It was an ingenious move by the Ahmedabad cops towards containing the crime of bootlegging—a team led by a female police officer would ingratiate themselves with the woman bootleggers from the Chhara community.
The Chharas concentrated on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, were one of the 198 tribes, identified by the British as a criminal tribe under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which was later repealed.
While the Chharas are not found involved in violent crimes, they are engaged in brewing illicit liquor besides thieving and shoplifting. Many times, even the female members of the families are involved in these nefarious activities.
The involvement of women in bootlegging flummoxed IPS officer Mr Samsher Singh, and upon a conversation with some, he discovered the secret.
“We could sense that these people, especially women, in this field, are not because of their choice, but because they don’t have other economic options. Additionally, many of them are widows who have to make a living out of this activity. When we asked them, they said they didn’t want to remain in bootlegging and were willing to change ways. This inspired us.”
Mr Singh initiated the Suraksha Setu programme, a state-wide public outreach programme of the State’s Home department, which enables cops to go beyond the traditional role of solving crimes, by bridging the gap with the society and by creating a feeling of trust among residents with their proactive and prompt actions. The project intends to give a human face to the police force and minimise the incidents of crime.
Eventually, the Ahmedabad police decided to cover these women under the Sakhi Sahay programme under the Suraksha Setu project. The project aims at restorative justice and seeks to rehabilitate women, improve their health and hygiene, empower them and to wean them off criminal activities.
Life changed for these women when the police charted out a vocational training programme under the Sakhi Sahay Project.
The team was led by Manjeeta Vanzara, Assistant Commissioner of Police. Manjeeta and Ms Arpita Vyas, who heads an NGO called Wings2Fly, plunged headlong into the task of rehabilitating the women.
“The one constant I had to keep in mind was that the women were forced to turn to bootlegging out of economic compulsions. Many were even the breadwinners of the family as their husbands fell prey to drinking. They are not the hardened criminals. I had to step into the shoes of a facilitator, a departure from the role of a cop who would track crime, collect evidence and send the culprit to prison” says Manjeeta.
To begin with, she acquired a space in the Kubernagar Police station itself and got the rooms renovated for training the women.
Working in close collaboration with Wings2Fly, the project got rolling in 2013, and the women were trained in tailoring, jewellery making, papier mache, handicrafts and beauty and wellness.
“Thus far we have imparted vocational training and bought 200, of them in the mainstream with an eye on giving them gainful employment, cover them under government schemes and improve other indicators of standard of living. It has brought stability to their lives as they have now grown into self-sufficient artisans,” informs Arpita.
Manjeeta and Arpita worked tirelessly, and also approached reputed corporate houses under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, for financial support.
The duo’s efforts received a positive response. Godrej Saloon(i) partnered with Wings2Fly to train about 150 women in beauty and wellness. Urban Clap also hired some women from the centre and made them a part of its workforce.
Additionally, Larsen and Toubro and the Rotary Club Metro Ahmedabad support the ongoing manufacturing unit that makes fully bio-degradable sanitary pads made of banana leaves. The duo also received support from Tata Trusts.
Arpita also runs medical camps for women and activity centres for the children from Chhara families.
The whole project was indeed a godsend for the poor women as they never expected the police to come to their aid.
Says Shobha Ghamde, “I took to making liquor to educate my kids, to cater to their basic needs and save for their marriage. It became a compulsion after the death of my husband. When the police approached us to join the training classes, I readily agreed. Today, it has given me a life of dignity and respect. The police has also supported my family and me in times of medical emergency.”
Another beneficiary Meena Indrekar, 35, took to brewing illicit liquor as her husband could not get a job even after graduating from college. “My husband turned into a drunkard, and I had to take care of the family with five daughters. When the police approached me for the training classes, I chose stitching. I learnt several techniques of stitching. They also gave me a sewing machine.”
The activists ensure that the beneficiaries do not relapse into their old ways for which they have to find new ways of engaging them.
“Much yet remains to be done though. The shift cannot be achieved overnight,” feels Arpita.
Having trodden the unbeaten path, the Sakhi Sahay project of the Ahmedabad cops undoubtedly remains a shining beacon of woman empowerment.
For any inquiries about the project, please visit here or contact Arpita Vyas at 7567993633.