This is the third article in a blog series appearing on the igNation website in November 2017. The series aims to raise awareness about livelihood support, which is the focus of CJI’s 2017 Giving Tuesday campaign called Tell Ten.
The Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC) is a social apostolate of the Darjeeling Jesuit Province in India. It was established in 2013 with the primary objective of empowering the tea plantation communities of West Bengal, in the sub-Himalayan foothills. The tea industry, despite being a major contributor to the provincial and local economy in the region, has not given back to the tea plantation communities that have nurtured it for more than 150 years.
To address difficulties faced by these communities, HLDRC has initiated, among other programs, alternative livelihood opportunities for tea workers, with the assistance of Canadian Jesuits International and generous people in Canada. In just three years, the number of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) associated with HLDRC has jumped from 23 in 2015, to 45 in 2016, to 107 in 2017. The SHGs are comprised mainly of women, but there are also 4 SHGs for men and 2 for youth. One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of groups is that HLDRC is offering opportunities to explore different and multiple ways of pursuing or supplementing livelihoods.
In the first year, women’s groups opted for the rearing of livestock such as goats, pigs and poultry, while men tried out the cultivation of ginger and chillies. The groups had moderate success but also some failure. In the second year, many groups decided to purchase plastic chairs and tables to rent out. These are in big demand for weddings, particularly in rural areas, and also for community functions and public events. By the end of the second year, the SHGs from Kamala Bagan Tea Garden, which already had chairs and tables, decided to collaborate with one another by adding a catering service for weddings. Then the youth SHG from Amjamni-Kochiajote joined them by getting into the tent-making business and erecting tents for events. Thus for one wedding or community celebration, three or four SHGs work together and earn additional income from their alternative livelihood.
Toward the end of 2016, there was a surge in SHG activities. Many groups launched new small businesses, while those that were already earning good incomes from existing businesses like tent-making and event rentals began helping other groups to begin alternative livelihood activities. In 2017, as the number of SHGs rose quickly, the different kinds of livelihood ventures also expanded. Some groups started grocery shops, some garment shops, while one even bought a photocopying machine, which not only helps the group earn additional income but also provides a great service to the community, which formerly had travel about 10 km to photocopy documents.
In the meantime, the tea plantation community from Dharanipur, where tea production has been discontinued, was helped with the purchase of a water pump and irrigation pipes, and at the same time it managed to get a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from the Jalpaiguri District Magistrate to farm more than an acre of unused land near their village. The community has begun cultivating corn, millet and vegetables on a subsistence basis and it now has plans to cultivate commercial crops as well.
One story I like to tell took place in June 2016 when I was visiting people at the Salbani Tea Garden, which is also no longer functioning. Due to the heat, I decided to sit outside instead of entering the dark, hot and stuffy house (so I thought!) of my hosts. But at the family’s insistence I went in and sat down. They offered me lemon water and as I was pondering how the drink was cooler than normal, someone quietly turned on a fan! I looked up in amazement and the entire family and their neighbour began clapping. Before I could enquire further they narrated the whole story. About 5 months earlier there had been a leadership seminar about action plans. It included the some SHGs and community leaders, and afterward, 6 youth from the Salbani Tea Garden took it upon themselves to bring in electricity. Now they were enjoying the fruit of their hard work.
In addition to these alternative livelihood enterprises, some groups have also embarked on awareness-raising in their communities in areas such as health and hygiene, mother-child care, environmental action and campaigning against human trafficking from tea gardens.
Livelihood support is thus a holistic, multifaceted endeavour as far as HLDRC and the tea plantation communities are concerned. People facing livelihood challenges sometimes need only a little assistance – a piece of land, a micro-loan, some seeds, some training, some legal advice, some encouragement and solidarity – in order to effect major improvements in their lives.
This article first appeared on the igNation website on 15 November 2017. It is reproduced here by permission.