Parindey: Kunal Singh and Malini Kochupillai
Alivelihood: Bee Conservation
Region: Jia, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh
When Kunal met Malini at her exhibition of ‘Khirkee Avaaz’– a community driven project attempting to unpack complex social, cultural, and economic divides of the neighbourhood of Khirkee (Delhi) through arts, creative expression and storytelling- and upon learning that he was from Himachal Pradesh, the first thing she asked him was to get her some raw honey from the mountains. She had been looking for it everywhere. Little did they know then that this little demand would take the form of a challenge and then, a journey on the quest for solutions. “As a child I remember that we were gifted a bottle of raw honey on our birthdays. This was the sweet the elders would feed the kids, since too much sugar isn’t healthy,” says Kunal. Yet, it was proving to be a difficult task to find raw honey. “I made multiple calls back home, but instead of returning with a bottle of honey, I returned with a problem, “Where were the traditional beekeepers and the raw honey?””
This was the beginning of Kunal and Malini’s hunt across Himachal Pradesh to do something about this, and it took them from one corner of the mountainous state to another, until they finally got a break in Kangra. Here, in the village of Dyala, a female sarpanch received them. Over their journey across the state, this was the first time they had met a female sarpanch. Patriarchy had proved to be a challenge in the other regions that they had visited, the sarpanch least bothered about a pair with some ideas on reviving traditional beekeepers and harvesting of pure honey. But Kiran ji was welcoming. She was even hoping that someone would conduct training here for the same. “The people have lost the touch they once had with beekeeping,” she said. Excited, Kunal and Malini arranged for a discussion for which they brought together a bunch of people- traditional beekeepers, village heads etc., and had a day-long conversation on bee-keeping.
Following this, Kunal and Malini set up the ‘Tenacious Bee Collective’ (TBC) in July, 2018. TBC is an initiative that works on promoting sustainable harvest of honey and conservation of bees while employing the values of small-scale production, rural-livelihood development and women empowerment. It is registered as a private limited company, and whereas this may come as a surprise to some, Kunal explains the meaning behind this move. “We want to spread a message to people—be it private or social endeavours—that private companies can also be sustainable, people-oriented and eco-friendly in their ways. In the future, we hope that profit is not based on exploitation, but is slow and rewarding to one and all.”
The products at TBC are packaged by a self-help group consisting of 6 women from the surrounding areas. The women gather at the workshop every week-day morning where they package and even curate some products over love, laughter and chai. Challenging the shackles of patriarchy, they embody independence and strength with their motivation to work for themselves. “I’ve always wanted to learn new things… After coming here it has been good, you know, we spend some time away from home and we get to learn new things!,” Nirmala Devi shares. To source honey, the collective works with beekeepers across the Western Himalayas. They also encourage villagers to keep bee boxes to invite bees to set up their hives in backyards or fields. TBC follows a policy of harvesting only 30% of the honey in a comb to ensure that it is harvested in small amounts so as to keep enough for the bees as well. To incentivise such practices amongst the local people, they offer a higher rate per kg as against the normal price range across the country.
The villagers of Jiya initially regarded them as crazy people with crazy ideas who, like most others, would come, do a little something, and leave. But over time, the villagers’ perspective has shifted. They now not only believe in their ideas but also consider them as a part of their village. Kunal and Malini also receive calls from people seeking advice regarding their children’s education and employment opportunities. Once, they had received a call asking if their newly welcomed daughter-in-law, who was educated, could work with them. Kunal says, “Calls like these can also be difficult because we want to help and we want to be able to provide more employment. But we are working at a very small scale right now and we do not want to accept someone and not be able to pay them or pay them less.” During the winters, when the bees move down from high altitudes to set camp in lower altitudes where the villages are, they receive a lot of questions from villagers on how one can do bee-keeping at home, how to tend to bees, what to feed them, when and how much honey they can harvest, etc. To address knowledge-gaps in such areas, TBC often conducts training and workshops for the local villagers, also curating specifically tailored sessions for different groups of people, for example, fun art lessons for children and product crafting workshops for women.
They also host gatherings where traditional beekeepers meet people from academia aimed at bridging the knowledge-gap between these two worlds and giving value to traditional knowledge and its practitioners. One important piece of information this exchange has revealed is that in academia, apis mellifera, an Italian species of bee, is more commonly used in commercial beekeeping. This is because they are very industrious and produce larger quantities of honey. But these bees are not resilient to the local climatic conditions of the Himalayan region. Whereas the Italian bees can travel upto 3-4 kms, the Apis Cerena Indica, an Indian species of bee,can travel upto 6-7 kms. This endurance helps them do the tough job of flying uphill and downhill, battling strong winds and going about their bee-duties. This calls for prioritising the local species, and researching them to effectively contribute to their conservation and sustainable honey harvesting practices. They also work the best for rural ecologies.
At Tenacious Bee, Kunal identifies some challenges that the collective faces and aims to overcome through their work. A major hurdle lies in receiving funding and grant opportunities. “Funders want instant returns. But the only thing in nature that is instant is destruction.” Organisations that can be potential funders usually demand an end-result like upscaling within a short time frame and a tight budget. Kunal and Malini are not afraid to shun down such players, explaining that if a system is exploitative, they would rather not partner with them. Within the collective as well, lack of good packaging material proves to be an issue. The challenge lies in procuring material that is consistently of good quality and fit, which it sometimes is and other times isn’t. TBC tries to be sustainable and small-scale even in sourcing material, thus reaching out to other SHGs for items like hand-made boxes wherein they pack their honey samplers and bee-care packages which include beeswax candles and salves. There is also a need for better research and infrastructure that can help them develop and be able to provide more jobs.
TBC hopes that the work they do ignites a fire that burns bigger and brighter beyond their lifetime. They do not expect to see any immediate results, but instead aim to contribute towards the larger goal of a sustainable and just world.“Bees are the perfect example of living harmoniously with nature—they take nectar and pollinate nearly 70% of earth’s plants in exchange- creating all the lush biodiversity we take for granted. If humans were to give back to nature as much as we take from her—the world would be a very different place,”shares Malini. In fact, bees can teach us a lot about what a democracy should truly look like. Every decision that is taken is a collective decision reached through a dance form called “waggle dance.” In this, bees with differing perspectives come together and communicate their opinions through a zig-zag-shaped movement, where each bee dances along a pattern of its own. But when a consensus is reached, the bees unite in one movement, forming one pattern. Just like the bees, TBC aims to be a localised and democratic initiative spread across the Western Himalayas.
Kunal can be reached at: [email protected]
Malini can be reached at: [email protected]
Follow them on social media :https://www.instagram.com/tenaciousbeehive/
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First Published by 52 Parindey on 19 May 2022