PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI IN BHOPAL
An NGO is rehabilitating victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy by producing hand-woven materials that are chemical-free.
PICTURES: A. M. FARUQUI
Dyeing cloth with natural colours obtained from vegetables, flowers and minerals.
“Henceforth you’ll have the courage to say no to harmful chemical colours.”
READ in isolation, these lines would appear to be a slogan from environmental activists against the use of chemicals. This comes, however, from a group of women who were victims of the gas tragedy that struck Bhopal on December 3, 1984. What is more, these women practise what they preach: they produce hand-spun fabric printed with vegetable and other natural dyes. Mahashakti Seva Kendra is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was set up in 1993 to help those affected by the gas tragedy and the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid (in Ayodhya) in 1992. It has become a successful entrepreneurial venture, producing dress materials and other handicraft items. Named after the goddess of power, it has 500 women members and has trained thousands of women in hand-block printing, kalamkari printing, embroidery, stitching, jute-bag making and more. Those working at the Kendra earn Rs.1,000-1,500 a month. The money may appear modest, but what they actually gain is the confidence to stand on their own feet again, that too in the face of a calamity.
“I lost my eldest daughter, who was eight years old. My husband and two sons became seriously ill. I had nothing to support my family as my husband was in no condition to work. Then this work came along and slowly life started moving ahead once again,” says Chitra Chauhan, who is in charge of one of the work sheds. Chauhan, who has been associated with the NGO since its inception, says the Kendra has given a new meaning to her life.
Members of Mahashakti Seva Kendra hand print.
Similar is the story of Suraiya, the treasurer, who lost her husband in the disaster and whose eight children fell ill. Suraiya had to suffer doubly because her family was the victim of the1992 riots as well. “As it was we were fighting for our lives after the gas tragedy, but the riots broke our back. It was then that I got associated with the Kendra, which helped me to stand on my feet again,” says Suraiya. She has now married off three of her daughters; the youngest one is too ill to be married. Three of her sons manage to earn a living despite being affected by the gas tragedy, but the fourth is totally incapacitated.
“When I started working for the gas victims, I realised they needed to start some income-generating programmes because financial help was few and far between, and most of the families had lost their bread-earning members. It was then that the idea of setting up this NGO was born,” said Indira Iyengar, patron of the Kendra. She was inspired by Mother Teresa, with whom she has worked.
“Mother Teresa taught me the dignity of human life. She taught me the value of doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. Seeing the misery of these people I wanted to start something that could help them financially,” she said.
Hand embroider home-spun fabrics.
When Indira Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association and a member of the State Minorities Commission, was trying to set up this NGO in 1992, riots broke out and several people who were still reeling under the impact of the gas tragedy became its worst casualties.
With help from the State and Central governments, she established four sheds at Dwarka Nagar in Bhopal, barely 1.5 kilometres from the Union Carbide factory, the source of the lethal methylisocynate gas. She set up a block-printing unit and persuaded Rahim Gutti, a national award-winning block-printing artist who specialises in vegetable and natural dyes, to train the women.
With 150 women trained, the unit started functioning. At present, they produce enough fabric to make their venture modestly viable. Their dress materials are not only popular with young women of Bhopal; the Madhya Pradesh State Textile Corporation is also a regular customer.
However, they still do not have proper marketing facilities and expect the State or Central government to extend a helping hand. “If only we can get an outlet in the city here, or in Delhi, it will go a long way in promoting our NGO,” says Indira Iyengar.
This venture not only promotes a social cause, but it also draws people’s attention to the hazardous impact of chemicals and persuades them to avoid synthetic dyes. “All our raw material is naturally produced from flowers, roots, herbs, mud, oil or plants. When cloths coloured with these vegetable dyes are washed in the river, it does not pollute the groundwater. Our system is totally environment friendly,” says Chitra with great pride.
“This is perhaps the only successful story of rehabilitation of the gas victims. Elsewhere, only dalals [brokers] have made money in the name of the rehabilitation of [Bhopal] gas victims. What is more, this is a programme that aims at empowering the women. I want these women to fight against injustice, I want them to be self-dependent,” Indira Iyengar says with determination.