This traditional system of medicine has provided employment to women of Kerala on a large scale. The women scout for herbs
in forests and farms. They are also involved in the processing and making of medicines in the labs. Some of them are qualified to
start massage units of their own, writes Ajitha Menon
AYURVEDA has become a booming industry in Kerala. It has provided jobs to women by engaging them in all aspects of the trade—from cattle rearing and tending herb gardens to contractual work as herb collectors and sifters to contributing as doctors, masseuses and packagers.
Every morning serpentine queues form outside Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala, an ayurveda centre in Thrissur district. Women from the nearby Thykattussery village supply fresh milk to the centre, which is used for manufacturing medicines. Over 200 women in the village have invested in cows. "The milk required by the oushadhasala has to be of good quality. So we have invested in cows. I started with one cow. Now I have three. I supply milk to the centre the year round. The cows are fed properly and kept in clean surroundings. They also undergo regular veterinary check-ups. The oushadhasala is a confirmed customer and we make good money," says Girija (40), whose mother and sisters have joined her in the venture.
After testing the milk for purity, the oushadhasala buys around 700 litres daily at a competitive rate of Rs 11 per litre. Before they started deriving economic benefit from the ayurveda centre, most women in Thykattussery either worked as domestic help or farm labourers. However, now the milk business gives them a steady income. Girija’s sister Rati (26) reveals: "We took a loan from the lady of the house where Girija used to work as a domestic help to buy our first cow. But the next two cows were bought from the profits made by selling the milk."
Centres like Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala play a huge role in the economic development of the area where they are located, and thousands of women are piggy-backing this wave of prosperity. Doctors, nurses and masseuses head the list of qualified professionals that have found favour with the industry.
Dr Ambika Rahulan (56), joint owner of Aswathy Bhavan Vaidyasala in Tiruvalla, says that while doctors and nurses have to have relevant degrees, masseuses have the option of enrolling in a six-month training course the centre offers, during which they are paid a stipend. "After completing the course, the women are qualified to start a massage unit of their own or join any centre or hotel as masseuses." Besides those qualified to work in this sector, there is a large section of marginally educated women who take home a decent pay packet. "About 500 rural women, living mostly in forest and hill regions like Amdallur, Velikulangara and Peachy, are involved in collecting herbs for our pharmaceutical wing," reveals T. Unnikrishnan, General Manager, Vaidyaratnam Oushadhashala.
"We impart preliminary knowledge to the women on the herbs we need at the lab. While some are natural, having lived amidst these plants throughout their lives, others are taught." "We collect herbs like tulsi, kuruntoti and ketakamuladi , which are easily available. We are paid by the kilogram starting from Rs 15 per kg, depending on the herb. For example, a kg of kuruntoti would fetch Rs 40. Many of us also have herb gardens where we plant common herbs and then sell them," says Thallur-based Lalita Srinivasan, who is in her forties.
Women scout for herbs in fields, forests and farms. At times, they even offer landowners a nominal fee for permission to collect herbs. They begin work early in the morning and sell the herbs to ayurveda centres by 4 pm every day."I studied only till class IV. There were no job opportunities for me. My husband is a heart patient and is unable to work. I have two children. I earn about Rs 2,000 every month, collecting and selling herbs like unnginver and chanakayanga," says Srinivasan.
Kanakamma (28) from Marathakkara cautions: "One has to be a regular to make good money. My mother did it for 30 years and now I am doing it. I have planted a herb garden near my house with an investment of Rs 5,000 and it has given me excellent returns."Other than those collecting herbs, there are women who sift and clean the collection for a daily wage of about Rs 70 to Rs 100.
Susheela (34) from Cherpu works as a contractual labourer and manages to earn around Rs 1,800 per month. "Some herbs take more time and effort to clean. We are paid more for such difficult tasks. Dry ginger is easier to clean. So we do it in large quantities to make more money. This is the kind of work where the lack of education does not matter. I have only studied till class III. Where else would I find work? My husband doesn’t work. I have to feed my children," she says.
Packaging units, where medicines and other products are made market-ready, are also popular avenues of employment. A.M. Sreedevi (54), who has studied till class 10, works at the oushadhasala’s packaging unit as a permanent employee. "It was unheard of in my family for women to work. However, when we were faced with financial difficulties, I started looking for work. The ayurveda drugs packaging unit here is perfect. It is a comfortable working environment and there is no physical toil. I get basic pay, dearness allowance, washing allowance and incentives," she says.
Shanta (51) adds: "We work in shifts and the pay is good. We also get overtime. With education of up to class III only, what more could I have expected? I am earning about Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 every month." In a state where alcoholism is a major problem, along with high suicide and divorce rates, the ayurveda industry has provided a healing touch for women. — WFS