Every time I take one of these bags to the market, I get at least one comment on how nice / sturdy / novel they are, along with questions about where I got them from. Yes, these bags are completely earth-friendly, made of washable cloth and extremely durable. No, they aren’t from any big-brand fashion label - they’re from the livelihood support wing of Sevai Karangal, an NGO based in Kolathur, Chennai. Here is the story of how these bags came to be, as shared by Founder and Managing Trustee, Sri S Thilak Raj.
So tell us, Sir, how did you start this project?
As part of our livelihood support program, we’d started a tailoring institute in which we enrolled one woman from each of the nearby villages. In the process, in the Gummidipoondi belt, we came across a lady who didn’t speak Tamil but only Telugu. She had to earn, but the medium of instruction for the tailoring course is Tamil. So she couldn’t join the class. But she had already acquired a sewing machine. So we gave her some of the old sarees that people donate to us, and showed her how to make a simple bag from the material. We thought if she could make these bags, then we could take it from there, and see what can be done for her. At first, she was doubtful about the whole thing, as she had never seen any earnings come from tailoring work. But she did make the first 100 bags, and when she gave them to us, we immediately gave her cash. Only then she understood that this really works! Soon other women also started opting for this work.
At that time, in 2016, I did not know how far this project would work out. But I went ahead and made a Facebook post about this, and immediately, within 2 days, we got an order of 2000 bags. But the challenge was that we didn’t have the material for so many. We had thought maybe we could make 100 bags a week, but this was a big number and we needed more material. Then we contacted a friend, Sri Vivek Bhargav, who had an office at Godown Street, Chennai. He helped out by contacting his friends in the textile circles, and he arranged to collect some material from them. This was in the form of small pieces of sample cloth, wasted bits from tailoring units, old unsold cloth, etc. We picked up all this, and reached it to the women. They stitched the bits together securely first, and then made the bags, and the first shipment was soon ready….Since then, we have been doing this work. The women pick up the material from our office, they stitch the bags, drop them off, and pick up more cloth from there to stitch some more. They do the stitching at their own homes, at times convenient to them.
We don’t make any profit on these bags - we sell them at 10 rupees per piece, and out of that 8 rupees goes to the people who stitch it and 2 rupees towards transport costs and handling. Even out of 2 rupees, some of it goes to the women, because they need to spend some money to travel to and from our office, and we reimburse that to them. The Corona crisis has caused more women to look at this as a livelihood option, and we are trying to support them all.
Who are the customers for these bags?
The customers are organic stores across Chennai, and in Salem. One other customer is the Madras Literary Society. They buy our bags to give out their books in.
Tell us about the principles behind this project…
Through this cloth-bag initiative, we are able to address 3 issues. One, we are able to generate income for a rural household. When the income goes to the women's hands, the whole family thrives. Two, we’re helping to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. All these industrial waste cloths and tailoring waste cloths are very small, maybe 5-inch by 5-inch, or even smaller. And they are all of different sizes, and shapes. So nothing else can be done with these bits. Without this use, they would just be discarded and go into some landfill. We are preventing this. Third, we are reducing the prevalence of single-use plastic. These bags are sturdy, and they last for a long time, and each trip they make carrying something home from the market, one more single-use plastic bag is eliminated. I have a policy of zero-plastic use, and have been actively implementing this since 2010 in all our projects. Contrary to what we might think, as a society our plastic use is actually increasing…so using these cloth bags is a step towards zero plastic use too.
Tell us about your organisation, Sir
Started in 2008, Sevai Karangal is a registered NGO, a non-profit social service organisation with our admin office at Kolathur. We’ve adopted 25 villages across Thiruvallur and Chengelpattu Districts where we work at helping people in various ways. Over the last few years, 6 of the villages have become self-sufficient. We work at helping these villagers earn their livelihood by providing the means to earn, rather than by giving handouts. So we try to teach them to fish, so to say. For women we have the tailoring institute, for youth we have tie-ups with a few institutes where they undergo skill development courses and then get placed. We also channel donations to orphanages and homes for the destitute…
Sevai Karangal can be contacted at www.sevaikarangal.org.in or https://www.facebook.com/