When asked what she liked best about working at the social enterprise HelpUsGreen, the woman replied, “the plastic stool,” as she pointed to it. Not the fact that she earns more. Or that she finally has a bank account, or that she receives insurance and retirement benefits.
But a plastic stool, “which is not even worth 200 rupees (about US$2.70)”, says the co-founder, Ankit Agarwal. “I asked her why, and she said, ‘I’m 53 years old, no one has ever offered me a seat before.’”
For a Dalit in India, everyday dignities, like being offered a stool to sit on, aren’t taken for granted. The caste system, a social order in India powerful even to this day, divides people into different groups based on their professions.
Dalits are deemed “untouchable” by this system, because of their occupations, and so, face social discrimination, even though “untouchability” and caste discrimination are illegal.
It is this oppression, which consigns millions to injustice and poverty that Ankit tries to tackle through HelpUsGreen. But the social enterprise, based in Ankit’s hometown of Kanpur, didn’t start out with the purpose of empowering Dalit women. It had another problem in mind: the endless stream of flowers entering India’s rivers each day, offered by devotees at temples.
“There are over 200 temples in Kanpur, and the total waste was more than four tonnes a day,” says Karan Rastogi, co-founder of HelpUsGreen, and Ankit’s childhood friend.
Wanting to prevent the pesticide and chemical-ridden flowers from adding to the water pollution, they began tinkering in their kitchens, looking for ways to turn unwanted flowers into useful products.
Beginning with humble compost, the duo soon moved on to create incense sticks and cones — with harmful chemicals like arsenic and lead removed, using a formula they cooked up.
Along the way, it became clear that the social enterprise could do more- empower marginalized women by hiring them. HelpUsGreen now hires 79 women. By 2020, it wants to recycle 50 tonnes of waste flowers daily and hire 3700 women.
“It’s very easy for us to ask, ‘Why do these people do these jobs? Why do they pick up people’s excreta?’” notes Ankit. “But once a person knows that the person was cleaning sewage or drain pipes, rarely does anyone want to employ them.”
So he sought not only to hire women- to sort the collected flowers and craft the incense by hand- but also to create a working environment that treated them as equals. And aside from benefits like health insurance, “the first thing that we did was to provide clean drinking water, the second was a toilet. Two things that make sure everyone in our company is equal. Once you start having the same water, you’re all equal,” says Ankit.
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