It is amazing what these children do. Some of them are even the breadwinners of their families.” The pride in Ratna Krishna Kumar's eyes is hard to miss when she talks about her “children”. Bhanumati, one of them, is in her late thirties. She is one of the star workers of Aranya, a natural dye unit under Srishti Charitable Trust in Munnar, Kerala.
Srishti was started as a vocational training centre in 1990 at Tata Tea's Pallivasal estate. Tata owned most of Munnar then and employed a large chunk of the population. “It was initially a small paper-making unit in a small room,” says Ratna. Her husband, R.K. Krishna Kumar, was Tata Tea’s vice president then. He is now a trustee of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, one of the oldest philanthropic organisations in India.
A year later, Ratna started a day school for special children in the tea pluckers' families in collaboration with an NGO. “But soon we realised we were better off without them; so we were on our own,” she says. The school, named Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education, or DARE, is now the pivot of Srishti's efforts. The students—from preschoolers to young adults—are taught according to their challenges and abilities. “Their abilities have nothing to do with their age. So we make sure they are ready before we place them in one of our units or let them get another job,” says Neela Guha Thakurta, programme coordinator at DARE.
At Srishti, learning is an ongoing process. Bhanumati, for instance, is now an expert in many aspects of natural dyeing. “We have sent some of the children abroad to learn,” says Ratna. And they have learnt well. Aranya employs the Japanese tie-dyeing technique of shibori to perfection. Ratna says World Shibori Network's president Yoshiko Wada is their mentor. “I met her at an exhibition in Kolkata and invited her to visit Munnar. She came, and every year since then she has been coming here with a group of textile enthusiasts and conducting workshops.”
Aranya's products have a steadily growing market, especially in the western countries. “A large chunk of the production is exported. And, we regularly conduct exhibitions in metros,” says Victoria Vijayakumar, programme coordinator of Aranya.
Srishti makes sure its units have the least impact on nature. While Aranya uses only natural colours for dyeing, Athulya, the paper-making unit, does not use wood at all. Cotton waste is its main raw material. Athulya is on the verge of a tie-up with an American design institute to make fine paper products.
So, are these units doing well enough to sustain themselves? “Last year, the sales of Aranya alone were about 01 crore,” says Ratna. “And, our operational income is enough to meet our expenses. But Tata Group has been very helpful all along. The land belongs to Tata, the buildings have been put up by them and the salaries are paid by them.”
Though Athulya has not been able to match up to Aranya or the strawberry preserve unit at DARE in terms of sales, that might change soon. “We have not been able to get a breakthrough for Athulya,” says Ratna. “But we have something in mind. There is this special kind of three-layer packaging for storing tea. We think we can make them. If it takes off, that would be the turning point we have been waiting for.”
Though Srishti became a public trust a year ago (it can accept donations from others), Tata Global Beverages Ltd continues to be its backbone. And the company is absolutely committed to the trust's causes. “Tata Global Beverages has been working with Srishti with the objective of facilitating community development and welfare in Munnar. It is an enriching experience working with them and being able to contribute to their learning and development,” says Ajoy Misra, CEO and managing director, Tata Global Beverages.
Thanks to Tata's support, money is not much of a concern for Ratna, or anyone else who is associated with Srishti. “Our programme coordinators earn very little. But look at their commitment and the rapport they share with the children; that is something money cannot buy,” she says.
Ratna wants to take Srishti a long way forward. “I would like to make a corpus so that the trust will not be strapped for cash ever,” she says. Though she has been getting requests from parents to start a residential facility, she is hesitant. “It is a responsibility I don't have the courage to take,” she says. “But we make sure that these children are not a burden to anybody.”