URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti
For the MSID fall semester in India, “Community Internship in the Global South” field placement, Erik and I have been placed with URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti, an NGO that works in Western Rajasthan. URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti is part of the URMUL family, which consists of 8 URMUL organizations. In 1988 the late Sanjay Ghosh was a student at the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) in Anand, Gujarat. His IRMA field placement at that time was with the government organization, URMUL, which stands for Uttari (Northern) Rajasthan Milk Union Limited. After joining URMUL, he started URMUL Rural Health Research and Development Trust. Through URMUL Trust, Sanjay Ghosh-ji created and began training programs for local community members. After their training with Sanjay Ghosh-ji, these trainees went on to found seven non-governmental development organizations.
URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti, which in English means URMUL Desert Weaver Development Organization, was founded on 30, January 1991 by Ramchandra Barupal, Chetan Ram Barupal, Rewata Ram Panwar, Bhera Ram Juiya and Surjan Ram Jaipal. The five founding members are weavers from the Meghwal community (a scheduled caste) of Phalodi and Pokaran. URMUL Samiti began as an Income-Generation Program during a time of severe drought in the region. The other organization in the URMUL family are URMUL Seemant, which works on border and migrant issues in Bajju, Bikaner; URMUL Jyoti, which works on eye-care work in Nokha, Bikaner; URMUL Setu in Lunkaransar, Bikaner; URMUL Khejadi in Jayal, Nagore; URMUL Marushakti Sansthan in Sujangarh, Churu; and URMUL Shanti Maitri Mission in Pughal, Bikaner. The URMUL family has annual meetings and share similar values and missions, but each organization operates as a separate entity based on their location and developmental focus.
URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti has three offices: Pokaran, Phalodi and Jaisalmer. We were first introduced to the organization and URMUL Samiti staff at Pokaran. All of the URMUL Samiti staff was gathering at the Pokaran campus for a month-end meeting. The objective of the month-end meeting is to update everyone in the organization on the on-going projects and progress in the field and to propose future course of action and work. During this two-day meeting, Erik and I were able to see the functioning of the organization. We observed that in the meeting hall and in the mess hall everyone sat together, regardless of caste, class or status in the organization. While there is an URMUL cook, everyone is responsible for washing their own dishes and staff members are conscious to share and distribute food and chai to everyone. The organization is headed by three of the founding members, Surjan Ram-ji, Bhera Ram-ji, and Rewata Ram-ji, but they sat on the floor in the meetings and ate with everyone as equals. During the meetings everyone sat in a circle facing one another and open discussion was encouraged and allowed. Everyone, from the drivers to the cooks to the weavers to the field workers joined together in the meeting sessions. We also observed a very interesting and beautiful custom that URMUL Samiti has, which is to sing at the beginning of every meeting and also every time the meeting reconvenes after chai breaks or lunch break. At night URMUL staff joined together to sing traditional songs and play traditional instruments. We have observed that preserving and maintaining culture is a very important part of this organization.
At the Pokaran campus we were given a tour of the weaving and dying training center. When URMUL Samiti was created in 1991 it was with the purpose of reviving and creating a market for the traditional weavers from the Meghwal community of Phalodi and Pokaran. In 1994, after an outbreak of malaria, URMUL Samiti extended its efforts to support development work for weaving and non-weaving families in the region. Since that time URMUL has been dedicated to working for the development of the vulnerable and marginalized, especially Dalits, women and children. This commitment is evident in URMUL Samiti’s mission, which is ,“To bring together the local people, to empower them and make them aware of their rights, and to participate actively in all spheres of their development and build their capacity to conserve and develop the traditional art.”
Current URMUL Samiti programs are: income generation through weaving, comprehensive eye services, village resource centers, a library program, child rights activism, water harvesting, disaster preparedness and risk reduction, a computer lab, birth registration, Panchayat Resource Center, Dalit development and advocacy, horticulture and agriculture programs, and women’s Self-Help Groups. An extension of these programs has been a female feticide prevention initiative that took place in Jaisalmer from January 2006-July 2008. For all of these programs, URMUL Samiti has both national and international supporters, such Save the Children, Finland; Save the Children, UK; OXFAM India Trust; Room to Read; Plan International (India Chapter); and USAID.
As we learned at the October month-end meeting in Pokaran, URMUL staff works either at one of the offices or in the field throughout the year. Sometimes conferences or workshops are held at one of the offices. At the Pokaran campus there is a weaving training center, dyeing center, and showroom that are always in operation. Since Phalodi is the main office, that is where the main offices are located. The Phalodi campus also houses eight of the URMUL staff families, including Surjan-Ram’s, Bhera-Ram’s, and Rewata Ram’s families. An URMUL brochure states, “In scores of poor homes in villages where weaving had been facing extinction, the looms are busy again, providing a livelihood. UMBVS campuses in Phalodi and Pokaran provide space for training, storage, dyeing, display and sales, besides modest residential facilities and a platform for community activities.” We were told that weavers initially receive 60% from each product sold, and then at the end of the year all of the year-end profit is distributed among the weavers. The other 40% goes to the designers, sewers and development programs.
Erik and I spent our first two weeks with URMUL Samiti at the Jaisalmer office working with Maga-Ram, Vuta-Ram and Vimla-ji. Our days consisted of traveling to villages to talk with men and women about issues surrounding female feticide. We discussed marriage, dowry, women’s rights, education, boy and girl births, culture, and community. The Jaisalmer office is not currently in operation because the Save the Girl Child initiative that URMUL was working with only ran from January 2006-July 2008. Even though the official timeline for this work has been completed, URMUL staff still maintains relationships and connections with the communities and villages that were organized around this issue. After two weeks of these field surveys, we moved to the Phalodi campus. The past three days we have spent attending a teacher-training workshop led by URMUL Samiti and Room to Read staff. During these next 15 days at Phalodi we will make field visits to see the work done in the areas of weaving, horticulture and agriculture, water harvesting, education and child rights.
I have been very impressed with URMUL Samiti as an organization and with each of the staff members for their dedication, passion, and commitment to their communities, traditions, and development. They have obviously taken very vital and grassroots steps to work for the maintenance and revitalization of traditional craft as well as the implementation of integral and holistic developmental initiatives in their communities. However, there are some areas for improvement. For example, out of the 60+ staff members, only about 7 are women. In addition to this, the majority of the weavers that the organization works with are men. While there are some initiatives for women’s empowerment, this is not shown in the make-up of the organization itself. I also think that there are issues of sustainability for many of the URMUL projects. For example, URMUL gives the weavers the dyed cotton and wool that is used for weaving. They are also given looms. This makes me wonder if income generation program that URMUL is undertaking could be sustainable without URMUL’s presence in the communities. In addition to that, the cotton comes from a mill in New Delhi, and I think it would be more beneficial or the weavers, the earth, and purchasers to use organic cotton, or to be connected to or start a sister cotton-milling organization.
In conclusion, Erik and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time and work with URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti. We have seen that all of the staff is actively working for improvement and development in the communities they serve. URMUL does a good job of talking with and listening to community members’ needs and then responding with comprehensive and holistic programs. URMUL has made remarkable strides in reviving an important and beautiful artisan tradition and has created both a national and international market for their products. However, there are places for improvement, especially around the issues of sustainability and gender equality. I look forward to learning from the second half of this field placement.