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Kanni Devi's hands work deftly as they knot brightly coloured wool on tightly wound warp threads. "Do taar chodd ke lagaale re; lal jhai sabaj bachcha; kala chalta,"she sings. Her husband Chottelal, who is working at the other end of the loom, chants, "haanji", in sync. It sounds like a Rajasthani folk song but is really instructions based on the design template this carpet has. Loosely translated, it means, "Leave two strings and then put the red on the red; put it behind the green; and put it right on the black."
Kanni and Chottelal are two of the 125 carpet weavers in Narhet, a tiny village close to Jaipur. Narhet is what local administrators term as a "landless village". No one here owns land. Most belong to impoverished backward classes and 70 percent are into rug-making.
Carpet weaving is an industry associated with worker exploitation in the popular imagination. But over the last three years, things have changed for Kanni and Chottelal.
Chottelal, who has always lived hand-to-mouth, recently took a Rs. 1 lakh loan to build a pukka house. He put both his daughters in a private school, for a fee of Rs. 100 per child. One month ago, he filed a health insurance claim - and got Rs 1,400 - for hospital visits. He keeps his latest acquisition, a Nokia mobile phone, under his loom. "We would love to buy a TV too but because of the hill ranges around, we don't get TV signals here,"says Chottelal. Kanni wears bright magenta lipstick now, an indulgence that was unthinkable three years ago.
Earlier the couple used to weave carpets for contractors who paid them Rs. 50-60 per day per person. Now they earn above Rs. 100 a day each. The raw material is delivered to them unlike before when they had to travel to town to get it. Chottelal now has a better sense of carpet weaving, as he has received rigorous training.
Like Kanni and Chottelal, scores of families in this village have made the crossover to a better life.
Changing the Template
The soft-spoken Nand Kishore Chaudhary, founder of Jaipur Rugs, is the person responsible for all this. Chaudhary doesn't speak much English and has never studied in a business school. But the social enterprise model that he has created for Jaipur Rugs has changed the lives of 40,000-odd weavers in villages across 10 states in India.
Under this model, his Rs. 67.75 crore (turnover) company engages independent weavers in far-flung villages - none of whom are on his rolls.
The idea first came to him in 1990, when he realised that the government was keen to promote carpet weaving in the tribal belts of Gujarat. "The government was using co-operative societies to develop carpet weaving in Gujarat. But I felt that co-operatives couldn't do this well so it would be a great opportunity for me," says Chaudhary. So he relocated to Gujarat and, for eight years, developed a weaver network there. He deputed area commanders to oversee the existing business in Rajasthan. "We had 200 looms in Rajasthan by then and wherever we had a concentration of 50 looms, we would depute an area commander to monitor them, distribute raw material and supervise quality," says Chaudhary.
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