Bhavna Dhanik, 21, knits shawls, sweaters and hats in her spare time so that she can finance her wedding. Asha Mehra, the widow of a soldier, weaves garments to sustain her family. Deepa Koranga, apart from tending to her field, puts her knitting skills to use to finance the education of her sons.

These are just some of the 50-odd women who are part of the Himalayan Naari initiative in the Chakouri and Munisiyari villages of the hill state of Uttarakhand. The project has turned the local tradition of knitting and weaving into a livelihood opportunity for women.

As unequal growth has driven lakhs of people out of the villages of Uttarakhand, this project holds out a sliver of hope for these women, helping them sustain themselves and educate their children without having to migrate to the cities.

Though their effort far outweighs their earnings – they make about Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 a month – it allows them to pay bills and the school fees of their children. To supplement this income, some of them work in the field or take up odd jobs.

Bhavna Dhanik, 21, is saving the money she earns from knitting to finance her wedding. Photo: Deepti Asthana

“My sister-in-law’s children, who are completing their studies, also live with me,” said Koranga. “We need to support each other and I can do it because of my extra earnings.”

Lopsided development in the hill state has meant that while economic growth has reached the plains, the mountain districts have been largely deprived of proper education and healthcare as well as employment avenues. Lack of irrigation facilities and a depleting water table has meant that the primary source of livelihood in the hills, agriculture, is also not sufficient anymore. Such is the level of migration in Uttarakhand that some hamlets are little more than ghost villages – occupied by just a handful of people and filled with abandoned homes.

Initiatives like the Himalayan Naari are attempting to stem this trend by creating alternate livelihoods. The Himalayan Education Foundation provides training and support to the project and helps their products reach the market. The knits and weaves are sold at the Himalayan Naari Women’s Centre in Chakouri and a handful of retail stores in the US.

Jayant Hardikar, the founder of Himalayan Education Foundation, said he was inspired to start the initiative in 2008, during a backpacking trip in India. “I met a carpenter who was not able to afford the fee $15 for his children. I had a strong desire to help his children, which then quickly evolved into a desire to help the entire community.”

Babita Mahara is one of the general directors of Naari and handles finances and payments. Photo: Deepti Asthana

Apart from helping monetise their talent for knitting, the Foundation conducts workshops for the Naari members on leadership skill, English language, technology training and the like. Babita Mahara, a coordinator of Himalayan Naari, said her ability to speak English and operate a computer made it easier to receive orders, distribute tasks and coordinate with the Himalayan Education Foundation. Mahara joined the Naari initiative to fund her son’s education after her husband, an Army man, had to leave the force owing to a medical condition.

Geeta Bhoriyal, another artisan in the Himalayan Naari, holds her newborn boy. She also has two daughters, aged 12 and 10. Photo: Deepti Asthana
Dhana, a mother of two, lives in Chakouri on rent so that she can send her children to school with the money earned through Naari. Photo: Deepti Asthana
Laxmi runs a store where she sells basic toiletries, toys and trinkets. She supplements her earnings from the shop with knitting work. She has two children, one of whom is studying on a scholarship and another whose education she funds. Photo: Deepti Asthana
Meena Nagarkoti's husband works in Delhi. She took up weaving to get some extra income to pay rent. Photo: Deepti Asthana
Asha Mehra, a widow of an Army soldier and mother of two, holds up a scarf she is working on. Photo: Deepti Asthana
Asha Mehra's daughter, Preeti, tries out the shawl her mother made. Photo: Deepti Asthana