Every time I spend a day working with the powers-to-be on women’s issues, I am reminded of Bappi Lahiri — his incredible talent of putting random circumstantial words to comical music in reality shows, for no relevance to the show or its audiences! That’s all of my male employers, who pick phrases they have no lived experiences of (sustainable development goals, gender equality, etc.) making a hysterical attempt to put them together. They also like speaking of women empowerment because they love(d) their mothers. Can’t help it if our inherent K3G type ‘Poo’ awakens at times like these and we ‘whatever’ out of the situation, no?

I speak to four women who whatever(ed) and did their own thing — for themselves, for their communities, and for the environment around them. No jargons jargoned, no fittings force-fitted, and definitely no motherly love mentioned.

Going Aeka — A Journey To Becoming Seen,  In An Already Unseen Industry
You remember that one kid in the family who’d always turn up giving you a complex, ‘cause you spent your days watching Shaktimaan, and they basically went through life watching Discovery Channel — because they actually liked doing that?

Yeah, that kid is Aardra Chandra Mouli. If you’d ever like to demand some answers of her, she is based out of Trivandrum, Kerala and is the brain behind Aeka (‘one’ or ‘first’ in Sanskrit) — the first entrepreneurial bio-tech company in the state. But beware, she maybe this overachieving type, but she speaks the same language as you and I, so you actually tend to like her and all that dramatically misplaced confrontational candour disappears, leaving you comically disgruntled in this conversation.

And also, before I forget, given that anything female led is still so near and far about, yet so enthusiastically discussed (given how saleable the concept has become for male higher-ups), Aeka is also the only all-female-owned bio-tech company in India. They have a dedicated female-led lab that does all the research for climate clean requirements around urban cultivation, water treatment, recycling, remediation and waste management. Like Aardra aptly describes her social role currently, “I sometimes feel like a novelty in any room I am in for bio-tech, these days.”

Unfortunately, the truth is that Aardra may just actually be among the handful of women in sustainable and environmental bio-tech, apart from being the very few young women in entrepreneurial science, slowly but surely getting her due recognition in India. And it’s not because other women are not out there, as she explains it to me. We both agree that they are just scattered around, and are only brought in as pop-ups when organisers want to fill the lone-woman-amidst-dozen-older-men-in-entrepreneurship-and-science trope. “That’s when you feel the lack of the peer. Because there are so many things, personally and professionally, I would like to discuss with other women who are doing similar things, and having similar struggles,” she says.

You are then also reminded of just how many people are waiting to be given that gold star for having said ‘women empowerment’ twice in a sentence, during all these conferences. But first she gives me a lesson in bio-technology, because honest to whatever powers that maybe, my freshest memory of anything to do with science is the rumours around a very angry biology teacher, named Mercy ma’am in 10th grade (the irony!). “Bio-tech is actually more every day than a lot of people would think. Right from your sewage treatment to treating water bodies around your locality, to food and beverages — its biotech that comes handy,” she explains. I learn from her, that Aeka and other similar companies could completely change the approach to climate crisis in the world.

Aeka was Aardra’s five-year experiment plan at 25. “Doing something environmentally impacting came organically to me since I was a child — this was my passion. I had the right credentials, academically and professionally. So why not?” Five years later, the experiment plan has been more than successful, has won awards, and has left her pondering on how the playground can be levelled for all genders in entrepreneurship and science.

But a levelled playground is an existential worry for most women, even in 2020. Some answers, as it turns out, even that bright kid in the family cannot give you.

Unlearning Travel With Terra Conscious
Okay, so each story I delve into is basically my personal story of unlearning. I am not proud that I have been this uninformed, but hey it’s not my fault that Goa was shown as the perfect go-to place after an imperfect break up! I went there to drink my very indignant sorrows down… but then I also found Terra Conscious — Puja Mitra’s initiative towards sustainable and responsible tourism in Goa. Which, by the way, I know now, is the smallest State in India, with just 101kms of coastline, but is also bio-diversity hotspot!

Did I learn? Hell yeah!

Of course, it was Puja herself who told me this, because otherwise when have any of us used the fancy tech given to us to actually read up on facts and make informed decisions? “Goa is home to a beautiful fringing coral reef, two species of coastal cetaceans (humpback dolphin and finless porpoise), sea turtles, two species of otters, the only population of freshwater crocodiles adapted to brackish water, 450 species of birds as well as tigers, leopards, bison and deer to name a few of the species found in the State’s forests. Not to mention myriad ecosystems ranging from beaches and sea to rivers, wetlands and tropical forests, plateaus, grasslands, all easily accessed and explored,” Puja tells me further.

By this time, I am genuinely mind-blown, because I am quite invested in doing my bit to address the climate crisis myself. How did so much information miss the ambit of our discourse? “Because for years everyone from the State’s own tourism department to every single mushrooming travel blogger, website, etc is only talking about beach tourism and parties when it comes to Goa,” Puja explains.

Terra Conscious, co-founded by Puja in 2017, tries addressing this misinformation by providing educational and bio-diversity conscious ocean experiences, backwater kayaking, deep sea diving and cycling across the Western Ghats. But it may not have been easy, given that a lot of the locals potentially base their livelihoods on a certain way of tourism? Surprisingly, Puja has had less trouble in training the community around ethical tourism, and has found policy makers and tourists themselves more challenging when it comes to accepting these diversity-conscious experiences. “If travellers start thinking of the impact they make when they travel, about who benefits from the money and time they spend, and ask more questions about how eco conscious their hotel or activity is — then it can motivate more suppliers to change if they aren’t already being responsible,” she explains.

It wasn’t that Puja was always directed towards entrepreneurship. As a matter of fact, she too finds this entire business of being called a ‘female entrepreneur’ quite back-handed. (I may have called her that once or twice in the course of this interview, fully aware of the repercussions of that!)

What came naturally to her was to be environmentally conscious — and this goes all the way back to her first internship as a teenager, while she was still studying in Bangalore, with Compassionate Unlimited Action Plus (CUPA) and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC). She dabbled in the idea of being an environmental journalist later, until she stumbled upon an opportunity to go to Assam to work with the Assam Haathi Project (AHP). “It woke me up to the huge gaps we face in India with delivering essential services and facilities to people, and how little inclusivity there is in the decision making processes of our country, when it comes to making policies that impact millions and affect the environment,” she tells me. AHP consciously used community centric sustainable livelihood tools for its conservation ideals, and this resonated with Puja quite a bit, changing her outlook towards
the process.

There was no looking back from there. She went ahead to do her Masters in Bio Diversity Conservation and Management at Oxford (on a Commonwealth Scholarship, nonetheless), and came back to do more work in the country. When she moved with her husband to Goa, she began her work with the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), which opened her up to a whole new spectrum of bio-diversity with coasts and oceans, and the lack of public awareness and attitudes towards it.

That, along with her early take away from AHP, led her to start Terra Conscious in 2017 with her husband. The impact that she has been able to successfully create is twofold — it’s not just the eco-conscious experiences that Terra is able to bring to the table, but it’s also helping them fund their activities to educate boat operators, tourists, policy makers and the general public about marine wildlife and the related conservation issues. “It gives our boat operator partners a higher revenue , thereby helping them see the potential for responsible tourism and engaging with conscious travellers, which is a growing audience today,” she tells me.

There is a long way to go in understanding the environmental diversities not just in Goa, but across India and its varied terrains and climates. But what makers of policy are repeatedly failing to focus on — despite their pride in knowing the full form of the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) — spaces like Terra Conscious are now trying to bridge.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the moral of the story is clear: the next time I make a break up trip to Goa, I d(r)own my sorrows in learning more about the seas. The alcohol can wait at the shores for later.

Paalaguttepalle: A Story Of Women With Will, Working In Solidarity
I think I am simultaneously entertained and bored by people (men) who claim to be working, more recently, towards “making women financially independent.” Most times they are fumbling, trying to fit women in project plans that have nothing to do with making lives any easier for the female lot. All the other times they are busy trying to tell the women around them what they should be doing, because that’s how their own mothers did it. It’s like an Indian middle class marriage gone wrong, but just in a professional set-up.

So when I hear of women who work together, in no particular hierarchical set up, and with zilch thanks to give to any “job creating” higher-ups, I am fascinated.

A quick search on the internet tells me that there are no decent roads to the dalit hamlet of Paalaguttapalle in Andhra Pradesh. Yet, there are about nine women who sew, screen print, and deliver hundreds of bags every week to the nearest post office at Tirupati (roughly 85kms away from their village), for it to be distributed across the world. The women don’t work under an NGO, neither get any State funding for what they do. They do what they know best, they learn from each other. And with the help of a few volunteers in the social development sector, they sell their bags.

It’s so simple and straightforward, that my urban brain can’t fully fathom it. There is much to unlearn.

Aparna Krishnan, one of the key volunteers of the Paalaguttapalle bags project, has seen this initiative evolve since its inception in 2016. “Dalitwada (as its otherwise known), had other issues when we first moved to the place in 1995 — like schooling, health and water harvesting,” she tells me. Aparna, a software engineer herself, came to the hamlet to support the community with its various issues. With drought hitting Andhra Pradesh between 2010 to 2015, the 60-odd families of Paalaguttapalle lost their jobs as farmers with land owners around their hamlet, leaving the community and volunteers like Aparna with a new problem to face. The women of Paalaguttapalle rose to the occasion — they had mouths to feed after all. Some knew to stitch through a few government training programmes, and some others learnt from them. They sourced tailoring machines and started stitching bags. Aparna and her friend put them up on the internet, got them their first order, and put their bags up on Facebook soon after. Some other friends joined in later to help them with designing and screen printing to increase the saleability of their products.

Today, Paalaguttapalle bags have gone international across UK, US and Canada. The bags are eco-friendly, help the women make about `5,000 to `6,000 each, and have gotten them invited to various meets in places like Goa and Bangalore.

Of course, not all is hunky dory — just a subjective development to what wasn’t. “The money these women make is just about enough to meet their daily expenses,” Aparna tells me. “When health issues come up — and they do — they still struggle. There are no contingencies,” she explains. Malnutrition among the children of Paalaguttapalle has always been a concern, and given the lack of access to affordable holistic medical treatments, this concern has not particularly gone away yet.

But here is the good news: as the word spreads, so do the number of orders increase. The women last year were able to save up money and buy themselves bits of gold — “just about enough to be sold for a few thousands, when in need.” Owing to their popularity, albeit among a small market, they have now diversified to making pickles as well.

So far, good enough — is what I understand of my interaction with Aparna. Just like her, the women of Paalaguttapalle don’t particularly see why any of this needs celebration. Positive acknowledgement, maybe. But otherwise, this is an activity of need, not necessity.

It reminds you to remember that ‘entrepreneurs’ are just a word apart from the rest, when language becomes the politics of privilege. Everyone else is just finding ways to live.

Bleeding Red — The Cloth Pad Revolution Under Its Way With Eco-Femme
There is something so potent about women who repeatedly and consistently put a finger in the eye of the establishment to remind them that gender equality doesn’t need intervention — it needs empowerment. It needs women and other genders to ask critical questions to themselves and the communities they work and live in.

But maybe ‘intervention’ and ‘infrastructure’ are also a linguistic trope in trying to push sugar-coated patriarchy?

When Kathy Walkling came to Auroville almost three decades ago, she literally ‘bumped into’ something that changed her view of developmental approaches in gender empowerment — the cloth pad. As a foreigner, coming in from Australia, of course the understanding of the community’s cultural history would always remain as external knowledge she could empathise with, but never live as an experience — so the journey has been quite a rickety one for Kathy in her beginnings.

Why do I write of her? Because after two decades of working in trying to bring back cloth pads to the Indian menstruating culture to uphold the sustainability of it all, I too am now a user of Kathy’s Eco-Femme cloth pads; stitched, designed and distributed across India and abroad by the women of Auroville and the villages nearby. And there is much more to Eco-Femme than just the climate-clean angle to it. “Cultural differences are real. Of course many women now know of the menstrual cup and tampons, but how many women are fully comfortable using them? Apart from this, there is a massive caste and gender polity that needs to be looked into, as well with what is in access, which often time goes unseen,” Kathy tells me. And I find myself agreeing with her, given my own experiences with menstrual cups and the general hesitancy I was met with from my family, let alone my own paranoia. Cloth pads seemed perfect, but — and there is always a ‘but’ with menstruation even among female bodied members, the sole owners of this process — isn’t hygiene why we ditched cloth pads to begin with?

“This is true, even when we started our initial analysis of acceptance; hygiene was one of our main concerns. But this wasn’t something that couldn’t be overcome,” Kathy tells me. Simple directives in washing and drying would be enough to address this. Each set of pads from Eco-Femme, if maintained properly, can last up to three years or more.

The thing about Eco-Femme’s model of taking cloth pads into rural communities is fascinating —because it’s not interventionist, it’s educationist. “From what we studied in rural and semi-urban regions is that almost 50% of the women were using disposable pads. When, almost twenty years ago, we started doing our work out of a small lemonade-sized store, we approached women to ask them to give the product an opportunity. Once they found that they were comfortable with the pads, that it saved them money (and from rashes!), they seemed to be switching to it sooner than we had anticipated,” she explains.

Team Eco-Femme even went a step further in understanding cultural restraints women may have to face with these pads. As it turns out, one of the biggest anxieties were to dry these pads in public. “So we dabbled with four different designs, of which two were immensely relevant to more conservative communities. One was the foldable pad that could be folded to look like a handkerchief and then dried. Two was a pad with a hip thread, because we realised that not a lot of women were comfortable wearing panties, post pregnancies especially,” I am told.

It’s heart-warming to see how much the requirements of different women with different realities have been taken into account in the making of Eco-Femme’s products. But ten years ago, despite all the proof of evidence Kathy had with her, she was seen suspiciously at forums when she had finally decided to turn this into a social enterprise. Despite the fact that this created viable livelihood options for women at the grassroots, apart from its climate-centric impact, economic relevance, and menstruation-friendly comfort, going back to cloth pads seemed like taking ten steps backwards. “Everyone saw market in cheap disposable pads. It did take some time, and still takes quite some, to bring in visibility for cloth pads,” Kathy says.

Kathy also tells me that though Eco-Femme has a 100% female work-force, this has not been intentional. “I think it takes some time for men to understand that the heart in the products lie in its usability, not in its revenue generation.” Not that Kathy discounts the need for the pads to sell to sustain Eco-Femme, but then again she is a self-confessed social worker who acknowledges that she possesses no acumen for business, whatsoever. Times have obviously changed, and attitudes have evolved. More recently Kathy has seen men take an active part in spreading the word around, becoming ambassadors of Eco-Femme. It’s a promising time.

Eco-Femme also partners with other organisations to train them and take the cloth pad revolution forward — “competition is not a factor here at all, the more this scales up responsibly and effectively, the better it is for the women across the world,” Kathy tells me. The ‘Pad for Pad’ and ‘Pad for Sisters’ initiatives are the organisation’s other attempts to educate girls and women from rural spaces about cloth pads and providing it to them customised, upon their full choice, either absolutely free of cost or at really subsidized rates.

It seems to me like there is a revolution under way — and it is demanding that our bloods not be made blue for it.