I love the idea of communities – of groups of people who have a common purpose and help themselves by helping the people around them. I love markets, I love events, and I love team work.
Lately I’ve been lucky enough to be paid to travel to India for cricket purposes (events) and for a few months each year I’ve been living in Kolkata. For me it is almost the funnest thing you can do. However, I’m conscious of the fact that I managed to avoid most of the poverty and other social issues in Kolkata, by being busy.
Following is some information about two tours / visits that I did this year where the people involved are making a difference.
Freeset is located in Sonagacchi, the largest, most infamous sex district in Kolkata, India (and which I didn’t know existed). Within a few square miles more than 10,000 women stand in line selling their bodies to thousands of men who visit daily. Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal and rural India. For others poverty has left them without options.
The area is not too far from where I worked. But in Kolkata nothing is too far – geographically it is quite a small city.
It is not a tourist destination but I made contact through distant family friends. We visited the houses in Sonagacchi, attended a morning church service and then toured the various production rooms. Most of the processes are manual, which is the objective – to train and employ people and at the same time to provide literacy classes and other life skills. For me one of the notable things is that the rooms are bright and airy. The women were chirpy and if I knew Bengali other than to count to five I’m sure we could have had a good chat.
Annie Hilton and her husband have been working on the project for 17 years, originally from New Zealand. We were escorted on the tour by Rebecca, originally from Scotland with an American accent and pink hair. She came on her gap year and then came back for a second internship.
My conversation with Annie was regrettably brief – regrettable on my part because I had to get back to work. She said that they discovered that many of the women came from the same village so now they were also working in that village to set up a textile business. The scarves that I bought were made on hand looms – and hope to do more, and in so doing will give the ladies options before they even enter the cycle of coming to Kolkata and ending on the streets.
You can read more about Freeset on their website . At this stage their main products are bags and t-shirts. If you are organising a conference, for example, you can send your logo and they will design the artwork and produce tote bags for your attendees. Same for T-shirts. They also have a small outlet where you can buy Tshirts, bags and scarves for every day wear.
It is understandably a ‘no-photo’ zone, so there is nothing to show in terms of the centre but I DO have photos of the merchandise that I bought below – a scarf made on the handloom and a laptop bag screen printed with images from Kolkata (all available to order from the Freeset website).
(The feature image on the Agatha Bertram home page is a streetscene not far from Freeset’s production houses)
Operated by Reality Tours and Travel
The mission of Reality Tours and Travels is that tourism can and should be a force for local development. They use a profit sharing model to fund their sister-NGO Reality Gives. Eighty percent of post-tax profits go directly to Reality Gives and they in turn provide education programs, train teachers and operate community centres around Dharavi. To date they have positively impacted the lives of over 6,000 local youth.
Anyone who saw ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has an idea of what a slum might look like. And its true – parts of the movie were shot in Dharavi in Mumbai. It is a 10 hectare site that has 1 million residents who are broadly separated by religion, with the largest group being Hindi and the second largest Muslim.
From the beginning, it was our guide Rakesh’s mission to change our perception of the Dharavi. One of the first things that he told us was about the sense of belonging that exists within Dharavi. Generations of families live in Dharavi and they are proud of their community.
He reminded us that the word ‘slum’ has become much more pejorative outside of India. In fact it just means that the residents are not paying for their use of the land. In Mumbai they are living on government owned land that they havn’t paid for, but they do own their houses.
Within Dharavi there is a commercial area and a residential area. We first visited the commercial area, where the major activities are recycling, leather, pastries and textiles. Working conditions are often a bit grim, but the businesses are thriving, often owner operated and providing employment. Rubbish, for example is collected from Mumbai’s streets and dumps by ‘ragpickers’ and sold to an agent who onsells to the recycling businesses in Dharavai. From there everything is recycled including old computers, tins, old clothes and cardboard.
We saw two different styles in the residential areas – the rabbit warren, well its all a bit of a rabbit warren but there are some areas of extreme rabbit warren – and the more spacious terrace housing style. The rabbit warrens were pretty awful. Lanes that are only the width of a person, built up on both sides and the 3m x 3m rooms which seems to be the standard size for family accommodation. As in a family living entirely within the 3m x 3m space. And from what I could see with no natural light. When the monsoon comes, it floods. In the hot months, it is hot.
Sanitation is an issue. My first (internal) question anywhere is ‘where did they / do you go to the toilet’. I’m a bit obsessed by bodily functions. The answer in Dharavi is the communal toilets. Approx 150 people per toilet. This is probably a squat toilet, might be a hole in the floor. The sewerage drains into an open drain that in turn drains into the ocean. Note to self, do not swim in the ocean in Mumbai. So all in all, not pretty and it smells.
In fact the government could do something about it. Dharavi is a ‘legal’ slum and the government does provide basic infrastructure like roads, electricity and running water for two or three hours per day. They probably will do more one day, but at the moment the government is doing little about sanitation.
After ‘extreme rabbit warren’ we visited the area where the Gujurati’s have moved in and are making clay pots. There was a wedding on, the weather was good and we had a lot of interaction with the colourful-sari-wearing-residents who smiled and said ‘hello’.
In Rakesh’s view the conditions of the slums are acceptable and they are providing solutions for the 60% of Mumbai residents who live in Dharavi and other areas.
For us – an insight into a different way of life.
Like Freeset, for privacy reasons there is a no-photo policy. Photos included here are from the Reality Travel and Tours gallery. The tour ends at the Reality office and there is merchandise onsale. One of my favourite items – ideal for travelling – are the bags made from old saris.
The idea of looking more seriously at sustainable travel came from Katy at Untold Morsels and in particular – https://www.untoldmorsels.com/top-travel-trends-in-2017/. Although I don’t regard myself as a trendy traveler, I have always liked the idea of sustainability, micro businesses & micro financing.
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