Sunil Kumar Paal and Aroti Rani Paal are artisans of traditional "tepa putul" (dolls made of clay). They have been doing this for the last five decades.
Though most artisans have already changed their profession, they are one of those very few families who chose to carry on with their ancestors' trade . In a shrunk market for this craft, the lion's share of their income usually came from the Pahela Baishakh fair.
This year they missed out on the fair due to covid-19 pandemic. The paal family was drowning in despair when "Pashe Achi Initiative"- a voluntary organisation stepped in to help them.
They initially bought some of their products and showcased them on their Facebook page. With the overwhelming response from viewers, the founders of Pashe Achi became inspired. On behalf of the paals, they started selling their products. The amount they receive directly goes to the artisans.
How Pashe Achi was formed?
Pashe Achi came into existence because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was formed after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-March this year to forestall the spreading of coronavirus. As the wheels of economy stagnated and lives of millions of underprivileged people were thrown into uncertainty, a group of young people came forward with an urge to do something for the deprived.
They created a Facebook page named "Pashe Achi". The initial plan was to collect funds for the disadvantaged people and stand beside them in a time of distress.
Soon, the enterprising page founders Tahmid Hasan, Rafiul M Chowdhury, Anika Ahsan and Abdullah Al Mahmood Sakif figured out that instead of raising funds, they could monetise the skills of individuals, as in the long run it would prove to be more sustainable.
They started their first project titled "Grontho Mongol". It focused on the booksellers of the capital's Nilkhet market. The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on book sales as customers remained self-isolated in their homes since March.
Under this project they purchase books in bulk from the sellers at Nilkhet and resell them at a fixed rate of Tk 200 through social media.
They explained their stand of keeping the price fixed at Tk 200. "Books are sold at Tk 200 because it includes the book itself, the delivery man's charge, as well as some other costs," said Tahmid, who now act as the spokesperson for the Pashe Achi initiative.
"If we make a profit out of it, we help the needy. We don't take a single penny in our pockets," he said.
The way of diversification
To avail the service, one has to send a direct message to the Facebook page to confirm the order. The page has kept the delivery charge outside Dhaka at Tk 150 and requested orders for at least two books to cover the minimum expenses.
So far, the response from people has been overwhelmingly positive. In just three months, they had managed to sell over 25,000 books and is currently working with over 50 stores in the Nilkhet area.
"We are always interested in local arts as those are in decline and the artisans are forced to change their profession. We always wanted to do something for them," said Tahmid.
"During the pandemic we came across a Facebook post of the plight of Sushant Kumar Paal, a clay artisan of Rajshahi."
After seeing that Facebook post, we realised handicraft makers or local artisans like Sushant might have been facing the same plight as Nilkhet book-sellers. They started contacting those artisans and offered to sell their products through their Facebook page.
They received good response, hence they started their other projects.
Tahmid said their endeavours are not free from backlash.
"We were often accused of keeping the prices high both for the books and the traditional crafts. People have also accused us of inspiring piracy as a large number of books are photocopied in Nilkhet," said Tahmid.
"But you have to understand that we need to include commuting and maintenance cost, along with the price tag. This is why the price goes a little higher," he said.
Besides, as in the case of Nilkhet book-sellers, Tahmid explained they are making extremely small profits with their sales, as the margin is very low for such products.
"Many readers have the desire to buy original foreign books, but do not have the ability to pay for those. Our project has been effective for them too, as Nilkhet is a treasure-trove of old foreign books."
"Overall, we found it more important to help poor booksellers and meet the needs of interested readers than getting concerned with piracy; so we stood by them. We also respect writers, but the value of life is more than that",Tahmid added.
The Pashe Achi Initiative uses the profits generated from different projects to expand their humanitarian causes. The organisation has for been able to supply food packets to the hardest hit groups across the country. They have also aided flood-affected communities in different parts of the country.
Recently they took a project on Anti-Rape Rickshaw Art to increase awareness among the public about sexual violence.
The founders said with proper funding they plan to arrange an exhibition for local artisans where they will be able to display their handicrafts and people will come to know about the variety of traditions the country has.
The author is an Economics Student at the University of California, Berkeley