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Ordinary women, extraordinary work

By Kaustubh Kulkarni in Pune
June 16, 2009 09:39 IST
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Until a few days back, they were a mix of housewives from middle-class families and slum dwellers who worked as domestic help. Now they own a company -- Swamini Mahila Bachat Gat Akhil Sangh Ltd -- that will manufacture polythene bags.

At the heart of this turnaround are 160 women in Pimpri-Chinchwad, a city adjacent to Pune, who inaugurated their polythene bag unit in the industrial area of Talawade on May 28.  

SMBGAS has an initial order -- for 700 kg of bags per day for 250 days -- from Sumedh Polymers, a Pune-based manufacturer of plastic and polythene products which will market the bags in Dubai and the United States. The development has brought about immense confidence in the women, who now plan to manufacture 700 kg of polythene bags daily. 

Some of the women are slum-dwellers who worked as domestic help; others are housewives who never thought of taking up jobs or generating employment for others.

With help from the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, which has subsidised this project, as well as Sumedh Polymers (which helped the women draw up a business plan, and will also train them), the women have organised themselves into a self-help group named Swamini. Commercial production is expected to begin in the second week of July. 

Sulabha Ubale, a political activist and member of the group, told Business Standard, "From being poor and socially deprived, the women are now empowered human beings. Many still find it difficult to believe that they own a small industrial unit which will change their future." 

The investment in the project is Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), to start with. The women have jointly contributed Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million), while the PCMC has given SMBGAS a subsidy of Rs 30 lakh (Rs 3 million). The Bank of Baroda has advanced the unit a loan of Rs 50 lakh (Rs 5 million), which has to be repaid over a period of seven years.  

"The most interesting aspect of this project is that we have signed a seven year contract with Sumedh Polymers to supply polythene bags as per their requirements. This makes the business viable. We are recruiting 70 odd women at this unit and paying them a good salary," said Ubale.  

"The unit will supply plastic bags to Sumedh Polymers, which will export them to Dubai and the US. Hence, we need to manufacture bags to specific standards. Over the next one month, we will undergo extensive training and then begin commercial production," said Swati Mujumdar, an activist. 

She added, "We are not focusing on profits, as this unit has been set up to bring about social change. Once the women are employed, they will deliver better results and the business will grow automatically."

Mujumdar said, "Some 11 self-help groups were formed in Pimpri-Chinchwad around 15 months back. These groups had their own savings, which were added to the financial assistance by PCMC." 

SMBGAS has the capacity to manufacture 700 kg of polythene bags daily and it will sell them to Sumedh Polymers at Rs 18 per kg. This is expected to generate annual revenues of about Rs 36 crore (Rs 360 million) for the unit.

After paying various taxes, salaries, the loan installments and other expenses, SMBGAS expects to earn a profit of Rs 4 lakh (Rs 400,000) in the first year of operations. Six months after the start of operations, it will begin making polythene sheets, tarpaulin sheets and a few other products as well. 

Chanda Bhande, a vegetable vendor and chief of a self-help group, said, "I only knew how to sell vegetables and run my house. Things have now changed for me. I am making money and also helping others to earn money."

Damayanti Gaekwad, another member, added, "This has worked as a confidence building exercise for us. We want to expand the business beyond this single unit."

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Kaustubh Kulkarni in Pune
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