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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .