Virtually decimated by factors such as severe labour shortage, steep hike in prices of raw materials and a declining market for mats, Ayyampalayam is no longer the ‘korai pai’ weaving hub it once was.

M. Muthusamy and the two machines in his mat weaving unit are the handful of survivors among hundreds of such units that once flourished at Ayyampalayam, some 30 km away from Tiruchi.

Today, less than 10 units survive in the area, and even these are not too far from folding up, according to Muthusamy.

‘Korai’ mat weaving, a multi-step process, begins with harvesting of the ‘korai’ crop, which is cultivated on a large scale in and around Musiri.

“The harvested ‘korai’ is torn into two, dried and graded according to size before being sold to weavers as ‘kathais’ (six bundles of 18 inch diameter),” says R. Anitha, an agricultural labourer.

At the unit, the korai is machine-cut on both ends before being fed into a main machine where it gets stitched by the ‘narambu’ (synthetic thread) into closely spaced rows, explains Sujatha Muthusamy.

Acute labour shortage

She and other relatives work on Muthusamy’s weaving unit for want of labour.

“After the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was implemented here, there is hardly anyone left in the village to work in agricultural fields or traditional industries such as ours,” she says.

The government drafts people in Ayyampalayam for jobs such as strengthening the Salapatti road and the Antharapatti road or for desilting work on irrigation canals like the Senthamangudi Panaimarathu Vaikal and Kaattoram Vaikal.

All labourers are paid Rs.135 for a day’s work, while people like Muthusamy find it increasingly difficult to offer competitive wages.

“Mat weaving is a highly strenuous job and people refuse to work for anything less than Rs.150 per day, which is a steep price considering our profits (0.50p to Rs.1.50 per piece),” says Muthusamy.

Expensive raw materials

The industry also suffers from price rise: While one ‘kathai’ costs nearly Rs.500, the thread (whose prices keep fluctuating) costs Rs.5 per mat now, the weaver said.

“The past few months have made it extremely difficult to run the unit because there are several unscheduled power cuts, sometimes lasting up to even four hours,” says Muthusamy, who added that this was another reason why labourers refused to work at mat weaving units.

Despite all these issues, the unit produces around 30 mats in a day. “These days we do only ordinary mats, though we did try once to make kalyana pais,” says Sujatha.

The colourful, intricately designed ‘kalyana pais’ (used traditionally in marriages) require at least two skilled labourers, which became impossible to find.

“We had to shut it down within just 20 days and today it lies along with the other machines awaiting disposal.”

Stiff competition

The Mumbai-made plastic mats which has made inroads into the south, is cited as an important reason for the industry’s rapid decline. “Factory-made, the plastic mats came in a range of colours and designs and soon most people stopped buying our mats even for weddings,” laments Muthusamy.

But he also points out that the plastic mats have caused heat boils and raised body heat to its users. “The korai mats on the other hand are natural coolants in the summer and offer warmth in the winters; they are also recommended material to sleep on for the treatment of body aches and very much a traditional aspect of Tamil culture.”

Keenly aware of the industry’s bleak future, Muthusamy hopes that the government will bail them out: “If the government could declare this as cottage industry and provide us electricity under Tariff 3A (meant for cottage industries) it would help us in cutting costs,” he says.

Presently they pay Rs.3.50 per unit consumed. He also felt that if the banking sector, which has labelled the industry ‘sick’, resumed offering them capital loans it could help keep the surviving units afloat.