Water hyacinth has become a means of economic empowerment for women and the differently abled in the coastal belt of Thrissur district.
Around 380 people eke out a living by making handicrafts such as designed mats, table tops, invitation cards, diary covers, flowers and bags at the Kottappuram Integrated Development Society (KIDS), a non-profit arm of the Kottappuram diocese.
Most of these women are from the coastal belt of Kodungalloor and North Paravur taluks, the worst weed flood-hit areas. “We tried out this innovative way of utilising water weeds to make women in the area economically independent, ” said Fr. Paul Thomas Kalathil, director of KIDS. Hyacinth is good for making craft items as its stem is long.
The initiative was started around 20 years ago. Along with women, around 30–odd differently abled people work in KIDS.
Now there are many self-help groups of women and the differently abled working in KIDS. They take care of different stages of the processing.
While some collect the weed from the waterbodies, some dry and process it. Some others dye them in different colours.
Differently abled people are trained in making handicraft items like flowers, stars, bags and mats using the natural fibre.
The employees are provided expert training by reputed institutes such as the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.
Some of the women even visited NID for training,” explained Fr. Kalathil.
Along with water weeds, leaves of screw pine and areca palm are also used at the society for making handicrafts.
Exhibitions are the major marketing platforms for the 40-odd handicraft products made here.
They have a unit at Iringal handicraft village.
Limited exposure, economic backwardness and lack of education often put the differently-abled people in a low self esteem, said Sister Mercy Thomas, administrator of the KIDS.
For them, who often imprisoned in the four walls of their houses, the KIDS is a place for getting together. The economic empowerment helps them live in dignity. “We provide them with counselling here. They are also given artisan cards and even insurance cover.”
I have been crippled waist down with a polio attack, since I was in eighth standard, said 50-year-old Elsy from Manachery Kunnu, in Puthenvelikkara panchayat.
“I used to roll beedis for a living. Though I know tobacco is bad for health, I dint have any other option. It was then I came for a training programme here.”
Now Elsy is an expert in making designed mats, flowers, table mats and gift boxes. She rides her three-wheeler cycle to work and make a living for her family, which include her ailing younger sister.
“They are given at least three expert training sessions in a year. They hold exhibitions in and outside the State, including in Delhi and Mumbai. They hold bank accounts and operate them for themselves” noted Sister Mercy.
Though people in Kerala devalue the items as products of common weed, they are highly appreciated in North India. It has an ecological conservation aspect also as it is a viable alternative to the plastics, Fr. Kalathil noted.