The work demands attention to detail, dexterity, precision

In two small rooms a revolution of sorts takes place. The two room annexe to a fairly large gated property is the Mill control assembly unit, a Kudumbashree initiative manned and run by nine women. Teams of three and six occupy each of these rooms. They sit at their busy work stations heavy with cold tools, assembly parts and calibtration charts. This is the Phoenix Activity Group, an assembly unit of control and trip valves.

We remove our shoes at the entrance of the three person operation. There is a lot happening for a space as small as this. While Girija Shashindran, the unit’s president talks to me and and my friend, Mini is hammering away at the skeleton of a control valve, attacking it with nuts and screws. On the other workshop table, Ajida calibrates a finished piece. Each of these tables is lined with over fifty red plastic trays organized in neat rows with all sorts of parts. A week of training by a certain Mr. Rajit and daily practice explains all the activity in this room. The women here work and talk like experts. But they aren’t sure how and where their output is used. And it isn’t as though they were told during training. Girija hands us a brochure with a picutre of the valve in its final form attached to bigger machinery, a decent proximation. “They probably haven’t told us because they fear that we’ll set up our own unit,” they joke. The work demands attention to detail, dexterity, precision. On an average the three member unit assembles ten control valves in a day between 9am and 5pm. They earn Rs. 150 a piece and a minimum of 50 must be assembled in a month. A cake walk for them.

Phoenix Activity Group is a rarity in Kudumbashree. It is a rarity in general. Unlike other microenterprises or livelihood opportunities in Kudumbashree, Phoenix neither sources nor caters locally. The women here, draped in their sarees and brown waistcoats for uniforms take complete ownership of the task of assembling and calibrating these valves. They divide the tasks and rotate duties with the correct calibration chart handy. And they understand the significance of this: that it is by and about them. First of all, not many companies entrust people late into life with the complexities of assembly work. Secondly, as the job market gets selective and work-expereince centric, it does come as a bit of surprise that none of the women in the group holds a college degree. Girija says that when the Managing Director of the company visited them, he was surprised to see them, high school graduates, doing the work of “Btech diploma students”. They have been doing this a while and have been doing it well. In between conversation they clue me in on some processes in quality assurance, hisses and clicks matched to calibration charts. In the past eight months they have had only eight parts returned to them. That’s some quality control.

Good will on the company’s part alone does not explain Phoenix activity group.“Efficiency” also figures in its calculus, feels Girija. She discovered with some research that they didn’t earn as much as the Polytechnic graduates for the same work. This is the obvious trade off of the service that Phoenix Activity Group provides. Decent pay, regular supplies and regular work coexist, not always comfortably, with limited bargaining space. But they come with the subtle promise of emancipation and empowerment But at least there is that one promise of a start, a widening window of opportunity.

Besides, more immediate issues abound. They have had to move quite a bit, a problem that is unique to the work they do and the way they do it. Their needs as an industrial assembling unit are a little more specific than other micro enterprises. During my visit Phoenix was on the prowl for another space with a fast approaching move out date. The owners in turn had plans to house a more lucrative business. Indeed, the enterpise racks up a bill of over Rs 5000 in a month, Rs 2500 spent on electricity and Rs 3000 on rent which is about ten percent of the entire unit’s monthy earnings. There are other concerns, occupational hazards. This is obvious to me as I watch Jayalakshmi and Sheeja Sajeevan lug in a valve for assembling. Unassembled, it weighs 60 kilos only to get heavier by the end of the process. This worries Vijaylakshmi who waves in the general direction of her entire body, highlighting for me the generous scope for injury and the hassle of no insurance coverage.

We head out for a group photo, assembling under the shed of the front yard, flanked by the group’s well travelled banner and gigantic green machinery that gurgles when Jayalakshmi feeds a valve to it. I wait for them to fall in as they joke amongst themselves. Meanwhile I quit waiting for them to look at the camera. This after all is a while away from perfection. Whatever it is, it has set in motion some change. Thus far for better.