This Holi, India's prisoners make all-natural colors

DELHI -- Inmates of South Asia's largest prison add GREEN to India's festival of colors. Former convicts bring the natural products outside. Hear from them.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent

DELHI -- India is going to be drenched in colors over the next few days. It’s Holi – a festival celebrated by soaking family, friends and strangers in powders and paints at home, in parks or on the street. After the wild revelry, come hours of soaping and shampooing. Folks will return to office with tinted hair, ears and necks. Lunch time conversation will be about about rashes, dryness and advancing pimples caused by chemicals used in colors especially the gold and silver paint.

Every year, doctors warn that these colors, mixed with glass and metals (lead, chromium among others), can be toxic and carcinogenic. The colors also pollute groundwater and rivers.

This time, however, revelers, could try using completely natural colors made up of maize starch, vegetable oil of an edible grade, herbal essences and natural fragrance. They even benefit the skin, according to the makers. An added bonus is the packaging of agriculture-waste paper, which is also green.

These handmade colors are courtesy inmates from India’s notorious Tihar jail – the largest prison in South Asia. These artistes are serving lengthy sentences for crimes like murder and rape. Some finicky people could be worried about bad vibes. Relax—before work begins, these prisoners engage in long hours of meditation in the morning. Hygiene conscience, they  also wear face-masks, hand-gloves, head and foot covers.

Holi colors is one of the initiatives taken by Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan (DJ), which works to provide spiritual solace and livelihood to prisoners in 27 prisons in India. The prisoners get paid Rs. 110 each day of work. When one activity finishes, another one rolls around—the next one is making incense sticks.

“My stall is completely sold out and it feels good,” said Sukhdev, 42, who was stationed at the busy Ambience Mall in the capital. Ajay doesn’t keep the money—this is way more personal. He too was imprisoned in Tihar after being convicted for murdering a friend in a brawl. During his incarceration, Sukhdev decided to participate in DJ's activities. “You do something and have purpose or you do nothing and go crazy,” he said. After being released, Sukhdev works as a carpenter but still volunteers.

At the helm of the stock distribution is 26-year-old Ajay who was convicted for robbery as a teenager. “This year's success will help the chances of people inside," he said. Ajay, now back in college, explained that being part of the DJ program is not about earning money in jail. “You’re marginalized inside and you’re marginalized outside, working helps you come together, get organized and later face the world," he said.

DJ, in operation for nearly two decades, initially followed a path of spiritual support that would fortify prisoners against their inner demons and appalling surroundings. Recently, it embarked on the practical side of prisoner rehabilitation by training inmates to make all sorts of items like handicrafts, herbal cosmetics, rakhees (a band given by brothers to sisters on a bro-sis festival) and lamps for Diwali –the festival of lights.

“Our challenge is to mainstream them into society…these activities help break the ice,” said Swami Vishalanand, a DJ activist. The money from the sales goes into funding other activities of spiritual interaction, building livelihood and preventing drug abuse.

One color pack costs Rs.65 ($1.29) but it could be hard to get hold of them now. In the two years since the project began, the demand and production has gone up. This year, 30 corporations and a bank cued up including Royal Bank of Scotland, Suzuki, Wipro Infotech, Hyatt and Ericsson.

Hardev, also a former inmate, was working five stalls in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, till about 11 pm on the night before Holi on Thursday. “It has no side-effects and it smells nice too,” he said. The 31-year-old has come long way from his old work – swiping goods from export boxes and filling them with cement or sand. “All that is over now,” said Hardev, a full time volunteer with DJ. “Next year, we’re going to make more colors.”

Seven different herbal aromas come with each color--red in Fresh Rose, orange in Kesar Haldi, pink in the Lilly of Valley, Green in Lemon Grass, Sky Blue in Fresh Mint, Yellow in Lal Chandan and Magenta in Lavender.

Happy Holi  everyone.

Photos - Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan/imovies4you.com-Google images

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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