Reviving Indian Cotton Garments and the Interconnected Livelihoods

Tula is a not-for-profit social enterprise that brings to you garments from Indian (desi) cottons originally grown by smallholder, rainfed farmers, with the yarn hand spun by skilled khadhi workers and colored with natural dyes where required with expert guidance, with the fabric woven on handlooms by master weavers, with the garments stitched by women and men from economically and socially marginalised groups. Tula sells fair trade and sustainable cotton garments while making sure that the cotton value chain is livelihood sustaining and socio-environmentally just.

While most of us think cotton clothing is cool, healthy and safe, the story of mass produced commercial cotton is quite the opposite. This includes handlooms and sometimes even khadi. Most textiles are not entirely organic or socio-environmentally just with some form of chemical input or social injustice at some stage. This downfall came about in the 19th century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution followed by mass factory production, capitalism and the present neoliberal era.

As hand spinning and hand weaving are labour intensive and women centric tasks, yet spinners and weavers are paid a pittance of 120-160 rupees a day. The best solution for this is to have a distributed and decentralised model for the cotton industry with better wages and dignity and with the least number of middlemen involved as possible.

Three social activists based out Chennai were concerned about these injustices and put their thinking caps on. Jaishankar is a farmer and social activist, Pamayan is a popular writer and social activist and Ananthoo is a safe food activist and one of the co-founders of two organic stores and community centres called ReStore and Organic Farmers’ Market (OFM) in Chennai.

In 2011, they formed a social enterprise called Tula in Chennai as not just a store that sells fair trade and sustainable cotton garments but as a holistic institution that takes into consideration the entire cotton value chain from crop to garment, with every stage being livelihood sustaining and socio-environmentally just. They realised very early on into Tula that there are many more interconnected livelihoods in the cotton clothing segment such as spinners, weavers, dyers and tailors. They brainstormed and came up with a balanced model that incorporated the entire cotton value chain and could also be easily replicated or scaled up by others wanting to venture into the sustainable cotton segment. They began in the cotton belt of the Madurai region of Tamil Nadu and retailed their garments at ReStore.

However, in only the first year of working in this region they were ridden with a variety of challenges such as erratic weather conditions, farmers switching to a hybrid variety of maize for cattle feed for the quick profits it fetched them, and many farmers who preferred to work with large export garment establishments in Tiruppur due to the social prestige associated with them.

Eventually, an organic agricultural policy introduced by the Karnataka government made it easier for Tula to work with farmers in Karnataka. They wanted to focus not just on organic cotton but also on desi (indigenous), rain-fed and old world, short staple varieties rather than the hybrid, long staple, American variety and the infamous genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton that the farmers were growing. Desi cotton is less water intensive, naturally resistant to many pests and diseases, and boosts the livelihoods of farmers, spinners, weavers and tailors. Since desi cotton is cultivated as a polyculture where there is intercropping and companion planting, it ensures that food is brought in along with fibre.

Tula works closely with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), which is a nation-wide informal network of over 400 organisations across 20 states in India, and together organised a Kisan Swaraj Yatra in 2010—a nation-wide mobilisation to draw attention to issues pertaining to food, farmers, and freedom. They also work with a network of farmers across Karnataka called Sahaja Samrudha, dedicated to reviving traditional seeds. The Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote, Karnataka helps with the weaving and stitching of Tula garments. This is a voluntary organisation founded by Gandhian and Jamnalal Bajaj awardee, Surendra Koulagi in 1960 that focuses on social and economic elevation of the weaker sections of society. To give the garments a stylish, contemporary, urban edge, Tula works with Bangalore based designer Tara Aslam who has her own brand called Nature Alley that mainly stocks khadi clothing. Besides working with cotton farmers in Karnataka Tula has also started working with farmers in Vidharbha, Maharashtra which incidentally is the worst hit Bt cotton belt, witnessing devastating farmer suicides.

A visit to the Tula store in a leafy lane in Adyar is warmly welcoming, unlike walking into a mall or store where salespeople hover around you with artificial smiles to make you buy the most. They also retail online through their GoOrganicLife platform that was recently created by Suresh Lakshmipathy, one of their many passionate and hardworking members. The store is simple and neat with no plastic packaging or marketing gimmicks and opens into a breezy balcony dotted with potted desi cotton plants on display.

Each garment is unique as it is handspun, handwoven, and naturally dyed. Besides, each garment supports artisan livelihoods, revives traditional art & craft, and has a low carbon footprint. Ananthoo is often seen working there on his cool floor mat on a miniature portable desk and is always approachable for a chat.


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