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| Last Updated:: 12/03/2016

The money-spinning black sheep of Kuruba families








These sheep, strikingly black, have a rich coat of coarse wool that has long provided the army and police force with a steady supply of warm blankets. Called Deccani, the lambs are sheared twice a year, each of them yielding a little over one kg of raw wool, which is ideal for making coarse carpets, barrack blankets and laundry bags. Since the market for such coarse wool and its products has shrunk, a large number of weavers, mostly women, have lost their livelihood.



Now, in a stunning turnaround in several villages of Belgaum in Karnataka, women of the traditional herder community Kuruba have got their act together and established an enterprise that generates an annual turnover of about ₹2 crore. They have built a niche market for their hand-made products in the US, Europe and Japan, and the demand far exceeds what their deft hands can supply over the year.



Using pedal-powered spinning wheels, improvised for coarse wool, the women either spin wool in various colours or tie-dye yarn from a single-coloured fibre. Sheep leather and other natural material such as jute and banana fibre are also incorporated in the final products. The women use root extracts to treat the raw material to prevent infestation by moths and other pests.



What started from 60 households in two villages over a decade ago has now spread to nearly 500 households across several villages in northern Karnataka. The growth has been nothing short of exponential, from ₹21,000 in 2005 to ₹2 crore in 2015. Federated under Shramik Kala, there are over 20 women’s groups, each with 20 members, engaged in grading and sorting the wool, developing new product designs, introducing new production techniques, and marketing the products in new ways.



The overall focus, however, goes beyond the promotion of sustainable livelihoods. “The idea is to optimise human efficiency and not maximise economic gains, so that the communities don’t end up compromising their virtuous lifestyle,” says Mamaji, a 77-year-old Kuruba, who is a relentless crusader for the virtues of a pastoral lifestyle.



There are an estimated six lakh Kuruba rearing around 1.5 crore sheep in Belgaum, Bagalkot, Koppal, Dharwar and Haveri districts. One of the oldest semi-nomadic communities in the region, the Kuruba maintain strong bonds within their ethnic group and have traditional forums where they discuss issues and make decisions as a group.



They manage their sheep collectively, sharing the tasks of grazing, penning, and managing diseases. So strong is the camaraderie that if any of them loses his or her flock to an epidemic, the other members contribute a lamb each to replenish the decimated stock. Were it not for their pastoral lifestyle, the sheep would not have adapted to more than two dozen kinds of shrubs for foraging.



“The economic incentive has revived the back-end cycle of conserving the breed, and sustaining its foraging habits to get the desired quality of wool,” explains Gopi Krishna, whose company Mitan Handicrafts provides marketing support to Shramik Kala. Besides reviving traditional crafts, the enterprise has strengthened the entire supply-chain, thereby creating a demand for the expertise of nearly ten different ethnic groups in the production process.



The thrust has been on developing ethical businesses based on ecological principles; it is only through horizontal expansion involving more women workers that the production gets scaled up. With a bit of hand-holding, the concept has travelled to Solapur and Sangli in Maharashtra, as also Medak in Andhra Pradesh.




Over a million households rear sheep in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Though belonging to different ethnic groups, they share a rich eco-cultural legacy, which is in the throes of extinction as the government is promoting cross-bred meat animals. But the Kuruba women have proved that coarse wool fetches a higher price than meat, and there are distinct advantages in nurturing the small and hardy, Roman nose baa baa black sheep.






Source: The Hindu