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Rolling out success, one khakra at a time

For 31-year-old Baby Gupta of Parli village, life with an alcoholic, unemployed husband was one long struggle. She and her two young sons had to depend on her father-in-law, who often belittled them for the hand outs. Finding a job was not an option as her family had not encouraged her education.

But when her husband died in 2009, Ms. Gupta decided to find a job — much against her in-laws’ wishes.

She approached the Shramik Naari Sangh (Sa-Ni-Sa), a charitable society with a vocational centre at Rajnagar, not far from Parli in western Maharashtra. Ms. Gupta joined the society’s Mahila Gruh Udyog, which manufactures khakhras — a thicker Gujarati cousin of the papad — under the brand name Chaakri, which means service.

Speedy road to success

“I had never heard of khakhras, much less knew how they looked or tasted,” says Ms. Gupta. However, she quickly learnt how to roll out the crisp snack and soon became one of the unit’s top performers. Today, she makes khakhras from as much as 18 kg to 20 kg of dough every day. “I have learnt to make different varieties,” she says with a smile. “And I teach the juniors too.”

Most of Ms. Gupta’s fellow workers at the unit have a similar story of domestic conflict and deprivation. They come from around 20 hamlets in the underdeveloped Sudhagad taluk of the arid Raigad district, west of Pune. With little employment for the men, these women have taken on the task of keeping the home fires burning.

The Shrimad Rajchandra Aatma Tatva Research Centre started Sa Ni Sa in 2004, says Simi Thapar, a trustee. It aimed at providing employment opportunities for the women of Parli. But monetising their skills was a challenge.

“Unlike women in rural areas in the rest of the country, those in Sudhagad lacked a specialised local skill,” says Shruti Sheth, who heads the Chaakri unit. “We felt that the one thing every Indian woman has mastered is the art of rolling rotis (flat breads). We decided to tap this and started the khakhra project in 2005.”

Quality assurance

Jyotsnaben Shah, who began training tribal women in the process, and oversees the quality and audit functions, says the unit started in a small kitchen with two or three women making a single variety of khakhra. Today, 60 women, aged between 18 and 45, make around 10 varieties of the savoury.

“We stringently follow quality assurance processes,” says Ms. Shah. “Laboratory testing is done to ensure quality and that the product range is compliant with the statutory food grade packaging norms and licensing requirements. The Chaakri unit has an FSSAI licence.”

Bosky Bavisi, who heads Sa Ni Sa’s sales operations and is also a trustee, is proud that the khakhras now have a global presence. “We are available in 95 to 100 stores in the U.S. in California, Illinois, Nevada and Texas. Very soon our products will be launched in some premium stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The khakhras are also available in some of the leading stores in Dubai and [will be available] very soon in Singapore.”

Perhaps more important than those international markets is how the work has transformed the lives of women in the area.

Identity, independence

Sanchita Sachin Jhambulkar, 32, a resident of Gothavade village, who has been working with Chaakri for the past eight years, says, “Before I started working here, it used to be difficult to make ends meet. My husband works at construction sites, and his income is erratic. I wanted my son to get an education, unlike his parents.” Ms. Jhambulkar’s 12-year-old son studies in Class VI.

Megha Jadhav (23), was able to resume her studies, thanks to Chaakri. She dropped out of school to support her family after her father was struck by paraly- sis. Financial independence after joining the unit meant she could resume her studies via distance education.

“Chaakri encouraged me to study again, and funded all my expenses towards admission, books, conveyance and tuitions,” says Ms. Jadhav. “We faced a lot of challenges after my father was paralysed as we didn’t have any savings. My mother and I started working at Chaakri. It has given us a means of earning with dignity.” Ms. Jadhav completed Class XII this year.

In 2007, Chaakri diversified into ‘Udaan’, to develop tribal women’s craft skills. “Udaan, which in Hindi means flight, is aimed at giving tribal women the freedom to achieve their dreams,” says Bhavna Parikh, its creative head. Udaan’s journey, though, was challenging. Most of the tribal women were not willing to think about their future. “We began our employment-generation programme with training in making diyas (clay lamps). Their grasping abilities, skill and talent encouraged us to expand the product range and set up the vocational training centre in the unit itself.”

Today, women at Udaan make a wide range of handmade products from paper bags to garlands, door strings, shoulder bags and mobile pouches to yoga mats, jewellery and room fresheners.

In 2014, Sa Ni Sa bought a bus to provide transport to and from work for the women. They are also served breakfast every day. “Our vision is to provide employment to 800-900 women and open centres in various surrounding hamlets,” says Ms. Sheth.

Caring community

Chaitanyaben Rambhia, who supervises the training and helps with administrative work and staff welfare, says, “It is fulfilling to see the girls progress, not just socio-economically but also in terms of their confidence and self-reliance.”

For the women in the units, life revolves around home and the workplace. “Many of them have never travelled beyond their villages. Picnics are organised for them twice a year to places such as Mumbai, Pune and Alibaug, which the staff look forward to eagerly,” says Ms. Sheth.

Sa Ni Sa also conducts free, medical camps for women and their families every quarter. It also organises workshops on issues such as teamwork, motivation, self-expression and awareness of government schemes.

Above all, there is the sense of community. “We are given surprise gifts,” says 23-year-old Surekha Ghute, who has been working with Udaan for the past eight years. And birthdays are a big deal. “I had never heard of birthday celebrations before,” says Ms. Rambhia. “It is such an emotional moment when we cut cakes.”

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 2:23:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/chaakri-a-source-of-income-for-women-for-raighad-women/article19240796.ece

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