Women prisoners of the Yerwada jail in Pune will have more colour in their lives and a little more money this Holi, while their work will ensure a safe Holi for thousands of others across the country. Kalpavriksha, a Pune-based non-government organization, has contracted them to pack their brand of safe, natural Holi colours that will retail in six cities in the run-up to the festival of colours falling on 3 March this year.
Over the last month, prisoners from the women’s cell of the jail have packaged 1,500kg of brightly hued colours made from natural sources such as fruits, vegetables and the bark and roots of various plants, which will be sold under the Rang Dulaar brand by eCoexist, a company that will sell the products through a network of stores in Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune, among others.
Though the women are not earning a lot of money from the project, it helps them as every rupee they earn goes towards paying back the fines and penalties imposed on them. For those with no fine to pay, it means saving up for life after their sentence is over. For packing every kilo of colour, they earn Rs4.
“When the jail authorities wrote to us asking for work for the women, we decided to start off with the packing contract but we are so enthused by their commitment that we will now involve them in other projects for which we outsource work,” says Kalpavriksha’s Manisha Gutman.
The organization is also about to step up its campaign for promoting safe Holi celebrations through the use of natural, non-toxic colours by making the colours available across more outlets and cities this year. The colours are made by the Malnad Seeds Exchange Collective, a women farmer’s group from Sirsi in Karnataka, who worked with Kalpavriksha members to develop a range of colours from turmeric, henna, rice flour and other natural sources.
Over the last four years, demand for the colours rose exponentially and sales touched the 1000kg mark last year. With the women’s group getting an eco-sensitive supplementary income, Kalpavriksha stepped in again to form a company, eCoexist, which would market the product on a larger scale and help the women get better realization for their labours.
Kalpavriksha’s work in the safe-Holi campaign is based on research done by Toxics Links, a Delhi-based NGO. The organization started its work in the field initially by creating awareness about the dangers of using industrial dyes for Holi celebrations.
Gulal, the bright red colour associated with Holi, was traditionally made in Indian homes from the flowers of trees such as the Indian coral tree or the safflower.
The disappearance of these trees and urbanization have resulted in natural colours being replaced by cheap industrial dyes. “Consumers continue to buy these colours even though these packs mention that the colours are for industrial use,” says Gutman.
Among other things, the lead oxide found in the black colour can cause renal failure while the copper sulphate in green causes temporary blindness. The mercury sulphate in red colour is highly toxic and is associated with skin cancer while the aluminium bromide in silver colour is also known to be carcinogenic.
Kalpavriksha’s campaign touched a chord with a group of volunteers including students who are now helping to spread the word.
In Pune, Saurabh Singhal, a student from the Symbiosis Center for Management and Human Resource Development, has taken on a project to motivate corporates to support such projects as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Another Kalpavriksha member, Tulsi Jones, who is associated with the film industry, will promote the use of safe colours in Bollywood, which shoots many song sequences every year around Holi celebrations.
“I came to know about the colours a couple of years back and ever since my family and friends have been buying those for our Holi celebrations,” says 31-year-old Radhika, a Mumbai-based mother of a six-year old. “As parents, we want what is safe for our kid and so do our friends and we all get together to play a Holi which is devoid of the fear of possible damage to our health,” she adds.