Google ‘industrial designer’ and the following result pulls up – Industrial designers develop concepts and designs for manufactured products. They specialise in one product category, such as automobiles, furniture or housewares.
Typically, such designers work in large corporations. Today, however, I spoke to a student with such a qualification but different aspirations.
Meet Rhea Gupta, a 22-year-old graduate from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru.
Rhea specialized in industrial design, so she is qualified to model state of the art equipment for multi national corporations. Except that’s not what she wants to do with her skill.
Behold the Up cycled Cement Holdall. Do not follow? Right. I will break this down for you shortly. But before that – here’s how and why Rhea created this product.
During her course at Srishti, students were asked to take on an up cycling project, and for this, Rhea decided to conduct some of her primary research on construction sites.
Urban India has a booming construction economy, and of all the waste generated on these sites, what was most noticeable to Rhea were the plastic cement bags lying around.
India is the second largest producer of cement in the world. The vast quantities of cement sacks strewn around construction areas made Rhea question the impact this stray material has on the environment since these bags are made of an exceptionally resilient kind of plastic – polypropylene.
While larger construction sites such as industries can treat their waste in a more environmentally friendly approach, smaller housing sites usually do not.
As for the people physically building these structures, Rhea says 90 percent of this workforce are internal migrants. They often live in their workplaces in shabby makeshift options with uneven surfaces. Not an uncommon sight to most of us.
Owners or contractors of such sites do not provide comfortable housing options, and because poor pay binds migrant labourers, they do not even have the choice of renting close by.
During a round of interviews in the city, she tells me about the time she asked them about their house. “One of them laughed and said, “If we’ve come from Bihar then our house would also be there, no?”. This was when I realized that none of these workers have a real home in the city. Moreover, for them to have a home in a new city is something they do not even think is possible.”
What was common to all these labourers was that they slept on site. Not on comfortable bedding, but on thin coir mats, laid out over uneven surfaces.
Talk Translates to Action: With a little help from a Freedom Fighter
After the interviews, Rhea realized that this assignment was about more than just a good grade. She tells me how it prompted a need for her to make a product that would improve the lives of a huge portion of our population; in a way she knew best.
Putting two of the biggest challenges together – waste from cement bags, and deplorable living conditions of labourers, Rhea decided to create better bedding for workers on the move. But how was she going to design this in an economically viable fashion?
Her late Grandfather – a freedom fighter was the inspiration behind the idea. Mr Shivchand Ramsarup Gupta (1916-88) was active during the 1930s in the freedom struggle. Rhea tells me that his first encounter began when he wore the Gandhi topi to school, and was expelled for doing so!
“He then decided to get involved further into the freedom struggle. He was associated closely with activists like Moraji Desai, Jagjiwan Ram, Vasant Sathe, and many others,” says Rhea about a grandfather she never had the fortune of meeting.
How did a person she never met inspire her to come up with an ergonomic piece of furniture? “I have only seen remains of his things. His trunk, the first Indian flag made by hand. When I was talking to my father, he told to have a look at the mattress Dadaji used, and that’s when I saw his holdall, and the idea struck me!”
Upcycling, very simply, is the practice to up the cycle of a product. It is the process of giving life to an object or material that appears exhausted and is ready to make its way to a landfill. When a product is upcycled, less waste is generated.
Traditionally, a holdall is a large rectangular bag with handles and a shoulder strap, used for carrying clothes and other personal belongings.
Made out of four or more used cement bags, the upcycled cement holdall is stitched together with the thread that these bags are made of. Once stitched, it is used as a mattress, which can be rolled up after it’s used and carried around. It’s held together by straps that can be worn, resembling a backpack. It is six feet in length, and 3 feet in breadth.
“The Upcycled Hold-all is designed for that section of the economy that have unsanctioned, or no homes at all. It is designed for those who work hard through long, unregulated working hours, and are not even promised a carefree, comfortable and restful sleep at night. It is designed for the migrant labor force of India,” says Rhea.
Distribution of the holdall
An innovative and socially conscious idea such as this must find it’s way to its intended beneficiaries. This is where Rhea has hit a roadblock. She tells me that she needs help to make this idea become a reality for the many migrant workers of our country.
Rhea is currently on the lookout for organisations she can partner with to make this happen.
What is clear from our conversation is Rhea wants to help the economically less fortunate. That is her calling as she says “I do not want to work with the big corporates. Designing their products is not what I want to do. I want to serve people in the villages, those who need it the most.“