Naini is a refreshing winter morning. Naini is a small village in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand overlooking the snow-capped Himalayas.
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Everything in Mahila Umang Producers Company works like a clockwork. In a white cabin with a blue door, Ratha weighed and packed chamomile in tea bags.
In the adjacent hut, Cara is filled with honey. Slightly uphill, Shehnaz and Basanti peeled a bunch of kiwis and later made them into jam. In the nearby village of Majkhali, a small group of women sit in a circle and weave in the sun-drenched courtyard.
In the past few decades, deforestation, urbanization, pollution, and dam construction in the Himalayas have become increasingly serious, threatening their ecosystems that are highly vulnerable to climate change.
In 1992, Anita Paul and her husband Kalyan established the Pan-Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation, also known as Grassroots, dedicated to promoting the sustainable development of mountain communities through the promotion of renewable energy, forestry and water conservation.
On the hills where everyone used to grow native crops on rainwater-irrigated terraces to feed their families, the introduction of chemical agriculture, coupled with extreme weather events, led to reduced harvests.
Frequent conflicts between humans and wild animals have also made agriculture an unpopular occupation. Poverty, lack of jobs, and lack of infrastructure such as hospitals and roads have forced many Uttarakhand people to migrate to cities for work.
Most of the people who left were men, leaving women in charge of housework, which in turn doubled their workload.
In 2001, some female members of the grassroots organization decided to expand to another organization called Mahila Umang Samiti. Their focus is to create livelihood opportunities for women. Finally, they registered themselves as Mahila Umang Producers Company, also known as Umang, in 2009.
Umang has 2,354 rural women members from 161 self-help groups that make up its supply chain. Of these women, 38% are also shareholders of the company.
The work done at Umang is rooted in the understanding that ecology, livelihoods and women’s lives are deeply intertwined. Self-help groups provide small loans to their members and provide them with income by purchasing organic food and knitwear from them.
When I travel along the winding road that connects the small town of Ranicht and Naini, it is hard not to miss the Umang House. The ground floor of the white building contains food processing facilities and storage rooms. Above is a spacious shop selling indigenous food and exquisite hand-woven clothing.
Behind the store is a room where wool products are stored and sent to Indian fashion brands such as Fabindia and Jaypore. The company also sells its products online through retailers in major Indian cities. Its revenue for 2019-20 is 16,397,900 rupees (161,716 pounds).
In addition to being producers, women in Wumang Village also serve as “guardians of regenerated vegetation”, using grass roots to protect the trees they planted in the past.
The women monitor the growth of the trees, appoint guards to check the forest fires, and make sure that the cows do not graze on the trees. They also use regular dredging to protect the natural springs that provide drinking water.
Grassroots has also done a lot of work in the community to restore the watersheds of the Jagas and Pallor rivers that flow through Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh respectively.
“We have planted more than 1 million trees and will continue to plant 10,000 trees each year,” said Anita Paul, director of grassroots community planning and Umang board member.
Umang also promotes sustainable agriculture by encouraging female farmers to plant indigenous crops. The company produces spices, nuts, seeds, lentils and millet under the Himkhadya brand. Its other brand, Kumaoni, offers a variety of jams, chutneys, kimchi and mountain honey. Female farmers from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya provide supplies to the company.
At the Spick and Spa food processing plant in Umang, five women will take out ripe and unripe kiwis from crates in surrounding villages, put them in colorful buckets, wash and peel them.
“I was just a daughter-in-law at home before. By working here, I can make money and pay for it myself,” said Deepa Adhikari, a former farmer.
She found it difficult to farm because wild monkeys destroyed her crops, and now she prefers to work indoors. Her colleague Hema Mehra pointed to her little gold earrings and said: “I can save a fortune from this job, knit and buy these myself.”
India is a patriarchal society, and women, especially unmarried, widowed, separated or divorced women, are still extremely vulnerable. They face social stigma, lack of family support, and struggle to make ends meet.
“From the beginning, Umang wanted to socialize with single women,” said Sunita Kashyap, the founder of Umang, who walked along a narrow concrete path in Majkhali village to Geeta Mehta’s tailor shop and residence. Geeta is a single woman who leads the women’s group in the village.
Women from the neighbourhood poured into the courtyard in front of Gita’s hut. They were sitting on the carpet with a ball of yarn in front of them.
“Knitting is very convenient because I can work from home. I can use the money I earn to pay for the children’s expenses,” said Sony, who is knitting a black cardigan.
The group went beyond solidarity by providing microcredit to members in need. The organization borrowed 20,000 rupees (£200) from Soni’s sister-in-law, Noor, who needed the money to pay for her children’s school fees and husband’s medical expenses.
After the knitting circle was over, when Geeta hurried back to her shop to continue sewing, she said: “If women don’t help each other, who else will help?”