“We sneaked out by a secret route. But what can we do? At least if we have the material with us, we can sit at home, weave baskets and keep them ready,” said a group of basket makers from Kangal village in Telangana. Their secret route? One along which there are neither police barricades nor fences of thorny branches set up by villagers.
On April 4, Neligundharashi Ramulamma, along with four other women and one man, got into an autorickshaw around 9 a.m. to go to Vellidandupadu, a hamlet seven kilometers from Kangal, to collect fronds of the silver date palm. With these, they weave baskets. They usually collect these fronds from common land, or at times from farmland and give a few baskets in exchange to the farmer.
The March to May period is a crucial time for the baskets makers of Kangal – who belong to the Yerukula community, listed as a Scheduled tribe in Telangana – for selling baskets. The hot temperatures of these months are ideal for drying the fronds.
For the rest of the year, they usually work as agricultural labourers, earning daily wages of around Rs. 200. In the cotton harvesting season, from December to February, some manage to earn Rs. 700-800 a day, on and off, for around a month, depending on how much work is available.
This year, the Covid-19 lockdown has brought to a standstill their earnings from selling baskets. “Those who have money are eating. But we don’t. That’s why we came out [to collect fronds]. Otherwise why would we?” asks Ramulamma, who is around 70 years old.
It takes 5-6 hours of work for 2-3 days for Ramulamma’s six-member group to make 30-35 baskets. Family members usually work together – and Ramulamma estimates there are at least 10 such groups in Kangal. The village, in Kangal mandal of Nalgonda district, is home to around 7,000 people, of which around 200 belong to ST communities.
“We have to clear the thorns on the fronds first. Then we soak, dry and tear the fronds into slimmer and flexible strips. And then weave baskets [and other items],” Ramulamma explains. “And after doing all this, we are now unable to sell [due to the lockdown].”
A trader from Hyderabad comes every 7 to 10 days to pick up the baskets. The weavers sell each basket for Rs. 50 – and earn around Rs. 100-150 a day from March to May. But, says 28-year-old Neligundharashi Sumathi, “We see that cash only when we sell.”
After the lockdown, imposed on March 23 in Telangana, the trader has stopped visiting Kangal. “Once a week or two, he buys a truck full of baskets from us and several others [in various nearby villages],” says 40-year-old Neligundharashi Ramulu, explaining the situation before the lockdown.
The baskets Ramulu and the others make are mainly used at large gatherings such as weddings to dry boiled rice, or to keep fried edible items to drain out the oil. From March 15, the Telangana government imposed a ban on such events.
Local traders now have stock left of the baskets they picked up a week before Ugadi, the Telugu New Year, on March 25. So even if the lockdown is eased or lifted, the trader will make his next visit to Kangal only when function halls and venues re-start.
“He assured us [on the phone] that he would buy all the baskets [after the lockdown] from us,” Sumathi says. As the products are non-perishable, she and the other weavers are hopeful that nothing will go waste. But with baskets piling up at every weaver’s house in Kangal, it is not clear how much the price for each basket will fall whenever the lockdown is lifted.
Before the lockdown began, with the money they had earned for the baskets picked up by the trader a week before Ugadi, Neligundharashi Yadamma, Ramulu’s wife, had bought stocks from the market for 10 days. The basket makers usually buy essential items like rice, dal , sugar, chilli powder and oil in regular and limited quantities from the local market and from the PDS (public distribution system) outlet in Kangal. When I met Yadamma on April 4, she had run out of rice bought in the market and was cooking what was left from the previous month’s ration – the ‘control biyyam ’ or PDS rice. In Telangana, each person in a family is entitled to six kilograms of PDS rice at Re. 1 per kilo. Rice bought from the market here costs around Rs. 40 per kilogram.
However, long before the lockdown, Yadamma and the others had noticed that the rice they picked up at the PDS outlet in Kangal is not quite edible – when cooked, it turns sticky or has an unpleasant smell. “It was kammati biyyam [tasty rice],” Yadamma says, sarcastically. “Eating, eating and dying,” she exclaims.
Still, they regularly brought home the PDS rice, fearing losing their ration cards if they didn’t collect it regularly. Yadamma grinds that rice to flour for rotis for the evening meal for herself, her husband and their two children. Before the lockdown, their morning and afternoon meals were made from the more expensive sanna biyyam (fine rice) bought from the market along with vegetables. To be able to purchase this rice, vegetables and other essentials, the basket weavers require regular earnings. “ Ee chinna jaathiki [for this weaker caste] these are the problems,” Ramulamma says.
The state government distributes foodgrains from warehouse stock supplied by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The FCI’s Manual of Quality Control says droppings of pigeons, feathers of sparrows, urine of rats, and infestation with bugs, mites or beetles could damage food grains. So at times, chemicals like methyl bromide and phosphine, which smell like musty garlic, are used as fumigants. These could be some of the reasons why the rice that the people of Kangal get on PDS is of poor quality. “Our children do not eat that rice,” says Neligundharashi Venkatamma, another basket maker.
For now though, the quality problem seems to have been somewhat addressed. Ramulu and his family, and other residents of Kangal, got 12 kilos of rice per person and Rs. 1,500 per family as part of the state government Covid-19 relief package – they have got this twice so far, for the months April and May. The rice is of better quality than what they get on PDS, says Ramulu. But, he told me on the phone on May 6, "All of it [rice in the relief package] is not good. Some of it is good and some of it is not. We are eating this for now. Some are eating relief rice mixed with rice bought in the market."
When I had met Ramulu on April 15, he had found daily wage work in a government paddy procurement centre in Kangal – this task is usually available in April and May. But he was working only on alternate days, with many people here seeking the same job, and earning Rs. 500 a day. This intermittent work will last till around the third week of May, by which time the paddy procurement is completed.
Ramulamma, Yadamma and other women in the group too have been working once in a while for Rs. 200-300 per day. “We are heading out to collect cotton crop residue [stalks, twigs and other waste products of the harvest],” Yadamma told me on the phone on the morning of May 12.
What she and the other families in Kangal eat in the coming months will depend on the quality of rice they get on the PDS or in the relief package, and whether they can sell baskets and find steady agricultural work.
Meanwhile, the new lockdown guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs, issued on May 1, say that at the most 50 people can attend marriage-related events – if that happens in Telangana the baskets supply chain will resume. So far, says Ramulu, “We have not received a call from him [the baskets’ trader] yet. We are waiting.”
"The baskets will not get damaged for at least 5-6 months,” adds Ramulamma. “But he [the buyer] has not called us yet. Corona is not over."