Tuesday, June 23
While yesterday was the bank’s day to be busy, today was the insurance and health branch of SEWA’s turn. So this morning, rather than go with Mirai to her office I went straight over to the bank. The reasons for this were first, as I mentioned, Mirai was very busy, and second, I am hoping to actually work more closely with the bank operations. Today Maya’s plan was to follow around Pallavi ben (one of the bank’s workers), my plan was to tag along.
As has become somewhat common, I got to the bank and sat around for some time before Maya showed up and then we sat around for a while more until Pallavi was ready for us (note to self always carry a book). It wasn’t too bad, especially once Maya got there. She is going to be a senior in high school so we talked about applying to colleges, she is looking at small liberal arts so of course I raved about Haverford. Small world coincidence: last semester she was at The Mountain School with President Emerson’s daughter, though she didn’t know that Abby’s father was president of Haverford until we spoke about it. Ok, no more college talk, back to the couches in SEWA bank under the fans that make the heat slightly more bearable. So as I was really getting going talking about how much I love Haverford Pallavi came to collect us for our trip out into the field.
“Are we be going to see another presentations on the pension program?” I asked Maya. No we weren’t, we were going with Pallavi and two other women workers from the bank to where the street vendors set up in the middle of the city. The two other women that went with are loan/money collectors. It is often very costly for the women who borrow from SEWA to make the trip into the bank and this eats away at the amount they can pay back and save. Even if the trip would be feasible once a month, most of these women find it easiest to put away 100 rupees a week or even a few rupees a day rather than parting with a large sum at the end of the month. For this reason SEWA instead makes the trip to where the women work and collects from many people every day. Today I was along for the ride.
The street vendors come together to form the market called “Budrah” (this is all by sound, the spelling may be very wrong). Some vendors sold under tarps and umbrellas or in nooks in buildings, which meant there was some shade. Many others only had carts that they had set down where there was some room. One cart sold only safety pins; I wondered how his business was doing. In addition to the tarps and carts, a number of young children walked around with a box of things they were hoping to sell. One young boy tried to sell me stainless steel sponge pads, but, unsurprisingly, I had no use for them and had to decline.
We walked around the vendors and stopped by one every so often to collect an installment of a loan repayment or collect a savings deposit. The vendors all buy their merchandise wholesale and then sell it in Budruh to make a profit. The different vendors sold western clothes, hair clips, nail polish, jewelry, and of course one even sold safety pins. The money from the loans is commonly used to purchase more or better products from the wholesale source so that they can expand their business and increase their profits.
About 75% of SEWA’s members work as street vendors. The members have formed 108 active SEWA cooperatives. The cooperative maybe the vegetable vendor cooperative, a milk producers cooperative, and there is even a rag pickers or chindi stitcher cooperative. The last one I wasn’t sure about so I asked Maya (THANK YOU MAYA). In case you were wondering too, a rag picker is much as it sounds. The rag picker goes into heaps of garbage and finds bits and pieces of fabric. Then either the picker or a chindi sticher (I get the sense the it is the same person but I could be wrong) stitches all the small scraps of fabric into a chindi (type of scarf or shawl). I have not yet seen a chindi but I am hoping to. However knowing where it comes from makes me less likely to ever actually wear one.
From Budruh we took a rickshaw to Manekchok, another collection of street vendors. Unlike Budruh, Manekchok has vendors that sell vegetables, spices, and other edibles. Manekchok is also older and sells more traditional clothes and jewelry. A number of years ago, before Budruh was even in existence, the vendors at Manekchok were badly harassed by the police. Though the vendors had been selling there forever, the police were suddenly requiring that they have permits to sell their goods. SEWA got involved in the fight and thought it took many years and lots of paperwork, SEWA eventually got the vendors permits to sell there.
Both Budruh and Manekchok were very interesting but I was ready to go by the time we got in a rickshaw to head back to the bank. An hour of walking around in the noon day sun meant that I had already finished a liter of water and I had had beads of sweat trickling down my back practically since I stepped out of the bank. I have become a big fan of the rickshaw rides because their open nature means you get a decent breeze as you drive around at a speed that probably shouldn’t be legal considering the traffic.
Once back at SEWA Bank we stepped into an air-conditioned (yes I would like to draw attention the air-conditioned nature of the office) office to eat lunch. I have ordered my lunches to the bank, which means a lady cooks them at home and then someone else brings it in a tiffon (a type of lunch container) to the bank around 2. Lunch so far (the past 2 days) has been more roti (bread) than I can eat, dal, some sort of vegetable dish, and either rice or some yogurt. The yogurt today was the most sour yogurt I’ve ever had, I couldn’t have more than a small bite and I wonder if it is made directly from their cows milk. This however is just a small amount of what I will write about the food because as it is this post is getting rather long and Indian food deserves its own special post.
After lunch we sat around for a long time and the women talked so I didn’t understand anything. Maya translated bits and pieces but none of it was of particular importance and I didn’t want to press her to translate too much. She said they talked a lot about food or clothes with some bits of work talk mixed in. I also asked her for a list of some Gujarati words that I could learn just for every day use, I’m working on them now. Pani is water, that’s an important one for me because I go through the stuff quite quickly.
Eventually Pallavi, who had left the office after we ate, came back in to take us over to the town hall to see a bit of the insurance branch’s meeting. I don’t have too much to say about it in part because it was a smaller affair than yesterday’s, but more importantly because I didn’t have Mirai translating everything for me. Mirai of course was on stage at the center of everything. Hopefully I will talk to Mirai some tonight and ask her what exactly was going.
After everyone spoke I waited around some for Mirai to find out where I should go next, by this point it was about 5 pm. She said I could either go back to her office with her and wait about an hour to go home, or I could go back to her house with Maji, an old women who stays with her. Maji worked for Mirai when her twins were babies and she needed extra help with them. Now Maji still comes and stays the night at Mirai’s because it is more comfortable than her own home. She does some small chores like dishes and ironing but mostly I think it is Mirai’s kindness and compassion that keep Maji in the house.
I chose to go back with Maji by rickshaw rather than wait around. I hadn’t brought my book today or my computer because I knew I was going into the field, waiting around with nothing to do seemed less than appealing. Maji stopped a number of rickshaw drivers and asked their price and waved her hands in disgust at all of them. Maji speaks only Gujarati but I could infer what she was saying from her actions. When I tried to ask how much she held up her fingers, I think she was saying 10 or 15 rupees (which is about the price it should have been according to Mirai). All I could think of was getting back to the house and taking off my pants in favor of sorts. I of course was fine paying 10 or 15 rupees (about 15 cents) to get us home, Maji however would have none of it. We walked to the bus stop instead. My protests of “rickshaw, rickshaw” were futile, but in the end it was not a terrible experience and one worth having. Though a bit less convenient and comfortable than a rickshaw it was relatively painless. Before long I was back in Mirai’s home, in shorts, and with a fresh bottle of pani.