Ex-IAS officer uses the art of basket weaving to help 300 tribal families fight poverty

“For 50 odd years, no government officer or minister visited us, and without Madame Suchitra, our tribe would probably have disappeared,” says Ajay Sabar, a tribal from Burudih village.

The 50-year-old belongs to the Sabar tribe, one of the most primitive and endangered tribes among the 32 that exist in Jharkhand. “We were struggling to survive and had no land to farm or houses to live in, but bamboo huts in the forests. We were earning a meager income of Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 per month,” he says.

This is not the story of Ajay alone, but of more than 300 families from 25 villages who live about 60 km from Jamshedpur, the capital of Jharkhand.

The tribe was listed among the 68 languishing communities denoted by the British for their insubordination towards them. The tribe was declared “criminal” under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. Years of neglect made their end seem near as the tribes were at the mercy of dwindling forest resources and donations.

Today, they are not only surviving, they are thriving. All thanks to the compassion and years of hard work of Suchitra Sinha, a former IAS officer.

“The Only Hope”

Craftsmen at work.

In 1988, Suchitra passed the Bihar Civil Service Commission examination and since she was from the region, she was aware of the underdeveloped area and the plight the locals suffered daily. The area was also known for the Naxal rebels.

The brave girl, who studied to become an IAS officer, joined as an assistant tax collector in Jamshedpur in 1996, which marked a turning point in her life.

“A few members of Bharat Seva Sangha visited my office asking for donations from the Sabar Tribes, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG). They informed me that the tribals were in a terrible state and would starve if donations weren’t being received,” she says.

Suchitra was intrigued by the news and decided to visit Nimdih block located in Saraikela district which is now part of Jharkhand.

“I saw the tribals living in abject poverty and depending on forest resources. Children had no clothes to wear and families struggled to make ends meet. “The situation was no different from that of the other 216 families in the area,” she recalls.

Suchitra decided to find a way to improve the lives of the inhabitants. “I learned that the tribals were weaving baskets and brooms from palm trees, date palms, bamboo and kanji grass. The craftsmen sold them at Rs 30 each. The tribals barely earned Rs 2,000/month” , she says.

Moved by their economic situation, Suchitra decided to work on their improvement. She has released funds through tribal programs to encourage and generate livelihoods in poultry, food and other areas.

But she felt the need to try harder for them. She approached the then Deputy Development Commissioner (DDC), explaining the condition of the tribals and asked for help. However, the official refused their request and doubted that the tribal community could lift themselves out of poverty through their efforts alone.

Although discouraged, Suchitra refused to abandon the community and visited the village of Samarpur in the block, encouraging men and women to continue weaving baskets.

Ambalika NGO Kraftribe Sabar
Handicrafts produced by the NGO Ambalika.

In 1993, she was transferred to Delhi. On one occasion on her journey back to the village, Suchitra brought a traditional basket made by a tribal. “I offered it to the then Craft Development Commissioner and explained the Sabar tribe and their conditions. He was impressed with the artistic and creative product and assigned five projects to shape their skills” , she adds.

Suchitra brought in five designers from Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Design (NIFT) and asked them to visit hamlets to train the tribals.

Besides Samanpur, people from Bereda, Bindubeda, Chirubeda, Bhangad, Biridudih, Makula and others have received the training. “I formed a self-help group of villagers, and they went through the training in groups of 10. The trainers didn’t know the local languages, and it was the other way around with the tribals. But a month-long training helped them bond. It also helped them improve the quality of products and add variety to handicrafts,” she says, adding that the trained tribals then shared their knowledge with others in the villages.

Crafters could now craft around 104 items, including planters, bags, briefcases, lampshades and more. In 2002, Suchitra then formed the NGO Ambalika to promote artisans. Suchitra took the craftsmen, treated them and asked them to stay at her house in Delhi. “I invited them to Delhi to participate in the handicraft exhibitions and provided them with a platform to sell their products,” she says.

Suchitra says they have received significant recognition in the exhibits, but the tribals have struggled to win government and corporate orders. “Nevertheless, we didn’t miss any opportunities that came our way, and slowly the tribals got more business as their network grew stronger. However, Naxal’s business increased in 2005, and my initiative took a back seat. Slowly the connection with the tribes diminished and we completely stopped working,” she says.

The situation stabilized around 2010 and Suchitra made another visit to the villages. “I heard about India’s international trade fair planned for 2011 and immediately contacted a few tribals, asking them to attend,” she says.

How to Save a Tribe

Suchitra says the quality of products made by the tribe has gone downhill as they lost touch and weren’t given the opportunity to improve their skills. “For this, the tribals received a short training on how to make commercially viable products. They then presented their work at national and international events. They even prepared the dossier for the BRICS conference held in 2012,” she notes.

Ajay says, “We trained for months and offered the products at Pragati Maidan Delhi Haat and other high end locations in Delhi. Now officers and celebrities are visiting us.

He adds that in addition to training, Suchitra has provided food and clothing to the community, including children. “Sometimes she would spend out of pocket to provide us with necessities. It is thanks to his interventions through government programs that we have pukka houses, electricity and bank accounts,” he says.

“The income of the tribal community has increased considerably since then. Each tribal earns Rs 7,000 to 8,000 per month. The cheapest product costs Rs 600, and the most expensive is Rs 3,000. The products are also available on online platforms such as Amazon and Ambalika’s website under the Kraftribe brand,” adds Ajay.

Ajay says Suchitra is revered as nothing less than a mother to the people and is affectionately called “Ma”.

However, Suchitra, who retired in 2019, disagrees. She says, “I don’t want to be called a ‘goddess’ or a ‘saviour’. I don’t want fame either. I wanted to give the tribals a dignified life who were threatened with extinction by making them win a deserved prize for their skills.

To buy Ambalika products, click on here.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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