Lives of differently-abled women in Chinna Paalam a small factory that changed the way the disabled feel about themselves

By Anupa Kujur

The small factory in Chinna Palam, a coastal village in Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, amidst the residential houses looked like any other house from outside except for the huge space in front of the house to move around. As you enter the campus, the traditional picture of a shabby low-lighted factory falls apart.

You enter to a warm and bright smiling face of Arokya Rani, 34, one of the workers at the factory. She sits on the floor right in front of the entrance among the colourful pipes and sea-shells with colourless plastic treads knitting them together as hangings.

The doormat sewing machine (on top) and the finished sea shell products. Picture Courtesy: Anupa

The factory feels more like a home as people interact with each other, tease and laugh at jokes while they are at work. “It is a joyful place to work,” says Rani with a sparkle in her eyes that is filled with hope and happiness.

Arokya Rani, a worker in the factory who had been working here from the past six years.

Apart from the door knitting machines, various types of sea shells stocked in transparent glass jars, and the cuttings of the clothes piled up in the corners, nothing about the place will make you feel like you are at a workplace.

This factory is a part of Prithvi Trust that started six years ago, in association with You and the disabled Forum (UDIS), Coimbatore.

“Our motto is to give work and self-esteem to disabled people. And guide them in their career,” says E Altrin, the head of the factory.
Rani says, "I love working in this place. It is like a second home for me."

Despite her inability to walk, Rani confidently welcomes the guests to show them the factory. She knows her job and believes firmly that she does it well. This space has enabled them to find a place for themselves in the society where nobody sees them as a burden.

To find a factory for disable in a small village like Chinna Paalam seems quite unusual. But, Altrin explains that his own disability and mental disability of his two children always motivated him to do something for the differently abled people in the society.

E. Altrin, the head of the factory explaining how the factory functions.

His efforts brought results as now the factory gives employment for 16 differently able women who live within six kilometres radius of the location in the Pamban and Thangimandam. The omni van picks and drops them at their respective houses for the 9 am to 5 pm job six days a week.

Arokya Selvi, 30, another worker, rides to the work place every day in her own scooter. When she rides, the smile a on her face reflects the feeling of being independent which many disable long to experience.

Arokya Selvi, another working sewing doormats at the factory. Picture Courtesy: Anupa

The differently able people do not need an educational qualification or bio data to get a job in the factory. However, for other employment opportunities they need their bio data. For instance, one would require a qualification to become a teacher.

Anyone from any background can become a member of this Trust. Once the Trust confirms that a person is differently able, which is a part of selection process, the Trust then provides them the facilities.

The women workers receive one month training in Tirupur to make three things: knit a doormat, make home decors with sea shells and various kinds of pickles with mango, garlic, ginger, tomato, prawns and so on.

The Trust also runs two Self Help Groups (SHGs) with eight people in each group that take part in activities like spreading awareness about disabilities among college students and society, raise funds for the Trust and give free tuition for the children from poor backgrounds. These SHGs also provides them with clothes.

Rani likes the work place as everybody is helpful. “The Trust takes care of their other necessities and take them out for a vacation every year,” she says.

The factory is different not only in terms of its employees but also in terms of the way the profit is divided among them. They do not have the concept of fixed salary because the profit varies every month. They follow a system where the profit is distributed among the workers equally based on the number of pieces sold. The makes sense to them because the profit margin for all goods varies between Rs 9 and Rs 35 for doormats of different sizes.

The profit margin also depends on the weight of the raw material. “If the raw material weighs less, we can buy more for less price” says Arokya Selvi, 30, another worker.

Selvi pauses her work to smiles for us into the camera. Picture Courtesy: Anupa

The variation in the weight of the raw material has a direct impact on monthly earnings of the workers. However, Altrin says that they try to buy more raw material when it is light and stock it up.

The Trust sources the raw material for each item from different locations. The small brown shells are sourced from Dhanuskodi collected by female divers. The local companies buy these shells and soak it in acid for a day to kill the fish and polish them. The Trust buys the shells from the local suppliers.

Similarly, the material for doormats, mostly the left-over clothes used in making banyans, are bought in bulk from knitwear companies in Tirupur district.

Altrin wants to expand his business to Ramnad area, so that more differently abled people can get jobs. But he has also cut down on the orders to reduce the workload on the workers. “If these girls work for 2 to 3 hours they need to rest for half an hour,” says Altrin.

They often sell their products at shops in Pamban. And many foreigners and tourists buy the products directly from them.

“With the work, we do, we feel we are important and our lives matter,” says Selvi. She agrees that this space has helped them overcome their insecurities and boosted their confidence. It has also helped them break the barrier of disability.

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