Kanchipuram Self Help Groups and Silk Weavers

During the coming year I will be spending three days a week in the Kanchipuram region of India, which is two hours west of Chennai. I am staying in accommodation provided by the NGO RIDE who I will be working with during my time there.

Sevilimedv Village, Kanchipuram

My hosts – the director of RIDE, Jeyaraj, and his wife Britto – have been extremely welcoming and very open in discussing my expectations and the plan for the coming weeks and beyond. Jeyaraj is very keen to support me in putting together my own project which I can work on during my time with them. Alongside this he would like me to promote RIDE, specifically to promote their ‘Eco-Tourism’ programme which brings in a good income for the charity and has proved very successful in the past.

There are currently two Austrian girls staying at RIDE who are on a two-week programme. Their itinerary includes an introduction to the many projects RIDE are involved in, visits to temples, villages, silk weavers, artisans, markets and silk shops. They get a real impression of the issues facing the rural communities, especially the human rights issues and problems of child labour which RIDE are working to improve. During their programme they can also contribute to one of the projects, which could involve helping out in the RIDE garden planting trees and vegetables or in one of the RIDE schools.

RIDE’s training facilities in Arpakkam

Over the past few days I’ve been learning about one of RIDEs main activities which is to support women’s self help groups within the villages of the region. The agreement is simple but effective; RIDE promises to provide support, micro-finance loans, information, legal advice, and training to the women who participate in the groups. In return, the women of the group promise to send their children to school.

One of the RIDE training centre buildings constructed with the help of volunteers

The self-help groups are formed of between 12 – 20 women of a similar background. The programme follows a structure which has been rolled out across the whole of Tamil Nadu and is tried and tested, with support from the state government. However, I have heard and read how difficult the women find it initially to participate in the group. These women have been used to staying at home cooking, cleaning, looking after children, sometimes even supporting their husband in his job. So when they try to break this cycle and start attending a group to better themselves they are met with a lot of negative responses, mostly from their husband and mother in law. They are told that they are neglecting the family, their duties, and that women can’t learn.
But the women are strong-willed and with the support of the group behind them they feel empowered so they go ahead anyway and take what they have to. They work longer hours to make sure that the food is cooked and the washing is done before they leave to attend the group.

The way the groups work is that women work together to set targets to save a bit of money, just the smallest amount to start with, on a monthly basis, which is safeguarded by RIDE. The process is completely transparent with paperwork to back up every transaction. Once they have saved for a few months, they start to loan money back to members for emergencies such as school fees (before if they could not pay school fees they would just take the child out of school), loan sharks, medical fees, fixing carts or machines, funeral fees, dowry and support if crops fail.

They are only charged small interest rates and the repayment charges are manageable compared to the loan sharks who have been known to charge absurd rates up to 160%, which just creates a downward spiral. Once the groups bank account has a fair amount of money in it, the group has the option to apply to borrow money from the bank whereby they can support larger loans say to help members or their families set up a business, pay for further education, buy an auto rickshaw, buy materials etc.

A member of one of the Self Help Group bought this rice grinder and now offers the service to the village people.

This process gives the women control over their own lives, and more than this gives them respect and their own voice in the village, as they are the ones who are addressing the issues the village faces and paying off the loan sharks. With their new-found confidence, access to learning and the ability to get low-interest loans, the women are also training up in a variety of different fields and starting their own businesses. This gives the added comfort of having two incomes to support the family and for many of the husbands it is an unexpected burden being lifted from their shoulders.

Through the knowledge sharing process RIDE teaches the importance of education which results in the families committing to sending their children to school. I went to visit one of the schools funded by RIDE in a village called Sevilimedv. On entry we were greeted with shrieks and waves of excitement as the children got sight of us! They were all dressed in their uniforms which were varying muggy shades of their original white, with the RIDE logo on their belt buckles. The children themselves were very well presented with neat, slick back hair or little plaits with flowers in.

We certainly disrupted the lesson which seemed to be in order when we first arrived but turned into stray children wandering all over the place as we took up the teacher’s time being shown around.

The school is about 18m x 4m in total and rooms have been created with low partitions to make 5 classes, the ages range from 3 to 10 yrs old. We were taken to visit each class one at a time and every child was made to stand up and tell us their name. The teachers are all very relaxed and patient with the children, who are clearly at differing levels of ability. They themselves are from the village and are proof of the benefits the programme is achieving through its work.

Silk weavers house and family

After visiting the school one of the teachers took us down the road and through the village to meet a couple of the local silk weavers in their homes – it’s just amazing, the central feature of their home is a 5-6 metre long silk loom and domestic life just goes on around it.

The first weaver I visited (above) was half way through setting up the warp threads, he was waiting on a particular colour to be delivered from Kanchipuram. The silk worms are harvested, spun and dyed in Kanchipuram district so I will get the chance to see these processes in action later on. It can take up to 10 days to prepare the warp for weaving.

The second weaver was part way through weaving, he had just finished the initial border on the sari fabric and was about to change colour. The top side on the loom is the underside of the fabric so he un-clipped the fabric to show me the pattern on the right side (above). The complete process to weave a full sari takes them up to 20 days.

The Kanchipuram sari is renowned for its quality. The weavers here use a unique  technique whereby they weave the borders and the sari together, making it extremely strong. Many saris are woven separately to the border and then stitched together. The Kanchipuram sari is popular for wedding attire and can fetch good prices, compensating for the time it takes to make each piece. Depending on the design and amount of gold thread used, Kanchipuram saris can sell for as much as £400-500, even more if it is a heavily embellished piece. So commissioning my own piece is probably out, however I do have a bit of time to work something out….

Women collecting rice rations from ‘fair-price’ shop

On the way back from the village to the bus stop we walked past a ‘fair price’ shop, which is supported by the government to ensure that villagers are able to buy basic food. In June this year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa launched a free rice distribution scheme. Every ration card holder can get 20kg of free rice per month, and the very poorest get 35kg per month. Prior to this rice was subsidised, but with price fluctuations this was never a reliable solution.

I was just amazed at the flurry of bright colours spilling out of the shop from all the beautiful saris!

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