From Paalaguttapalle with Love

A group of women from a small village Paalaguttapalle in Chittoor District in Andhra Pradesh came together to create Paalaguttapalle bags. After drought struckand agriculture slowed down, they began stitching bags to sustain their families. Today, they’ve supplied high quality products all over the world, and also make delicious pickles, free of preservatives, using traditional recipes. Aparna Krishnan, who helps out the Paalaguttapalle Family, shared their story.

The beginning
I finished my studies and worked for a couple of years. I began to seek ways to engage in something more meaningful, and that was when I went to Narmada.At the time, Narmada was a major issue that called for support, so I spent my time there for about a year and a half. My time there showed me that it was important to start questioning the system if the goal was to make lasting and sustainable change.

Around this time, I had a pair of friends, Umashankari and Narendranath, who lived in Paalaguttapalle, having moved there about a decade before that. They decided that they did not want to set up any NGO or organization, but just preferred to use their own money to engage in farming and to work with the community there. That broad framework gave them the space to engage with farming and water issues, which they took across the district to address common challenges. My husband and I joined them there. The region comprises a panchayat of seven hamlets, and each has its own set of houses. We moved to the Scheduled Castes’ hamlet.

We had some land and engaged in some farming at a small scale. We were engaged in all the local issues that prevailed there, and even carried out rainwater harvesting and some afforestation work through several government programs. This went on for a few years, before we began teaching children at home in the evenings - since they attended single teacher schools from classes 1 to 5, there was much left to be done. I knew Ayurveda, and health being an issue there, we worked on that, too. It was all on a very small and simple scale.

Agriculture took a beating when climate change became real. We had exhausted our ground water supply,after the twenty year bonanza we had from the time diesel and power came to the village. Everyone went cash cropping and the writing was on the wall – it was eventually all going to be depleted. Left with no rain and no ground water,and since climate change has halted agriculture, there was a need to also look for other ways to sustain the community. Everyone in the hamlet bore the brunt of this. They were landless laborers, so even if they didn’t lose out in terms of land loss, they lost out on labor and sustenance. This sparked off a wave of migration where young people left to Tirupati, which is 70 kms from the village in search of jobs. Many managed to work in hotels and other similar establishments.

The women who stayed behind wondered what to do. Some knew how to stitch, and two of them began with that. Seeing them at work, three others came up and asked to join. All of these women come from families where the men are good people - at the time, they were looking for work to sustain their families, but found it very difficult as there was simply no work for them to engage in. The whole idea of men being oppressive and women being victims is not in the picture at all. The women live as a community in the village and they know each other.There is a sense of empathy and sympathy and there is no competition among them. There is purely a sense of community. They keep themselves together and they run the show.  

This has been going on for three and a half years, and as orders grew the team increased from four to nine, and more wish to join. Orders were fairly continuous and the four of them stayed busy. They had a sense of attention to detail, which comes out of working with your hands. Any community that has been working in this space has been able to shift from agriculture to other hand-based work. The attention to detail and skill that agriculture and working with their hands helps drive their work, and they operate with the need to keep the customer happy.

I was not there when the women began this initiative, and have since been in and out of the village. They began by stitching and selling their wares. When screen printing became a need. I set up a Facebook account for the village and posted about the need, when a young man named Vignesh connected and volunteered to go to the village on his own dime. He visited the village, stayed for a few days, set up the screen printing unit, and conversed with the women. Soon, a young woman named Lavanya joined us, after which a young man called Arun helped out with the designs as a graphic designer. These people are incredibly passionate about the work and are not interested in the glamour. 

With Facebook providing the platform, orders began to come in steadily. Friends have been immensely helpful. During the Organic World Festival, environmentalist Claude Alvares placed the first big order for 1,500 bags.

Running the business
The women run the initiative entirely, and operate out of a sense of community. They meet every deadline, prioritize the customer, and ensure that they deliver the highest quality product they can create. They have also dealt with many challenges in the process.

Production itself is challenging. Since they live in a remote village,overheads are a lot. The cloth comes from Madurai and the women handle everything that follows. Once they give the customer a deadline, they follow through, no matter the odds. 

On many occasions, they have not had power for long hours. Initially, the post office was treating them badly, so shifting to another post office proved helpful. The postmaster is so supportive,offering to send out the products by putting in his own cash, to recover it from the women at a later date.

The empathy that comes from the sense of community drives them – because while a customer sitting in Delhi can lose their temper for not having had the products within the deadline, the postmaster understands and operates with compassion based on that understanding.