Walking against the tide

By Aastha Jain and Sakshi Mundada

The coronavirus pandemic has made us all take a harsh look at our practices that have been consistently harming our environment and creating mindless, unreplenishable damage. While a lot of this damage cannot be undone, there are few of us who have been silently working to undo some impact of our thoughtless habits through innovative and ingenious solutions. 

One such individual is Rajiben Vankar and this is her story.

Belonging to a small village in Bhuj, Gujarat, I have been working on an upcycling practice called recycled plastic weaving. In this process we collect plastic waste that is less than sixty microns, it is the kind of waste that cannot be recycled easily but we process it into bobbins and weave a fabric. We thus convert something that is entirely left behind, discarded, never to be used again into a material of value. Everytime someone asks why I don’t weave with traditional fibres like cotton, as the rest of my village, I tell them this is my way of doing my bit for the environment. Through my practice I am making this earth a cleaner, safer place for my fellow beings and I take pride in it.

The early years

Belonging to a community of traditional weavers called Vankars, I have had generations of weavers in my family. A rebel from my early years, instead of working in the farm like the rest of my family I decided to take over the process of weaving on the loom, a task traditionally reserved for men. Facing objections from multiple people, I continued perfecting my craft and later taught it to my younger sister. It was this craft that kept our house afloat through the years of drought, and it was this skill that later in my life helped me form an identity.

Years passed, I got married, had kids and found my reason and rhythm in the daily household activities. Weaving got left behind, that is until my life took a drastic turn. I lost my husband to a stroke, it was sudden and unexpected. Young and widowed with my three kids, I had to find myself anew. It was then someone suggested that I work with the organization called Khamir, they employed and trained weavers. Through my experience there I found my own footing, got involved in multiple projects, and attended various fairs. My understanding of life developed. I became independent in a way I couldn’t imagine before.

It was there that I learned about the craft of recycled plastic weaving. I was instantly drawn to this novel idea of creating objects of value out of waste, I wholeheartedly learned the skill and became the forerunner in the project. After working with the organization for about seven to eight years I decided to start weaving on my own. With the help from my daughter and sister I started my own work of weaving discarded plastic. It has been more than two years and it has been a ride.

The upcycling troop

As we began working on our own, more and more women around me got interested. I call them behene (meaning sisters in hindi ) as we all are in some sense sisters in solidarity. My sisters from the village wanted to join me and my work, they recognized the importance and impact of the process and wanted to be a part of it. Today we have about 8 – 10 women working with us, involved in multiple processes and more than 20 women helping us with sourcing. I am eager to share the independence that I have gained with my sisters, the women around me. I constantly hope and persevere to help out as many women in need as possible by providing them employment opportunities, but due to the pandemic we have been restricted quite a lot.

This work also provides me with the fulfillment of doing my part for my environment. I have heard a lot of people, with much more power and opportunity, say a lot more things about the same. But, rarely does anyone do anything. I truly believe in the power of action over words. However small, my practice of collections, processing and weaving discarded plastic into renewed products is my way of making this earth a better place. Over the last year we used up around one lakh kilos of plastic. It gives me immense pleasure to keep working on something that created such an obvious impact on the environment. 

Today, upcycling has become a lifestyle for us. Everywhere we go, we are extremely conscious of the plastic waste around us and pick it up to ensure it doesn’t harm the surroundings. I have also motivated the women in my village to stop burning or throwing these plastics away and instead give them for recycling. Even in the pandemic, when we had time on our hands we tried experimenting with upcycling our old clothes and weaving rugs with them.

Impact of the pandemic 

The last year of the pandemic has definitely hit us hard. While our work took off considerably well before the virus, it couldn’t continue growing with the lockdowns and restrictions. We faced a lot of difficulty in collecting waste as there was a constant fear of contamination. With the virus spreading all around us, we had to be safe, and that slowed down our sourcing. These were no craft fairs or physical visits that could lead to sales, we had to rely disproportionately on online sales. I solemnly hope that things only get better from now onwards and we get through this difficult time once and for all.

I envision a future where women in every village of this country are joined by this practice. Through this we can not only provide them easy employment opportunities, but upcycle plastic waste on an unimaginable scale. The amount of impact in the lives of these women who have led a life with limited access to freedom will be monumental. I can stand as an example, for a widow, in our society there are a lot of restrictions, but with every step I took forward, I kept shattering those bindings and building a life I am proud to live. All I want is a chance to provide that opportunity to other women.

Restoring human value

Karigaar Clinic is our beacon of hope in such unusual times. It is India’s first rural business clinic to help the country’s craftsmen. Over the years I have been assisted in brand building and business management. Dr.Nilesh Priyadarshi and Noopur Kumari, the originators of the clinic, promote the identity, value, recognition, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship for the individual artisan. They believe in bringing back ancient times where we valued humans more than commodities. 

For a year and a half I have been involved with the Karigaar Clinic. They helped me construct a personalised route through this world of business. They have also developed my team and workshop for an efficient system. I have been equipped with the business, design and communication abilities. I have studied consumers and understand how goods must be designed in line with market requirements over the course of a year. This is a testimony to our extremely unique food bag. We recycle waste plastic to produce a grocery bag that can cut consumption in the long run while also upcycling old trash.  

An opportunity for reflection

Raji ben’s story, whilst being a glowing light making the future a brighter place one weave at a time, also puts on display the deep rooted problems in the way we live today. On one hand we see over-privileged urban elites indulging in mindless consumption of everything from fast -fashion to fast-food, on other we see someone like Raji Ben. Sitting in a small village in the middle of a desert, she is doing more for this planet than most of us can even think of. She has recognized the latent potential residing deep within every woman and her vision of using it to save the world from non biodegradable waste that takes centuries to decompose is complete genius. 

Her story proves that women with even a small amount of opportunity can impact the world with their steely resolve and determined persistence. They can come together to overcome every hurdle and drive monumental change. We owe it to Rajiben and all the others who have dedicated their whole lives to manifest a reality that is better than our present, to join their cause and work for a future they so truly believe in.

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