It was in 2007 that Ananthoo and some of his friends quit their corporate jobs to work with small and marginal farmers in southern Tamil Nadu. The idea was to support their livelihoods through organic farming. The very next year was born reStore – a not-for-profit outlet selling organic foods sourced directly from these growers.
After working at the grassroots for a couple of years, sometime in 2012, Ananthoo and his friends were alarmed by the rising number of farmer suicides in the region.
Nearly 400,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for 2019. This translates into approximately 48 farmer suicides every day.
This set Ananthoo and his friends thinking about the non-viability of cultivating genetically modified (GM) cotton which required synthetic chemicals and pesticides and also more water (and hence electricity for pumps).
These GM cotton seeds could not be saved and used the next year, unlike native or desi cotton seeds. This additionally burdened the farmers with annual seed procurement costs driven by market forces, taking away their seed sovereignty.
Tüla: Restoring equilibrium
“We were working with some farmers in dryland (where crops are cultivated without irrigation) near Madurai and told them to grow organic cotton just to see how it fared vis-à-vis genetically modified varieties,” he recollects.
Once the crop was harvested, Ananthoo and his friends did not know how to use the cotton as reStore sold organic vegetables, fruits and groceries. “You can’t sell cotton like that and if we sold it to a mill, without any value addition, farmers would not benefit,” he says.
That set him on India’s textile trail to learn how cotton was grown, harvested, spun into yarn, and turned into garments. Eventually, it led to the setting up of the social enterprise Tüla, which is the Sanskrit word for cotton. It also means balance, and true to its name, the Chennai-based non-profit has been trying to restore the equilibrium in the cotton value chain since its inception in 2012.
During Ananthoo’s Khadi trail, he discovered that there was a lot of exploitation; people were underpaid and it was a highly polluting industry due to chemicals used in dyeing. From Karnataka to Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, none of the spinners, weavers or tailors wanted their next generation to enter the profession,” he says.
“Most of the people did not earn even Rs 80 per day in 2012. There was neither respect nor money despite a lot of hard work,” Ananthoo says.
This on-ground reality was in sharp contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s model where Khadi was a socio-economic equalizer as well as a liberator. Cotton was given to women who spun it into yarn, weavers made fabric on their handlooms and the fabric was then used to make dhotis, towels and other basic garments. The chain provided economic independence to all the participants and instilled in them a sense of belonging as well as nationhood.
Preserving the khadi or khaddar heritage
With time, however, desi cotton made way for genetically modified varieties, handlooms were replaced by mechanized mills and humongous corporations came up in place of the decentralized village economy model.
He realised that the skill and craft of growing and processing desi cotton were going to be extinct if nothing was done.
So Tüla started with 15 friends pooling in Rs 1 lakh each. “All the money was returned in 5 years. We are fully self-funded. We pay our expenses and are also building a corpus as we are profitable,” he adds. The profit is only ploughed back to primary producers and does not accrue to any individual.
Tüla began working with a few women groups in Gandhigram in Dindigul and asked them to spin the cotton into yarn. “Then the yarn was dyed using natural colours and given to weavers for making fabric. This was sold as plain fabric and stitched into some basic clothing too,” he says.
By that time, reStore was a well-established green grocery outlet and the customers knew the products were fair, ethical and eco-friendly. “We displayed the clothes in the shop and also told our customers how they were made. They were happy that each time they bought a dress, it would touch 8-10 livelihoods including cotton growers, spinners, dyers, weavers and tailors,” he recollects.
Ananthoo and friends began procuring seeds of native cotton varieties, like Karunganni cotton, from farmers in Tamil Nadu and Jayadhar seeds from growers in Karnataka who were still cultivating and conserving them. “We got seeds and told the farmers to grow the desi cotton organically,” he says.
Desi cotton cultivation to tailoring
About 100 small and marginal farmers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra are now growing desi cotton organically in rainfed areas without using chemical inputs. “We want more and more people to replicate this model. We have a system in place in each of the three states. We collect the seeds and keep distributing them to farmers,” he says.
After harvest, cotton is procured from the farmers and handspun by women’s self-help groups in Tamil Nadu. The processes are localized as much as possible to strengthen the local economy. In Karnataka, cotton is grown in Hubli and spun in Gadag while weaving is done in Melkote, a small temple town in the Mandya district.
In Maharashtra, the cultivation is done in Akola while the yarn is spun in Wardha, the very place where Mahatma Gandhi built his last ashram. The yarn is then sent to West Bengal where the Rakshit family is trying to revive muslin weaving using short-staple cotton.
“The quality check of finished products is done in Chennai. Around half of the production is sold through our store in Chennai and the other half through exhibitions in various cities as we want to spread awareness about desi cotton, local livelihoods and the rural economy,” Ananthoo says.
More cultivation of desi and organic cotton will drastically improve the livelihood of farmers, spinners, weavers, tailors etc., he says.
Tüla sells organic cotton fabrics as well towels, dhotis and clothing for men, women and children. Most of the garments are priced between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000. It has recently started creating some sarees on a pilot basis. Desi cotton is a short staple and somewhat coarse, making sarees heavier.
“We have hit upon a slightly longer staple cotton variety (named PA812) and are experimenting with it. Sarees are not our main line so far,” he says.
Clothes at Tüla are designed by volunteer designers and also interns who work with the non-profit social enterprise. “Many of them like this whole idea of an ethical value chain and want to learn about it and be a part of it,” says Ananthoo, who also conducts spinning and dyeing workshops to familiarize people with the cotton value chain.
“Creating an ethical organic cotton value chain is very much viable and profitable. We want youngsters to know that small enterprises are possible and that multinationals are not the only places to work,” Ananthoo adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)