three months, I was given a certificate. It helped me in acquiring a free machine from the OBC fund. For me, the silai (sewing) machine became a medium to earn. Besides that, I taught one of my relatives, and she also received a machine and certificate after the completion of her training. We are all extremely grateful to Dipa ma'am for having taught us.

Prolonged problems of flooding, river erosion and lack of connectivity have affected the economic development of the tribal people who live on Majuli. Diparani belongs to a flood-affected marginalised indigenous community herself. But her efforts are backed by the USHA Silai school programme and Rural Volunteer Centre, Assam whose goal is to provide livelihood in the remote rural areas of India. She believes that teaching sewing enthusiasts gives meaning and structure to her life.

Luit Goswami, Director of Rural Volunteer Centre, Assam shared the idea and experience of working with the tribals. He said,

When we approached USHA and started working with them, we realised that the tribals already have skill sets of weaving, etc. The inputs that were required were training in the sense of knitting, cutting, etc. The Second part is the access to resources that is Silai machine. We started with a few people. In Majuli, presently, we are directly working with 10 women but the Silai school provides skill sets to more and more people down the line. The income generation avenues of women and girls are expanding fast.

Mr Goswami shared that his organisation focuses on three of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He said,

The first one is no poverty, the second is zero hunger, and the third is gender equality. So, this project fits right into our goals.

Adding to this, Kishore Kalita, Deputy Manager, USHA Social Services said,

The USHA Silai School is one of the best models for women's empowerment because they don't have to go outside of their villages or you can say their premises. They can run the Siali school while at home. This way they can earn and also look after their families. We are trying to open more schools for the tribals. We are also trying to give them more income opportunities. During Covid, they used to make masks, and they earned a lot during that period. Recently also, during Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, in Har Ghar Tiranga concept, they made flags and earned a lot.

What makes a successful Silai School? Finding a venue, and stocking up on sewing machines, scissors, chalk boxes, rulers, and yards of cloth among many other things. But what drives an establishment like this is not just cloth and skills, it is the intention – the simple intention of empowering thousands of women and connecting them to opportunities, piecing their dreams together with their sewing.

There are over 30,000 USHA Silai schools in 17,000 villages spread across 600 districts in India. From the world's largest river island in Assam to a small tribal village in Ladakh, the coming alive of the dreams and aspirations of the women of India are what transform this simple intervention into a lasting legacy.

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Adopt a Silai School

Adopt a Silai School

Do you want to be a part of the huge change that Usha Silai School is bringing about in the lives of millions of rural women? With just a simple click of a button, you can now contribute towards the opening of an Usha Silai School or support various other aspects of the school.

About the Initiative

About the Initiative

Kushalta Ke Kadam, an initiative by NDTV and USHA, aims at empowering women from rural India and encourages them to become entrepreneurs by taking up sewing and training others in their respective communities. Since 2011 Usha Silai Campaign has trained more than 3.95 lakh rural women within five years, with 17,000 Silai schools, spanning over 9272 Indian villages in India.

 

Kushalta Ke Kadam in Season 4 has returned with new goals and vision. The new season will witness the establishment of the new cluster in Kashmir, apart from the existing four clusters setup last year. The women from volatile Kashmir will work with well-known fashion designer Rohit Bal and get an unique opportunity to learn from him and make clothes for him. The work done by the Silai School women will be presented at Lakme Fashion week 2019.

 

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In Pics

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching
Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Rebari girls grow up learning traditional embroidery, which along with their new found sewing skills developed at Usha Silai Schools, is helping them earn a living.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Usha Silai School has empowered many rural women to support their family and send their children to school.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

The Usha Silai School, established in a small nondescript village that goes by the name of Kottai, is helping empower people from varied communities.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

The all-inclusive Usha Silai School Programme covers the entire nation from hamlets tucked between hills to villages cast by the sea.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Vegetables farmers from the Mizoram hills earn very little given the topography of the area. Usha Silai Schools have played an important part in this region by skilling women to financially contribute towards their households.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Usha Silai School learner Lucy has trained seven other women in her community, helping them to become financially independent.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Women like Kaviben from the nomadic Rebari community are finally laying down their roots as they begin to gain financial independence and thereby stability through Usha Silai School.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Usha Silai School, located in the Gujarat's Bhuj village, is enabling rural women to earn as much as Rs. 2,500-4,000 each month.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Usha Silai School, in association with a Gujarat based NGO called Kala Raksha, is trying to bring about a Silai revolution in Bhuj.

Kushalta ke Kadam: Aiming for Independence Through Stitching

Besides training other women from their community, many Usha Silai School learners have become entrepreneurs in their own right.

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With sewing becoming easily accessible and lucrative, the silai schools are also helping revive traditional motifs and designs.

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