At India’s only cafe run by acid attack survivors, Covid curbs force staff to reskill | India News – Times of India

AGRA: At the Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra, which is run entirely by acid attack survivors, a “closed” signboard hangs on the door, but occasionally visitors can be seen entering the property. Inside, chairs and tables that once welcomed eager diners have been stacked aside to make space for a workshop of sorts. The ‘visitors’ are actually instructors holding remote classes on subjects ranging from chocolate-making to DIY candles as employees of the Covid-hit business look to reskill amid an uncertain future.
The cafe, along with its branch in Lucknow, was among restaurants that downed shutters when India went into a lockdown in March. For their 30-odd women employees — some of whom featured in Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhappak earlier this year — their lives and incomes came to an abrupt halt.

“At first, we resorted to crowdfunding,” said Ritu Saini, one of the survivors who had made an appearance in the Bollywood flick. “We managed to secure enough money to pay all employees a stipend of Rs 10,000 per month for some time,” said the 24-year-old. The monetary assistance helped them tide over any immediate crisis. Once the lockdown somewhat lifted, they tried online delivery, but orders were few. “It wasn’t viable and we needed something else,” said Saini.
So the team decided to reskill — a rehabilitation centre in Noida was turned into the head office of upcoming venture ‘A Gift Story’, an online gift service, and the Agra eatery was converted into a training workshop for it.
Ashish Shukla, founder of Chhanv Foundation, the non-profit that backs the Sheroes initiative, said, “All products on the website such as candles, chocolates, clothes and jewellery are being designed by the survivors. Currently, they are undergoing remote training with artists and designers. About 100 volunteers are helping us in this journey and we expect to employ about 100 survivors by the end of 2021.” The NGO is also helping other survivors take up courses on yoga, cooking, makeup.
Challenges, however, remain. The Lucknow cafe — which they tried to open intermittently — has been shut down for the third time since the pandemic, while it has become difficult to call instructors at the Agra cafe to hold regular remote classes as the number of Covid-19 cases surge in UP. Shukla also admitted that their social and medical rehabilitation programme for survivors, which has 150 women enrolled, has been hit since profits from the cafes have been wiped out.
Abhay Singh, who looks after the finances of the organisation, said, “The revenue generated by the cafes and donations combined annually amounted to Rs 2 crore in the pre-pandemic period. While 70% of the amount was revenue generated by the cafes, 30% were donations. Since Covid-19 hit, the donations have also reduced by half.”
For the survivors, it’s another challenge that life has thrown at them, one they are hoping to overcome quickly. “It’s upsetting that our workplace is shut, but we will not back down. We will learn new skills,” said Khushboo (who only uses her first name), who managed the front desk in one of the cafes.
For Kavita, a receptionist, it’s a chance to combine her hobby with her livelihood. “Before joining the cafe, I used to make paper jewellery for a living, I will now sell it online.”

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