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The Unnayan Women's Co-operative

Update: 20/7/16

During a visit there last week we set in motion some new products which will guarantee the Unnayans work for the next 6 months and beyond. They include:

The world's first certified organic silk bag range: The silk itself comes in beautiful natural colours and is untrimmed, having a rugged, coarse look. We are talking with a bag manufacturer in Kolkata about styling.

Organic Silk Wall-hangings: These will come in 3 sizes.

Block-dyed Flatweave Organic Cotton Rugs: While looking through a pile of rugs we came across an exquisite rug that had been printed in a Moroccan pattern. It turns out the rug was printed using an ancient block technique decades ago and for some strange reason was still around. It is one of the most beautiful rugs we have ever seen and will be made into the usual sizes up to 240x300cm. It will be for world-wide distribution through Amazon- as will the bags and wall-hangings.

Unnayan Women's Co-operative

Unnayan is a group of 10 female weavers, living near Varanasi on the banks of the River Ganges.

In 1991, Mrs Vijaya Rai and her husband Vimal took an interest in their plight, having very little work to help sustain their families and founded Unnayan Sansthan.

BIL, of which Organic Weave is a subsidiary, began buying their flat-weave rugs. When Organic Weave was formed in 2010, Unnayan began making GOTS certified organic rugs, however demand was sporadic.

When Blessed Earth visited Vijaya and Vimal in 2014, we determined to help the Unnayan movement and placed some substantial orders. However it soon became apparent that this was not enough. They needed continuity of orders in order for their system to work. It did not help them that they had good orders one month and none the next.

In close collaboration with Mr Baranwal, CEO of SBCL (formerly BIL) and Organic Weave in India, we set out to raise the profile of Unnayan, so that there would be greater demand for their products. It was decided that it would be pointless and unsustainable for them to have their own website as they were not in a position to maintain it.

The next best thing would be to brand their products, so that each one carried a lseparate label carrying:

  • A brief story about Unnayan      
  • A brief Bio about the actual weaver of the piece      
  • Her signature and piece number      

The main purposes of this initiative were to improve demand, thereby improving their livelihood and to empower the weavers with a sense of identity.

We also felt it to be important that we value added to the rugs so that they could be made into wall-hangings and perhaps even sturdy bags. In which case the items will be collector’s pieces, proudly owned and used by those who instinctively care about those in need and are conscious of the way they spend their consumer dollar. The separate label/certificate will add to the authenticity and collectibility of the piece.


(November 2015) My Story

Mrs. Vijaya Rai, Founder, Unnayan Sansthan

“You take your arm over your head backward. If you touch your ear, you are 4-5 years old.” The teacher told to me when my father took me for the first time to the school. There was no official record of my birth that time. Based on that basis, I am officially borne in 1955. My parents are from Jaunpur, a place near Varanasi, India. He was living mostly in Mumbai, selling dairy products. I lost my mother at young age. My elder sister literally adopted me. I studied in Varanasi and did my post graduate course from Banaras Hindu University, a very prestigious institute.

vimal-vijaya-rai-2.jpg I got married in 1977 with Mr. Vimal. He has been supporting in my mission since then, without which I could not do anything that I have achieved in my life. He completed his post-graduation from Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi.

I joined as a teacher in 1981 at Magadh University, in state of Bihar, India. I was influenced with social movement carried by Jai Prakash Narayan. He was a legend in changing the political and social face of India. I was never interested in money or government jobs, although I saw the opportunities. I started taking interest in welfare of women from district Rohtas in 1981. These women were from most backward, untouchable community of Bihar. Ms. V. G. Srinivasan, a gentleman from south of India was the program officer at Ford Foundation, a philanthropic organisation from U K. She wanted to change the life of neglected women in India, but did not find any volunteer to achieve that goal. My husband’s aunt knew Ms. Srinivasan. That is how I came in contact with Ford Foundation. I left my job as a teacher, and decided to work only for society.

Ford Foundation had “Nari Nidhi” [Women’s Fund], which came very handy in meeting my goals.

There was shortage of water in Rohtas area, as it was situated at Kaimur Plato. There were unusable waste land. I started with production of silk worms for the first time in the area. Slowly, it turned into production center of silk dress materials, sarees and other fabrics. We also accessed some wool from Warangal, Panipat, Bikaner and Jhansi. We started supplying woolen blankets to Khadi Bhandar. We were also supplying our products door-to-door in the city of Varanasi. Most of the artisans were women. We would train the trainers, and then they would train another group of artisans. We started some carpentry work and made folded tables and chairs.  

We started health programs for their children. The ladies would not take their young daughters to hospitals and were only concerned about the health of their sons. Gradually, they understood that daughters are equally important. We formed group of ladies in 10, 15 and 20 numbers. They were hesitant to go to the bank. Gradually, they started dealing with bank. When I saw the success of my initiative, I started telling to my colleagues that they have to now run the mission on their own, as I wanted to move to another zone. I wanted to take another challenge. When I realized that they have become self-efficient, I moved to the area adjoining Varanasi. This area is situated at Chunar, Mirzapur at Vindhyachal Plato. I founded Unnayan Sansthan in 1991. There was a gentleman called, Mr. Iftakhar. He had relatives in Rohtas and learned about me. He was from Chunar area. He encouraged me to come to Chunar and do something about very poor people of the region. They were mostly Muslim women, who would never get out of their homes or talk to any other person outside their family. The male members of these families would break the stone all day. They had no working protection or health checkup. They would dye very young with stone dust, leaving young widow and small children behind. It was very sad situation.

coooking-at-smokeless-stove-003-.jpgI started working on smokeless stove. It was a good reason for me to enter into their homes and earn their trust. I educated them that this was good for their health. Their home and utensils will also remain cleaner. I got financial support from All India Women Conference (AIWC) for my project. I was given National Award for introducing Bio-gas plants in these rural areas.

Chunar was renowned for making pottery. There was a government unit for it, which was badly run. People from all over the country came to see famous Chunar fort and shop for pottery items in Chunar. I started motivating women to get trained in making pottery. I covered about 10- 15 villages. I got financial support from Rajeev Gandhi Foundation. We trained between 250 to 300 women. When the house hold income increased, the men stopped stone crushing.

Chunar & Mirzapur is also famous for dhuries (flatweave rugs). Oxfam (India) Trust had an UK representative. They purchased two pieces of dhuries from a household with whom I was working. They were quite happy with that. They came again to place order for 50 pieces and contacted me as these weavers neither could speak English nor understand the gravity of taking order. We could made 42 pieces in time. They insisted to make the balance also, otherwise they could not ship. Somehow we rushed the production and completed their order. Rajeev Gandhi Foundation helped us again in training the women to learn dhurie weaving, as it was men’s domain until then.

It is much better profession, as they can stay at home, take care of family and household work and do the weaving at their convenience. Oxfam started working with other NGO (Non-Government Organisation) like us. They asked Makenzie Group to audit all the NGOs attached to them. They found that only Unnayan and about 4 others (out of about 20) came to their standards. Oxfam was buying from several other countries also. The merchandise started getting dumped in London. They stopped buying from everyone. It was a great setback for us. This was around year 2000.

fair-trade-exhibition.jpgDr. Martin Kunz was working with Fair Trade. He was looking for reliable source. He found about us from Oxfam. He realized that we could weave, but could not organize other manufacturing and export activities. He found about Mr. Bholanath Baranwal, by talking to some carpet industry of Bhadohi, Varanasi zone. Mr. Bholanath Baranwal from Bholanath International Ltd (BIL) was very receptive to the idea and immediately agreed to get involved with the project. Dr. Martin Kunz engaged Ms Verena, from Germany to make innovative designs. Mr. Homberg from Germany was also involved in it. Unnayan got training for handknotted Persian qualities, thanks to Development Commissioner (Handicrafts). BIL started placing orders with Unnayan in those qualities, woolen dhuries etc and Unnayan revived back. We made products with natural undyed yarn and very colourful rugs for small kids. We were working with BIL for many years. Something happened in Germany and they stopped importing rugs from India. 

Mr. Bholanath Baranwal visited Unnayan in 2010 with his family friends from Canada. I learnt that his and Canadian families are doing business for last three generations. Ms Su and Ms Linda Alexanian visited the families of women weavers and developed keen interest in doing something about them. Mr. Bholanath suggested doing organic carpet, which until then nobody had done. I realize three of them made a team and founded Organic Weave. It was first such initiative when certified true organic carpets made with vegetal dyes were offered to the world.

dsc-9743.jpgUnnayan is very proud to be associated with Organic Weave and hope more sales of organic rugs, so that we could engage more women to Unnayan and make them economically self independent. We do regular health checkup programs for the children and work as member of Fair Trade forming self-group of 10 to 20 women members. They discuss everything together and work in harmony together. They help each other in whatever way they can. We also organize environment awareness, adolescence and HIV awareness programs. We have formed village libraries. Our dream is to make weaving within the compound. We have to make some arrangements so that women could come in the morning and go back using these vehicles. We believe by having the weaving within compound, we can save wastage, improve delivery time ad quality. We still get financial help from Rajeev Gandhi Foundation and Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) from time to time.

As told to Mr. Bholanath Baranwal, Organic Weave

Varanasi (India), November 7, 2015