At first sight, this short, stock lady with untidy hair looks unimpressive. But look again, for this woman is the catalyst of economic change for at least 50 Dalit families of Maha Bhoi Sahi in the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar. Rashmi Rekha Dash runs a 'coir processing factory' which employs 50 women workers, mostly destitute, on a 'shareholder' basis. The factory, called Maa Mangala Coir Ropes, isn't a grand affair—it's just a thatched shed with five pairs of manual coir yarn-making machines or charkhas.
But then, 32-year-old Rashmi faced heavy odds just to get her factory going. An only child, Rashmi was dispossessed of her patriarchal property, her husband Pramod was handicapped after an accident and even her factory was destroyed in last year's super cyclone. But Rashmi had a core of resilience. She parted ways with her father and left her job as factory supervisor after the owners refused to pay the medical expenses of a worker who lost her fingers while at work. She also took on the Coir Board for illegally selling the coir fibre used as raw material for ropes. All these battles took their toll, but didn't deter her. ''I'm not quarrelsome,'' says the soft-spoken lady, ''but I can't tolerate injustice.''
Rashmi now employs around 50 girls in shifts to produce about one quintal of coir rope a day. She has only five sets of hand-made charkhas and one frame for preparing mats, and her rented factory-storehouse-office is located on just a half-acre of land. Rashmi operates on a no-profit, no-loss basis. All her earnings are ploughed back into the business and 'her girls' as she calls her workers. ''We are all a family,'' she says and it's clear that she's well-loved. The girls have all left their old factory to join Rashmi in her uncertain venture. ''I'm responsible for their well-being and morals. They're my investment and should be looked after,'' says Rashmi in turn. And the girls, many of whom are the sole earning members of their families, have every reason to repose faith in their 'didi'. In their old factory, they were paid a pittance of Rs 500 per month. The place was unhealthy, the working hours long and the owner a tyrant. In their own factory, a pair of workers operating a charkha produces upto 250 coils or hangs of rope daily. They are paid 60 paise per hang which means they earn approximately Rs 150 per day. So each girl gets around Rs 4,500 per month.
Rashmi's will to strive for success was demonstrated early in life. As a young girl, she excelled in studies and sports, earned some money from tuitions and also learnt machine stitching and coir processing. Thus, even before her marriage, she was earning over Rs 1,000 a month. A love affair led to marriage and in 1994 she gave birth to a son. Pramod, her husband, was a marketing executive for a local fertiliser company. His ambitions made the couple decide to shift to Bhubaneshwar where Pramod got a job as a driver in a travel agency. But Rashmi didn't want to sit idle, so she joined a coir factory where she was paid Rs 600 as a supervisor. Here she met Pradip Parida, a handicapped but talented man. Together, they took on the owners over the issue of worker's rights. When Rashmi quit, Pradip and the girls followed suit. Their own factory took shape as they invested their savings and even borrowed money. Now, Rashmi looks after the factory, Pradip does the marketing and Pramod takes care of official work. It's tough going—they get no official help and the Coir Board doesn't even give them their quota of raw material.
They were still paying off their loans when the cyclone struck. They lost property and goods worth at least Rs 50,000. Today, they have rebuilt their factory and have applied for loans to buy power looms and a wheeling machine, which will enable them to produce carpets, decorative items and dolls. Even now, Rashmi makes hand-made dolls and donates them to the Orissa Patita Udhar Samiti and dreams of the day when each of her girls will be ''self-sufficient and set up her own unit''. Her address: Maa Mangala Coir Ropes, Mahabhoi Sahi, Sisupalgarh (Mahabir Road), Bhubaneshwar-751002; phone: (0674) 534268 (PP Himanshu Sahoo). n