Shoshyo Prabartana brings to the customers the local varieties of rice and lentils
Narigrantha Prabartana's adda is an occasion to enlighten the minds.
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     Volume 4 Issue 52 | July 1, 2005 |

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Cover Story

An Idea of

Traditionally, development models in Bangladesh have been based on formulas prescribed by international entities in which the focus has been on improving the financial condition of the individual. Which is why micro-credit has been the centre point of many development activities. Ubinig, a research organisation established in 1983, was the first attempt to deviate from the conventional direction of development and provide an alternative that it says is more in tune with the country's needs. In 1989 Ubinig established Prabartana, a sister concern that promotes indigenous methods of farming and weaving and also assists farmers and artisans to market their products.

Ubinig's approach was to tap into indigenous knowledge and use as well as improve what existed of the local knowledge and marketing practices in weaving and agriculture.
Ubinig proposed an alternative to the model that the West proposed as a template for development. "We stood against two dominant ideas: one is the export-oriented programme and the other income-generating programme. But these are what the government and the NGOs were, and still are, promoting, completely denying the importance of sectoral development," says Farhad Mazhar, the man who envisaged Ubinig and Prabartana. "NGOs were bringing in money for programmes that had no connection to the existing structure of local productions and marketing. We criticised this idea of relying solely on the balance of payment. We saw clearly that donors' intervention was only in the form of building pockets like EPZ or similar industrial zones. Handloom as the most organic form of industry had never received any support. We saw that handloom was a sector based on a rural economy and provided the boost that it needed," he continues.

Mazhar is essentially a champion of organic development and this is what the enterprises he along with his friends have established, stand for. "NGOs used to talk about income-generating by assuming that a poor man will become financially solvent by their intervention. Millions of dollars have been spent in the name of income-generating programmes; we argued against it. We showed that Bangladesh doesn't have the material force to become a capitalistic economy. We argued that it needed to be in the process of capitalisation, so we thought that the best intervention was to support the weavers in marketing their products," explains Majhar.

There were two areas where that Ubinig intervened, -- one by giving technical support and the other by providing marketing support. "Our contribution in Shahadatpur, Tangail and in many other places was phenomenal. We introduced the idea of working in a factory where 10 weavers would work together to save establishment costs, where giving training to untrained weavers would be easier, and which would make all the weavers work equal hours. The factory could be owned by a person or a co-operative, which is immaterial, as it would be in alignment with the idea of capitalistic growth," Mazhar explains. "We never ran micro-credit programmes, we intervened on a different level. Ubinig proved its thesis by providing the weavers with designs. We even provided them with Jacquards (punched cards with designs) free of cost," he continues. And in Tangail where handloom was facing an untimely death, Ubinig's efforts breathed new life into the industry. "What we did was to divide their produce into artisan or collector products and mass consumer product. The artisan product is expensive and it needs the pit-loom to weave it, which makes it more time consuming. For the mass consumer product we introduced Chittaranjan-loom, as it enables the weaver to increase productivity many fold," Mazhar elucidates.

Farhad Mazhar, managing director of Ubinig.

The most important step was to choose the weavers who are not that good at the pit-looms. "We sought out the ones who were less equipped in producing artisan products and trained them so that they could be of use in producing the products for mass use," Majhar points out. Ubinig helped the artisans who lacked in creativity to work in the factories developed for mass production of saris and gamchhas and even yardage. More than hundred handlooms were set up to give momentum to the boom that followed.

"The development of Dhaka's jamdani area was possible without the intervention of the NGOs," Mazhar argues and he hastens to add, "The revolution that started in Tangail was made possible because of the sectoral approach espoused and practised by Ubinig. We said that we must forget about the individual and work towards the development of the sector and we were proven right."

Towards sectoral development, which was introduced as a concept, people at Ubinig and Prabartana chose to bring in selective changes. They introduced drums to replace the regular warping system to cut down on time alongside Chittaranjan looms. "Ubinig has always shunned the idea of giving credit. We gave yarns to the weaver who were in need, we asked the weaver to weave saris that we promised to buy at Tk 200 each. However, we kept the option of selling the saris to the local market at Tk 500; this way the weavers got to keep the profit to themselves by paying up a certain amount for the yarn," Majhar explains. He is emphatic that this model has done wonders for the handloom industry in the last 15 years. He also stresses that those who are claiming to have produced a wave in the market by appropriating the designs of the weavers are not the ones who ushered in the revolution. He is emphatic that it is the Prabartana model, and the substantial contributions of people like Monira Emdad (Tangail Kutir) and Ruby Ghuznavi (Arannya) that eventually led to a sustainable growth.

Mazhar believes that many individuals have worked steadfastly following their own model, which turned out successful in giving a clear boost to the handloom industry. Ubinig itself was established on a piece of land for which the owner did not want any rent. "The landlord Motlubur Rahman never wanted any rent, his personal contribution made Prabartana possible. In 5/3 Barabo Mohanpur Ring Road we established a clearinghouse where we brought in the handloom saris and yardage to sell. And most of our customers too were friends and acquaintances," Mazhar recalls.

"We used to argue in the 1970s as well as throughout the 80s that we needed to create a strong market. I used to say that either you go for a revolution or strengthen the market. You need to have capitalistic development at first," says Mazhar who with his organisation Ubinig carried forward an agenda that the World Bank and the donor agencies even to this day do not recognise let alone provide financial backing for.

Shahid H Shamim, the director of Prabartana.

Ubinig needed to develop enterprises that would put the theories into practice. "The need for having an enterprise was in Ubinig's agenda from the beginning. It was needed to introduce ethical business, where the labourers involved would be adequately paid, their health would not in jeopardy and the price of the product would be reasonable," says Shahid H Shamim, the Director of Prabartana.

There was a huge untapped consumer group that used to consume the textile products brought in from across the border. "There has been a transformation since 1985, through introduction of Bangladeshi products. Nipun, Arong and Prabartana helped change the scenario. Back in the mid 80s there was this lone outlet Tangail Sari Kutir in Baily Road where Monira Emdad used to sell Tangail Sari, and Nipun and Arong joined the bandwagon selling indigenous saris," says Shamim.

"We conducted a study in Tangail, since it was a big source of hand-woven saris, and found out that we could intervene in certain areas. What we did was to identify barriers to more productivity, and to this end we introduced Chittaranjan loom in the area," explains Shamim. The chittaranjan or frame-looms were introduced besides the pit-looms of the Tangail area and it kick-started the present boom in the handloom sector. Once the pit-looms were replaced the weavers could weave three saris in the time that they previously used to weave one. This huge leap in productivity made the revolution possible.

Prbartana refuses to cultivate a brand image, alongside their own products it sells a whole array of products by artisans.

As for Prabartana it was first conceived as a samity or co-operative of consumers. "It was in the BISIC-organised exhibition of the local textile and handicrafts that we first took part as a Tant Prabartana Samity, meaning handloom introduction co-operative. We had a stall by this name," remembers Shamim.

From that modest start Prabartana is now a full-fledged business and a thriving one at that. But it is not marketing through outlets that make Prabartana a name to remember by. Its existence has made a revolution possible by multiplying the number of weavers across the country. Tant Board claims that the number of weavers now stand at five lakhs but Shamim is assertive that since mid 1990s there had been a steady rise in the number and he estimates it to be around 10 lakhs.

Prabartana started out as a co-operative of sorts. "We launched our effort with 750 members and to this day that number remains the same as our principle is to market the woven products to the population that produces them," Shamim is emphatic. The lone outlet of Prabartana serves to a "niche market". And though there is a plan for opening up more outlets, especially one in Gulshan, it will always bring its produce to a select few.

Prabartana refuses to become a brand name that a lot of urbanites will look forward to as its principle is to promote indigenous weavers and chemical-free agriculture that will cater to the needs of their own community.

Prabartana introduced the concept of capitalistic industry in the handloom sector.

In the beginning Prabartana started its journey by promoting the indigenous handloom industry. "To the 750 members we gave 20 per cent discount back then. We regularly arranged meetings with these members. Till this day, these members enjoy a 10 per cent discount at Prabartana," says Shamim.

At present Prabartana is intervening in many different areas across Bangladesh to boost the indigenous handloom industry. Tangail, Sirajganj, Comilla and even the hilly districts are the areas from where it chooses weavers to produce yardage. There are one thousand five hundred weavers who are connected to Prabartana. Prabartana provides with the platform that was absent in the first place. "It gives the weavers a strong bargaining point, they can always say to the mahajan (middleman) that if they don't give them the fair price Prabartana will bail them out by buying out their produce," says Mazhar.

At its outlet in Mohammedpur, Prabartana has intoduced indigenous fabrics from the Chittagong hill tract area. "Indigenous fabrics of the Murong, Konchonga, Bome, Tripra, Marma, Chakma, Khumi, Garo are quite favourite with foreigner customers as well as Bangladeshis living abroad," Shamim informs.

Prabartana's philosophy is to contribute to the country's economy as well as make sure that the weavers and the farmers associated with Prabartana get their fare share. Making a living out of weaving has always been difficult, mainly because they do not get fair prices for their products. Prabartana's intervention has helped a weaver, who is associated with it, to earn Tk 150 to Tk 200 per day," Shamim claims. However, the meaning of fair share does not mean proper wage only. Prabartana has been striving to, as its philosophy spells out, work out a decent life for them. Thus Prabartana has established five schools, three in Tangail and two in Bandarban, one each for Murong and the Marma to give weavers' children access to education Shamim says.

Except for a few temporary bad patches Prabartana's popularity has always marked a steady rise. Its yardage and sari however remain the most popular with its customers. "Prabartana's principal focus has always been on yardage and it has always endeavoured to improve it both in terms of quality and variety of design," Shamim points out. Prabartana's efforts have not gone unrewarded, " Apart from a consistent export of yardage we have been supplying or used to supply to most of the branded boutique shops in the town, Shamim reveals.

Since 1989, Prabartana helped initiate a boom in the handloom industry across the country, at the outlet of Prabartana the yardage is living proof of the boom.

"Prabartana started with the slogan that as citizens you too have some responsibilities. One should buy local produce and play his or her role of contributing to the development of the country's economy. It might look very small, but even buying a gamchha one is contributing to the economy. Just imagine, if there is a sizeable local market for our indigenous traditional produce our economy will have a firm footing, and the thousands of weavers and others associated directly or indirectly with the industry will be greatly benefited," Shamim explains how small contribution on everyone's part ultimately accelerate sectoral growth.

And we never say that you must buy from Prabartana, you just buy indigenous produce from anywhere you like," he says. With this responsibility-oriented idea Prabartana expanded into what it is today. It also introduced environment-friendly business. "We started to abandon polythene bags by replacing them with paper bags as early as in 1989 and this did not fall well with many organisations back then. However, soon others followed in our footsteps," recalls Shamim.

In the agricultural sector too Prabartana has stuck to a set of ethics, and it coined a concept called Noia Krishi. Noia Krishi under the banner of Shoshyo Prabartana was meant to introduce organic or natural cultivation where no chemical is used in any stages of the production. The use of pesticide might have caused a sharp rise in production volume, but that happened only in case of a few particular varieties. But what got lost in the process are many of the indigenous varieties of rice.

Prabartana has been trying to revive some of them. "We have also shown that the long-held conception that use of chemical fertiliser increase production is wrong. It is very much possible to grow our own indigenous varieties of rice using natural fertiliser and that too keeping the production volume almost equal to what is possible using chemical fertiliser," Shamim explains.

Shamim also points out that it is contradictory to use chemicals in agriculture when we are so vociferously against adopting any methods that are harmful to the environment. Adopting organic methods would thus solve two problems simultaneously, as it is environment friendly and would help revive our indigenous rice varieties.

Shoshyo Prabartana, the ground floor outlet in the Prabartana building is the evidence of what Prabartana argues in theory. A whole variety of indigenous rice like Binni, Lahaiya, Digha, Chinigura, Kalijira, radhuni pagol, katari aatop, kataribhog both mill processed and the traditional dheki-processed; ghani-processed oil, different varieties of pulse like Oror, mashkolai, motor along with the common ones like moog, mushuri, boot etc are on offer to give one only a glimpse of the huge treasure and varieties of our indigenous crops. And Prabartana has shown that they can be produced without chemical and the price can be kept almost unchanged.

“The business of one should not effect the wellbeing of others," Shamim sums up the moto of ethical business. When one farmer uses pesticides in his own land it contaminates the surrounding areas jeopardising the possibility of growing crops naturally. "If we are to meet the standard set by the European buyers of organic crop we need to transform the whole country to organic way of farming, as a small area is difficult to keep free of chemicals. We have seen our Noia Krishi method failing only because flood or irrigation has caused the invasion of chemical in non-chemical crop," says Shamim.

With the colouration of textiles too there are compliance issues. "In most plants chemical dye is used, as vegetable dyes can only produce 20 to 24 colours and they too are of a certain brightness, and in some cases they are more expensive," explains Shamim.

With textiles as well as with rice crop, Prabartana's main focus is the local market. "It is more consistent and we also want to educate the local market. At the cost of the mangrove forest we are bringing into existence shrimp farms that are fully export-oriented. We want change in this matrix, we want people to produce things that are consumed locally," Shamim elaborates. To this end Ubinig and Prabartana is investing knowledge and labour.

In bringing a change in how we perceive our social reality from a women's perspective and in seeking to better it Prabartana has made intervention in another area. Narigratho Prbarta is an independent body that is a sister concern of Ubinig. And it promotes and publishes the works of women writers.

"Ubinig, since its inception, has had a feminist perspective. When we first started providing support to the weaver families we realised that women are not involved in this sector. We supported those families that had women working for them," recalls Farida Akhter, executive director of Ubinig.

It was the late 1980s and women buyers used to throng the Prabartana outlet at Mohamadpur. "We realised that the women who used to come to the outlet were a vast untapped social sector. We realised that these were the women who usually do not attend a seminar or go out to join a procession to chant slogans, and realised that the only way to engage them in social dialogue is to make arrangements for them to have a reading space," Akhter points out.

By way of providing the space for reading, Narigrantho Prabartana launched their library. It was a library for women readers to read books written only by women. "Narigrantho Prabartana was first conceived as a space where reading and Adda (gossiping) would be facilitated. But it soon dawned on us that there were writers out there whose books needed to get published," explains Akhter.

Narigrantha Prabartana was launched on the auspicious day of Begum Rokeya's birth anniversary, which was December 9, 1989. In fact the name Prabartana was synonymous with Narigrantho Prabartana. It took only one year to transform into a "specialised publishing house" that catered to women readers by publishing works by women writers.

"We introduced the concept of a feminist library as well as a feminist publisher in the country. Meanwhile we remained opened to general publishers that bring out books of women writers, they make up most of the collections that we have in our library," says Akhter who administers an adda every Monday in the space created 16 years ago. "The adda is the means to transform housewives into conscious women who eventually be instrumental in bringing in a change in the society," points out Akhter. The Monday adda still attracts 40 to 50 women everyday, and there are plans of intermingling of the educated urbanites with the non-educated women of the rural areas. "We refuse to call them uneducated, as they have knowledge of different things pertaining to their own life, we want to facilitate an exchange of knowledge between the two groups by spreading the concept of the adda in different localities," relates Akhter.

Narigrantha Prabartana, a 'specialised publishing house' that caters to women readers by publishing books by women writers, now has more than ten thousand books.

Initially Narigrantho Prabartana suffered from scarcity of resource, now the library has more than ten thousand books. And since 1990, the year that saw their first foray into publishing, Narigrantho have published more than five hundred titles, "though many of them are reprints."

"Narigrantaho Prabartana makes the effort to create collective leadership, it designs its programes accordingly. We have programmes in different districts where we meet women writers to promote the idea," Akhter explains. Meanwhile the books published from Prabartana too strive to do the same. There are titles that became runaway best-sellers. "Our series of Rokey's writing each priced at five taka became hugely popular. One of the outstanding publicaton was Shoto Bochhorer Bangladesher Nari, it was published to mark the ushering in of Bangla 1400 year," recalls Akhter.

There are other activities that make this organisation an essential partner in realising the concept of alternative development. "We organised the first feminist book fair in 1999, and before that we organised the first convention of women freedom fighters back in 1990," recalls Akhter.

Ubinig and Prabartana are the twin forces that are interdependent, and together they have made significant contributions in agriculture, small industry as well as knowledge. In a country that bases its development programmes prescribed by the aid-providing nations, and where unemployment rate is one of world's highest, they have managed to provide a model that is self-sufficient and sustainable. The word Prabartana literally means introduction, and it has introduced a concept of development that has proved to be more successful without the intervention of aid agencies.

Copyright (R) 2005