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He wants to change Vidarbha's destiny

Owing to the rising instances of farmer suicides, Vidarbha has always been in the wrong news, at least for the last few decades. When you think of the Maharashtra town, images of poverty and grief spring to your mind.

Wasudev Ganeshprasad Mishra, who hails from a hamlet in Vidarbha, wants to erase those horrific images. And he is doing his bit, not just in Vidarbha, but across the country.

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Wasudev’s story too is not different. His family, on multiple occasions, could not afford to send him to school. Of course, education was free, but there were basic things that were beyond his parents’ reach. He has seen girls in his community being forced to quit for the same reason. Such was the state of poverty there.

Even at a young age, Wasudev decided he had to do something to change the landscape. He also realized there was a lack of support and resources for women and girls, compared to men. During an exchange programme at the United States, Vasudev discovered his mooring, and he was strongly encouraged to be independent and self-reliant. On returning, he volunteered on different projects, mentored needy young people, and decided to help the womenfolk of his village to become self-reliant.

Thus, at 19, Wasudev founded Silaigram, a social impact startup aiming to provide sustainable livelihoods in rural parts of the country. Every year thousands of metric tonnes of cloth waste is produced in India’s mills, and a lot of it ends up in either landfills or oceans. Using upcycled cloth waste sourced from garment factories and decor shops, Silaigram provides jobs to underprivileged women, who stitch that material into holes and kurtis. As part of Silargram, Wasdev has also set up a one-of-a-kind Design Lab that provides women with the material and freedom to design new and innovative products. This Design Lab is unique, especially because the Fabric design industry in India and many of the world is dominated by men to the extent that it is taboo for women to be even trying it.

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In the last one year, Wasudev has worked with a team comprising his mother, sister, and friends to up-cycle over 1,000 kgs of cloth material (including synthetic cloth), preventing it from entering the ocean ecosystem as harmful waste.

With his experience in the startup eco-system of Nagpur, Wasudev intends to create a hyper-local network of changemakers who can support the youth in launching their own initiatives. While there are several local networks like Rotary and Young Presidents Organisation that promote social service and entrepreneurship respectively, he feels the Changemaker Network would be the bridge between these worlds, helping young people accelerate their own journey towards becoming changemakers - business and social.

YouTube link to:Ashoka #LeadYoung - Wasudev

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A chat with Wasudev.

Since you have seen poverty quite closeby, what’s your take on the whole situation in Vidarbha, one of the poorest regions in the country itself.

Vidarbha region is enriched with natural resources, and one of the most agriculturally active regions. The primary occupation in Vidarbha is still farming. There are several challenges though:
1. Climate Change: Causes destruction of crops. Floods or drought
2. Livelihood: Except for farming, there is little scope for people in organised sector jobs, thus prompting students/youth to take up jobs in the labour sector.
3.Healthcare: Access to healthcare in this region is scarce. In some rural parts of Bhandara and Chandrapur, for
4. Villages there is only one health dispensary. Many tribal women have problems during delivery.
5. Underskilled Youth: Lack of access to new technologies or infrastructure.No up-gradation in the curriculum of universities

What really prompted you to start such an initiative at such a young age?

There is a woman, a homemaker, who lives close to my home. Her husband is an auto-driver at Wardha. Once she had to stay hungry for five days just to save enough money to take her daughter to a hospital. That moved me a lot. She was very good at stitching but just because she lived in a rural area like ours, she did not have many opportunities.

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You have gone to the US for an exchange programme. What was the biggest learning experience there?

I have learnt about acceptance. How the world can be a better place and everybody can live together peacefully.

Why did you decide to start giving employment to women, in particular?

Women do more than 60% of the farm work, still, don't get recognised as a farmer and there is no pay parity as well. We need to address the issue where both are treated equally. If women can be enabled by a non-farming Job, then it can indirectly make farmers' lives better.

Why did you focus on upscaling clothes?

It takes 27,000 litres of water to make a pack of T-Shirts. A cloth bag which is made by a new fabric is as harmful as a plastic bag because it puts more amount of carbon footprint compared to plastic. And a lot of textile waste in India are synthetic fibres which are more toxic and they pollute our environment in a most disastrous way. So we decided to make our products from upcycled cloth materials.

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The obvious question. How do you manage your finances?

We are a bootstrapped startup and we haven't raised any funds yet. We have a monthly order of 10 lakh a month from a retail chain because they liked the concept of Upcycled Textile Bags. Now the challenge is how do we meet the deadline and make such stuff of huge volume? Because we don't have enough manpower.

What next? What’s the big plan for Silaigram? Are you planning to diversify to other parts of the country?

We are opening more Silaigram centres in more rural parts of Maharashtra and Orissa where we want to make women self-reliable and sustainable.

Finally, what’s your plan for farmers’ suicides and other issues at Vidarbha?

If farmers have a regular income, they can pay off loans/debts. So we must offer them ways of a sustainable way of income. Also, we need to create awareness about sustainable farming methods so that they can tackle a problem like climate change, using alternative ways of farming like agroforestry. This is possible if other like-minded organizations can work together with us.

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