Details and Progress

This afternoon I visited my favorite newspaper bag unit in Kumily to check in on the progress since Sunday and to clarify the structure they had set-up on Sunday morning, mostly in Malayalam. Here’s my report, which is heavy on details and light on style.

Each of the producers was previously associated with an Eco-Development Committee (EDC). These committees have been established by the Forest Dept. over the last fifteen years, and are divided by location, or in the cases of the Mannan and Peliyan, by heritage. Current participants represent nine different EDCs: Mannakkudy, Paliyakuddy, Korishomala, Kollampottada (divided into three), Vasanthasena, Spring Valley, and Mullayar. Each has put forth a representative, who will serve to facilitate communication among them. They have, for now and for the most part, elected to retain the division of these committees, perhaps partially out of habit, but certainly for convenience’ sake. EDCs exist in neighborhoods within 5km of the forest’s edge. Though we held the workshop in Vanasree auditorium, just around the corner from Cardamom County and in the same building as the office of the Eco-Development Range Officer, Sanjayan, and some have chosen to continue working there, some from more distant locations prefer to base their operations out of EDC offices nearer to their homes. I don’t know who will administer supplies to these offices, or how, when the operation becomes more complex. The Vasanthasena committee formerly created a newspaper bag unit, and a few of its members have prior experience and know-how. It has been proposed that all the producers unite under the auspices of this group, but they have yet to ratify this motion officially.

Those in attendance on Sunday morning elected three officers to govern the unit: a Convener, a President, and a Secretary. They will receive assistance from two ex officio secretaries and a ‘facilitator,’ all of whom are employed by the Forest Dept. The elected officials alone have access to the finances. Sasi Kumar, one of the ex officio secretaries, currently is charged with maintaining the registers. When I asked what policy regarding the registers they would pursue in the future, Shymala, the ‘facilitator,’ told me they had not yet concerned themselves with the specifics. Abie, who was translating for me, used the phrase “baby steps” to convey the meaning of her answer.

At this stage, the unit members are most concerned with improving the quality of their bags. The folding and gluing that goes into the construction of a bag is deceptively difficult, and doesn’t come easily to some (myself included). But they have dedicated themselves to practice, and though they are anxious about how and where they will sell their product, they are also confident that if they can provide a quality good, and can master the art required to do so consistently and efficiently, there will be demand. Diwia emphasized quality during the workshop, and by all accounts they have heeded her advice and prioritized it at this early stage.

Though they do have reason to feel uncertain about who they’re going to sell to, they can also feel comforted knowing they have been set up to succeed presently. On Saturday night Diwia reported that she had received a request for the purchase of 1000 bags in a month, a need PaperTrail in Kochi can’t reasonably satisfy in addition to its current contracts. On Sunday morning, Diwia challenged the producers in Thekkady to take the order. Judging by the quality of bags I saw on my visit today, they still have a ways to go before they can each produce a salable bag, but there were also around fifteen women in the hall honing their craft. In any case, I’m optimistic.

Other good news: Sanjayan announced on Sunday morning that the FD has plans to ban all plastic from the reserve starting next month. They have long wanted to enact this prohibition but it lacked feasibility without a steady supply of substitutes for, in particular, plastic bags. Basically it’s a win-win-win for the Forest Dept., the nascent newspaper bag unit, and the forest.

So it stands. Quality is the priority. A goal has been set. Women who missed the training are clamoring to learn, to participate, so much so, in fact, that they have had to limit the number of new members. Moving on up.

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