K. Giriprakash

Striking a fine balance between corporate social responsibility and corporate goals can be a big challenge but Arvind Mills seems to have done just that. With attrition levels being the highest in garment factories, sometimes crossing the 50 per cent mark, Arvind Mills decided to set up a factory where it could find a huge pool of workers and at the same time tie them down to a single employer.

The first goal was not easy to meet as trained workers could only be accessed at those places which had several factories around them and hence the only option left was to train the women workers. The second was easy because the company could move into any town which did not have garment factories. The task of choosing the town was left to Gayitri Handanahal, an independent consultant with Arvind.

After extensive surveys, four towns Belgaum, Bellary, Mysore and Chamarajanagar were short-listed. For one reason or the other, the first three were discarded, and according to Gayitri herself, Chamarajanagar in hindsight was the best choice for setting up India's largest manufacturing hub for garments. That decision made, Gayitri decided to use the services of self-help groups to put together a team of women workers which could start the first of the many small factories which would eventually be set up in Chamarajanagar. Each of these self-help groups has around 10-12 persons drawn from economically homogeneous groups of rural poor and who voluntarily unite to save and mutually agree to contribute to a common fund which in turn will be lent to the members. The self-help groups are also trained to develop skills which allows each of them or even collectively to start ventures of their own under the NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development ) initiative.

Gayitri shortlisted a few self-help groups who were part of the Deenabhandu Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and out of them formed five self-help groups consisting of a total of 71 workers. These women workers were given a loan from a local bank to buy machinery for setting up a garment factory. Arvind Mills has already started supplying them with fabric and the first consignment of Lee jeans is already on its way to Bangalore for quality checks before being despatched to retail stores across the country.

Eventually, a cluster of such small factories will be set up in Chamarajanagar and around 5,000 pairs of jeans will be produced daily employing a total of 60,000 workers, making it perhaps the largest such manufacturing hub set up by any garment maker in the country. "If more corporates come out with such initiatives, migration to cities will slow down and rural poverty can be tackled effectively," says Gayitri.

For K.L. Vinaya, Assistant General Manager at NABARD, Arvind's new initiative has turned out to be extremely useful for the local women. "Discipline among the group has been exemplary," says Vinaya. For Sudha, one of the members of the self-help groups, who lost her husband recently and had to bear the responsibility of supporting her children, the new jobs created by Arvind Mills have been a lifeline. "We are trying to get more women to join us so that they can lead a better life," she says.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 14, 2006)
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