The Cotton Yarn

Cotton yam has twisted and wound through human history for many centuries. It is the common thread between Megasthenes' accounts of India around 300 BC, the American Civil War, Gandhi's fascination with the 'Charkha, and the current movement to bring traditional desi cotton back to the centerstage of the garment market. In conversation with us today is Shri Ananthasayanan, (popularly known as Ananthoo) a key figure and a highly respected voice in the organic movement, one of the movers behind ReStore (a non-profit direct-from-farmer organic shop in Chennai) as well as OFM (Organic Farmers Market). He is also the Co-founder of Tula, an organisation that brings hand-crafted garments made of organic desi cotton directly to the market.

So, Sir, tell us how the Tula project was conceived…

The first set of volunteers came together to start ReStore in 2008, in an attempt to do something about Later on, one of them raised the question that if we are responding to farm suicides, then 70% of such suicides happen in cotton farms what are we doing about that? This set off the wish to find out what is happening on the cotton scene. And what we found was that it was highly exploitative, highly abusive, highly polluting and highly energy-guzzling.

It is one of the largest traded commodities in the world, it dominates the GDP, but it was also one of the most exploitative fields, and also the most polluting. Cotton is grown only in 5% of agricultural land in India, but 50% of pesticides used in India are for óne can imagine the levels of pollution... Where they dye the cloth, whole rivers run The chemicals kill the rivers, the flora, the strong pesticides kill everything in the soil... When the huge spinning mills sprouted, they displaced thousands of hand spinners. This killed the livelihoods of people. It was the same with webving - this is the largest employment sector after farming in India, and the morning machines came into it, the artisans got hit. So more livelihoods were lost and the local economy was destroyed. This is very wrong in every sense.. At Tula, we work with cotton farmers, help them grow traditional Indian desi cotton organically. Then we procure the cotton, hand-spin it, hand-weave it, natural dye it, manually tailor it and bring it out to the market.

Were these farmers already growing desi cotton or did you introduce it to them?

We started work in 3 states. In Karnataka and Maharashtra, they had already been using indigenous varieties and organic practices to some extent, so it was easier. In TN, we introduced them to it. The traditional variety, karunganni, was almost extinct - We, along with others, especially TNAU, worked to revive it If we use indigenous cotton seeds, then pesticide use is less, because the plants are not so prone to pests, they are by nature resilient, and drought-resistant just like we see in paddy and in many other crops. Instead of desi cotton when farmers go American cotton the long staple one, they have to face the American bollworm threat. American bollworm attacks only American cotton. We found that most of the input cost for these farmers went into fighting American boll worm. Long-staple varieties were being pushed on the farmers because they were machine-compliant, whereas our desi variety is short-staple.

A Tula India Top
A Tula India Top

What do you think should be done to change the way the mainstream cotton value chain works...? To stop all the damage being done?

Well, I think awareness is key here, because when you know, you are willing to support..the response to Tula

fabric and garments has been extraordinary…There is demand for it, there are a lot of people who come and listen to our story, then they come back and buy.We Have even been by people many times, that has been very a very good One of the issue is that the whole cotton is in not understood enough We dont know what That most of the things we are sporting is synthetic And the colours are al chemical which are highly These would have caused so much in the and polyester in the weft. Once people become more aware of all this, more aware of what is happening, change will come...

We have been working on popularising the idea and the products, we organise talk and exhibitions in different parts of India to try to create demand , not only for our shop, but for anyone who will work on on organic cotton Along the way, there have been people who have been moved, touched and motivated by this There an organisation which is being mentored by us who are now working on cotton We have also worked with some from Bengal who are trying to main So the message is are people to us and asking are ways for them to do it. And we say want show commercially viable and with a has always even the of food wanted people to come and make it a commercially viable a livelihood for many And this how a charge can be made.

Tellus about the viability… how does your model work?

“What we did was, 15 of us came together, and each of us put in 1 lakh. So we started with 15 lakhs. 30 acres was the area we were looking at then. Typically, we had some 15-20 farmers, 40 or so spinners, 15 weavers, 5 dyers and 5 to 10 tailors involved. So close to 100 livelihoods were created. (Compare this with today’s industrial paradigm, in which if you have to touch 100 livelihoods, you will need an investment of anywhere between 4 crores to 40 crores! We did it with 15 lakhs.) Then the next year, we expanded to another 20-25 farmers in Karnataka. Since the harvest time was different, we could use the same 15 lakhs and put it in there. Of course, we had to workhard, it meant a lot of discipline and a lot of planning. This is because though the harvest is only once, we still have to offer the spinners and weavers  round-the-year livelihoods…. The same 15 lakhs were used to expand into Maharashtra. So, in fact the same 15 lakhs, goes to support 300 livelihoods now. So, yes, it is a replicable model. And we want many more people to get into the whole value chain…”

Tell us more about Tula cloth...

“Apart from India, and Bangladesh, nobody makes garments like this by hand. So the handicraft of it, the artisanal value of it is preserved. And of course, it is also very good for us, it is something that will breathe, its good for the skin, it is less toxic. It'll be the lightest garment you can ever have, the lightest garment on the planet today.” Also the lightest one on our conscience, I might add, given how very environmentally expensive the prevalent manufacture methods are…

And now, here’s why Tula holds a special place in Shri Ananthoo’s heart...

It is such a beautiful thing that each shirt, for example, touches ten lives… In a factory  assembly line, there’s nothing of this sort happening. In Tula’s case, every shirt is spun by at least five women. Who spin, not the men. So when the women get the money for the shirt, the economy goes back to the home - to educate the kids, to buy food. The decentralisation of the operation makes for the redistribution of assets (and rights) in the economy… And cotton by itself is such an incredible this; its possibilities have captured the imaginations of emperors and princesses thought history..

Thank you so much for your time, Sir! Thank you for sharing. Your experiences with us...

Tula India can be reached at www.tula.org.in

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