Avani - A Case Study

Bharti, Rashmi has been working with issues related to rural development for the past 15 years. Avani the voluntary organisation she co-founded works with the creation of livelihood opportunities through appropriate technology, traditional craft and farm-based activities. Avani has worked with local capacity building for management of all these enterprises. In the past ten years of their work they have set up, among others, a community managed rural solar electrification program; rural electronic and mechanical workshop that manufactures solar water heaters as well as solar driers; a profitable business with handmade, high quality textiles in wool and silk dyed with natural dyes; cultivation of wild silks like eri and muga; collection and cultivation of natural dyes.

CRT, July 2007

Avani means ‘The Earth’ in Sanskrit. All our activities support the environment and the people of the area where we are working.

Avani has been working with integrating sustainable livelihoods and appropriate technology. The focus of our work has been creation of livelihood opportunities in remote rural areas where supplementary cash income for daily needs is very necessary for the families that continue to live in the villages. With decreased productivity of land and fragmented land holdings it is becoming more and more difficult for small farmers, traditional artisans and unskilled, landless wage earners to make a living while staying in the villages. Our work provides the choice to some families to have a source of income in their village through farm-based activities, traditional craft and appropriate technology.

In its entirety, our work spreads across 71 villages in two districts of Bageshwar and Pithoragarh. Our main focus has been the capacity building of rural youth to manage all aspects of the different activities. Our team is entirely from villages where we work.

Through Avani’s work, solar technology has reached remote villages. More than 1500 rural families in about 228 remote hamlets and villages are now using solar lights. Our work has ensured that the community has the technical and the financial capacity to ensure the long term functioning of these systems. At present this program is self-sustaining and managed by the village committees.

Over 40 rural youth have been trained to assemble, repair and maintain solar equipment. The training of women technicians has emerged as an area where women get an equal opportunity to use their skills. Traditionally they are not allowed or encouraged to handle tools. The village energy committees have collected more than 31 lakh rupees of their own, for future replacement of batteries and panels which is managed by the members themselves.

Avani is also working with the thermal applications of solar energy like solar water heaters and solar driers. We have set up a rural mechanical workshop and trained local youth to manufacture Solar Water Heaters and Solar Driers. This unit has generated business by selling water heaters to private homes, resorts, hotels and a hospital.

The Avani centre is also powered by Clean Energy. A solar generator of 8 kW capacity, produces electricity for lighting, computers and light machines.

In its quest for finding a productive use for waste material, Avani has been working with setting up a pine needle gasification unit that produces 9 kW of electricity by burning pine needles alone. This gasification system is the first of its kind that uses 100 per cent pine needles as feedstock. This gasifier has been developed in collaboration with a gasifier manufacturing company.

Pine needles are a major cause of forest fires in our area, leading to loss of biodiversity. The pine trunk being fire resistant propagates itself, thus encroaching on mixed forests in the vicinity. The pine needles also do not allow water recharge, thereby reducing the moisture content in the soil. As a result, a pine forest rarely has any undergrowth due to high acidity and low moisture of the soil. Removing it from the forest floor would have many benefits including natural regeneration of forests, increased soil moisture and better recharge of groundwater.
We are now planning to extend this technology to the villages where gas produced by the gasification of pine needles can be used for cooking.

As part of its work on rainwater harvesting, Avani has also constructed nine Rainwater Harvesting Tanks at nine government schools, that collect almost 3,00,000 litres of rainwater for drinking for the school children.

At all the Avani centres, the daily needs are met through rainwater. At the Avani centre IN Tripuradevi, water from all rooftops goes into an underground storage system which has a capacity of 3, 25,000 litres. It takes care of the daily needs of a community of 30 residents, trainees, including all the textile processing and irrigation for vegetables. We have demonstrated the appropriateness of using rainwater in water deficient areas in the hills.

Saukyura, a village of traditional artisans was one of the first villages to use solar lighting. When the artisans expressed their inability to pay for the technology, it was felt that to take the technology to the poorest of the poor, work needed to be done to enhance their incomes. It was then decided that Avani would work with the revival and preservation of the traditional skill of weaving and spinning to create livelihood opportunities in the area. It would then ensure that the poor families are also able to access technology.
Traditionally, the Shauka community was working with Tibetan Sheep wool and the Bora Kuthalia community was working with hemp fibre. It became increasingly difficult to make a sustainable living with this craft. The reason was that coarse Tibetan wool products do not have a ready market and plastic ropes and sacks have taken over the local demand for hemp products. The legality of growing and using hemp fibre is also very ambiguous.

Consequently, in both these communities, the younger generation was abandoning the craft due to insufficient returns. To make this intervention successful, we needed to redefine this craft as contemporary and we had to make sure that it brought income to the families.
Another very important aspect of this intervention was its’ effect on the soil and water of the area. We then decided to work only with natural dyes for the coloring of our textiles.
  • We reintroduced the use of Natural Dyes to add value to an existing skill and create a niche market for the products made in the rural areas. Traditionally the color palette of dyers was limited to brown and yellow. We extended that to include all other colors as well.

  • Fair wages for all processes of production formed the basis of this initiative.

  • To create a larger market base for the products, we expanded the fibre base of the enterprise. We introduced the spinning and weaving of silk in our area.

  • Subsequently, we introduced the cultivation of eri and muga silk with the farmers of the area, ensuring that the entire raw material base for this enterprise is in the hills.

  • Plantation of the host trees for eri and muga silk has led to conservation of local fodder species and re-forestation of wastelands, as both these species are indigenous to our hills. This year we harvested the second crop of eri and muga silk cocoons. Almost 115 farmers have taken up sericulture as a source of supplementary income for their families. All the farmers have also been taught simple techniques like mulching and vermicomposting for better survival and growth of the plants.

These wild silks, pashmina and Tibetan sheep wool are spun on drop spindles and traditional spinning wheels called Bageshwari Charkhas. We have also developed prototypes of solar powered spinning wheels that can be used by good spinners to increase their production. These spinning wheels have been installed in villages that are not electrified.

  • The spun yarn is naturally dyed and woven into fabric, shawls and stoles.

  • Frame looms have been introduced to enable a wider width of fabrics, as the traditional pit looms produce very narrow widths of fabrics.

  • Rural youth from the area have been trained as managers and supervisors to handle all aspects of this enterprise.

  • A group of local women and men have been trained in natural dyeing of wool and silk.

  • Six decentralised production centres have been established in different villages. Buildings have been constructed at three of these centres on land donated by a family of that village.

The management of the textile enterprise is completely decentralized and it is ensured that the work reaches the artisan in their village.

To strengthen our work with natural dyes in textiles we are also exploring other applications of natural dyes and introducing the cultivation of dye plants in the villages as a livelihood option.
We have encouraged the women’s groups to collect and grow dye plants like turmeric, myrobolan, and pomegranate rind and walnut hulls. They have already started the cultivation of turmeric and are protecting the saplings and trees of other dye yielding species.

Some of the materials we use for natural dyes are:
  • Indigo

  • Catechu

  • Madder

  • Turmeric

  • Shellac

  • Myrobolan

  • Tea Leaves

  • Onion Skin

  • Eupetorium

  • Soap nut leaves

  • Marigold Flowers

  • Pomegranate Rind

  • Walnut leaves and fruits

  • Rhododendron Flowers and Leaves

We are now working with the use of plant as mordant as well as the dye. We are trying to replace the salts we use for fixing the color with plant mordants e.g., berberis fruits and leaves are used as natural mordants for madder.

We are continuously researching new dye yielding plants. We are using a weed called Eupatorium that grows wild in our hills and gives us different shades of green and mustard. Turmeric Root and Marigold flowers are used for different grades of yellow. Our color palette in wool and silk in natural dyes is now quite extensive.

To begin with, we just reintroduced the use of Natural Dyes in Carpets and Tweeds made by local artisans. Then we developed a range of very contemporary products in natural dyes. The blends that we created were as follows:
  • Pure Wool products in hand spun Tibetan sheep wool and Australian merino wool.

  • Silk and Wool were blended together into fabrics, shawls, stoles and mufflers

  • Wild Silks like Eri and Muga were woven into shawls, stoles and saris...

  • Muga silk was blended with wool to make different products

  • All these fabrics are tailored into garments in different styles.

The active participation of the community has formed the basis for a sustainable livelihood base with environment friendly products. Over 500 artisans are involved in creating wool and silk textiles in Natural Dyes.

The enterprise is able to provide supplementary cash income to the spinners and an alternative livelihood to the weavers.

The artisans’ collective has now been registered as the Kumaon Earth craft Self Reliant cooperative that will be managed by the community.

As mentioned before, the process of production is as important as the product itself. Therefore, we are very conscious that the soil and water of the area should not be adversely affected by this enterprise. So we have ensured that it is a closed cycle of use where all the waste is recycled.
  • The rainwater used for Natural Dyeing is pre heated in Solar Water Heaters manufactured at the Avani centre thereby conserving fuel.

  • The wastewater is then recycled and utilised for irrigation to grow vegetables. A wastewater recycling plant is presently under construction at Avani that will recycle 80 per cent of all the water used at centre.

All finished textiles are calendared with a calendaring machine that is powered by solar energy or with electricity produced by the pine needle gasifier.

Another application of natural dyes is in natural colors for painting on paper. We have created a whole range of colors that are non-toxic and eco friendly. They are very appropriate for young children as well.

Another traditional application of turmeric is making Roli or peetha as it is called locally. We are now looking at selling it in the local market as well as the urban markets.
The cultivation and collection of natural dyes can become a sustainable livelihood option as these plants can be:
  • Harvested and collected in the wild.

  • Grown on wastelands and sold for use in:

    • natural paints

    • textile dyes

    • food colorants

    • organic soaps

All the above programs are very much linked to each other and have grown organically from the needs of the community that have emerged over time.

We reached the Himalayas with a personal aspiration to live in the hills while contributing to the area.

  • The first step for us was to begin to learn about the area and its people.

  • The second step was to unlearn our urban ideas and to learn to slow down.

  • The third was to identify the work that needs to be done and devise strategies of doing it well.

  • The growth of the organisation and our work has been organic.

We have addressed the issue of sustainability in all our activities and find that the principles inherent in this process are:

  • Defining sustainability as that factor that provides dignity to an aging artisan or provides the choice to a family to continue to stay in their village.

  • Trust and respect for the knowledge and capacity of the village community.

  • Working in partnership with the local community.

  • Build the capacity of the local youth to bring livelihood opportunities to the area.

  • Learning to slow down in accordance with the pace of village life and reality.

  • Ensure participation and contribution of the community without giving out dole.

  • Not to be involved in readymade programs which do not take into account the reality of village life.

  • Look for funding partners that are willing to support the activities that are needed. The above framework has enabled us to set up sustainable livelihood options in remote rural areas.

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