Life & Style

Divej Mehta’s footwear label collaborates with Central Jail prisoners

Shoes with a soul: Divej Mehta’s footwear label, Inmate, collaborates with prisoners at Yerwada and Puzhal Central Jails

These stylish, leather Kolhapuris have modern edge. Nothing about them suggests that these were crafted in prison.

The man behind this unusual label, Inmate, is 28-year-old businessman Divej Mehta. And his designers and craftspeople are prisoners from Yerwada and Puzhal Central Jails in Pune and Chennai.

Divej’s idea stems from a group project he did while pursuing a Masters in Business Administration in Singapore, based on the concept of private companies collaborating with the prison workforce. In 2013 Divej submitted a proposal to the Maharashtra State Prison authorities — to set up a footwear-making unit at Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail. The project meant that he would have access to a workforce, and for the prisoners, this work experience would make rehabilitation easier.

Once the project got the go ahead, Mumbai-based Divej spent around ₹ 2.5 crore on setting up the infrastructure — machinery and equipment — in the prison, “all of which I saved. I did not take any money from anybody!” As his family has been in the leather industry, exporting it, for close to 45 years; the raw material comes from here. Tergus Works Private Limited is the holding company of the brand; professionals from Tergus helped train the prisoners, fine tuning their skills.

Divej Mehta’s footwear label collaborates with Central Jail prisoners

He started production in Yerwada by January 2018, after almost a year’s training — how to make the footwear, the finishing to meet export quality standards.

Today Inmate crafts an average of 5,000 pairs of footwear every month, and retails out of about 70 stores across the country, in addition to having an online store.

Last year, in November 2019, he started working with prisoners at Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai, and aims to increase production to 20,000 pairs a month.

Not all prisoners are part of footwear unit: he works with around 200 prisoners. Prisoners selected to participate in this project are those who have at least four-five years of their prison sentence left, so they can acquire a degree of proficiency.

“The training itself takes around six to eight months. The work has to be export quality, I see this as creating a workforce that can do the work even when they get out,” says Divej.

Wages are fixed by the Government. In Maharashtra it is ₹ 61 per day. The money goes into prisoners accounts, which they can access when they leave. Work hours are also fixed: at Yerwada the prisoners work from 8 am to 4 pm and at Puzhal from, 7.30 am to 4.30 pm. Divej, however pays ₹ 200 from which ₹ 61 goes to the prisoner and the rest to a welfare fund for the prisoners.

“I cannot pay more than what the government has prescribed. The naysayers would say that I am getting labour cheap. May be I am, but there is another way of looking at it — rehabilitation and increased productivity of the prisoners,” says Divej.

Three former inmates of Yerwada, from Uttar Pradesh, have found employment at factories close to home.

Initially Divej worked with the team at Yerwada every day, when he was setting up the brand. His visits are now limited to a couple of days a week. The brand’s designers are also inmates — “We promote a few who have knack for design, and work with them for product development,” he says.

Working with prisoners or in a prison is not as intimidating as some might think, he says. “We have had to build trust and gain confidence. They have a past, one has to understand that and go about working with them. Once they understand that they stand to benefit they trust you.”

He adds, “I am just doing what is right, doing things my way and so far so good.”

Inmate Kolhapuris and sandals are available on www.byinmate.com

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 5:56:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/divej-mehtas-footwear-label-inmate-collaborates-with-prisoners-at-yerwada-and-puzhal-central-jails/article30817987.ece

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