This lady from an Indian Army family is making “sustainable living” a reality for the country’s rural artisans

In a world driven by material aspirations, it takes a special individual to dedicate their life to the betterment of others. Payal Nath, a product designer in the footwear industry, embarked on a journey that would see her leverage her skills to uplift rural communities in India after getting married and settling in Calcutta (Kolkata, West Bengal).

Payal Nath is the Co-Founder of KADAM and oversees the operations of both KADAM and KADAM HAAT.

KADAM creates opportunities for semi-skilled or skilled natural fibre handicrafts artisans via training. While KADAM-HAAT acts as a market platform for trained artisans to sell their products with the continual support of professional infrastructure and incentives.

During her early stay in Kolkata, opportunities for her profession were scarce in her new surroundings. However, she explored other avenues. She took on a part-time role as a guest lecturer at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). This allowed her to continue imparting her knowledge and expertise to aspiring designers. However, Payal yearned for a more substantial contribution.

Seizing the opportunity

In 1998, Payal’s path intersected with an opportunity – the government sought freelance designers for projects focused on rural development and handicrafts, which was under the Ministry of Commerce’s Development Commission. Payal saw this as a chance to combine her design skills with her passion for social change.

“My previous experience in the organised sector allowed me to bring a unique perspective and approach to work. I understood the challenges rural communities face and recognised the potential to make a meaningful impact on rural lives,” said Nath while talking to UPDEED.

Despite the allure of high consultancy fees, Payal felt a sense of responsibility towards the artisans she worked with, as their livelihoods depended on her successful implementation of the projects.

Parallel to her professional journey, Payal embarked on the journey of motherhood, giving birth to a baby girl.

This pivotal moment awakened a newfound sense of empathy within her. Payal started to view the rural community as an extended family, feeling compelled to help them find sustainable solutions to their problems.

The artisans looked up to Payal, seeking guidance and solutions.

The Birth of a Vision for rural communities

Motivated to create lasting change, Payal engaged in a heartfelt discussion with her husband. They agreed that she should put her ideas to the test and make a tangible difference on the ground.

Despite recognising the financial risks involved, Payal invested all her savings and received support from her sister, solidifying her commitment to the cause – KADAM was born in 2006.

Nath said, “The first project we did was in Odisha.”

She added that it was not easy as the daughter was just four years old and had to travel regularly to villages. As a result, a kind of insecurity evolved in her daughter. Nath initiated a conversation with her and took her to villages to observe her work.

“Then I left her to decide. My daughter told me she has many people at home to look after. You should be with the people as you are a motherly figure to them,” Nath said. 

The handicraft sector is not organised

On a larger scale, the handicraft sector in India lacks organisation. With an estimated 200 million artisans, many of whom are unregistered and unrecognised, the true extent of this workforce remains unknown. Additionally, many women artisans, who work from home, often go uncounted.

Nath pointed out: “To address this issue, there is a pressing need for a well-established structure that acknowledges and supports these artisans. One initiative working towards this goal is KADAM HAAT.”

It focuses on utilising grasses and non-timber forest produce to create sustainable products that cater to the daily needs of urban market customers. By offering 100 per cent biodegradable alternatives to plastic, KADAM HAAT strives to meet the growing demand for household eco-friendly products.

As per Nath, the team collaborated with state governments, UNESCO, the World Bank, and various corporate social responsibility (CSR) groups during its establishment.

“Recognising the importance of fair returns for artisans, KADAM works on setting up rural enterprises within communities, and KADAM HAAT supports these set-up communities by ensuring sustainable income for the artisans,” Nath added.

These enterprises provide sustainable income opportunities for artisans and receive ongoing support from KADAM HAAT to ensure their long-term viability.

Personal working experience is the secret recipe

Despite the availability and demand of sustainable products in the market, the question remains: how to balance costly handmade products (compared to cheap plastic products) and ensure due share for artisans?

Regarding the balance, Nath mentioned her “own practical professional experience” in the footwear industry as the success recipe.

These enterprises provide sustainable income opportunities for artisans and receive ongoing support from KADAM HAAT to ensure their long-term viability.

The team conducts a comprehensive social, aspirational, skill, and raw material mapping of a specific area. After looking at these four aspects, KADAM HAAT does market research for products.

‘We also look if a particular area or cluster demands introducing a new technology or anything else,” said Nath.

With a goal of ensuring favourable returns on investments, this strategic approach allows for a thorough understanding of the local context. It enables the team to plan and implement initiatives that maximise the benefits for artisans in terms of income generation and overall well-being.

Last year, Payal Nath was among the 75 women honoured as Women Transforming India by the NITI Aayog.

Women have consistently played a key role in transforming India into a ‘Sashakt Aur Samarth Bharat’. In recognition of the remarkable achievements of these women across diverse sectors, NITI Aayog has instituted the Women Transforming India Awards.

“I advise people to be clear about what they want to do. Stay committed, and you can get whatever you wish to achieve in life,” Nath concluded.

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