Vanitha Tai of Khmabacha Pada

For the the community…with the community

Ode to the tribal queen of Aarey Forest 

In my last six years of work in domestic clean cooking segment with low income and remote rural communities, I often wondered how could I win the trust of a rural household (HH) so much so that they would not only have faith in what I am attempting to share, but also let me be around their kitchen while they cook…and for the love of a freshly cooked hot simple meal, share a meal around the chulah with them and exchange stories of our lives. 

The only way for me to be able to work with trust as a central theme and or strategic direction, was to enable and empower a few willing individuals who showed a little more conviction, a little more open mindedness to learn, a little bit more curiosity about something that might help their lives by making it somewhat easier and at no cost to them. 

Every community or a group has such natural born leaders whose voice and action could influence those around them, some are aware of it and some only discover on the way and unfortunately, some may never even know. Most incredible part of the journey and learning process with my NGO – Smokeless Cookstove Foundation (SCF) is to come across such individuals living in the most difficult situations life has chosen for them and yet having that spark and vitality to do more than what meets the eye. 

Our model of field intervention through SCF underwent a transition during and post Covid where I had to scale down mid to large size projects due to lack of funding and inability to access many communities. Also, we were unable to gather 25 to 35 community volunteers based on our original training model.

A typical SCF community training programme at Aarey Colony

So from conducting large community training programmes, we started working with a smaller and a more intimate group of 5 to 8 community participants. These community participants are or could become enablers ready to take leadership positions in some manner. The more fundamental thought behind this approach has been to enable these community members to become semi entrepreneurs and earn additional income through this skill. And in process be the influencers for clean cooking options within the community. 

My first breakthrough for this model happened post the first lock down when I met indomitable Vanitha Tai in Khambacha Pada at Aarey forest, in Mumbai. Vanitha Tai immediately caught my attention because of her confidence and ability to talk unabashedly and enthusiastically at the same time. I could bet that in some lifetime, she may have been a powerful tribal queen fighting for the rights of her people. Vanitha Tai was immediately interested in my improved mud cookstoves based on Rocket Stove Technology as she had been hosting Tribal lunches for many ‘a’ curious groups of people visiting Aarey.

Vanitha Tai of Khambacha Pada, Aarey Colony

She got a few other ladies from the pada to sign up for our Smokeless Cookstove Revolution training programme and convinced these women with absolute ease about the benefits of using these improved mud cookstoves. But before doing the workshop, we installed two of these improved mud cookstoves with Tai’s help outside her house to act as demo stoves. This created curiosity not only amongst the pada women but also many outsiders who would come to Aarey for various reasons. 

Tai started cooking on these improved chulahs for the tribal lunches that she and her women gang would host in collaboration with a few NGOs and other influencers working in Aarey. Tai would speak enthusiastically about how these improved mud chulahs are helping her save almost 50% of her firewood, her precious time and that she was not feeling any smoke while cooking on them. She would speak with such conviction and passion that it made my work fairly easy.

Tai and her guests during one such tribal lunch cooked on SCF’s improved mud cookstoves

Now I needed to teach Tai and her gang how to make these Rocket Stove Technology based improved mud chulas on their own. From my previous experiences working in many such communities, I understood very well that time is of essence for these women as their day would be packed with multitude chores related to firewood collection, water filling, all the household chores related to cooking, cleaning, children, elderly if any and also, find sources of income to support their families. Hence, I left it to Tai to decide the most appropriate schedule for our training, sharing with her my time requirement of 4 to 5 hours each day for about 4 to 5 days for the training to get completed.

I had to provide all the possible logistics support to the women in terms of material gathering, but once they started working their way through the training, it was easy to work with them. Ofcourse, some of them were young mothers and would take time out to look after their kids, but Tai made sure that they were accountable for their commitment to this process.

The economic model that I worked with Tai and her team was based on the potential daily wage they would earn when they would work as labourers. And we would add 50% to the daily wage figure. This meant that they could earn about Rs 800 per day while undergoing training and making these improved mud stoves in their homes as well as installing them in their neighbours homes. Our work was picking up momentum as these 5 women learnt how to make the stoves and we now had 5 homes with these wood saving smoke reducing improved mud stoves.

Other women started to show interest in not only getting them installed in their homes but also wanting to learn how to make them. Tai was getting requests regularly and she got about 15 HHs from the pada to sign up for installation. Women were happy getting additional income by doing 4 to 5 hours of work and being so close to their home as opposed to 8 hours of labour outside the forest area.Women from other padas also got to know of these wood saving and smokefree improved chulahs and wanted one in their kitchens too. Tai and I started making plans to map out some nearby padas and see how many stoves could be installed and if we needed to do another training but this time, Tai as the trainer.

One of the key aspects that I wanted to build in, was the token contribution from the HHs. I had been pushing Tai to work on collecting some small amount of perhaps Rs 50 from each HH as their commitment towards the improved mud cookstoves. But she seemed hesitant to ask her neighbours for this amount. However, she seemed more positive about being able to ask for this contribution from a nearby pada on starting the project there.

But as luck would have it, second wave of Covid struck and it became difficult for me to continue my work in Aarey, as this time, the virus affected tribals here too. I kept in touch with Tai somehow and she told me that they managed to make about 12 stoves. But what transpired in Tai’s life and padas in the next few months is something that I watched with sadness and a numerous unanswered questions. While Covid made sure that we were crippled and locked down as a society, loss of livelihood broke the backs of these adivasis, as their sources of income were solely dependent on the Mumbai Urban society. Working as domestic help, security guards, car drivers, gardeners, vegetable vendors etc, nobody went to work. Come to think of it, adivasis or the indigenous communities are known to be the wisdom keepers of our Earth. Some women who would sell their fresh organic vegetables in the nearby markets suddenly had unsold stock which obviously could not be personally consumed. Through SCF, we managed to get these vegetables sold to a nearby five star hotel’s kitchen only because the Chef was a fan of tribal vegetables like tubers and green leaves etc. However, the hotel’s accounts team got me entangled in paperwork of copious proportions for a mere sum of about Rs30,000 and finally released the payments after 5 or 6 weeks. The money that could have come in so very handy if released immediately. 

Vanitha Tai installing the improved mud cookstoves in one of the village homes

Then came the fury of monsoons much before anyone could prepare for. Tai had to rebuild her house before the rains using traditional tribal technique of building a mud house. But needed almost 2 lakhs for this task and with Covid wiping any opportunity to earn even the basic income, Tai’s situation became difficult. Tribal lunches and visits to Aarey stopped, robbing Tai of any ways to earn money to rebuild her home and even at times feed the family. Some kind souls who had been working in Aarey for a long time started a fund-raiser for her house to be rebuilt, and thanks to Tai’s popularity, she managed to raise a decent amount of money. Monsoons came, I tried to follow up on the progress of Tai’s house, but her number got disconnected. I did not see any social media posts about Tai’s house, or her nursery that she ran, or my stoves (many NGO’s took photos of these Rocket Stoves along with Tai) or even the cool Tribal lunches and cultural walks.

Reminiscence of the famous Warli art seen in many adivasis homes in Aarey

And by the end of that year, I lost hope of being able to revive my work with Tai in Aarey as I just couldn’t get in touch with her and my own NGO had no funds whatsoever. I would often think of her and dial her number in the hope she would pick up. And recently, she did pick up the phone much to my delight, but her plight was even worse than what I had last known. She told me about how everyone, all NGOs, have stopped working in Khambacha pada and how she is facing violence at the hands of her husband and the ongoing land ownership issues in her hamlet.
But she still uses my or rather our chulahs and tells our story of whoever asks her about these uniquely designed Rocket Stoves. Tai is still fighting for her community and rights of Tribals in Aarey forest despite her own situation and she was going to participate in a large ‘morcha’ at Azad Maidan to distribute pamphlets about their issues.
As for me, I am ready to pick up my work in Aarey in some way or the other and hoping that Tai will resume the role of community enabler and a clean cooking evangelist for Khambacha pada and beyond…But fundamentally, our Adivasis (first people) continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle and vagaries of life that seems to have no real way forward and yet, few minutes of meeting them, you know that you have gained their love and some of their precious knowledge that I hope, stays eternal…for she has kept my paan ka ped and enticed with me ‘katchi kairee’ appearing in the mango trees of Aarey forest.

Tai with our smokeless chulahs

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Diyaa

    What a beautiful write up. Talks so much about the simple ways of living and efficiently. The help and awareness spread amongst the hidden places of the country to these tribal women will surely bring about a lovely change. Looking forward to more of this work and articles covering them. Good luck

  2. Diya

    What a beautiful write up. Talks about simple ways of living and efficiently.. the help and awareness spread among the tribal women in the hidden parts of the country is definitely bringing about a lovely change. Looking forward to more of such work and write ups. Good luck.

  3. Nitisha

    Thanks Diya for your comment and appreciation. And thanks for taking time out to read Tai’s story

  4. Purabi

    When a real life story speaks about the nitigrities of communities living in different parts of the country and how a clean energy intervention helps them at local level , it shows up the the need and impact so clearly. Thanks for sharing it Nitisha and kudos to SCF for all the great work done together with the communities hand in hand.

    1. techsupport

      Thanks Purabi for your comment and also for being a constant supporter and a friend of Smokeless Cookstove Foundation. We hope to do many projects together for our communities soon.

  5. Utkarsh Sethia

    Beautiful writeup Nitisha. I appreciate the work done by your organization with the tribal communities.
    Your work involving community participation and ownership of Chulhas deserves an appreciation.

    I hope that Tai will soon be able to recover from economic shocks of covid.

  6. Nitisha

    hey Utkarsh, thanks so much for your comment and your understanding of community led initiatives. hope to catch up soon.

  7. Brian

    Hey there Nitisha! What a wonderful and thought provoking article. keep up the good work !

    1. Nitisha Agrawal

      Hi Brian, thank you for reading the article and for your comments.

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