Leading a revolution of mushroom cultivation in Thoothukudi district, S Dhanalakshmi of Thulasi Social Trust is an example of the changing face of rural women who are embracing self-empowerment. Born into a family of saltpan workers, she opted out of the family occupation, as she decided to join a self help group that was being promoted by Sterlite Copper, almost 10 years ago.
A course in mushroom cultivation at Kamaraj College with the help of the company opened new vistas for the young homemaker, who was just trying to find her feet. “I didn’t want to become a salt pan worker, as there are lots of occupational hazards involved in it. I was sent for a course in mushroom cultivation in 2005, an initiative supported by Sterlite Copper,” she recalls.
Now an expert of mushrooms, as many call her, she cultivates both sirpi kalaan (oyster mushroom) and paal kalaan (milk mushroom) that will grow in tropical climates. She points to her small mushroom field near her house that has huge bags of mushroom seeds in various stages of germination. “It is completely organic and contains no chemicals,” she says.
Her current income stands at `20,000 per month and she has made mushroom more popular as a product and food in the district. “People now eat mushrooms more willingly in my district. Earlier they were scared, assuming it was poisonous,” she recalls.
Dhanalakshmi developed innovative methods of marketing mushrooms in the form of soup powder. “Since we have to sell mushrooms within a couple of days of harvest, we make soup powder from the dried mushrooms. It has no preservatives like the ones you find in the market. I sell them during government events, where we get a stall to put up our products. My soups have been sold in places as far as Mumbai,” she says with a touch of pride.
Her mushroom cultivation methods won her the CII Women Exemplar Award in 2008. “I went to Solan in Himachal Pradesh to know more about mushroom cultivation at the Directorate of Mushroom Research there,” she adds.
Her success in mushroom cultivation prompted many men to learn the process from her. “I train many people in the surrounding villages in the district and take classes at Pope College, Tiruchy. I have been called to Chennai too, to train a few there. It makes me happy to see that people who learn the methods from me actually come up with more innovative methods of cultivation,” Dhanalakshmi adds.
While her husband Senthur Selvam is employed at a private company, Dhanalakshmi beams as she says it is her income that is supporting the education of her two children — a girl pursuing engineering and a boy in Class VII.
Her success story also speaks of social change in a society where the income of a woman hardly matters. “But my husband is highly supportive of my decisions. I belong to a lower caste, while he is from an upper caste. However, after the award and increase in income, today my mother-in-law is very proud of me and consults me for any financial decision.”
Now, Dhanalakshmi is pursuing a BA in Tamil Literature from Alagappa University. She says, “I want to educate myself and improve my communication skills. It would make a lot of difference to my confidence levels as well.”