COVID-19 in Maharashtra: How Anandwan turned adversity into opportunity

Updated: 19 July, 2020 07:31 IST | Shailesh Bhatia | Mumbai

Lawyer and social activist Baba Amte's self-contained ashram in Chandrapur district, Vidarbha, is using digital technology to sell hand-stitched masks and recycled saree quilts made by the differently-abled in national and international markets

An Anandwan resident works in the handloom section at the village
An Anandwan resident works in the handloom section at the village

In an era, when a majority of businesses across the globe are reeling under an economic meltdown, comes a heartwarming success story from Anandwan, a dream envisaged by Baba Amte, nearly 70 years ago. The smart village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra could be best described as providing opportunities of livelihood to the least acknowledged strata of society. Today, its members can boast of starting their own fashion line of clothing and accessories. The product sale, which launched on social media in mid-June, has snagged a revenue of Rs 10 lakh from both national and international markets.

In March, when the pandemic put the brakes on retail marketing in India, the close-knit tribal community of 2,500, with more than 80 per cent of them being differently-abled, leprosy-afflicted and social refugees, saw opportunity in distress. Taking the digital approach, they launched a web portal to market their eco-friendly and sustainable products, garments, face masks and accessories, to secure their future and become independent.

An elderly woman stitches a quilt
An elderly woman stitches a quilt

"Along with healthcare, education and congenial environment for our residents, offering livelihood options is an integral part of the process since the inception of the organisation," said the project CEO Dr Sheetal Amte-Karajgi, a disability specialist, environmentalist and painter, who is carrying forward the legacy of her grandfather, who set up Anandwan from a hut in Warora, in 1949. He built it on a 50-acre barren plot, with his wife, two children, a handful of leprosy patients, with just R14 rupees in his pocket.

"Each and every member of our community has their own story of resurrection and empowerment. Today, they are collectively responsible for converting, probably one of the most backward areas in the country, into a smart village. Their efforts have made a huge impact in health, education, sustainable agriculture, rehabilitation and environment."

Dr Sheetal Amte-Karajgi donates masks to government officials
Dr Sheetal Amte-Karajgi donates masks to government officials

She says the first challenge was safeguarding the health and nutrition needs of the residents. The next was to create the right work environment, especially for leprosy patients and those battling other physical disabilities.

"Earlier, our members would produce khadi or fabricate metal sieves on a small scale. These were sold at stalls and exhibitions. With changing times, we had to evolve, too. After the lockdown, our sales started dropping by mid-March. This is when a decision was taken to utilise our cotton power looms, which were primarily being used for making napkins, bandages, bed sheets and hospital essentials, to synergise with our in-house designing and manufacturing unit and start the online sales of both formal and informal clothing. This included garments such as palazzos and tribal-inspired dhoti jumpsuits. We then decided to power our in-house stitching department, which also provides livelihood to women self-help groups around Warora," she added. By mid-June, they were set to accept and execute online orders.

According to Dr Karajgi, another pet project has been stitching and marketing godharis or quilts. This is being carried out by a group of senior citizens using sanitised, old discarded sarees, collage artworks and recycled fabric. "These are a big hit as each unit is a unique piece, crafted by deft fingers. Over a thousand units of these have already been sold in India and USA," she adds.

Their next goal is to set up one of the world's first textile parks at Anandwan and create economically viable work opportunities under the leadership of Vivek Tondapurkar, chartered textile technologist retired from Raymond, and garment expert Sudhir Dakshinkar.

Rs 10 lakh
Anandwan's sales figure in less than a month

Making a difference

A four-layered cotton mask created by Anandwan residents
A four-layered cotton mask created by Anandwan residents

. Over 40,000 masks created by the team were distributed for free to the local government officials, Chandrapur district collector's office, forest officials, police department, Mantralaya and ASHA workers.

. To help women self-help groups, out of job due to the pandemic, Anandwan distributed mask material at their doorstep, trained them and in turn purchased the masks from them at R5 each. This provided them with WFH opportunities to support their livelihood needs. Today, Anandwan manufactures 3,000 masks daily, which are distributed to the needy and also sold to customers to achieve financial sustainability.

. Anandwan houses schools and vocational training centre for differently-abled students. The students, between the 16 and 24 age group, were trained at their stitching division and, today, they actively support their families by creating these masks.

A model village
Anandwan, headquarters of Maharogi Sewa Samiti, Warora, is a smart village and an ISO-certified gram panchayat in Chandrapur district. It houses the largest community of leprosy-afflicted patients and offers comprehensive rehabilitation.

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First Published: 19 July, 2020 07:21 IST

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