By Sapna Dogra Singh
“I believe women’s true emancipation lies in their financial independence,” says Rachna Dushyant Singh, a dynamo who wears several hats. She is the founder of Ankuri, a nonprofit for women empowerment, and Pure Hands, a for-profit social entrepreneurship.
In addition, she runs Thikana Foothills – a scenic homestay in the hills – at Dehradun in Uttarakhand. She is also a former teacher of linguistics and travel-tour industry professional among other things.
Financial emancipation for rural women was always on Rachna’s mind, which resulted in the foundation of Ankuri (Agency for Non-Konventional Urban and Rural Initiatives) in 2004 to make women from neighbouring villages in Bharatwala self-sufficient through a unique sustainable knitting programme.
“Knitting is therapeutic and it really helps the mental health of these women along with giving them a regular income,” says Rachna, sharing that the livelihood knitting programme started in 1999 with five women from the village who could knit.
“I used to stock up all the finished items in my mother’s garage since we didn’t have many buyers then,” Rachna recalls. She persisted, however, and founded the social enterprise Pure Hands to sell the knitted goods, which include colourful hand-knitted jumpers, mufflers, skirts and gloves. She began showcasing the finished woollen items at exhibitions and was able to tie up with the famous Indian chain Fabindia for retail and distribution.
At present, over a hundred women from 16 neighbouring villages have been able to generate a regular source of income from Ankuri’s knitting programme. The women also engage with customers and manage the operations. “They are running the centre themselves with a sense of ownership,” Rachna informs proudly.
The organisation not only imparts training in knitting skills but also instils confidence in women to take calls in important family matters related to education and health of their children. Women here are now aware of their rights, Rachna says.
“The idea was to be able to stay in the village and see how we can help,” says Rachna, who started a literacy programme for children as well.
Since she was not herself trained to teach children, she came up with the idea of having volunteers come and teach, for which she leveraged her networking skills. She got young students from both Indian and international institutions such as National Institute of Fashion Technology, and Princeton, Harvard and Michigan universities among others, as interns and trainers.
“The students get the exposure to rustic Indian life and the womenfolk at Ankuri get the best of training in designs and communication skills,” says Rachna.
Ankuri and Pure Hands centres are located at the Thikana complex in Bharatwala spread over 5.5 acres where Rachna also runs a homestay along with managing a 12-room boutique hotel called Tree of Life in the pristine lush green foothills in Dehradun.
While one is impressed by the work done by the women in the centre, the beautiful picture-perfect location takes one’s breath away.
Interestingly, the entire location – which now hosts the training centre, Pure Hands, homestay and the hotel – was a tough mountain terrain in ruins with no access road. The hillock was an ancestral property that belonged to Rachna’s maternal great grandfather, which was transferred to her in 1999.
“There were a few structures in ruins,” Rachna says. At that time, her son was six years old while the daughter was only a year old. “I used to come to the village regularly, just to spend some time, since I was nursing our daughter,” she recalls. Rachna decided to make that piece of land worth living.
Having travelled all across the country with her father who was in the Army and then with her husband who was also in the armed forces, Rachna was acquainted with different cultures and lifestyles, but working for women in her birthplace in Uttarakhand was her true calling.
“I always wanted to come back to my roots and do something for the community, so I was determined,” she says, adding that she was greatly influenced by her mother and grandmother who were independent and strong-willed women. “I have the ability to visualise and I am not afraid of hard work.”
But nobody imagined that Rachna would turn this place around into a beautiful resort. “Almost everybody dissuaded me when I started the construction work here,” says Rachna, adding that she feels vindicated when the same people who criticised her now come to spend time in the Thikana complex.
At 59, when most people would just hang up their boots to lead a relaxed life, Rachna is unstoppable. The feisty entrepreneur has already chalked out new plans, which include pursuing a PhD to fulfil her personal ambition along with starting natural farming to produce pesticide-free and toxin-free food.
Just WOW 😯 Salute the feisty entrepreneur & changemaker! 👏👏👏