Mohd Aslam of Saharanpur reverses the migration cycle from cities to village
It is an established fact that merely lip service will never curb the migration from villages to urban areas. Setting a precedent worth emulating, Mohd Aslam of Saharanpur has reversed this cycle back to villages. He shifted his handicraft factory, Ronan Arsad Handicraft, from Saharanpur city to a village, Dhatoli Rangarh, about 5 km from Saharanpur, and provided employment to around 2,000 low educated, entirely untrained and even illiterate villagers including women. About 800 people in his factory now come from the city only. One more speciality of Aslam is that he has himself imparted training of woodcarving to around 50,000 people, including some foreigners from France. The products made by these villagers are exported to 57 countries of the world and are widely displayed even in Hollywood films. Not only this, many of his products are made of old wood thus saving the green trees.
My closeness to village development activities drove me to a village, Dhatoli Rangarh, in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh on January 25, 2014. Situated in the heart of mango orchards, a handicraft factory here has earned fame to this village in 57 countries of the world. Undoubtedly, entire Saharanpur city is famous for world class woodcarving work; my inquisitiveness took me to this village because a person shifted his handicraft factory from Saharanpur city. He had surprised all the handicraft giants about eight years ago when the factory owner took this uncharacteristic decision and many of them even ridiculed him. They also warned him for ‘disastrous’ consequences waiting for him in future. Now what drove me to the factory is not handsome foreign exchange that it is generating for the country, but the reversal of migration from city to villages.
The man who did this wonder is Mohd Aslam. He has provided employment to nearly 2,000 people in this village. About 800 of them left their jobs in various cities and joined this village factory. A very simple and humble person Aslam Bhai has many other distinctions too in his cap. Being a top class exporter of handicraft, he still joins his workers in the factory for manufacturing, designing, polishing and even imparting basic training to the workers. In the last 25 years he claims to have imparted training to around 50,000 workers and more than 100 of his chelas (disciples) are now working in similar factories in Moradabad, Delhi, Jaipur, Surat, etc.
Aslam Bhai, as he is affectionately called in the area, can surely be credited for developing world class artisans from the village mud. When he shifted his factory, there were no artisan in the village and skilled artisans from the city were reluctant to join him. But he accepted the challenge and started imparting handicraft training to the labourers, who joined him in the construction of the factory. All those labourers were then alien to this type of handicraft work. What they knew was either working in the agriculture fields or helping in building construction. It took Aslam two years to train them. Now they all are skilled artisans earning handsome money while living in their villages only. During the eight years, Aslam has imparted training to around 1,500 of such village people in this factory alone. Out of his total workforce, 1,200 are from nearby 15-20 villages. The factory had started functioning in 2005.
The products made in this factory are exported to around 57 countries of the world including the US, Canada, Brazil, England, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, Italy and China.
Another interesting turn that he has given to his wood carving work is that he started producing highly useful and fascinating products from the old and waste wood. “This project was basically started to protect the green trees. We collect old furniture or the used woods from villages and cities. The products made by us from such woods are highly acclaimed by our importers as well as the customers worldwide. We normally make decorative items, gift items, furniture like sofa, beds, photo frames, mirror frames, service tray, food bowls, etc from such wood,” says Aslam Bhai who combs even Uttarakhand and Punjab for collecting the old wood.
When asked what fascinated him to turn to a remote village for starting business, Aslam Bhai candidly says, “On one hand there is shortage of skilled labour in the city and on the other hand people in villages have no work. Our decision not only helped us getting sufficient and cheap workforce but also provided adequate employment to the villagers. I have work for every type of villager whether skilled, literate, illiterate, young or old.” 65 year old Zarina of Dhatoli Rangarh village justifies his claim. Like many other village women, she polishes the products and also helps in packaging or labelling them. Equally Biramwati (45) belongs to Dhatoli village and has been working in the factory for 8 years. “My work in this factory has strengthened the condition of my entire family. Otherwise, who was going to offer any work to a village woman like me,” she says. Similarly, Dharmendra, a Harijan boy belonging to nearby Aamwala village, used to work as a farm labourer before joining this factory about 9 years back. He received training of handicraft making here only and is now expert in all types of handicraft works.
Aslam has a similar factory in Saharanpur city also where around 1,000 people work. Talking about this long journey, Aslam says, “In the beginning I was very apprehensive, as it was like swimming against the flow. There were many questions whether the villagers would cooperate with me, whether non-carpenters would be able to learn this work, which needs high quality finishing, etc. It was a herculean task to impart training to those who were almost alien to this work. But now the final output is encouraging.”
Aslam’s family has been doing this work for the last 150 years and during this journey they have earned respect and trust of both the importers and the Government officials. This is why the custom department has granted him factory stuffing. Custom officials come to his factory and seal the containers there only. Then they are directly transported to the ships.
When the decision to set-up a factory in a village became public, most of the exporters in the city made fun of Aslam. The biggest question was how to get skilled workforce. The electric supply too was (unfortunately still) very poor; roads and other communication networks were also in pitiable conditions. Security problem was another risk. All these apprehensions gained ground when a sum of Rs 20 lakh was looted from Aslam’s staff. “But we managed to overcome all these challenges,” says Aslam pointing out that he is planning to start a similar factory in another village.
Apart from providing employment to villagers, Aslam has started a school for the children of economically deprived people in city. “Presently we impart education to 290 children. The monthly fee charged is very nominal—only Rs 30 per month and payment of that too is not mandatory. Books, stationary and dress are also provided free of cost to all the students. We have decided to bear the expenses of their higher education also,” he says. Aslam Bhai has imparted this samskar of social service to his children also. His daughter has done MBBS. The only commitment that he had taken from her at the time of admission was that she would help the poor patients. Now major part of her income goes to providing free medicines to the needy patients.
If the step taken by Aslam Bhai is emulated by other businessmen too anywhere in the country, it will benefit both the villagers and their business. This can be a good way to curb migration from villages.