Bollywood aprons and a beauty parlour in Chennai

New Internationalist Australia’s fair trade specialist, Paul Deighton, visits Chennai, India and is in awe of the resourcefulness and energy he finds there.

My hotel window looks over a huge white elephant. Looking somewhat like a modern day Grecian mausoleum, it’s the erstwhile octogenarian Tamil Nadu leader’s legacy to his people – a new parliament house cum government offices that seems to stretch away into the distance for half a kilometre. The new premier has, according to Philip, refused to move in and wants it to be turned into a shopping mall or some other such function, and the high court is set to decide its future – most likely forcing the new leader to use it for its intended purpose. Such is politics in Tamil Nadu…

Philip says it could house all the people from the slum he works in several times over. There are 18,000 people in that slum, on a slice of Defence land about one kilometre long and 100 metres wide, running along a toxic-looking river. It went a metre under water in the big tsunami, and there have been calls to have it shut down, but so far the Slum Relocation Committee (whose offices overlook Marina Beach, and look like they could also house a good number of the slum dwellers) has so far concentrated on the many smaller slum areas around the city.

Philip came to Pondicherry, a former French enclave south of Chennai, in the early ‘90’s working for a French NGO. He fell in love and married, and stayed, but grew tired of the development of the area into something of a playground for foreigners and well-off Indians, so moved to Chennai. He set up the SPEED Trust (Slum People Education & Employment Development) with his new wife and some colleagues in the late ‘90’s, and has recently rented a three storey building at the “upper class” (and mostly Indian Mafia run) end of the slum for his office.

SPEED Trust, Chennai - say no to child labour

SPEED Trust, Chennai - say no to child labour

They also have a couple of other buildings/spaces, one of which houses the sewing centre of SPEED Trust’s handcraft arm, Baladarshan, that makes our Bollywood products. Another, across the road and tucked underneath the road bridge has a showroom cum packaging and export space. The handcraft operation is run by Prasad, who used to work for an export agency – which explains why we never have problems with our shipments from Baladarshan. Our latest order of aprons was sitting in the middle of the showroom under a tarp being fumigated… And they have a hostel for abandoned, homeless or otherwise needy girls a few kilometres from the slum, which is about to move to bigger premises.

Bollywood aprons made by Baladarshan workers from the slums

Bollywood aprons made by Baladarshan workers from the slums

The sewing centre was their first project, but it soon became clear that the women couldn’t come to work because they had to look after their kids. The school in the slum is usually empty – the kids don’t go so the teachers don’t either. So SPEED now sponsors kids from the slum to go to schools outside, and his office building houses a creche and three after-school rooms, where about 500 kids in total spend time in shifts after school, learning English and maths, giving the women time to participate fully in training and work.

When I first arrived, I went with Philip and a volunteer French nurse to the far end of the slum to briefly visit a 10 year-old girl who had suffered burns across her chest and arms. She had been in hospital for ten days and had been home for two days, traumatized. No-one seemed to know if it was an accident or a suicide attempt, as she hadn’t spoken since it happened. She was on the mend, and smiled for the first time when Philip appeared, and will move to the SPEED hostel when she’s recovered a bit more. The medical treatment was paid by SPEED’s Health Mutual Fund, which families pay 500 rupees a year to belong to, and such family follow up is central to the success of SPEED’s work. It seems like everyone in the slum knows Philip – small kids come from everywhere calling “Uncle!” wherever he goes, and he always has time to pick them up and give them a hug and a chat.

I spent time then working with Philip and Prasad on product refinements and logistical issues. They would be happy to help us by consolidating products from other south Indian producer groups for shipment. We are Baladarshan’s biggest customer, but they sell also to European FTOs and into Japan. He sometimes turns down orders from large wholesalers, especially when they arrive in big rented cars and start to bargain for a few rupees off a recycled bag – preferring to work with smaller buyers like ourselves.

On my second day at the slum I attended the inauguration of their latest project – a beauty parlour… They will be providing training to slum women in beauty care as another of their employment initiatives. But here, some of the trainees have been disfigured by what looks like acid attacks. With sponsorship from a French company they have rented another building on the edge of the slum, which will house the beauty parlour, an office for the volunteer nurse, and a screen printing facility. Philip, who seems to be a man of few words and is somewhat self-effacing, gave a short moving speech in which he praised the beauty of the trainees.

My last afternoon was spent on a tour of Chennai – another SPEED initiative – that included a couple of temples, the deserted Marina Beach, the old fort museum and a very sad zoo. But the highlight of the afternoon was the constant jaw-dropping looks from drivers, passengers and pedestrians when they realized my auto-rickshaw was being driven by someone dressed in a sari, rather than the usual brown shirt with a moustache on top. Since 2004 SPEED has been training slum women as auto-rickshaw drivers, then providing them with a vehicle which they pay off monthly from their earnings, avoiding the need for expensive loan sharks. In a city of over 10 million people, and what seems like hundreds of thousands of auto-rickshaws, the 20-odd women drivers SPEED has trained still make a splash…

I’m in awe of Philip’s resourcefulness and energy. The whole thing runs on a shoestring, with the slum-dwellers helping out if they want to take advantage of SPEED’s work. Once the women have been trained in their vocation, they often become trainers themselves. Most people who work for the trust, apart from the occasional volunteer, have come through their programs. While the set-up costs of his projects are often covered through donations from individuals and/or private companies, they become self-funding – the creche and classes are paid for by the families, and the health fund is largely self-sufficient, and profits from Baladarshan’s sales support the trust. I’m very proud that New Internationalist is involved with them, and feel very fortunate to be able to see first hand the results of our partnership.

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