The Year That Was: Finishing Service in Rural Gujarat at the Onset of a Pandemic

When the AIF Clinton Fellowship commenced in September 2019, we had to create a project proposal to clearly define our SMART goals, objectives and engagement for the ten months of service ahead. I laid down my monthly, and in some cases, weekly plans for all of my ten months, ambitiously – after all, I wanted to maximise my fellowship experience. 

I was placed in Kachchh, Gujarat, with a craft organisation named Khamir. Here, I found that people go with the flow while following the philosophy of slow living. I experienced a surreal, rugged and enthralling time – ranging from managing how to live in a rural town, maximising output with limited resources, wearing multiple hats at work, to acquiring new hard and soft skills while working with the artisan communities. Now, I was all set to share my learnings with the other AIF Clinton Fellows for our Midpoint seminar in January 2020.

AIF Clinton Fellows in Delhi
Some of the AIF Clinton Fellows in Delhi during Midpoint in January 2020.

The year 2020 began with a celebration, and our reunion with the Fellows also gave me strength and energy to make the best of the last leg of the fellowship. But three months into the year and our lives took a 180-degree turn with the arrival of the deadly virus, a nationwide lockdown and the idea of finishing the last four months of the fellowship remotely. 

Mandi beach, a tourism spot in Kachchh
Mandi beach, a tourism spot in Kachchh, pre-pandemic.

The impact of the Coronavirus became visible in Kachchh from as early as the end of February 2020. The tourism sector was gravely affected, as many international tourist groups and individual tourists cancelled their visits. This also impacted the artisans dependent on tourism. The situation became more difficult during the middle of March, as visits from domestic stakeholders got hampered as well. Many buyers and designers cancelled their plans. Craft organisations active in the area minimised their field visits. The movement of finished goods was halted, and many artisans faced difficulty in shipping their orders. Most buyers started giving clear messages to artisans once the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24th March. Most of the artisans (there are more than 5000 artisans in Kachchh), either stopped production or cancelled the orders entirely.

We all at Khamir realised the gravitas of the situation and instantly thought about the most vulnerable artisan communities who lived on piece-rate or daily wages. We took a detour and created mitigation plans, worked on tasks that overlapped the ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ columns of our to-dos to support the short-term requirements of the artisan communities who did not have a safety net to fall back on. We instantly arranged ration and medical kits with all the necessary items. 

As the artisan communities got secured with monthly supplies, we discerned everyone was doing webinars, but not many were connecting rural communities to people around the world. My colleague and I at Khamir decided to train artisans on how to use video conferencing apps to bridge the lack of communication between craft patrons and artisans – that’s how “Conversations from Kutch” was born. We hosted five live webinars where around 500 participants joined us from across the world and India to reconnect with the artisan communities, concoct tangible solutions for a way forward in the craft sector, and give each other hope. 

In our third phase to combat the virus and secure livelihoods of artisans, we ran a fundraiser to raise INR 4 Lakhs to support under-resourced women hand spinners to provide them with equipment, training, capacity building and raw materials to start a living. Khamir partnered with organisations like Creative Dignity to support artisans in digitising their inventory, photographing crafts products and selling them on trusted e-commerce platforms worldwide. This way 614 artisans pursuing 13 distinct craft forms in 18 different regions of Gujarat were able to make sales worth ~ INR 40 Lakhs amidst the pandemic. 

 

One personal story that touched my heart was that of Aanchal from Kachchh. Aanchal is a master leather craftsman from Sumrasar village, Kachchh. He has demonstrated experience in leather-art work and is one of the most celebrated leather artisans of the region. Since the lockdown, he has been supporting more than 40 leather artisans by providing them with rations, raw materials for work, and buying their finished craft products within his capacity. But due to uncertainty in these trying times, his life took an abrupt turn. By the end of August, he was barely left with any hard cash to continue supporting the artisans and loads of unsold stock. He has been trying all ways to reach the right markets and reinvesting money from sales to provide livelihoods for the artisans associated with him. 

Since then, there is no looking back. As international travel hasn’t eased up yet and domestic travel is also unsafe, I am continuing my work with Khamir as a volunteer even after my fellowship has concluded. I am contributing to sustaining the livelihoods of the artisan communities by setting up a direct e-commerce platform to facilitate market linkages. 

I have also extended my fellowship with AIF for an 11th-month project made possible in partnership with the Rural India Supporting Trust (RIST), where I am helping build a strong alumni network and a communication strategy to engage our alumni post-fellowship in this digital COVID-19 world.

One thing that I have realised in the last ten months is that five-year plans don’t work anymore, for a reason. While we may plan, and plan well, life may not happen according to our projections. This was most clearly exhibited as we arrived into 2020 with hopes, plans and resolutions, and are saying goodbye to the year with new and unexpected learnings, perspectives and approaches. Therefore, it is important to recognise and act on opportunities that come our way, rather than fretting over what happened in the past. So how do you win over this year despite the pandemic? By really living in the moment, taking one day at a time.

A beautiful sunset at the Rann of Kachchh
A beautiful sunset at the Rann of Kachchh.

Aishwarya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Khamir in Bhuj, Gujarat. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a unique range of craft products and publicity materials to support local artisans reach new markets, increase their income, and secure their livelihoods. Born and brought up in a small town, Aishwarya always questioned the increasing dichotomies between the developed and developing world. To channelize her curiosity for social impact, she decided to pursue her graduation in mass communication. During her undergrad, she participated in the YES Foundation Media for Social Change Fellowship to learn about the impact of social media in the development sector. She did an internship with the Indian Express as a journalist and photojournalist, where she covered issues ranging from mob lynching to climate change. A stint at TEDxGateway 2018 gave her an opportunity to work with inventors from around the world, learning aobut the power of storytelling as a medium for change. Aishwarya made a documentary on the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 to study the increase in juvenile crime rate and the discrepancies between the act and implementation. In 2018, Aishwarya participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey across rural India to meet social change-makers who enlightened her about the balance between social impact and profitability. This experience also made Aishwarya look at her hometown in new light: she learned about problems related to declining tourism and waste management. She founded her own nonprofit, ARTC Foundation, to solve these issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading, travel, and photography. Aishwarya is honored to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow to expand her horizons in the development sector.

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