When driving up the narrow and winding roads of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand gazing at the Ganga, one cannot help but notice the immense beauty of the place. The white snowcapped mountaintops lie in contrast with the colorful valley villages nestled above the river.
Yet, amidst this beauty, a terrible disaster took place. Guptakashi, being a holy place for Hindus, attracts millions of pilgrims each year. In June 2013, at the height of the year’s yatra (pilgrimage season), a massive flood occurred, triggering landslides, mass destruction and entire villages being washed away – particularly those lying near the Mandakani River. Whether it was a cloudburst, Lord Shiva utilizing his power, or an unfortunate combination of climate change factors is unclear. However, what was clear was that many families lost their breadwinners and would need a way to rebuild their livelihoods. As aid provided by NGOs and the government poured through the area immediately following the disaster, this wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long term as what people really needed was a way to support themselves. Before the flood, many families thrived off of the tourism and livestock industries, farming, running guesthouses and restaurants, chauffeuring tourists, and serving as guides. Now, their sustainability had quite literally been washed away.
Dr. Bhagwari, a professor at a university in Rishikesh, had lost, by his estimate, 200 family members in the flood. Despite being faced with unthinkable tragedy, he abandoned his comfortable job and set out to help his home community rebuild by providing livelihoods for women. Having sacrificed so much to help these women, Dr. Bhagwari is a quietly passionate man on a mission to empower others to become self-sustainable. With support from AIF and other partners such as the Government of Uttarakhand, he gathered women from the nearby villages and set up weaving, yarn making, and spinning centers.
A community-led enterprise of women, known as Mandakini Mahila Bunker Samiti (MMBS) was born. However, the path to marketable handlooms wasn’t always easy. As weaving isn’t an indigenous activity in this area, weavers from another part of Uttarakhand came to support the training of the Mandakani weavers. The women were keen to learn this new craft. Many had lost their husbands and family members in the flood and needed a way to support themselves and their families. Today, over 300 women from eight different villages are employed through MMBS. The women create beautiful products such as scarves, shawls, rugs, and sarees. In addition, there is a board comprising of one woman from each village that the Mandakani serves.
While visiting the centers where the MMBS women work, I notice their colorful salwaar kameez accent the scarves hanging on the looms. The women are hard at work spinning, weaving, dying, washing, and purifying the items for sale. One cannot help but feel inspired by their resilience and courage in the face of adversity. It’s evident on the women’s faces that they enjoy their craft, and when asked about their work, many responded “bahut achaa laga,” (“I very much like it”).
I leave the MMBS livelihoods trip further inspired by the passion of Dr. Bhagwari to rebuild this area and empower women in the process – further exposed to not only the importance of disaster relief long after the aid has finished, but also to the beauty that is community led enterprise.