My Story: “As A Food Scientist In Uttarakhand, I’ve Trained 1000+ Village Women To Become Food Entrepreneurs”

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“Six years ago, I stepped into the pristine hilly terrains of Tehri Garhwal, posted as a Food Scientist at Krishi Vigyan Kendra. The mountains and her people welcomed me with utmost warmth. Though I hailed from Rajasthan, I rarely felt out of place among the hill tribes and their minimalistic lives. 

Initially, it took me a while to adapt to the local language, cuisine and lifestyle. During that time, I used to closely observe the village women with astonishment. Their daily lives know no rest – from managing the household and raising kids to farming in the family plots – they do everything without a word of complaint or exasperation on their lips. 

Yet poverty reigned in their homes. The women were hardly compensated properly compared to the amount of effort they put in. Upon keen inspection, I figured out that they lacked in two aspects – direction and connectivity.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Introducing The Idea Of Self-Help Groups

They were labouring day in and day out in the fields but they got a paltry sum for their produce in the local market. I would notice them every day after my work hours and deeply felt to do something for them.

I would finish my day’s work by afternoon and head out to meet and sit with the women. I shared with them how skill training in food processing can help them earn a better livelihood. Most of them were intrigued by the idea and thus we started launching small training centres in every village.

Earlier, the government schemes and projects like Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and small-scale co-operatives only existed in official documents. The local communities were either unaware or indifferent towards these. But, once I explained to them how such a structured framework can help them learn and earn more, they consented at once.

How I Put My Food Tech Degree To Perfect Use

Soon, SHGs were formed in every village. Women of all ages, enthusiastic and ecstatic, started enrolling. Being a food scientist, I devised various cutting-edge, unique and all-natural products from the local produce, which could be easily prepared by these women.

I taught them how to prepare jellies and syrups from seasonal fruits like apricot, plum, hill orange (malta) and lemon. I knew that the alpine flower rhododendron had properties to treat cardiac ailments, so I formulated the rhododendron syrup, a popular product among conscious urban consumers.

Kirti Kumari Food Scientist

Rose bushes were abundant in every home in the hills. In fact, people would often be pestered by the dried flowers, petals and leaves cluttering their yards. So I decided to put the flower to better use. Our all-natural rose syrup sells like hotcake from the supermarket shelves of the cities, where finding a rose plant is a stroke of luck. I also trained our women to prepare savoury, lip-smacking pickles from fresh, chemical-free mountain vegetables.

Shaping Future & Saving Lives

My priority has not only been ensuring the maximum profits for these women but also to assure their well-being. In these regions, anaemia exceedingly persists among women and teenage girls. For them, I invented the iron laddoo – a sweet made from millet grains which is prepared by the women in SHGs and distributed across the villages by volunteers of Integrated Child Development Services.

Oorja is another of my invention, which is an energy-rich baby food infused with growth enhancers – a homemade variety for these poor families who cannot afford canned formula.

Kirti Kumari Food Scientist

Besides the products, I also conduct awareness campaigns on hygiene, women’s health and menstruation in schools among teenage girls. Recently I was nominated for Woman For Woman Award by WEFT for my work.

Natural & Chemical-Free Products

Our products are marketed under a series of labels, of which Hilans, named after an exotic hill bird, is the most popular. All the items they prepare are packaged and sent off to nearby towns like Dehradun and Hrishikesh. We have also gained a considerable consumer base in Delhi as well.

These days, consumers are opting for our handmade, country products over established corporate brands simply because of the quality, purity and the magical essence of the hills. These are 100% free from Maida, preservatives and chemicals of all sorts.

Organic Garhwal – our segment of grocery products and Devkaush – the label for sweets and snacks are becoming top favourites among our customers.

Kirti Kumari Food Scientist

Challenges Along The Way

I will say I have trained more than 1000 women across almost 30 villages in Tehri Garhwal. But, unfortunately, 200 among them have succeeded to sustain themselves in 7 of our most active SHGs. Many of them were old who dropped out due to age-related health issues, while others were housewives and mothers who conceded to the societal pressure that frowns at a woman’s independence.

The first three years were hardest for me. Convincing, and mostly sustaining the women were no cakewalk. I was on the verge of giving up, disappointed at myself. But soon, my tireless efforts of three years bore fruit, as the few gritty women who managed to stay behind, raised considerable profit around 2015. As the news of their success spread, more and more women poured in to join the SHGs.

A Commoner Who Reached The Zenith

I never imagined that I would be involved directly with any kind of social work. My focus had always centred around my career and I had little time for anything else. But, now when I look back, I feel that there was a calling inside me which subconsciously inspired me to devote myself to some greater good.

I wasn’t much fascinated by the stories of extraordinary achievers, who were blessed with inborn talent. But, I felt truly inspired by the stories of commoners who have attained unprecedented heights by sheer hard work and zeal. I wanted to be someone like that.

I have received quite a number of prestigious awards – both international and national. My name has featured time and again in the media in the past couple of years. I only hope I can continue with the work I am doing and bring a true change in the lives of these women.”

– Kirti Kumari, Food Scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Tehri Garhwal

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

How Dalit & Tribal Women From Bundelkhand Are Becoming Firebrand Journalists

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At a glance, Shivdevi from Banda, Uttar Pradesh might appear like just another village woman, attending to the chores and leading a nondescript life. But one cannot overlook a certain confidence, an unmistakable grit in her demeanour. A notebook and a pen, a camera phone and a dusty satchel together gives out her true identity.

Shivdevi, a young mother driven out of home by her tyrannical in-laws, is actually a journalist – one of the very few women reporters etching an example in a patriarchal rural setting. She scours the rustic roads in her new scooter, unearthing stories of injustice, deprivation and atrocities. Abuse by the local leaders, the nonchalance of the police authorities and the ever-existent apathy of many villagers towards a woman reporter –  nothing stops Shivdevi.

She cannot help but express her gratitude towards Khabar Lahariya – India’s first and only hyperlocal media organisation which is training rural women of Bundelkhand to be journalists.

As a newspaper, Khabar Lahariya was circulated in the Hindi and Bundeli languages, among others, across an 80,000-strong reader base in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Two years ago, they launched their digital avatar, adding a sizeable urban population to their reader base.

Breaking into a male bastion

“Heated discussions over feminism and being a feminist, had to go beyond portraying women in a positive light in a context where they were only ‘bechari’ (helpless) or ‘besharam’ (shameless). It had to be about looking at the use and abuse of power by people, institutions and systems,” briefs Pooja Pande, who handles Partnerships at Khabar Lahariya, explaining why Khabar Lahariya was started in 2002.

Khabar Lahariya

“We wanted to establish the women from Dalit, Muslim, tribal communities as journalists, breaking into a male bastion. Challenges were aplenty. We were told by the district magistrate that Khabar Lahariya was ideal to train these women to make achaar (pickle) and papad,” states the Khabar Lahariya team, highlighting that at those times, making reporters out of these women was beyond imagination for everyone else.

A journey spanning decades

The organisation is operated by a competent all-women team. Editor-In-Chief Meera Jatav is a self-made woman, hailing from the rural hinterlands of Bundelkhand. Khabar Lahariya materialised through the zeal and persistence of Meera and like-minded women, supported by Nirantar, Centre For Gender And Education from Delhi.

 

Khabar Lahariya
Meera Jatav

In 1994, 24-year-old Meera joined as a supervisor with Mahila Samakhya, the women literacy project by the government. Her qualifications stood at 10th Pass back then, which she upscaled to a postgraduate in the course of the next few years.

The women at Mahila Samakhya, supervised by Meera and others, started their own four-page monthly newspaper Mahila Dakiya, which unfortunately was discontinued due to fund constraints. But, it was undoubtedly the precursor to Khabar Lahariya, which soon became a reality when Nirantar stepped in from Delhi to fulfil the journalistic aspirations of these feisty women.

From mistreated wives and mothers to full-time reporters

Shivdevi, whose story we shared in the beginning, is one of the many women reporters from marginalised communities at Khabar Lahariya with equally compelling stories. Resistance from the family, obligations as a mother and above all, the orthodox social set-up comprise only the tip of the iceberg if one tries to analyse the obstacles for these women.

“There are too many firsts altogether. A woman actually had to lift the ghunghat (veil), go into crowded areas, talk to men and work for irregular hours. Families and in-laws oppose all this. On average, five out of every 15 women we trained would stay, rest would drop out mid-way, submitting to the societal pressure,” Kavita Devi, Digital Head of Khabar Lahariya, reveals the reality.

The reporters of Khabar Lahariya are all full-time employees. They earned their independence and respect through sincere persistence for over a decade. Naturally, it raises the question, how?

Pooja answers, “Through word of mouth, social media and NGO networks, we publicise the information that we are hiring in a particular district. Applications are invited, and applicants are shortlisted on the basis of their basic qualifications (10th pass). Marginalised women are given preference.”

“Senior KL members travel to the districts to interview shortlisted candidates: a process that involves talking about their aspirations, family circumstances and testing their confidence, general knowledge and technical aptitude. If we think a woman has it in her, then she is called for training and then an internship in Chitrakoot.”

Impacting some new change every day

Be it caste-based violence or gender atrocities, the gritty women stop at nothing to report the truth. Meeting the police or the district administration is now a cakewalk for them. They have impacted ample social, political and infrastructural improvement in the region. The initial days were difficult, but over the course of 17 years, Khabar Lahariya has earned the trust of the local people. They now reach out to the organisation to report untoward incidents and avail justice.

Moving over the traditional pen and notebook, the women have recently been equipped with smartphones and basic computer knowledge, making their jobs easier and faster.

“Her story makes history”

In eight pages, Khabar Lahariya presents unreported stories across diverse domains, which is popularising the habit of reading newspapers in these regions. In the villages with a low literacy level, the reporters themselves often read out the news aloud to keep people well-informed.

“We would like to expand our geographical reach and add to our reporting strength, in the next three years. So, 100 reporters and 10 million unique visitors,” informs Pooja.

“Her story makes history” – goes the Khabar Lahariya tagline. In a bid to make the subaltern narratives thrive, Khabar Lahariya is striving every day, hoping to popularise rural journalism and in turn empower women throughout India.

Also Read: With Every Parcel Delivery, India’s First ‘Delivery-Women’ Company Is Breaking Gender Norms

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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