Kerala floods wash away livelihood of Chendamangalam’s female handloom weavers

38 female weavers at a handloom factory in Chendamangalam, Ernakulam district, are struggling to get their loom machines up and about before they start feeling the pinch.
Kerala floods wash away livelihood of Chendamangalam’s female handloom weavers
Kerala floods wash away livelihood of Chendamangalam’s female handloom weavers
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An army of women is at work in a weaving factory in Chendamangalam, a small town in the Paravur taluk of Ernakulam district, known for its handloom. Usually, these women are busily thrumming on the loom machines, weaving beautiful handlooms.

But today, they wield bamboo broomsticks and water hose pipes to clean the slit and salvage the soiled warp and weft threads. This is the aftermath of the recent floods and to these women, it not only wreaked havoc on the machinery at their workplace but also their livelihoods.

This weaving factory under the Chendamangalam Handloom Society has 40 weavers, of which 38 are women, with a majority of them aged over 50 years old and a few of them, widowed.

These women have been earning their daily wages through this profession for the past 30 years. With bank loans, they have been funding the education of their children.

The flood water entered the factory on August 15 and remained for eight days. When the water drained out completely, these female weavers were devastated to see the amount of destruction caused to the machinery and weaving material.

While hosing down the dirt collected in the yarn, Sagiri, who has been weaving for 38 years, explains, “The shuttle with weft yarn has been rusted, heaps of warp and weft threads have been soiled. Some threads have been so soiled that they cannot be salvaged. The foot treadles of some looms have broken. Only the wooden frames of the 40 loom machines here can be used again.”

These women weave school uniforms and mundu (sarongs). They lost almost 1,000 meters of cloth, including pure cotton clothes.

“When we heard about the floods, we kept a few machines on an elevated platform, but in vain. Everything was destroyed and some equipment toppled over,” she says, pointing to the long trails of yarns kept outside to be disposed of.

Some of these women, like Sagiri, started working at the factory when weaving from home became tedious.

“I used to weave at home, but eventually, the yarn process, buying the thread, shedding, picking and battening became tough, especially with no help. So, I decided to come to the factory,” says Sagiri.

And for some women like Subadra, age and health reflect in their wages. She is 71 years old and the oldest among them.

“We get paid per metre, which is Rs 60 to Rs 62. Women here weave 6 metres to 7 metres per day. Due to age-related ailments, I had to reduce my weaving capacity from 7 metres to 5 metres. So, I get paid accordingly. But after deducting allowance, advance amount, if any, and schemes, our take-home is pittance, hardly sufficient to get us by.”

Sreedevi, who has been weaving at this factory for 33 years, and her husband, a fisherman, took a bank loan to educate their two children. A minor illness or one metre weaved less will considerably affect the amount to pay off the loan.

“We get paid if and for what we weave,” she says, with a poignant look. “As our wage depends on the metre of yarn we have woven, if we fall short of one metre, even 30 minutes won’t suffice to weave the extra metre. If I do not turn up for work one day, it means no wage.”  

Incidentally, the weavers here faced a crisis in June when the threads to weave clothes did not reach them. “Due to some financial glitches, we did not have threads and hence could not work for almost a month. But, by the time we picked up and started functioning again in July, the deluge took a toll on our livelihood, yet again,” says Sagiri.

According to these weavers, it will take another six months to start weaving again. This also includes the wait for threads as 72 spools of yarn are required for one loom machine. 

“We are facing such a grave situation for the first time. It not only cost us our daily wage but our homes as well. We had to shift from school to school in search of relief camp during the floods. We need assistance to restart our work and to rebuild our houses. At present, we are surviving with the provisions we received from relief camps,” says Subhadra.

Sojan, secretary of the Chendamangalam Handloom Society, says, “We are soon convening a meeting with government officials to provide these weavers with ration on food and assistance on an allowance. Though it will take six months, they would need bank loans, else they may take their own lives.”

Meanwhile, despite the miseries staring at them, these weavers and women from the neighbourhood, along with assistance from organisations, are up and about trying to revive the factory to its old glory, cheering each other all along.

Even Subhadra, who survived a heart attack a week ago, joins the cleaning process. Until then, thrums of the looms will be an impending reality.

Meanwhile, Kochi-based designers like Shalini James and Sreejith Jeevan, have taken to social media platforms, requesting designers and the public to help the weavers at Chendamangalam get back on their feet. 

"Chendamangalam is known for their GI certified handloom products. The cluster consists of five societies with more than 600 weavers. This year's floods in Kerala have destroyed all their looms, yarns and raw material. This cluster, which has been awarded the prestigious GI (geographical indication) tag, is now trying very hard to resurrect itself. One way we can support their cause is by buying their stock worth over Rs 40 lakh which is currently drenched but can be salvaged if we act soon enough," wrote Sreejith, founder of Rouka boutique, on Facebook.  

Shalini, founder of Mantra, along with Sreejith, have managed to collect stock from these clusters and are asking people to buy saris, dhotis and settu-mundu from this collection. 

They have set up helplines for this: +91 755889189,  

This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala. 

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