NGO helps istriwallas switch from charcoal to LPG iron box

Udhyam Learning Foundation is seeking to bring new groups in cities on board to increase the reach of this initiative

January 01, 2024 12:00 pm | Updated January 02, 2024 11:19 am IST

S. Raja

S. Raja

The neighbourhood istriwalla is a part of the landscape. And when the landscape has changed with the times, should they be stuck in the past?

They will continue to serve the neighbourhood in ways they have always been, but the means to do so should change. And it has for S. Raja. As istriwalla at Eighth Cross Street in Shenoy Nagar, Chennai, he is carrying the baton passed on to him by his parents.

“I took over from them 15 years ago,” says 42-year-old Raja, a resident of Chennai. Moving six kilos of the iron box, standing and working continuously under the heat was no easy task. “Waiting to get the coal into smoulder mode is the toughest of the things to do: it takes 45 minutes before one can start work,” says Raja. He recalls his father applying thylam after a hectic day at work as his hands would be aching. What is emitted by the coal is hard on the lungs.

His job has evolved considerably, almost unrecognisably, since he switched to an LPG-powered iron box sponsored by Udhayam Learning Foundation.

“The best part is that we get to take breaks between work and we are more productive at the same time,” Raja says, adding that he now gets to take off from work once a week. He irons almost double the number of clothes in less than previous working hours. “My dad used to return home only around 9 p.m. Now, I am able to wind up by 7.30 p.m.,” says Raja. He keeps the iron box and a five-litre gas cylinder at the house of a resident on the same street.

Raja owns two carts and has also his wife Lakshmi assists him in the business.

“LPG iron box is a boon for women in particular as they can supplement the family income. Lakshmi irons 20 pieces of cloth more than than I do,” Raja says. With pride in his voice, he notes that 40 istriwallas have switched to this sustainable alternative, motivated by his example.

The Istri Project: The switch to sustainability

Switching to a LPG-powered iron box has increased everyday productivity for by 23.3% for istriwallas in Chennai. In quantitative terms, it is 29 more clothes ironed every day on an average. This finding is based on a study by Azim Premji University and Udhyam Vyapaar. More than 1300 such nano entrepreneurs in Chennai who had switched from traditional coal-based iron boxes to electricity and Liquefied Petroleum Gas-driven iron boxes participated in the study.

Under the auspices of Udhyam Learning Foundation, this 15-month-long project, titled “The Istri Project”, aimed to evaluate the impact of upgrading from coal to an LPG based iron box. More than 70% of the responds in the survey said the adoption significantly reduced the expenditure on fuel.

Speaking to The Hindu Downtown, Krishnan Ranganathan, director, Udhyam Vyapaar and co-founder, Udhyam Learning Foundation, says initial studies showed that most vyapaaris (read istriwalas) burn half a tonne of coal a year. It was this revelation that triggered The Istri Project in Bengaluru and Chennai. They started connecting with nano entrepreneurs whose monthly earning was less than ₹25,000.

In Chennai, the project was launched in July 2022. “Today we have more than 1,300 vyapaaris that have switched to this alternative option,” says Krishnan.

Persuading the neighbourhood istriwalla to switch to this eco-friendly option was not easy. Many were emotionally attached to the iron box that had been passed on from one generation to another. “Besides highlighting the affordability and accessibility factors to the vyapaaris, we also associated with retailers,” says Krishnan.

For those who found the initial investment of ₹5,000 to ₹ 6,000 a challenge, the Foundation found benefactors.

“We brought in CSR partners who ensured the box was available to the istriwalla at a lower cost. So 50% of the cost of the box is borne by the individual, the rest is sponsored by the CSR partner,” says Krishnan.

He says they have also started another initiate where citizens are encouraged to help their local ironing person by crowdfunding.

The Foundation is looking at expanding this model to other cities. “This is a partner-led model where we want NGOs and other groups to help us reach out to more people. For instance, Rotary Club of Hyderabad has partnered with us to fund the purchase of LPG-powered boxes for a small number of istriwallas in the city,” says Krishnan.

For details, call 9964231777.

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