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The liberator of Kumaoni women - Mukti Dutta

Datta decided to devote her life to social causes, and particularly those related to empowerment of women and the underprivileged, in the backward district of Kumaon.

Rishi Joshi | Print Edition: January 13, 2008

Mukti Datta - Secretary, Jan Jagaran Samiti
Mukti Datta
Passion, they say, can move mountains. And in this case, it did. In 1986, a 23-year-old lady from Binsar in Uttar Pradesh (now part of Uttarakhand) wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi urging him to take a personal interest in preserving the forests and wildlife in the region, which was under threat from the timber mafia and poachers. Impressed by the initiative taken by her, the Prime Minister responded to the letter personally, encouraging her to continue her campaign for the preservation of the unique bio-diversity in Binsar.

The young lady was Mukti Datta and Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention came as a big boost for her crusade to radically improve the situation in Binsar. Says Datta: “The Prime Minister’s intervention made all the difference and things started moving. It was then that I decided that I would fight to get Binsar notified as a wildlife sanctuary.”

Datta launched a massive signature campaign to press for her demands and got overwhelming support from the inhabitants of the region and the wildlife conservation lobby. To lead the initiative, she founded an NGO, Jan Jagaran Samiti (Society for the Empowerment of the Population), in 1987.

The objective was to involve the local population, particularly the villagers, in Binsar in her initiatives. Support came from the government slowly and in 1988, Jan Jagaran Samiti was given a grant of Rs 8 lakh for reforestation in Binsar. Her efforts were finally rewarded the following year; Binsar was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1989.

Turning point

Panchachuli cooperative - A lifeline for women
Panchachuli cooperative
This was also a personal turning point for Datta. She decided to devote her life to social causes, and particularly those related to empowerment of women and the underprivileged, in the backward district of Kumaon. Says Datta: “I told my parents that I would settle down in the region and work through Jan Jagaran Samiti. I was still young and fiery and wouldn’t hesitate to taking on people, particularly local politicians, if they crossed my path.” Datta’s background is interesting. She is half Indian and half Belgian and comes from an affluent family. Her mother Marie, a Belgian musicologist, came to Kumaon in 1956 to record folk music of the region for a UNESCO-sponsored project. Her father, Vivek Datta, a Punjabi, who had a construction business in Delhi, shifted base to Almora in the early ’50s to pursue academics (the city was then a centre of learning) after completing his PhD in Philosophy from the Hindu College.

Marie and Vivek met in Binsar, married and settled down there. Mukti was born in 1963, and spent her first 10 years growing up on a farm in the forest and going to a local school. Says Datta: “I grew up speaking Kumaoni, the local dialect, and understanding the culture and traditions of the region.” The young Mukti, who was subsequently sent to Jaipur to complete her schooling, returned to Binsar after completing her education and was immediately drawn into a battle with the timber mafia— a nexus of contractors, bureaucrats and politicians.

Dena Hospital in Almora provides medical facilities at subsidised rates
Dena Hospital in Almora
A single event was to change the course of her life. Says Datta: “One day, I saw a big party of hunters with the carcass of a deer. All the hunters were forest department officials. I was appalled and decided not to go to Oxford for further studies as I had planned, but, instead, work for saving the Binsar forest.”

Datta’s Jan Jagaran Samiti slowly expanded its scope of activities. One of its major projects was the establishment of a Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre in Almora’s Baldhoti district in 1989. Moved by the plight of lepers in Almora, Datta approached the district administration with a proposal to improve their economic condition. She asked the authorities for land to set up a centre where lepers would be provided food and shelter and training at spinning and weaving tweeds.

Datta found an ally in the District Magistrate of the time, Keshav Desiraju, who allotted her the land. There were, however, other obstacles; Jan Jagaran Samiti still had to raise funds for the intitiative. Says Datta: “I had to tap family and friends, besides grants from the government, to provide the inmates of the centre food, medical care and training.”

The centre, which initially started with about 20 leprosy patients, today houses 60. And it has made a difference to the lives of the inmates; many have even married other patients and started families. Their children, too, are being looked after. Says Rajendra Arya, Manager, Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre: “The children of patients go to private English schools, and the expenses are borne by Jan Jagaran Samiti.” Little wonder then that Datta is worshipped by the inmates who are full of stories of her generosity and big heart. An inmate says: “She is like God for us,” while another tells you how Datta always helps them when they need money for treatment or for the marriages of their children.

Empowering women

 Datta’ s journey

  • Early education in Binsar, a remote pocket of Kumaon
  • Completes schooling from Jaipur, Rajasthan
  • Rises to prominence in 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi supports her initiative to make Binsar a wildlife sanctuary
  • Sets up Jan Jagaran Samiti in 1987 to fight for the socio-economic empowerment of Kumaoni women
  • Starts Panchachuli Women Weavers’ Cooperative in the late ’90s
  • Establishes Dena Hospital at Almora in 2002
  • Has set up seven schools at Almora over the last five years 
But the most ambitious project undertaken by Jan Jagaran Samiti is the one to empower the women of Kumaon by imparting vocational skills in the production of woven and knitted products. Datta, during her interactions with the numerous local tribes, discovered that the Bhotiyas, based in and around Munsiyari, a small town near the Tibetan border, had a cottage industry in weaving.

The Bhotiya women were skilled at weaving pashmina shawls, wool fabrics, carpets and blankets. The women in Binsar, by contrast, depended on subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry for their living. Says Datta: “Women in the hills lead narrow, closed and oppressed lives. They are also often victims of domestic violence. I was wondering how I could do something that would enable them to earn a better livelihood and also empower them socially.”

Jan Jagaran Samiti started work on a project to impart training in spinning and weaving with the help of the Bhotiya tribeswomen. However, once again financial constraints came in the way—the proposed training programme and the building of infrastructure to mass produce and then market the products required deep pockets. It appeared to Datta and her team that her project might be stillborn until fate intervened. Dena Kaye, daughter of Hollywood star Danny Kaye, was in India in 1997 to look for projects to fund through UNICEF. She met Datta through a common friend and was impressed with what she saw of her work. Result: she offered to fund her “dream project”.

Kaye pledged $1 million to the Samiti in 1998 and it was used by Datta over the next few years to set up Panchachuli Women Weavers’ Cooperative, which would transform the lives of hundreds of women in Kumaon district. Datta got skilled weavers from Munsiyari to train women around Binsar.

Groups of 20-30 women trainees were formed in 30 villages. Village houses were rented as training centres and raw material was procured in bulk. Local carpenters made looms and spinning wheels using traditional designs and soon, the training programme was on in full swing.

The two production centres she set up can accommodate a workforce of about 600, and the merchandise was (and is) marketed under the Panchachuli brand name. Says Datta: “Panchachuli is a recognised brand name now and stands for women’s empowerment.”

One of Jan Jagaran Samitiís major projects was the establishment of a Leprosy
Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre in Almora
Panchachuli products are now being sold through four retail outlets in Almora, Nainital and Mussoorie. They are also being exported to Europe and the US, and the cooperative has held successful exhibitions in Delhi, Kolkata, Jaipur and other North Indian cities.

The project, which started with three women, now employs more than 700 women. Panchachuli has also become a self-sufficient project and funding from Kaye stopped completely in 2005.

Panchachuli is now a company registered under Section 25 of the Companies Act, which governs companies with a clear social objective and whose profits are utilised to further that objective. Says Pooja Mansoor, Director, Panchachuli Women Weavers’ Pvt Ltd: “She (Datta) is very good at people management.”Her work has not gone unnoticed. The state government and the district administration are now urging her to expand the scale of Panchachuli’s operations to provide employment to more women. Says Nidhi Mani Tripathi, District Magistrate, Almora: “The weavers’ unit has done commendable work. At least, another thousand women want to join Panchachuli. We have advised them to form cooperative societies and requested Panchachuli to train their staff and market their products.” Adds Datta: “They can function as independent producer companies affiliated to Panchachuli. We can help them with design, procurement of raw materials and marketing. And this can change the socioeconomic status of women in the region.”

Then, Jan Jagaran Samiti has other pet projects in Kumaon. In particular, it is focussing on providing healthcare services in the region through its hospital, Dena Hospital (funded, once again, by Dena Kaye) in Almora. Built on 25 acres donated to the Jan Jagaran Samiti by the gram sabha of the Matena village, the hospital provides medical facilities to more than 100 patients every day at subsidised rates (the services are almost free for BPL families). Says Datta: “There has been a deluge of people from remote areas flocking to the hospital for treatment.” The hospital is now expanding; it has recently added a surgery department with funding from the Tata Group.

 Future plans

  • Empower more women through self-sustaining cottage industries
  • Launch and run community health programmes
  • Provide quality health services in remote areas through Dena Hospital
  • Take Panchachuli to higher levels of excellence as a brand name
  • Ensure the active participation of the government in socio-economic uplift of women
Another thrust area for Datta is education. The Jan Jagaran Samiti has set up five primary schools and two junior high schools in the Almora district over the last five years. Datta’s model: build the basic infrastructure for these schools and then let them function independently as self-sustaining units. Says Datta: “The idea is to provide vocational training to students in areas like computer accountancy and textile designing so that they can stand on their own feet after completing schooling.”

Despite her growing stature in Uttarakhand, Datta has often found herself involved in controversies. Some people opposed to her allege financial mismanagement in her NGO and accuse her of promoting herself at the expense of her cause. Datta brushes asides these charges and says she has been at the receiving end largely because she has taken on vested interests in the system. But most concede that Datta’s social work has had a positive impact on the lives of several people. Says Padma Shri Lalit Pande, Director of Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi, a local NGO: “Datta is a go-getter and that’s why she can get things done.” And a go-getter with passion gets things done faster and better. And that, in a nutshell, sums up Datta.

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