Spend Wisely – Others Depend on You

It’s 2018 and I am in a taxi leaving Jaipur. We pass a large building on Ajmer Road in the outskirts of town. Karan, our driver gestures at it and says “That’s the new Pepsi factory.” I and the other tourists in the car nod appreciatively at the building, designed to fit in with the local Rajasthani architecture: “Wow, that’s really nice!” I say.

Karan turns to me and says flatly “No it isn’t.”

The Pepsi facility just outside Jaipur – note the Rajasthani-style architecture

He then asks if he can take us to his village to meet his family and have chai. We are all excited to go and we turn off the main highway. As we go through the desert our driver tells a story. “Before the Pepsi plant arrived, I lived in my village. We had lots of crops growing that we watered with water from ten wells on our land. Since the Pepsi plant started production, they’ve taken all the water. Now there is only one well left.”

As we drive in to his village his story comes alive. A mostly barren landscape is disrupted by a patch of green. “See there? That’s next to the well that’s working.”

He takes us to his house, a comfortable room with a bed, TV, and fan. “Wait here.” he says, and leaves the room. While he’s gone, other people arrive. They introduce themselves to me in Hindi as our driver’s uncles. Both teach agriculture at a nearby university. After them other people arrive including his wife, siblings and his mother, a woman in her late 60’s. Karan’s children are in school.

We share chai and biscuits and talk about our lives and life in the village. For most of his life the village was supported by agriculture but now things are not so certain. They can’t make enough money to support themselves with agriculture alone and so Karan has moved to Jaipur where he drives a taxi to make ends meet. He’s able to come home to visit his family about once every three weeks. He’s lucky today because he was able to surprise his family – our destination happened to pass near his village.

After chai and conversation we get on our way. Karan’s family says their goodbyes and surround the car as we go. His mother leans in and says to me “Please, stay here all day.”

As we drive away I think about what I’ve seen and how it happened. Pepsi is a massive international corporation but it gets its money from people like you and me. When Western tourists come to India our guidebooks all say “Only drink bottled water and soft drinks. If you drink other things you’ll risk getting sick.” They don’t let on that filtered water is readily available in nearly everyone’s house and in restaurants. If you bring your own bottle, you can always have fresh water to drink.

The unspoken thing is that all of these bottled beverages have to come from somewhere. And then it hits me.

While I was in India following the directions of the guidebooks, I was drinking Karan’s water. Not only that, my plastic bottle and others like it end up polluting the environment. I needed to change my drinking habits in India. While I haven’t been able to completely eliminate bottled beverages, I’ve made a massive reduction.

But the money we spend doesn’t always have to make a negative impact. We can create positive effects from our spending as well. Come with me as we follow the money that a tourist in Jaipur might spend.

My friend Nitin lives in Jaipur and a few years back started the Saksham Center For Child Education & Women Empowerment. A short walk from his home is a slum. Many people have moved to this slum from poorer states seeking work and a better life. While they might have found jobs, their children still weren’t getting an education and their mothers also had not received an education. Nitin not only saw the problem, he saw that it was possible for him to be part of the solution and so he took action.

Nitin Sharma, founder of Saksham. (Photo by Daegan Lunsford)

He started by gathering just a few women and children for classes but within a few years Saksham had grown significantly. Four teachers now give children daily instruction in both Hindi and English. School uniforms, food, and even vaccines are provided.

Nitin and I with two teachers and several students at Saksham.
(Photo by Daegan Lunsford)

Women are not only taught English and Hindi reading and writing, they also learn about their rights as well.

As the school grew and more and more people gained an education, Nitin wanted to help the women find better work. And so, he bought four sewing machines and the women began to make clothes that are sold to tourists, many of whom visit Nitin’s Airbnb and hostel – both of which also support Saksham.

What does this have to do with Pepsi and voting with our dollars? Let’s follow the money and see, shall we?

The organization that the women now work in is called Ashanari – a portmanteau of “Asha” (hope) and “Nari” – (women) – “women’s hope”. The clothes are made in Jaipur by several women from the slum in which Nitin has been working. You can see some of them working in the video Nitin posted on Facebook shared below:

These clothes can be purchased directly from Nitin if you are visiting Jaipur. They are also available for sale in North America via an Etsy shop. Money from these supports the women working there and Saksham as well. But it doesn’t stop there.

The fabric they make into clothes has to come from somewhere. In the case of Ashanari clothes, much of the fabric comes from a short 25 km away in Bagru village. In January, Nitin takes me there to visit one of his suppliers.

We leave the busy Jodhpur-Jaipur national highway and enter Bagru village. There is very little vehicle traffic. A few cows can be seen on the street and kids are walking home from school.

It isn’t long before we see signs of one of the big businesses of the city: fabric dying. We stop on the side of the road and see a long line of fabric drying in the sun.

We make our way to one of the dying factories. This one is known for being more environmentally friendly using natural dyes from things like rust, tree gum, jaggery, turmeric, and indigo. Where these aren’t available or aren’t practically usable due to the scale of production, Azo-free dyes are used. Dyes containing azo are harmful to the environment and do not degrade under natural conditions. The result is that the waste left behind is harmful, leaving behind carcinogenic and mutagenic by-products.

On the other hand, Azo-free dyes have much less of an impact on the environment. For this reason, natural and azo-free dyes are preferred.

Outside the workroom we see signs of the dying process. There are several drums containing dyes. Next to them is a chulha – a clay cookstove often used for outdoor cooking but used here for heating dyes – Azo-free dyes require additional heat to properly fix.

Inside there is a lot of activity, several men are working on large tables. They take a wood block with a pattern printed on it, coat it in dye then stamp it on the cloth. For colours to be vivid enough, they will have to stamp exactly the same spot several times without making a mistake. One error and the whole length could be spoiled.

Block Printing Factory in Bagru

I speak to one of the workers (the one in the Gucci hat above). He’d been working there for most of his life – over thirty years. This is exactly as long as I have been in the working world myself. I ask him how long did it take for him to learn to do his job fully. His answer: four years.

Imagine this. In North America people go to school for four years to become an engineer or a teacher. During that time you take many classes on your subject, but you also take other classes. For example, in university I took biology and chemistry classes (related to my major), but I also took a class in Film – we watched movies once a week and talked about them. I took another class in Astronomy – very interesting but not something I use. But here is this man in front of me who spent the time most people spend to get a Bachelor’s degree, focused on one set of skills: to make beautiful printed fabric.

Outside we look at some other fabric being worked on. A different method uses a form of glue to temporarily stick sawdust or clay to fabric. Once it dries, the fabric is immersed in dye. After the dying is complete, the sawdust is washed off leaving a part of the fabric that is still un-dyed.

When we have seen the production process we head into the room where the fabric is stored. The room is filled, floor to ceiling with cloth and we have to remove our shoes because some is even on the floor. We are surrounded by beautiful and colourful fabric.

Nitin chooses some fabric and then calls his wife, Deepti to see what else she would like. I grab some and another pair of tourists choose some other fabric that they like. They will give the fabric to Nitin today and by the time they leave tomorrow they will have several new shirts made to order.

I give my money to the factory’s owner, Mr. Ram Kishore Derawala and as I am finished first I have time to ask him about his business. It has been in his family for many generations. Currently he employs 150 people.

Mr. Ram Kishore Derawala
Some more examples of the fabric made at this factory in Bagru village

And so we can take a moment to follow our money. If we buy clothes from Ashanari in Jaipur or their Etsy shop, some of our money has helped the women at Ashanari, some have helped the children at Saksham, and now Nitin has brought some of this money to Bagru to buy fabric that supports the workers at this factory and their families.

We have another stop to make today. Deepti is looking for a particular pattern for an order. And so we visit a few different shops in Bagru, finally stopping outside of one place that seems to have it. Nitin goes in the store and I get out of the car to explore. We’ve parked in front of another shop. This one seems to be filled with cross-sections of tree trunks.

A rhythmic tapping comes from the front of the store. There a man is using a hammer and a single nail to carefully carve out an ornate pattern in to a block of wood. He is making one of the blocks that will be used for fabric printing.

The work is incredibly fine and detailed. Each tap is so gentle it must only take a few flakes of wood from the tree at a time to avoid cracking. After all, this job will take hours and any mistake will mean starting over.

I ask this man how long he had to work to learn this skill. He tells me that it took him 10 years to be able to do this properly. Ten years – just a couple years more than it would take a student to get their Bachelor’s degree and go on to medical school – again learning a variety of skills. This man has taken one skill and finely honed it to perfection.

For those keeping score at home, we’ve now helped the women at Ashanari, the children of Saksham, the workers at the block printing factory, people like the man above making the blocks. But that’s not all, we’re supporting the weavers making the fabric, the farmers growing the organic cotton used for the fabric. And all of them are supporting the local businesses that care for their families – the farmers who bring their vegetables to the sabzi market, the doodhwala who brings their family their milk, the teacher who teaches their children, and on and on.

Who knew the impact of the purchase of one shirt could reach so far?

This trip makes the importance of where and how we spend our money very clear to me. Every day we’re faced with choices of what we want to support with our money. Large corporations may create some jobs locally but by their very nature much of the revenue leaves the community never to be seen again like the water that Pepsi bottles. When we support local businesses, wherever we may be, we keep the money flowing through the community, helping it grow and thrive – just like the water irrigating a farm.

If you would like to learn more about Saksham, Ashanari, and the work that Nitin and Deepti are doing in Jaipur, please follow the Facebook and Instagram links below. Please join me in supporting them by liking and sharing their pages – and this entry.

Saksham Center for Child Education and Women Empowerment: Facebook / Instagram
Ashanari: Facebook / Instagram
Ashanari USA (for North American online ordering): Facebook / Etsy

And for information about volunteering at Saksham or help arranging a holiday in India, or for just some really interesting and fun content, follow Nitin Sharma on Facebook. Or better still, go stay with him at his Airbnb or hostel .

14 thoughts on “Spend Wisely – Others Depend on You

  1. I was educated by this post. I love the way you took the finished product back through all its local suppliers and craftspeople. Time well spent to share with all of us.

    1. Thank you! For years I’ve heard the “buy local” mantra but only after seeing it up close did I fully understand what it really means.

  2. This is such a great post. So many people do things that touch lives of others. The way you made all the connections makes one ponder that buying one piece of clothing can have far reaching impact.
    BTW, I already follow the practice of carrying my own bottle in all my travels to minimise buying bottled water. I fill up my bottle wherever I can – restaurants, public drinking water, streams and rivers (in the mountains where they are pure). I buy water only when I don’t have any other option, not otherwise. Sometimes, certain things we don’t think about. It’s only when someone points that out. That’s how one day I realised what wrong I was doing buy buying water during my travels.

    1. Thanks! I think in part, at least for westerners, the guidebooks aren’t doing anyone any favours. Most seem to insist upon bottled water – rarely mentioning filters at restaurants. The guidebooks make it sound like everything in India you eat or drink could be the thing that makes you sick for a month. Yes, a different country means different microbes we’re not used to and sanitation standards are different in some places. Or rather, it is probably more accurate to say that some restaurants there can get away with hygiene problems that would get someone shut down here so you need to use a little more judgment there. Of course we still have massive outbreaks of food-borne illness from restaurants here so pretending that everything is wonderful here and scary elsewhere is a bit silly.

      I haven’t read recent guidebooks but I’m hopeful that they are now recommending personal filters. When considering a bike trip I was looking in to one of those just to give me the flexibility to take water wherever I need it even if there’s no filter at the source. They seem to be pretty reasonably priced and would certainly pay for themselves very quickly.

      1. I know, agree with you. It’s on the fringes of being biased. Probably fueled by and a fear utilized well by the water packaging industry. Sometimes its just lack of awareness, we tend to never question a practice until someone points it out to you. Glad you thought about it.

    1. Oops – glad I checked the Spam folder – every once in a while a real comment ends up there. Thanks! I hope so also. I think there are two challenges we face. The first is simply knowledge. We don’t always know the impact of our purchases, positive or negative. We think, simply, that we want or need this and spend our money. The second is that I think so many of us are so busy and/or distracted that it doesn’t even occur to us to think beyond the present time and location: “I’m thirsty, there is a bottle of water, I will buy it.”

      I think that attitude is so prevalent that in many cases when I go to restaurants there the waiters just bring a bottle of water without asking. Every other tourist has asked for this so why wouldn’t I?

      But gaining knowledge is the first step – hopefully more people start to pay attention to what they do once they become more aware of it.

      1. I’m glad that you brought this up. Our human mind is trained for “following”. When we see many people doing it, it becomes the norm for us.

        We need to disconnect at that moment ask us do we need to do the same? Thanks for highlighting this, Todd.

        As for spam folder, it is quite common.

    1. Thanks! I always like seeing where I live from an outside perspective as well. I remember when we first moved to Toronto we explored all over the city and I would tell my coworkers about what we did. They were often surprised at what we found – they had lived here all their lives and never knew about many of the things we found.

      1. Yes, the same happened to us too. We have been in this place for more than 30 years but we learnt certain things from people who had come here recently.

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