When it rained, their only option was to get wet because umbrellas were a means of luxury in Kerala’s tribal heartland of Attappady those days.
“As children, we found umbrellas to be very expensive and often distinguished the poor from the rich by whether they owned an umbrella or not,” said 49-year-old K. Pappathi of the Agali tribal settlement while giving finishing touches to a stylish umbrella that can compete with those of large-scale manufacturers.
Now forming part of a unique tribal empowerment initiative by voluntary organisation Thambu, Pappathi makes 10 to 15 umbrellas a day to support her eight-member family. Same is the case of B. Lakshmi, 31, of Dasannnur settlement and P. Rekha, 28, of the Kalalmala settlement. They, along with 37 other tribal women, are now making 25,000 trendy umbrellas for marketing during this rainy season across the State with the help of Gulf-based social media collective Peace Initiative and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) Department. Named Karthumbi umbrellas, they are being sold using the network of non-governmental organisations, government departments, schools, colleges, and private establishments.
“This is the fourth year of the Karthumbi initiative that began with just 1,000 umbrellas. Now the demand is huge, but we lack resources to supply to bulk buyers in time,” said Rajendra Prasad of Thambu. This year, the SC/ST Department alone has given orders for 5,000 umbrellas for distribution among tribal children. It was only two days ago that the women were able to complete the order given by the Agali grama panchayat for 2,500 umbrellas. There are bulk orders from Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and Info Park in Kochi.
A national conference of Allopathic medical practitioners in Delhi has given orders for 500 umbrellas. The SC/ST employees’ collective at the Cochin shipyard and the Velicham education initiative of S. Sharma, MLA, in north Paravoor have also given bulk orders.
“We were able to manufacture only 15,000 umbrellas last year despite huge demand from within and outside the State. Now there is an order for 50,000 umbrellas but we lack working capital to meet this challenge,” said tribal activist K.A. Ramu, who coordinates the initiative. Encouraged by word-of-mouth praise about the quality of the umbrellas and the way tribal families are empowered, many go to Attappady to buy them. For those who pay online, the collective has been sending the umbrellas by courier.
“While large-scale manufacturers in the field pay Rs. 8 for a finished product, we are getting Rs. 50 per umbrella,” Pappathy said. Coming across the success of the project, P.V. Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad has chosen it for the first Madhaviyamma Award for Transforming Initiatives instituted in memory of his late mother. “We have requested Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes A.K. Balan to allocate funds from the tribal sub-Plan with an annual outlay of Rs. 740 crore as working capital for the project. As umbrella manufacturing is a seasonal job, we are planning to engage in food processing during other months to support the dependent families,” said Rajendra Prasad.
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