President of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Roopa Mehta is thoroughly disillusioned with the Indian government. “It just doesn’t have its ear to the ground. They’re talking about being atmanirbhar (self-reliant) but they do not engage NGOs that have demonstrated great impact in the communities they work in. They are offering loans, but that will only push poor farmers and weavers further into debt traps and poverty. The COVID relief package is just pomp and show. It’s cruel to raise people’s hopes like that.”
It’s no small charge from a woman who has spent the better part of her life working towards the upliftment of India’s textile weavers and craftspersons. Since the mid-1980s, Roopa has spearheaded the Kolkata-based Sasha Association for Craft Producers.
The NGO has impacted lakhs of lives working as a development and marketing organistion for over a hundred groups of disadvantaged producers and artisans from rural and semi-urban pockets of northeast India, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and other states.
They focus on capacity building, technical assistance, design inputs, and product development while also keeping the social development of the workers needs in mind.
When Fair Trade Forum India was initiated in 2000 to promote fair-trade principles and practices to ensure ethical production and fair wages, Sasha was one of its seven founder members.
As president of the platform, Roopa attended conferences worldwide, understanding the logistics and challenges faced by artisans and craftspersons in developing countries around the world. In September 2019, she was announced president of WFTO after an election held in Peru.
Soon after she took over, the pandemic struck a crushing blow to India’s textile industry, and retail dropped to zero. “Initially, buyers contributed to workers’ welfare by crowdfunding and buying items like masks from our online stores,” she says, referencing an order of 30,000 masks that Sasha got recently from a fair-trade buyer for free distribution in artisan villages.
“With the support of our buyers, we took care of our artisans by providing relief through funds for essentials. At this time, there were also orders that gave work and income to home-based artisans. We hoped we would recover our losses,” she says.
But as the lockdown wore on, Roopa’s hope for the community diminished. “Very few organisations are working for the benefit of migrant workers. Groups associated with Sasha were still better off during lockdown. But that didn’t happen everywhere.”
Roopa believes policymakers need to think seriously about this sector, and how much potential it has to contribute to India’s GDP. “The pandemic made it clear what our priorities are, who has profited and who is suffering the most. We have enough plans to reach the moon and Mars, but how much do we invest on education and health? We need migrant labour to generate corporate profits, but what do we give them in return?” she asks.
Born in Patna where her mother was interning to be a medical doctor at the time, Roopa grew up in Delhi and graduated in Economics. After doing her Master’s in business management, she moved to Mumbai where she met her husband.
Having worked briefly with a fashion brand, she began researching Indian textiles and crafts and decided she wanted to help rural artisans reach bigger urban markets and earn better wages from their traditional crafts. That’s how she came across Sasha and the rest is history.
These days, the 68-year old mother of two and grandmother of four is at home in Kolkata with her husband – who, at 75, is retired and handles the kitchen very efficiently. She has a message for the government: “Give the textile sector a chance to recover. Don’t charge GST for a while; let them at least get back on their feet.”
Then in the next breath, she sighs, “Oh, I don’t know how and when it will ever get back up.” Even the ever-optimistic Roopa is hard-pressed for signs of hope.
First published in eShe’s September 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control