Inside a dingy corner room in front of the Chintamani supermarket, stand a neglected photocopying machine, broken chairs, discarded tools, and music instruments with the paint peeling off.
This is the office of the Tiruchi District Physically Handicapped Welfare Cooperative Society, the only one of its kind outside Chennai, where all the members have some kind of disability.
The society, formed to generate employment for persons with disabilities, had fallen into hard times since its inception in 2007. After five years, the society hopes for a new lease of life, thanks to elections of office-bearers held in April this year. Elections to all co-operative societies were suspended after 2007, and the management of affairs was entrusted to government officials.
The society fell into neglect during the period when it was not democratically managed, say members. “The last audit shows that we have accrued over Rs. 70,000 in debt,” says the newly-elected vice-president Manohar. “We lost total control of the society. We could not afford to pay the rent and electricity bills as we did not make any profit.”
The photocopying machine that lies neglected brought them a profit of more than Rs.1, 000 a month, six years ago, till the machine developed a snag, says Saravanan, president of the society. “No one bothered to get it repaired and we lost the business to another agency.”
Interestingly, the co-operative society has members who are trained in services that are hard to find in today’s use-and-throw world — persons who repair chairs and polish tools, and tailors who mend torn clothes . There are members like Clara, a trained blind orchestra singer and tailor, looking for work. “Our members were given training in chalk manufacturing, chair repair, tailoring, book-binding, umbrella making, but none of their skills were utilised,” says Manoharan.
There is an obvious gap between training and employment . There are close to 26,000 people with various kinds of disabilities in Tiruchi district, says Manoharan. If the co-operative society is patronised by government and private agencies, the livelihood of at least thousand differently abled employees can be guaranteed, says Saravanan. While a percentage of the income for any service goes to the members as incentive, the rest goes to society. The society while keen to continue its conventional trades like production of phenyl, liquid soap and chair repair, aspires to seek new avenues like approaching the Forest Department to employ hearing-impaired in sapling planting and the transport department for cleaning of buses. “We have and will continue to appeal to the district administration and the State government to pass an order instructing departments to purchase cleaning products from us,” says Manoharan. “There are close to 50 government departments functioning here. Even if 15 of them buy our products, it can sustain the income of people with disabilities,” feels the vice-president. Many government departments purchase stationery from Chintamani to support the co-operative, they point out. The society, which has just got back on track, needs to produce enough to get orders, feel government officials. The society that has 100 members today, believes preliminary orders will help in increasing membership and thus production. “What is the use of enrolling members if there are no opportunities?” demands a member.