Millions of people walked back home at the start of India's lockdown, having lost all means of sustenance in the cities, disrupting the familiar pattern of rural to urban migration. The miseries and indignities that they were subjected to, will remain in the collective memory of all of us.
We at Goonj, centred deeply in the dignity of people, have used this negative to strengthen and sharpen our resolve to restore the dignity of these people with our local livelihood initiative, VAAPSI (bringing back).
Started first in 2008 in Bihar after the Kosi floods and grown and implemented widely in Uttarakhand after the 2013 floods, in J&K after the 2014 floods and recently in Kerala floods in 2018, Vaapsi is a tried and tested idea around creating large scale livelihood in rural India, enabling people to be independent and self-sustaining while valuing what they know and have.
Matching their skills, wisdom and aspirations with the needs of the area, Vaapsi gives people a chance to improve their own lives before changing it. Instead of being transactional and individual-led, it also mobilizes individuals to be an important contributor to their community.
In the time of COVID-19, we have already started pan India work on Vaapsi. At present, the execution of projects has started with a focus on localized agriculture, water issues, crafts, etc., and exploring cross-linkages to ensure efficiencies.
Vaapsi (Bringing Back) Livelihood Initiative By GOONJ
When you look around and see nothing but the aftermath of a disaster, the return to a 'normal' life becomes a distant reality. Goonj, through its Vaapsi initiative, endeavours to instil the hope that a comeback is possible.
Vaapsi is built around 5 guiding principles:
1. Value what people know, have, can do and aspire for.
2. Focus on the needs of a cluster/village communities. Apply localized solutions and resources for problems to reduce dependence on external interventions.
3. See rural India as the producer, consumer and a market for itself and not just a supplier for the cities.
4. Respect that people can become self-sustaining and self-dependent if we stand with them for sometime
5. Focus on dignity, not charity.
So, when communities are encouraged under the DFW (Shram Samman) initiative to clean their village pond, it not only ensures them a source of freshwater but also a ground to generate a livelihood from fishing and fertile land for creating vegetable gardens around the pond.
Moreover, by incorporating the local wisdom, Vaapsi strives to be mindful of the aspirations of the communities – focusing on revitalizing agriculture, water, artisans and local economies – while giving them an equal voice in designing their life.
Vaapsi Initiatives During COVID-19
Chhattisgarh: In Gobarsingha village of Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh, as there was a need for recurrent purchase of gunny bags to pack the relief materials, our team decided to motivate the village community towards the making of cloth bags to securely pack relief materials.
The initiative, which began with just one woman, was taken forward when two more joined to stitch cloth bags. Apart from being an attempt to generate livelihood in the village itself, the cloth bags also enabled the villagers to look at used cloth and its utility in a new light.
West Bengal: The tailors seated in the corner attic-size rooms are often one of the busiest people in a locality. So, when the lockdown began, these tailors in Kolkata were left with no earnings. However, after the sudden demand for masks, our team member there decided to motivate them to make masks and thus arranged the fabric for them.
Similarly, in Delhi red light area and many other centres across India have taken up mask making. With an aim to cease the migration of families in Beed, Maharashtra, Goonj and our partner organization will support community farming by the rural communities there.
Uttar Pradesh: People of Bundelkhand have been struggling with a long-standing water crisis for many years now. During this lockdown, our teams are working in Lalitpur district, UP, with daily wage agricultural workers, handloom weavers and cattle rearers, who can't find work or sell their produce.
We have motivated them to weave baskets (tokri) and hand fans on payment from us. Soon the villagers started weaving and now they already have both hand fans and baskets ready, promising us more. These will be included in Goonj relief kits.
Livelihood Work Initiated During Rahat COVID
Livelihood through mask production - over 110 persons
Seeds distributed - over 490 kgs
Vegetable saplings provided - over 14,200
Families reached through saplings/seeds - over 1,000
The Way Forward
Presently, as a post-disaster initiative, Goonj outlines 4 operational strategies in Vaapsi:
1. Continue to engage in need assessment exercise among the village communities
2. Identify & make a blueprint of village-level prevalent and aspirational occupations
3. Map local skills, identifying and nurturing hidden talents
4. Provide occupational kits, or set up small businesses
As a step forward, the ground teams have developed an exhaustive list of local livelihood opportunities as per the potential of each area. These opportunities upon execution will not only aid to revitalize the rural economy, but also aims to put a curb on the large scale migration to the cities.
Vaapsi: An inspiring case study on extensive work in Bihar (after 2008 Kosi floods)
Even before our intervention in Bihar, income and livelihood was a tricky path to tread upon. That's what steered us to experiment with a new idea - Vaapsi (Bringing back).
Goonj did a massive survey among the flood-affected communities to understand the needs. Through all the data collected, we mapped out 35 traditional occupations for which we designed low investment occupational kits – for labourers or barbers, from dhabas to maniharis or for rickshaw-pullers or with sewing machines. The occupational kits included the basic tools, clothing, and material required to get a fresh start.
The unique repayment options for the recipients involved shram daan (voluntary labour) for their community. Thus, with the simple revival of the old barter system, people regained their livelihoods and paid back to their community. Vaapsi, which is done at a pan-India level but is completely localized, turned out to be an innovative solution that yielded a big impact.
During Bihar floods, Goonj reached out to 20,000 people supporting them with Vaapsi initiatives from agriculture, farm labour to specific and customized Vaapsi kits for barbers, cobblers, tailors and initiating dhabas, tea shops, omelette shops to vegetable and grocery shops.
Munni Devi opened a tea stall under Vaapsi. Now she earns around Rs.150 every day and gets to send her children to school as well.
"Now I am feeling that I am not a nobody in the village, I have become somebody," she says with a smile.
Khurshid was offered a sewing machine under Vaapsi. With this basic tool, he launched his business from home and within no time he started getting work. He worked overtime, met deadlines regularly and before long he became a serious competitor to other established tailors.
Khurshid says, "Now I don't have to wait on these people to ask for work. I have plenty of it myself and more keeps coming every day."
"Babu there is no relief in a debt-ridden life," this is how Sauhagya puts it when inquired about her work as a farm labourer. However, sujni making brought in the winds of change for Sauhagya. Enthused by the flow of money she inspired her daughter-in-law to join in. Now, both women of the house embarked on a journey to free their family from the debt trap.
Over 5 lakh ( half a million) sujnis and aasans are made as a part of livelihood for a few hundred women by using the last shreds of clothes in the last 4 years. Sujni is used as a quilt in winters and as a mattress in the summers and the thick aasans are used for the kids to sit in the schools.
A key outcome of the Vaapsi initiative, Haat is a local market. Goonj worked in many villages to create these temporary market places so that people can buy and sell locally whatever they have or they produce. The haats also gave a good business to the barbers, cobblers, sweet shops etc. as many, who had received kits from Goonj, started to come together to sell their wares at these markets, giving a big boost to the local economy.