“The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty, ignorance, disease and inequality of opportunity.” – Jawaharlal Nehru
It’s that time of the year, again. I am sipping tea with some banana walnut cake on the side, reflecting on the last three years. Yes, it has been three years! I quit my job on 14th August, 2015 – meri azaadi – to do whatever I wanted to professionally. Some of you reading this will already know, soon after I started working on SoCHE Foundation – marrying my passion and love for environment and handicrafts. For those of you who don’t know, SoCHE stands for Solutions for Clean and Healthy Environment.
I still remember sitting on the bedside, post the Environment Day in June 2015, discussing an idea with Sriskandh (my husband and subsequently SoCHE’s Co-founder). All I knew was I wanted to reduce pollution from pottery kilns in the city of New Delhi. Sriskandh liked the idea and without even batting an eyelid said, “Go for it.” Delhi in the following year became infamous for having the most polluted air in the world. News of Particulate Matter 2.5 going beyond 700 µg/m³ still makes news there.
Soon after, I identified Kumhar Colony in Uttam Nagar and Hastaal Village, near Najafgarh drain in Delhi to get the potters’ community need assessment done. The legal paper work for SoCHE was underway simultaneously to register it as a section 8 non-profit company. While students from Lady Irwin College became the researchers for that work; I also in parallel laid my eyes on Barmer – the place to uncover hidden treasures of the handicraft world. I travelled to the villages close up to the border areas and identified the hand embroidery called ‘Kalavat’ or ‘Mukke’ ka kaam. I knew then that this lesser known neighbor of Jaisalmer is going to be an important part of my life in the coming days.
Today, as I look back at this journey of:
- Zero income, literally!
- One TEDx talk (link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpdWf-2kR9k )
- Two published books (link here: https://www.amazon.in/Natures-Jamboree-DOODLES-Kanika-Pal/dp/B075H7C7HQ and https://www.amazon.in/Natures-Jamboree-Anthology-Childrens-Poetry/dp/9352073665)
- Three fashion shows taking the Barmer embroidery from the villages to the ramp, including that of India Runway Week (link of most recent one here: https://www.facebook.com/SoCHEfoundation/videos/1479058008818910/)
And in between several hit and trials of making an affordable energy efficient pottery kiln…
I have few gems of experience and learning’s that I would like to share with you, as I reflect today on the last three years –
- CHAMAK PAYEIN EKDUM MUFT, MUFT, MUFT!
I remember going to TIE-Con Delhi in early 2016 and seeing people running after investors as if they were serving free lunches by the roadside. I realized then that it so wasn’t my thing. If SoCHE has to grow, it will either to go through the traditional route of CSR and philanthropic funding – which means a wait period of three years as per law; or have a hybrid model where we are able to raise operational funds at least by sale of products or services. While we resorted to selling handicrafts and linking artisans to the market, of course it wasn’t enough. The operational costs could only be kept to a bare minimum if we attracted talent on a voluntary basis. There came in my first two lessons…
- Everything in life is not driven by money and power. Some of the best people on board at SoCHE are voluntary in nature and the best partnerships are in kind. Thanks to Sumit Sehgal, Founder, Butterfly and The Bee and Sudarshan KCherry, Founder and MD, AuthorPress India, we were able to make Nature’s Jamboree a success and even published two books that are available on Amazon. Nature’s Jamboree is SoCHE’s environment advocacy initiative with children and has thus far reached out to over 10,000 people in the last two years through art, culture and literature on environment.
2. It is your intent and leadership style that attracts people, be it in a for-profit or not-for-profit set up. These connections deliver truly on the ground – creating a cadre of well-meaning and driven people.
Soon enough in 2017, India Runway Week identified us and we delivered on two fashion shows back-to-back as part of its’ CSR showcase. We worked on the fashion shows without a professional designer, but straight from the heart. The women in Barmer embroidered tiger pug marks and other environment motifs and designs, while we got it stitched into garments at the local boutique shop. Few fashion experts did critique it for lacking highly professional design aesthetics, but for me – it was one of the best things I did without any training! I was fulfilling a passion and purpose while working on SoCHE’s mission, which simply was irreplaceable. Those garments were made on handloom and other sustainable fabric, bringing home the message of responsible and sustainable living, and were very much liked by the aam janta.
- DIL PE MAT LE YAR…
It is so important to view yourself exclusive of your title, designation and company. All of this is temporary in nature. Before I quit my job in 2015, I was very well recognised and applauded at my workplace. My seniors had groomed me for a leadership role. My past five years’ ratings were consistently ‘Excellent’. But once I got out of that comfort zone and quit, I remember many CSR teams of well-reputed companies being rude to my face. They assumed I was another NGO person seeking funds. Suddenly from a CSR professional who quit her job in 2015 at the very peak of her career to plunge into the realm of the ‘unknown’, I became another ‘NGOwali’. What a colossal disservice that attitude is still to many innovators around.
There came lesson number 3.
- Your true worth is in who you are as a person, and somewhere we misplace it in the glam and glitter of the salary package, promotion, and the brands we work for. SoCHE taught me this great lesson – not to take myself too seriously, and perhaps this is what I would like to urge many of you as well. We all need each other in one-way or the other. Let’s create an ecosystem that’s fresh and based on merit, and not on entitlement that comes with ‘a’ designation.
In hindsight, if some of the industry colleagues would have shed their high-headedness, perhaps together we could have mitigated the air pollution level for the potter families in Delhi – who now have been asked to completely shut shop by National Green Tribunal due to air pollution. Sometimes even an idea needs to be recognized and the process needs to be applauded. While people in India failed to recognize what we were trying to do in the potters’ community then, Asian Institute of Technology invited me to Thailand, to present my work to other social innovators in the region in 2017. Subsequently, I spoke at CII’s India@75, TEDx, IIT Delhi and many other prestigious forums and even wrote papers on it.
- ZINDAGI NA MILEGI DOBARA
My final lesson is that of gratitude. From 2015 – 2017 I worked very hard on my own self. I got back to yoga and subsequently graduated to doing hal and chakra asana, honed my pottery skills and in general just let life take its own course. When the “nation wanted to know” more and was busy heavily debating ‘intolerance’, my day-to-day reality comprised sitting with strangers in the Muslim villages in the interior of Barmer, understanding the beautiful cultural heritage of this country. I remember penning my thoughts even then (link here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/beyond-borders-kanika-pal/). I could see the dichotomy of perspective and the limitations that comes with a narrow approach towards life. I would come back to Delhi and interact closely with the potters community understanding how best we can create an energy efficient kiln together, weaving in their traditional knowledge and wisdom.
- I am, therefore, full of gratitude for this work-in-progress journey called SoCHE. I have been on the path of realizing my purpose and fulfilling my spiritual calling since three years now. Many of you kind people have made donations on the way, invested your time pro bono, made recommendations, bought products, given discounts on professional fee and connected us to more relevant people. SoCHE is still working without any funding. It will be completing three years of existence this October and will finally be eligible for CSR funding and hopefully greater opportunities it is worthy of.
It has started to rain now. And in between all of this, I just finished my banana walnut cake and true to my ‘hot and cold’ life lessons here, my hot tea too has become ice cold. Time to warm it up and enjoy a new sip. 🙂