A stitch in time saves lives

Sharmi Adhikari

While browsing through her Facebook feed, Vidhi Rastogi, owner of Meiraas, an online label working with artisanal handicraft-oriented fashion, came across Paalaguttapalle bags. “I wanted to wrap my creations in them to be sent to my patrons,” she says. Besides the sturdiness of the bags—thick cotton fabric is used to make them; as an ethical brand wanting to package Meiraas products in something sustainable encouraged Rastogi to associate with them.

Her thoughts are echoed by Chinmayi Sripada, who owns Isle of Skin, a company producing skincare potions. The products reach buyers wrapped in Paalaguttapalle cloth covers that Sripada has been sourcing from this initiative based in Chittoor village for some time now. Paalaguttapalle, in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, is a hamlet of Dalit agricultural labourers whose livelihoods were severely affected after back-to-back droughts from 2010 to 2015.

The 60-odd families had little option but to distress-sell their cattle. Aparna Krishnan, a software engineer who moved here in 1995 with her husband to volunteer for the community, was at her wits’ end on how to bolster the lives of the villagers financially. “Sitting in the temple one day with these women, we were struck with the idea of putting their knowledge of tailoring to good use. We decided to try this community initiative out with just four women in March of 2016. Many women have joined since then,” Krishnan says, recalling how it was the women of Paalaguttapalle who rose to the occasion to feed the mouths in need. Using the power of social media to reach out to potential buyers, Krishnan and her friends put up pictures of the bags on their Facebook page.

From the basic pouches and totes to the more in-trend sling bags, backpacks and even laptop bags, the women also make pickles using traditional recipes that are free of preservatives. When orders for the bags started coming in, Krishnan’s friends also chipped in to help with designing and screen-printing to increase the saleability. Today thanks to the resilience and enterprise of these hardworking women, Paalaguttapalle bags have also travelled to the US, UK and Canada. Vinanti Shah, the owner of Ren, a contemporary jewellery label, says, “I came across a Hong Kong brand using Paalaguttapalle bags and loved them. Since I totally advocate sustainable fashion, it worked to my advantage that this initiative was to bolster drought-struck families. They are a perfect match for my handmade jewellery.”

But the journey was anything but easy. Electricity is erratic in this hamlet. There have been days when the women spend an entire day getting things ready for screen-printing and the area would be plunged in darkness. Also, in order to get stencil and paints, the women have to make an expensive trip to Tirupati every now and then, besides a further trip to Pakala to courier finished products. “When one is in a slightly remote village, business is all about overheads. These hindrances cannot be discounted from the way these women have soldiered on. But it’s been an amazing journey,” says Krishnan, adding, “Profits are not important. It’s the sense of fairness as they define it, the feeling of peace and friendship, and of course, parity that is important to them.”

Even in the face of all odds, the women’s efforts seem to have hit the right notes. Malavika Kamath, a sari curator retailing online, says, “The bags are a favourite with my clients. It’s eco-friendly and can easily be repurposed. The women are also receptive to new ideas. They have shown how enterprise and diligence can change situations from poverty to self-sustainability.” The women are now planning to make blouses, patchwork quilts and more even as they travel to different cities and states to spread awareness about their work. With the tough battle for survival won, the road ahead can only be a smooth ride.

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