Kishori Kendras in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi district cater to women whose families honed the art of weaving Banarasi saris but lost out to the onslaught of the power loom

Unlike most people who abhor the scorching Indian summer, 15-year-old Puja awaits it each year in anticipation. The summer provides this Class 10 Hindi medium student an opportunity to learn things she is fond of, things that are not taught at school or home. Puja is accompanied by some 60-80 young women between 14-20 years of age who assemble at a local summer camp where they engage in sewing, painting, dancing, singing, designing, cooking and other such activities.

For Puja, who aspires to be a doctor, the last five summers have been spent well.

“From 9am to 3pm for a month, it’s all fun and time passes so quickly. Our trainers encourage us to study, to learn new skills and we are often taken to different places. All this makes us think ‘we can also do it’,” says Puja.

Most girls slightly older than Puja have picked up beauty techniques, which they put to use in local marriages as beauty experts, while weaving and stitching are preferred by many. Paper-making, candle-making and, maths skills and computer training are also on offer.

The summer camp is organised by voluntary organisation Lok Samiti. For the past decade, it has led a full-fledged and brave hearted struggle against beverage giant Coca Cola's bottling operations at Mehdiganj, Varanasi. The excess ground water extraction by the company has not only aggravated the existing water crisis in the area but also hampered cultivation and environmental resources, thus ruining livelihoods. In Rajatalab, where Lok Samiti operates, most communities engage in weaving Banarasi sarees for their living.

Once a thriving industry, the local handicrafts have been ruined by the coming of power looms and the overall globalisation. To bring relief to these families, besides running the summer camps, Lok Samiti provides basic literacy skills and vocational training to over 200 young women in its educational centres called Kishori Kendras. Most of these women have never attended school and thus the Kishori Kendras are their only hope of learning. “We are also looking at increasing income opportunities for these women by attempting to sell the handicrafts and other fancy items made by them in the Kishori Kendras and summer camps,” says Nandlal Master, founder of Lok Samiti. The idea is to make them self-sufficient.

A grassroots social activist, Nandlal started out in 1994 by organising evening schools for children and five years later he founded Lok Samiti with the support of his colleagues.  The organisation today runs 10 night-schools and two day-schools that reach out to around 500 children under the name of the Navjyoti Swavlambam Seva Sansthan. While foreign volunteers contribute to the training in the summer camps and Kishori Kendras - for instance, by teaching classical dance or taking English language classes - Nandlal hopes that at the local level the government would extend more support.

“We will request the government to allot us space during exhibitions so that these handicrafts are marketed well. The money will be used to better facilitate the camps and some of it will be given to the girls,” he says. Fortunately for the women and girls, their parents have been supportive and encouraging. Vinod is happy that his daughters have picked up things of basic etiquette, apart from other skills and arts at the camp.

“My younger brother's daughter is quite deft at painting, and through the camp she is now capable of drawing beautifully the cultural things of Varanasi; things of daily life,” he explains.

However, with no permanent support, running on donations and supported by volunteers, Lok Samiti has limited facilities to achieve its targets. Nandlal also feels that the one month long camps are too short to impart any sort of concrete skills. “Camps lasting three to six months would have helped our cause. Technical skills like computers require that long. We hope to get government help.”

But even without such support, the various Lok Samiti groups, now spread in 25 villages, focus on educating locals about their rights and raising awareness about problems specific to each village. It has also played an important role in the creation of 35 women self-help groups in the area and raises awareness of social issues through their street play team, Kala Manch.  Each year, they also organise dowry-free mass weddings for poor families.