"2015,” said a member of staff at Shared Earth recently, "is all about being positive.” I’m not sure if this is a genuine trend but I want to make it one! We’ve had years of recession. Well I for one have decided that the worst IS over and I am going to MAKE 2015 a better year.
I’d like to tell you the story of one of our suppliers in India. The people who started it were at the very bottom of society – I don’t just mean badly off, I mean just about as badly off as they could get. They were street children living on New Delhi railway station. About 300,000 children roam and work the streets of New Delhi. They come from all over the country, mostly from rural India. Some have run away from abuse at home; others are lured by the glitz and glamour of the big city.
When they arrive, the fight for survival begins. At railway stations and bus terminals, typical entry points for most of them, girls are often picked up and forced into becoming sex workers. Boys start by finding petty work in exchange for food. They work at the bottom of the station’s jungle hierarchy, which consists of corrupt police, porters, snack vendors, drug peddlers and the assorted group of people you always find in such places, exploiting and abusing these children for their advantage or personal pleasure. It is common knowledge that all young children living in and around the station are regularly sodomised, in return for buying some kind of security, food or possibly just one more day’s survival. The struggle is harshest for the younger children, some of whom are as young as three or four.
This particular group of children decided to act; they call themselves ‘Karm Marg’, the path of action. With the help of a local social worker, they set up a small kitchen on a nearby street to prepare food for the children living there. In 1997 they found the back-room of a house to use as a day-care centre. They had weekly meetings, dealing with problems on the platform; soon about 35 of them were sleeping in the backyard of the house. They asked Veena (social worker) and Devendra (a photographer friend) to look for something more permanent. Devendra continues the story: "eventually we managed to find a room we could have permanently, about 40 kilometres from New Delhi. It would give them security, especially the younger ones. Some of them were interested in studying. We borrowed 5,000 Rupees (£60), hired a van, and moved out there.
"In the morning when I woke up all the kids had gone! I found them running about in the open fields like wild horses. They were free! There were no more adults bossing them around or threatening them any more. They were laughing and shouting with joy.
"That winter they all slept hugging each other because they didn’t have any warm clothes, and kept getting up and moving round to keep warm. We started getting donations but we didn’t want donations to pay for our everyday expenses. We bought some sewing machines and the older boys learnt how to make jute bags. We also made bags from recycled newspapers, greetings cards, even pottery. We raised R45,000 (£560) at a stall – it was unbelievable!
"By 2000 we were able to buy an acre and a half of farmland. The kids were involved with every aspect of it, starting with the design. The older ones helped with the construction, while the younger ones did things like planting trees. We moved in, with 48 kids, in 2002.
"The kids are involved with everything – they even discuss things like the wages of the staff. It’s about taking responsibility. Even the youngest children have to look after their personal hygiene. Then as they get older, they receive training in things like carpentry, metal-work, stitching and so on – and they can help contribute to Karm Marg’s income as well as going to school.”
Initially, Karm Marg’s workshops were run by women from local villages, but now they are all run by older children – whose lives have been turned around completely, from no-hope to hope. Some have high ambitions. "I want to be a professional designer,” said Rumpi, 19, recently, who was managing the sewing workshop at the time. "Then I’m going to start my own boutique.” Other children want to be teachers, social workers and managers. Meeting them, you just know they are going to succeed.
Business is partly about making a living for yourself, and these kids have really proved that a positive attitude can get you out of the worst possible problems. Positivity is going to be the name of the game for us at Shared Earth this year. How can we fail, when one of our suppliers is setting us such a wonderful example?
Jeremy Piercy (MD)