top of page
SAHAS Team
Excerpt from an Interview with our Founder Sunita Palita
Read the Full Interview Here
Sunita, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. It’s always helpful to hear about times when someone’s had to take a risk – how did they think through the decision, why did they take the risk, and what ended up happening. We’d love to hear about a risk you’ve taken.

 

For close to twenty years, from the mid seventies to the early nineties, I had been working with various national and international organisations in the development sector, and was disillusioned with the system. International aid and local fundraising meant that there was limitless resource generation – millions, if not billions of dollars to go around – but the rich kept getting richer, and the poor kept getting poorer.

Add to that if you told anyone in the 80’s that you work in the development sector, you would often hear a remark suggesting that you must thus be earning a lot of money!

In other words, the 1980s was an era in which social development was fast gaining a notorious reputation of being a ‘for profit business avenue’, by the elite, for the elite. An exploitation of resources in the name of the underprivileged masses by the privileged few.

I constantly dreamt of a just and equal society where the gap between the “have’s and the have not’s” would vanish and human beings lived in harmony, sharing resources equitably.

(Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.)

I realised that within the development sector a paradigm shift was needed!

So I took a risk, and quit my high-paying job in the development sector and decided to start my own organisation that would truly be a paradigm shift in development work.

Thus was born SAHAS.

Sunita, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?

 

I started SAHAS (Social Action for Human Aid & Solidarity), as an independent non-profit social development organisation in New Delhi, India, in 1995 with a group of professionals from different disciplines. Our vision was to provide equal access to quality education to underprivileged children and dignified employment opportunities to women – driving marginalised families towards upward mobility – and achieve all this without any monetary donations.

In the last 29 years hundreds of marginalised individuals and families have benefited through the work at SAHAS.

SAHAS India is built on the Vedic philosophical ideal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ – the world is one family – through a grassroots developmental model that was unique for its time, which is best described as Local Area Networking (LAN) – my own version of ‘crowdfunding’ before the term existed.

Keep in mind that the entire functioning of SAHAS was without any monetary donations. This meant that at every step of the way, for any and all needs of the organisation, someone had to be contacted and convinced to help with the resource required directly. This meant that for everything that the organisation needed to exist – everything ranging from a small little pencil, all the way to the space we functioned in – was received as donation in ‘kind’, instead of ‘funds’.

When on the rare occasion some ‘cash’ requirement arose, it was taken care of through our LAN network – as i already mentioned, my own version of crowdfunding!

However, since 2015 SAHAS has been without active premises for its projects, as the free-leased space that SAHAS had operated from since 1995 had to be vacated at the request of the donor.

For the first 14 years SAHAS operated 3 distinct projects namely NEEV (Novel Endeavours in Educational Ventures), SATWIK (SAHAS Trained Women in Kitchen) and SWATI (SAHAS Women and Tailoring Initiatives).

NEEV which functioned until India enforced the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2009, sought to to integrate children from marginalised backgrounds with their privileged peers in high-quality education. SAHAS went on to achieve 100% scholarship for these children in mainstream public schools for the entire duration of 13 years of their education and the scholarship/freeship included tuition fee, bus fee, uniform, books, and other expenses.

In other words, once admitted, these children of daily wage labourers, domestic help staff, rickshaw pullers, unorganised sector workers, factory workers – these children could actually continue their schooling for 13 years, and didn’t need to drop out because their families could not pay for the expenses private public schooling demands.

 

Over 250 children, across 14 years, achieved academic parity with their privileged peers and eventually exhibited higher college attendance rates as compared to their marginalised peers from non-mainstream/ government schools, and eventually continue to achieve socio-economic stability with better employability prospects, well-adjusted socio-psychological development, and an overall healthier life with a self-reported sense of well-being and positive future prospects.

As of today SAHAS continues to run its other 2 projects SATWIK and SWATI:

SATWIK, a program that trains working class women to run kitchens for tiffin delivery services, grew organically from NEEV when we enabled the mothers of our enrolled students to use the NEEV school kitchen to prepare freshly made nourishing meals not just for their own children but also for paying customers in the neighbourhood. This became a source of additional income for women who otherwise earned a meagre living as cleaners and cooks in middle class houses. SATWIK flourished into a tiffin service supplying 100 lunches and 100 dinners cooked by the mother of the children, to the same ‘affluent’ homes they used to work in. The project of course was structured with a head chef, and all other requisite trained teams and structures, and continued to run the tiffin service for many years. It also evolved into a cafe for an interim few years by the name “What’s for Lunch”.

These women were now entrepreneurs and business owners!

Since 2015 when we had to give up our working space the SATWIK project evolved into a scaled down alternative model where the SAHAS women cook-up organic goodies, health foods and superfoods derived from the ancient wisdom of traditional Indian recipes from my own home kitchen. These recipes have a long shelf life, unlike cooked food for tiffins, and thus this is the only model that is currently sustainable.

SWATI, is a program that provides infrastructure and training in tailoring services. The SWATI project grew from acknowledging the tailoring skills already possessed by women associated with SAHAS. To give the best tailoring input to learners, teachers at SWATI were trained at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, which enhanced their employability at local boutiques and export houses. Today, several women trained by SAHAS run independent businesses, stitching cushion covers, cloth bags, and table linen for individual and bulk orders for offline sales which SAHAS enables through our network.

2015 onwards the SWATI project moved to my home portico/verandah. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown were extremely harsh on families from marginalised communities everywhere, as also the SWATI women. Quickly contextualising SWATI, machinery and materials were relocated and redistributed to the homes of the women who started making and distributing 3-ply washable cotton masks. Over the three years of the pandemic, approximately 50,000 masks were produced. All masks were environment friendly , re-usable and made as per WHO guidelines. Serving a dual purpose- the masks, a set costing INR 240, generated income for the women making them, and were distributed first to the most marginalised groups such as the homeless and daily wage earners through our networks.

SAHAS dubbed this initiative as a ‘pledge a mask’ drive, and hundreds of individuals from affluent backgrounds made pledges across a few hundred to a few thousand rupees. The initiative was a huge success – especially for the most marginalised as it provided a sustainable monthly income to run their homes.

Since their inception, SAHAS projects have successfully enabled high life satisfaction markers for these women, and their families, across development indices beginning with dignified employment – and thus economic stability and growth, agency, safety, health, psychological well-being and positive future prospects.

SATWIK and SWATI, our kitchen and fabric projects respectively, are functioning at a scaled down version for the past few years due to limitations of space, infrastructure and working capital. Post pandemic we also started providing a platform to SATWIK and SWATI women for selling their products online through our website sahasindia.org

With SWATI and SATWIK both running from my home premises alongside an e-shop that has enormous potential to help many more women multiply their earnings through larger markets, SAHAS India is at a critical crossroads. For the first time ever in its existence, SAHAS is seeking funding to consolidate, rebuild, and enhance its development efforts.

There is a lot more work that needs to be done to equip marginalised children and women with the resources to lead better, more economically empowered lives.

Please come forth and help SAHAS India to continue its mission of scalable development efforts at the grassroots.

bottom of page