Asha Handicrafts

    A thin layer of sawdust blankets the city of Saharanpur, a bustling centre of woodworking in northern India. Countless workshops crowd both city centre and outlying villages. Ox-drawn carts trundle through the streets, laden heavy with timber harvested from the nearby Himalayan foothills, timber which provides abundant source material for the many woodworkers here who create beautifully carved and inlaid crafts.

    Many families in Saharanpur and its small outlying villages have been woodworkers for generations. Traditionally, a son spends years learning the trade as an apprentice under his father before becoming a practicing artisan himself. Designs and motifs are particular to each family, passed as a legacy from one generation to the next.

    In this industrious city, amid the flurry of activity, the hammering of chisels and the frenzied buying and selling of lumber, one workshop has set itself apart. At U.P. Dastakar (Craftsmen of Uttar Pradesh), inspiration and Fair Trade principles have resulted in a unique working environment.

    The workshop’s founder, Rafique Ahmed, possessed a special creative genius. It was Ahmed who invented the whimsical nose-shaped spectacle stand that has been a long-time bestseller at Ten Thousand Villages. It was also Ahmed who created a series of remarkable interlocking animal-shaped puzzle boxes, designs which have inspired countless other workshops in the city.

    But what most sets U.P. Dastakar apart from the myriad of other workshops is its practice of Fair Trade, which ensures higher wages and consistent orders for its artisans. Says Ahmed, “Fair Trade has enabled me to send my children to better schools and pay for the medical care of my parents.” 

    The benefits go far beyond fair income. U.P. Dastakar’s association with Asha Handicrafts, a Fair Trade organization based in Mumbai, India, has benefited its artisans in many other ways. When the co-operative decided to consolidate its five locations into one large building to help with efficiency and expenses, Asha provided funding in the form of a loan.

    Asha works with artisan groups across India to ensure safe working conditions, funding improvements like safe drinking water, electrical wiring and air quality for woodworkers. Asha also provides help with marketing, design consultancy, product development, interest-free loans, savings programs, medical care, educational scholarships, uniforms and books for children. Training is given at the local level on such issues as AIDS, tuberculosis, family planning, addictions, domestic violence and gender discrimination, as well as numerous seminars related to business management skills.

    Sadly, Rafique Ahmed passed away in 2010. His widow and his nephew Azeem now carry on the family legacy, ensuring that U.P. Dastakar continues to provide reliable and fairly paid employment to its many skilled artisans.