By Lakshi Bhatia
Living in a time bedevilled by violence, hunger and destitution , where everyday you witness instances of stark inequality blaring in your face and people turning a blind eye because its ‘routine’, the joy and galore of working for others never resides in the minds. But at the precipice of chaos and insanity, there are some who are consciously or unconsciously driven by an unbridled desire to be at the helm of selfless service to others. As India knocks on the doors of novice opportunities with its booming economy and heightened reverence in the global market, a parallel roadmap reverberates the idea of ‘profitability meeting humanity’ and is gaining equivalence of giving back to the society.
Born and brought up in the Eastern Indian state of Odisha, Vikash Das who was ‘programmed’ for success in his life, grew up to earn his Master’s in Software Engineering only to land a lucrative job at IBM. Little did he realize that the mirage of memories and the ritualistic fervor of being connected to his native land will propel him to traverse that very path and find the true meaning in his life. His memories never faded into oblivion and cajoled him into fondly remembering the vivid times spent with the Adivasis, an indigenous tribe he grew up alongside of. Now, only two years later, his social enterprise Vat Vrikshya works to counsel the Adivasi, provide seed funding, create market channels for their goods and generate profit for sustainability. Vat Vrikshya works with marginalized tribal women who have traditionally been neglected and under-resourced. The team works with groups across India, its small staff travelling – often at some risk to themselves- to rural areas where outsiders may not be welcome. So far, the team has worked with 527 families spanning five villages of the tribal belt.
The model of Vat Vrikshya is not the archetypal model but it is woven with extensive on-ground research and a well-outfitted community outreach covenant. The preliminary stage involves the formulation of a research design for the identification of the community needs and problems through a SWOT analysis. The model is tested and systematized which is followed by implementation of pilot projects. The second pillar involves ‘Networking and Partnerships’ wherein industrious tribal women entrepreneurs are linked to those who are at a nascent stage in order to create a market network with other tribal villages and then gradually reach out to SHGs, banks, NGOs in towns and cities to reduce dependency on local money lenders. The third pillar involves ‘Educating and Marketing’ where vocational training is imparted to tribal women based on their expertise and interests. “Our customer base in towns and cities is unaware of tribal arts culture so we educate them about our products and then brand the product and do packaging. We train these women on how to sell the product, how to market these products, how to tell their stories”, he adds. To ensure that there is no trust deficit among members, a fourth pillar has been instituted to ensure transparency and involvement by employing tribal women as the intestinal fortitude of the organization who handle the administration within and outside the organization. But all of this was accompanied by its share of skepticism since the villagers thought the organization was encroaching upon their freedom. It took considerable amount of time but the trust was reinstated with the organization’s conscious decision to hand over the profit basket to the village employees.
Tribal communities have long been a victim of unemployment, landlessness,geographical isolation, malnutrition, sanitation, illiteracy and unprofitable agriculture, exploitation by traders, middlemen, and money lenders. His work modality aims at directly targeting the hitches and stumbling blocks of Rural India. The enterprise has strengthened networks across the tribal belts which are the country’s cluster of poverty. The definitive mark that sets the initiative apart from other ventures is its ability to integrate and empowersocially marginalized tribal groups in one of the most dangerous regions of India. Plagued by infrastructural lacunae, the lack of policy awareness, deep rooted corruption, the region has been ina political vacuum and isolation from the mainstream. He goes on to add, “Our organization works in one of the most remote locations in India where we have no direct connectivity to tribal hamlets. We have to cross rivers, mountains and forest to reach those places.” The blueprint involves bringing in authentic eco-friendly art forms, crafts, fabric produced by artisans from tribal communities in rural Odisha. A collection highly acknowledged for its creativity and design, it is symbolic of thepotential market of expert tribal women and their skills over traditional and age old practices.
After being a witness to the hustle and bustle of the corporate world, running such a venture in solitariness is bound to be an arduous task. Personal aspirations and accomplishments may tamper with the ‘undefeatable spirit’ which once made them nurture and pursue the dream. A lot of reservations and pressures came from societal constructs against the untreaded path chosen, “People thought I have stepped into a sunken boat and I am going to sink with my crazy ideas of bringing change. My parents were not happy because of the fact that I will have to work in one of the most dangerous and remote Maoist infested areas with no access to basic amenities.” But he has a befitting reply to the notion, “Our society, system and mindset are designed in such a way that we tend to think for maximizing our self well being and even if we want to help other people our system doesn’t pay for that. But after I founded Vat Vrikshya , I realized that material gains can’t be equated with success.”
India’s growth trajectory has been popularly branded to be commanding heights of the economy, overtaken by privatization. Then, the nation became entangled amidst the one shining and the other trapped in dire poverty. Today, social entrepreneurship seeks to find solutions for the ‘Other India,’ the one whose forgotten face lays in a jumble of developmental statistics. Nodding his head in accord he says, “With the current government’s focus on skill development and the Digital India Movement, our nation will be the epicenter of change”. He recounts the harnessing of ICT as a potent and robust means for the growth of the sector. Vat Vrikshya’s model makes use oftechnology to disseminate knowledge and ideas among local communities, connecting farmers to agriculture experts through Skype, connecting artisans to customers and dealing a fair price, using various social management tools.
On being quizzed about one term that he would like to maim, kill or bury in the social sector, he unequivocally strikes of the term charity from his list, “We should teach them how to catch fish rather than giving them a fish everyday.” He adds on that charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity appeases our consciences. He isn’t peevish but is often perturbed with the angelic investors who try to gauge their ROI only in terms of profit. He also candidly points out that social entrepreneurship will not solve all of the massive problems in India.He believes in ensuring that the funds made available go to the worthiest projects- whether it’s government or private.He remarks, “Is this a magic wand or a silver bullet? No! It’s not as if encouraging every venture in itself is going to improve society.”
Despite reservations from family, friends and acquaintances, a little thought outside the pedestrian realms of life coupled with naïveté and determination has surely brought forth satisfying rewards. As these young gems carve out their niche and try to create a respectable space for some in the mainstream, they make you believe in the tiny little glimmer of hope lurking in the vicinity. And if not out rightly good or bad, it is certainly better not to remain locked in the caverns of materialistic pleasures alone. He ends with a quintessential reply, “We are going to witness a rising class of brave hearts who will try to solve problems in innovative ways.”