After a gap of over two months, the familiar throbbing sound of the wooden handlooms can be heard once again in the bylanes of Chendamangalam, a small village in Kerala renowned for its centuries-old handwoven textiles. The devastating floods in mid-August, which left a pervasive trail of destruction across the state, had caused massive losses for the handloom cooperatives in Chendamangalam, home to nearly 600 weavers, most of them women.
The flood-waters in August had pushed hundreds of looms into disrepair, inflicted damage to infrastructure of factories, sunk stocks worth crores of rupees which were being readied for sales during Onam and slashed at the roots of meagre earnings of the weavers. Rough estimates of losses of five handloom cooperative societies in Chendamangalam alone amounted to Rs 15 crore. For a dying craft, unable to compete against power looms and reporting high attrition of weavers every year due to low wages, the floods threatened to be the final nail in the coffin.
However, in the last two months, a good number of private and public-sector firms have volunteered to funnel funds to revive the handloom sector. A committee formed by the Ernakulam district administration to assess losses roped in several public and private firms to use their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to repair the looms. Ernakulam Collector Mohammed Y Safirulla has set December 15 as the deadline by which all affected handloom cooperatives would be made completely operational.
An official in the district administration said, “Around 40 per cent of the looms have been reinstated already. A meeting was held with companies like Petronet, Cochin Shipyard, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) and V-Guard to discuss how they can use their CSR funds for the handloom industry. I think we have been able to make a change. The idea is to be able to get into an innovative and progressive mode of operations, better than what used to exist before the floods.”
At the H47 handloom cooperative in Chendamangalam, Subhadra, 71, who mastered the art of weaving in her teenage years, is happy to get back on the saddle. The last two months have been the most traumatic in her life, she says, as she struggled to manage expenses at home. All she received from the government was the compensation of Rs 10,000, promised to every flood-affected family, and essential items like rice, sugar and lentils.
“How can we ask the society to pay us when they are facing huge losses themselves?” she asked.
Weaving operations at the H47 society resumed in the second week of October after 28 of the 30 looms at the factory were repaired with the help of funds collected by students of a private school in Kochi. The school’s management and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) had gotten in touch with the society to ask how they could help. Estimate of losses were drawn up and vital damages were assessed. Subsequently, the school students came up with nearly Rs 1.3 lakh that went into repairing the wooden looms and replacing damaged parts of equipment like reeds, heddles and harnesses. Four charkhas, used for spinning yarn, were also repaired.
“The students did all the work of collecting funds. They (society) told us where to buy new handloom equipment from. We went there, paid for it and delivered it to the society,” said Rose Jacob, a member of the PTA at the Rajagiri School in Kochi.
Weavers at the cooperative are now hard at work, producing uniforms for students in government schools for the next academic session. PA Sojan, secretary of the 63-year-old society, is thankful for the contributions of the school students, but admits that much still needs to be done to make the society financially viable. For this, he says, the government must not renege on its promises to the weaving community.
“For the last 69 days, our weavers have not been paid. They have worked tirelessly to clean the factory and fix the looms. The government must release Rs 5 lakh immediately so that we can pay them,” he says. “Additionally, we need Rs 60,000 to carry out wiring works. We need Rs 8 lakh to complete interior works at the showroom. Our total estimated loss stands at Rs 95 lakh,” he adds.
Sojan says he places a lot of trust in the ruling LDF government to deliver as it promised. “But we are also aware of the government’s limitations,” he says.
Half a kilometre away, similar changes have sprung up at another cooperative society, popularly called H191. Of the total 21 looms at the society that used to function before the floods, 17 have been repaired and work on four others are under progress with assistance from a rotary club. The factory walls have received a fresh coat of white paint and the cracks that had appeared in the roof have been sealed. Here too, the weavers, all women, have resumed work trying to complete a government order for school uniforms.
“Honestly, we didn’t think we could come back to work so soon. It’s all because of the private firms who moved quickly to give us funds and repair the looms. If the government was involved, it would have taken forever,” says Liji.
Sunitha, another weaver, says her husband’s earnings from tile work in the last two months have compensated for the meager money she brings from her workplace. “We had a loan to pay off. But we took another loan to pay that loan. It goes on like that,” she says, with a smile.
K P Sadanandan, president of the H191 society, is all praise for the district collector who’s apparently ‘very active’ and has visited Chendamangalam at least four times already. He has been attending all meetings with the district administration to chalk out rebuilding measures and hopes that necessary funds would be released to flatten the losses of the society.
“You have to understand that there are huge labour costs associated with this industry. For the last two months, the workers have not been paid a single rupee. How will they survive? Moreover, the government has to pay us Rs 85 lakh for the stocks we lost to the floods. Unfortunately, the paperwork is moving very slowly,” he says.
Increasing wages is in fact one of the perennial demands of cooperative societies and weavers in and around Chendamangalam. With sales picking up only during festivals like Onam and Vishu and daily living costs rising in Kerala, they say unless wages are revised, the unique craft will fade into oblivion.
“Kuli vardhanavu vannilengil, pidichu nikkan pattila. Ithrem kuranja koolikku engane kuttikale padipikkan pattum (If wages are not increased, we cannot hold on anymore. After all, who can raise children with such low wages),” says 64-year-old Ashokan, an independent weaver.
That’s the overwhelming sentiment in this tiny coastal village these days. Sure, the impact of the floods could be reversed by December this year, thanks to efforts by public and private-sector firms, but what about rescuing a craft doomed to die one day? The government must make amends, they say.
The second part of the series comes tomorrow from Perumbavoor, the hub of plywood trade in Kerala.