Women belonging to Self Help Groups in the city have earned economic independence, especially thanks to their work with jute

If you’d mentioned the word jute to M. Amalorpava Mary sometime in 2005, she would have asked, “saaku?” with disdain referring to the humble saakupai. Today, that very saaku has helped transform the lives of the members of the Roja Self Help Group. The process started with the fledging anti-plastic movement in the city. Today, Mary says that in a good month, members of her SHG make about Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 7,000.

When Nishar Ahamad sent out his wife Anarkali for training in making jute bags in 1996, friends and neighbours questioned his wisdom. Today, Vetri Women’s SHG is among the top manufacturers of jute bags in the city. In their Podanur workshop, women examine raw jute, decide on prints and designs, cut out bags in various shapes, stitch and finish them. Anarkali died two years ago of swine flu, but her husband says that the group is going strong. “We have food on the table thanks to jute,” states Nishar, who oversees the group’s store at the Poomaalai Complex, Town Hall.

A decade ago, the SHG Complex threw open its doors to women who were looking for economic independence. SHGs manufactured and marketed everything from herbal shampoo and lemon grass oil to artificial jewellery and jute bags at the complex.

Today, jute bags largely symbolise the SHG movement in the city. Agrees Mary: “We all started off with table mats that we sold for Rs. five or Rs. 10 a piece. Slowly, with the experience gained, we moved to making bags. Now, we are doing well and there are so many orders that the members wonder if they can get individual loans. That way, they can work for the group as well for themselves. Sometimes, the demand is so high, we end up turning down orders. We owe our life to this fibre.”

Exhibitions have helped nurture this love for jute. Thanks to them, the members have found buyers across the country, including in Mumbai and Chennai. The exhibitions have also taught them to study the market, improve quality and cater to customer demand. Hence, the profusion of coin bags, cell phone pouches and pencil pouches.

T. Ayyappan, marketing promotion officer, National Jute Board, is all praise for the women of Coimbatore region. He speaks fondly of Anarkali, who was among the early success stories here. “They have done remarkable work. The advantage with jute is that it lends itself to constant innovation. And they have tapped it well,” he states.

Helping themselves

The Poomaalai Complex is also home to a beauty parlour, a tailoring unit, a computer centre and an artificial jewellery outlet, which do a reasonable amount of business. Jyothi Lakshmi of Melamaruvathur SHG runs Savidas beauty parlour in the first floor. During most of her working hours, there’s no electricity. Despite that, regular customers walk in, for a facial, a haircut and other services. She still remembers the happy past when customers thronged the place.

In the same floor, A. Banu of Annai Vilakku SHG runs a tailoring outlet that sees a steady stream of clients. Business has been good here, she says. H. Hema, a member of Vetri, an SHG for physically challenged people, runs a computer centre on the ground floor. She helps people fill up application forms for passports, PAN cards and more. But, the unscheduled power cuts have hit her business hard. “I have enough work on hard, but where’s the electricity?” she asks.

S. Leelavathy is one of the earlier tenants of this complex. She belongs to Kungumam Thendral SHG and manufactures artificial jewellery. One-gram gold jewellery, silver anklets, earrings, elaborate danglers and pendants… they make them all. A corner of the store displays all the awards the group has won for taking part in exhibitions across the country. Though outside orders continue to pour in, local business is dull. “There was a time when the store saw a turnover of Rs. 3,000 a day. Now, we hardly get anything between Rs. 300 and Rs. 1,500.”