The girl who quit corporate life in Mumbai to work in tiger country
When Divya Srivastava arrived in Ranthambore for a holiday, she didn’t realise that she would soon be married and living in India’s tiger capital. Nor did she realise she would change her profession as a corporate dietician to set up a social enterprise in rural Rajasthan. It was a chance meeting with Dharmendra Khandal, a young biologist who was working with a local NGO Tiger Watch that turned her life around personally and professionally. In her words: “I was introduced to Dharm, and things happened like in the movies – it was love at first sight! And the rest is history.”
She fell in love, got married, and moved from life in the big city, and set up a craft-based enterprise – Dhonk. The organisation functions as the business arm of conservation NGO Tiger Watch, and its purpose is to provide a sustainable livelihood option to reformed poachers from the Mogiya Tribe that live around Ranthambore National Park. Dhonk (Anogeissus pendula) is the name of a tree endemic to the dry, deciduous forest of Rajasthan, and it is also one of the oldest trees to be found in the Aravalli Hills. Dhonk was born from the need to support the local communities by promoting local craft and generating employment avenues for the ‘tiger’s neighbors’. Very simply, the craft enterprise uses the skills of the people to make an array of products like shirts, bags, purses, mobile phones, purses, and mittens. Dhonk Craft products range from furnishing to apparel, all using traditional Rajasthani motifs from the camel to the tiger with many of the products made on location as you visit the store.
From giving up her life in Mumbai to setting up an organisation, the transition was not easy. “I took this project home; for three years, Dhonk ran from the garage of my house. We would train the women, and had three good tailors to teach them. I didn’t know anything about how a business runs, how to design, or how to sell! The savings I had was used in running the show, and therefore, even a needle lost would matter. It’s still the same. I am always looking at what we have saved rather then what we have earned,” explains Divya.
And the results are beginning to show. Not only has she managed to expand her work beyond the Mogiyas to more villages, but also to the Kewat tribe boys from Chambal. At Dhonk, the products are made from block print ‘kashida’ embroidery and hand embroidery by a team of craftspersons especially trained for this purpose. Through their work, more than 45 families now earn an income from the enterprise. Customer reviews on Tripadvisor describe Dhonk as a ‘kaleidoscope of colors with local women working away making things on site” and an ‘organisation making a difference in a beautiful way’.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Divya has been that she was professionally trained for another job. She admits quite honestly that in the last six years – “it has been bumpy ride, but then, somehow, we were blessed when responsible tour operators like Manohar Singhji of Ranthambhore Safari and Tours came forward and started to highlight us in their day tours in Ranthambhore. That brought an influx of tourists.
The rest of the businesses runs on a 30-40 percent commission system, which we couldn’t afford as we pay ethically to the team, we price ethically for the patrons, and the surplus might as well go to the tiger and community rather than individual pockets.”. Since it is a social enterprise, her main concern is to be able to generate enough business that they can give back to the community”. Divya is very clear about the business model – whatever income is generated as surplus is given to Tiger Watch, a second component is given as interest-free loans for the team members of the women’s group and finally to support the education of two girls whose mothers have been working with the team.
Divya has a young baby now, who is incidentally named Rantham, an ode to the place that turned her life around. While she finds motherhood far more challenging than running Dhonk, she is able to juggle the demands of both roles. Her business philosophy for running her craft enterprise is simple: “I don’t believe there are competitors, there are only motivators who push you to do better. Dhonk is a unique model, and we can make or break it ourselves, so we need to stay focused that’s all. The rest will take care of itself.” In her own humble way, this feisty lady is kicking up quite a storm in the desert sands of Rajasthan. In her own philosophical words, “I do not know how tomorrow will be, today is good.”