Cloth bags made by women of drought-hit Dalit hamlet in Andhra Pradesh travel the world

The women behind the Paalaguttapalle Bags venture

The women behind the Paalaguttapalle Bags venture | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

G Annapurna sits in the corner of a room with mud walls and floors and a corrugated tin roof, counting cloth bags. Beside her, N Rani works on a sewing machine; her head bent in concentration over the cotton fabric in hand. Nearby, a few others break into cheerful banter from time to time as they check the heaps of cotton fabric before they go under the sewing machine to be made into bags and sent across India, some overseas.

Behind the dry, dusty roads of the village of Paalaguttapalle in Tirupati district of Andhra Pradesh is a tale of grit of Dalit women who rose above drought and poverty to become successful entrepreneurs. Today, the village is known for the Paalaguttapalle bags that have travelled across shores, carrying with them the indomitable spirit of a community of landless agricultural labourers.

Hit by successive droughts between 2010 and 2015, the village saw many of the 60-odd families migrating to other towns in search of alternative sources of livelihood. On an evening in March 2016, four women - G Annapurna, N Rani, K Lakshmikantha and N Anitha - sat discussing at the village temple courtyard, when the idea of setting up an enterprise for making cloth bags came about. With the help of Aparna Krishnan, who moved to the village two decades ago and is a software engineer by profession, the women realised that the best way forward was to utilise the skill they were good at — stitching.

The women were quick to rise to the situation, learnt stitching from each other and bought machines from their own resources.

The journey

"It all began with a small order of 100 bags from a friend for his shop. Then another friend came forward to support the women and decided to buy bags regularly, and distribute them free to the local shops to cut the use of plastic. That sustained the initial months. The impeccable quality of the bags took them further. And more and more orders started pouring in," says Aparna, who helped the women market the cotton bags through social media platforms.

The Paalaguttapalle Bags of Andhra Pradesh

The Paalaguttapalle Bags of Andhra Pradesh | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

But soon they realised that to sustain in the long run, they needed to upgrade their skills. "Many customers wanted their logos printed. Screen printing was a necessary skill. The training, however, was expensive; but another friend who had connected on Facebook reached out and offered free training at his shop in Chennai. Given the remoteness of the village and the difficulty in accessing anything at short notice, was a challenge. But they surmounted all hurdles," says Aparna. The women quickly learnt screen-printing and embroidery, and also adapted kolam patterns on the bags to cater to the demands of customers.

Today, more than five lakh bags have reached customers across India as well as in countries such as the USA, UK and Canada. The enterprise, run by nine women, has helped them tide over challenging times, and not just become self-sufficient but also be a role model for rural women in remote pockets of India.

The Paalaguttapalle Bags

The Paalaguttapalle Bags | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Largest order

The first large order they had was from the Organic World Congress in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh, for which they received an order of 1,500 Paalaguttapalle bags that had to be delivered within a short deadline. "It was a challenging time but we had just one thought in mind — to finish the bags," recalls K Lakshmikantha. From waking up before the break of dawn to receive the consignment of cloth that arrived from Madurai and other parts of Andhra Pradesh to spending endless hours on the sewing machine, the women completed the order on time and managed to generate a revenue of ₹2 lakh. In February 2018, they turned a profit of ₹25,000 at a handloom expo in Goa, which they attended unprepared with little stock.

Managing the finances and manufacturing all by themselves with the support of social media connections, the women have won over distant buyers with their innovation, quality and efficiency.

One small room in Aparna's home in the village is where the Paalaguttapalle workshop stands today. Corporate orders and bulk orders for weddings and occasions have kept the business growing. They make around 50 types of cloth bags, including gusset bags, laptop bags, sling bags, backpacks, drawstring bags, car waste segregation hangers, sari bags and tote bags. The bags are even customised according to demand. The most popular bag is the vegetable bag with compartments so as to avoid mixing of vegetables. The Facebook post on the bag when it was first launched fetched an overwhelming response.

The Paalaguttapalle Bags

The Paalaguttapalle Bags | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The enterprise fetches the women around ₹5,000 a month, or more if they get a big order. The financial stability has helped them provide quality education for their children and also gain respect in society.

Anitha, one of the women working with the venture, says, “We started when we did not even have drinking water at home or could afford only one meal as agriculture produce had dried up. The bags came as a blessing for my family’s survival. The income supports the education of both of children. My husband supports me by taking care of domestic chores.”

The Paalaguttapalle Bags

The Paalaguttapalle Bags | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As the Paalaguttapalle bags travel places, do they want to shift base to a city? “Paalaguttapalle gave us the recognition and a meaning to our lives. We are happy here,” says Annapurna.

During the pandemic-induced lockdowns, the women learnt to make cloth masks through YouTube tutorials and also sold homemade pickles that are preservative-free. Today they are busy taking orders for quilts and also learning to make articles from wood which they will launch soon on their website.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 4:42:43 pm |