SEWA: Runa Banerjee’s vision to give Chikan & its artisans a new lease of life.
Volume: 13, No: 02 ; February-2019
The ethereal, the delicate, and the mesmerizing – such is the art of Chikankari of Lucknow. Whether it’s the intricacy of the stitches, the richness of the texture or the shadow of the design, Chikankari is the epitome of splendid needlework of India.
However, the craftsmen of this art are often inadequately rewarded. The time and effort Chikankari workers invest in creating a masterpiece is not valued as much as the craft itself. At times, they don’t get a regular flow of work or fair wages, particularly the women artisans who are underpaid.
In order to bring about a healthy change in the life of the artisans, a voluntary association of craftswomen – SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) was set up in Lucknow in the year 1984. The association was registered in February 1984 as a society. In 1979, the UNICEF and Literacy house, Lucknow conducted a study which revealed that women and children working in the Chikan industry were cruelly exploited more than any other crafts of the unorganised sector in Uttar Pradesh. Resultantly, SEWA, the Self Employed Women Association came into existence to eradicate the involvement of middlemen and also set out a sustainable and viable production system with direct exposure to the market.
One woman’s grit empowered many others…
Ms Runa Banerjee, an Indian social worker who was highly decorated for her work with craftswomen with one of India’s highest civilian honours, ‘Padma Shri’, is the co-founder of SEWA. Presently, she is serving as its General Secretary and the Chief Executive Officer.
Runa Banerjee was born and brought up in Lucknow and resided in Model House locality in the city. She grew up imbibing the colours of Awadh set in Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb (communal and cultural harmony) in her personality. She showed active participation in social service since her early years. When she was quite young, she started noticing the plight of women living in slum areas around her locality. These women and their families didn’t have enough sources to arrange for even two meals every day.
Digging more about their lives, Runa came to know about the lack of health facilities they were facing. She, thus, organised a health camp in 1979 along with some prominent doctors of Lucknow in one of the poorest localities for those who were forsaken. However, while rendering the medical check-ups, Runa and the doctors came to know the miserable lives these people were living in – with not even basic necessity being met. This drove Runa Banerjee to work towards upliftment of marginalised women, educate them and make them self-dependent to run their families. She also used to teach the unprivileged women and children in her locality and started interacting with them personally to gather insights about their lives.
Later, it was the UNICEF report in the same year, 1979, on Chikanak embroidery (this art is known as chikankari) workers which prompted Runa to take up the work of improving the lives of artisans of Chikankari. She was determined to give means of earning to those poor women and thus resorted to the idea of setting up SEWA.
Initially, Runa, along with her friend, Sehba Hussain, opened a primary school for children of the Chikankari artisans and charged them a small token fee of Re. 1. The school which was running with a single teacher in the beginning and later developed into SEWA Montessori School. In the year 1984, Runa coined a mission, ‘Earn while you learn’ which initially had a strength of 31 members and in the same year the organization was formally registered as SEWA Lucknow (Self Employed Women’s Association).
Her passion for changing the lives of the backward & poor gave a drastic facelift to the socio-economic façade of Lucknow.
Runa Banerjee made immense contributions to the society and most of them single-handedly – which earned her nomination for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She also bagged various other awards & accolades like – HT Women Award 2011, Women Achiever Award 2006, FICCI Award, Special Award by State Women Commission 2005, Yash Bharti Award and the list goes on.
The major reason behind the inception of SEWA was to restore the dignity of the craft and revamp its production and marketing processes to make Chikankari flourish at a new level without any unfair treatment to the artisans connected with it.
SEWA Lucknow, in order to meet this need, thus grew exponentially incorporate strength and became a full-fledged Chikan producing organisation. After getting rid of the strangleholds of the middlemen, the benefits were higher, direct and regular. Wages started to pour in directly to SEWA members. Notably, their total earnings in the form of wages dramatically increased over the years.
Despite all her noble efforts, Runa Banerjee also faced many hurdles, majorly in the form of opposition from Chikan traders who considered SEWA as a threat to their business. Banerjee, however, didn’t back out! Although her knowledge about Chikankari work and business was limited, her determination and dedication helped her make a mark of her own in this field.
Today, there are many duplicate SEWA stores dotting the markets of Lucknow with slight changes in names, prefixes, and spellings. This unlawful trend might look strange but is a proof of the popularity and trust of Runa Banerjee’s SEWA in Lucknow and how traders feel that by just giving a name closest to SEWA to their stores they can make money. SEWA has no big or proper commercial store anywhere and one can always visit SEWA by prior appointment and arrangement. At Tornos we ensure that if the guests touring with us are interested in authentic Chikan embroidery that has a social cause are taken to Runa Banerjee’s SEWA by prior appointment. Runa is often happy to meet and greet our guests and also talk to them about Chikan and her journey with SEWA – Self Employed Women’s Association in Lucknow.
Covered a long journey…
An association which started as a small group of only 31 artisans expanded to 1000 members in just a few years and then in 2014 crossed the milestone of 7000 craftswomen members in the year 2014. SEWA has had many sales exhibitions held in collaboration with the Handicrafts Commissions and ‘Dastkar’, a voluntary crafts organisation in Delhi. Dastkar has played a prominent role in promoting SEWA products and bringing the work of SEWA’s craftswomen directly to buyers.
The agenda of SEWA is not only to ascertain timely and fair wages to the artisans but also to provide a source of livelihood to the marginalised women. Apart from roping in the artisans who have excelled at this craft, SEWA also imparts training about production and marketing techniques of Chikankari to women who are willing to learn the craft.
Furthermore, SEWA works towards:
– Identifying and developing new markets for Chikan embroidery products.
– Exploring new areas of production and marketing.
– Improving the confidence of the artisans, realizing their potential and giving them a sense of security.
– Upgrading the skills of artisans through a training program to broaden the range of their work.
– Revitalizing the traditional craft.
– Leveraging a platform for artisans where they can bargain for higher wages.
– Polishing the capacities of women artisans to help them make informed choices in life.
– Ensuring that social benefits like educational, health and other Right’s based facilities reach the member artisans and their children.
“To value and promote an egalitarian and gender just Society within a framework of Women’s Rights and Sustainable Human Development.”
Curb any kind of exploitation by upgrading the skills and process of self-marketing. Duly revive the self-esteem of SEWA members is the primary strategy of the organization. This, in turn, would improve the overall standard of living of the artisans and inculcate in them the feeling of dignity.
Some key points of the strategy are:
– High quality of Skill Training.
– Establishing a network in the urban region of Lucknow and outreaching rural areas through organisational spread as well as through other appropriate partnerships/alliances.
– Enabling a support system by providing for provision of raw material, transport and marketing initiatives to augment consolidation as well as expansion.
– Adoption of participatory methodologies for Joint Needs Assessment, Strategic Planning, Monitoring and Achievement.
– Carrying out an assessment at all levels with the involvement of artisan members themselves.
– Constant check on revamp of life skills, group strength and growth of every artisan member.
– Boost women’s strength through knowledge building.
– Checking up on the family health and education for artisan as well as for the children in the community.
Organizations like SEWA bring a breath of fresh air in the otherwise suffocating working atmospheres for artisans in India. Moreover, it ensures that age-old crafts like Chikankari do not get lost with time.