Vibha Chugh decided to resign from her fast-paced corporate career a few years ago to be able to spend time with her daughter. Since she was spending close to 21 days travelling, the break did her a world of good. She was able to give her daughter the time that she needed.
When Vibha’s daughter turned nine that’s when she decided to re-enter the workspace. “I had given her three solid years of uninterrupted time. She had grown up and was starting to be independent. That was when I started looking for ways to start work again,” Vibha tells The Better India.
While the lure to go back to a secure corporate job was pushing her, she decided to find meaningful work.
“I started working with a group of underprivileged children in my locality whom I used to teach. It was also heartening to see close to 20 other women join me in this initiative. Unfortunately, COVID struck two years into this initiative and with the imposition of the lockdown, work came to a screeching halt,” she says.
After a very interesting few years of trying to find her true calling, in August 2020, Vibha launched Sakha Ek Pehel (Friend an Initiative) with five women from Nithari, Noida. These women knit and crochet various products that are shipped around the globe.
Today, not only does the organisation employ and empower 70 women but also feeds the voiceless.
‘The hungry howls of street dogs kept me up all night.’
“During COVID while there was almost a sinister silence that prevailed all around, the one thing that kept me awake most nights was the hungry howls of the street dogs. I started small by feeding around 10 dogs just outside my building and within a month that number grew to almost 200,” says Vibha. It did not end here, for Vibha says that soon she started feeling close to 50 cows and bulls as well.
While the initiative took off with Vibha’s husband funding her efforts, as the numbers started to rise exponentially, it became financially difficult. Vibha was spending close to Rs 30,000 per month on the feeding and medical expenses of the animals. “My husband supported me with up to Rs 25,000, but then it started becoming difficult for him as well,” she says.
“This is what got me thinking. I knew I was capable of starting a business that would help me continue. I knew I did not want to stop feeding the dogs. I had to find a way out,” she adds.
This quest led Vibha to meet the District Magistrate of Gautam Buddha Nagar, Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj. “He mentioned that on one hand the people of Nithari were dying of hunger and I was before him asking for help to feed the dogs. He mentioned that in such a situation to find ways of keeping up the feeding of the dogs would not be possible. It was the officer who urged me to find a solution to both problems,” she says. The officer also suggested that Vibha meets with the people in Nithari to find a viable solution to both problems.
With this in mind, Vibha visited the homes of women in Nithari and spent time understanding what their problems were.
“Many of the women I met had lost their jobs during COVID. They were mostly in various service roles; receptionists, housekeepers, nannies at playschools, etc. Being unemployed has led to various domestic issues as well. They needed jobs and I needed to find a way to feed the dogs,” she says.
There were many whose husbands, the sole breadwinner of the family had lost their jobs and that had plunged the family into desperate times.
While the government had initiated several schemes for those below the poverty line there was no aid provided to these women and families, who until COVID, were self-sufficient. “These women were neither in a position to go out and beg nor were they eligible for the government schemes. It was a very tough existence for them,” adds Vibha.
The Need to Earn with Dignity
Conversations with the women revealed that most of them were adept at crocheting and knitting. Vibha decided to work with their skill set and help them. “The only drawback was that they all knew only the very basics. While this was a challenge it wasn’t one that we could not work on. Having travelled a fair bit, I had seen the knitted products that were available in the European markets. I also had a fair sense of what they cost,” she says.
It was an idea that was born right there with five women of Nithari. Armed with a borrowed sum of Rs 30,000, Vibha started her organisation Sakha Ek Pehel (Friend an Initiative) in August 2020. “We launched our first product on 8 October 2020 and I still remember the excitement that surged through us,” she says.
Even though Vibha started this organisation and encouraged the women to crochet and knit, she says that she had only a very basic working knowledge. “I joined several online communities to learn more about it. I had to be proficient in it if I had to help others,” she says. Vibha would spend hours researching the new trends and designs that could be implemented.
Through all this, Vibha says that the one constant thought was how to feed more dogs.
“The idea of making dog sweaters came up one such day when I sat thinking about the dogs. I found that most dog sweaters were machine-made and I was offering handwoven sweaters. When launched, we found that they sold like hotcakes. We were also constantly improvising and also customising according to the needs of individual pets,” she says. From whatever money came in as earnings, Vibha says 70 per cent is earmarked for the welfare of the knitter and 30 per cent is kept aside for the street dogs.
Now, over 250 dogs are being cared for in Nithari.
Their range of products has also increased to include mufflers, beanies, mittens, caps, bikini sets, small toys for kids, beach slippers and even table mats.
The cost for a small dog sweater starts at Rs 900 and goes up to Rs 1,900 for a bigger dog. A combo pack of a muffler, a beanie and a mitten cost between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500, depending on the intricacy of the pattern.
‘Aise bhi jiya jata hain (Life can be lived like this also).’
Understanding the strain that knitting puts on the neck and shoulders, Vibha periodically organises medical camps and even yoga sessions for the women. “Besides giving them money we ensure that the children are enrolled in school, that their food is taken care of and all their medical requirements are also fulfilled,” she says.
“But it was challenging to get these women out of their homes,” says Vibha. Recalling an instance, she adds, “I had organised a dinner on Women’s Day in 2021 and to convince them and their husbands was a huge task. The women had never been allowed to step out on their own. This pushed me to change the plan. From a dinner plan, I moved it to an evening tea plan. This outing for many women was the first time they were stepping out to have a meal. It was a milestone for them,” she adds.
Draupadi, (40), one of the knitters and the manager at the organisation, says, “I have been associated with didi [Vibha] for two years now. I was a housewife before this. This is my first job and I never thought I would earn my own money. This has made me think independently and feel worthy. I tell my family that I am going to my office every morning when I come here.” Adding to this, Sanjeeda (42) says, “I feel nice being here. If I wasn’t working here I would have spent that time sleeping every afternoon, so all I lost was my sleep. In its place, I have got so much more – more than I can tell you.”
These women take pride in mentioning that the products they make get shipped to the US, Australia and Europe.
The doll that Sanjeeda is working on will be shipped to Australia while Kamla is busy knitting bikinis for another order that has been placed.
Each product is accompanied by a note that carries the name of the knitter and a small snippet of the story. “This allows those who buy the products to feel a sense of connection with the knitters,” says Vibha.
“We have now become a name that everyone in Nithari recognises and looks upon with respect. Ask anyone about us and they will only have nice words to say,” Vibha concludes with pride.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
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