How social entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon is helping Kerala thank its brave fisherfolk
Social entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon has initiated a slew of schemes under the FriendShip campaign to help the fisherfolk of Kerala, the heroes of the 2018 floods, to stand on their own feet and be self-reliant.Rekha Balakrishnan
It’s been exactly a year since Kerala was ravaged by floods. Families were torn asunder, people lost their loved ones and homes, and the state saw huge destruction to both life and property.
What still stands out is the resilience of its people and the way they rallied to help others in distress. Over 4,000 fisherfolk across the state left their homes with just their boats to help rescue over 65,000 people.
In just a few months, Kerala was back on her feet, thanks to this spirit, the kindness of millions, and the ability to stand united in the face of disaster.
A ship full of gratitude
The fisherfolk who helped in the rescue efforts went back to their coastal homes to their hardships and struggles. Most declined the money offered to them by the government, and instead contributed the little they had to the CM’s fund, reiterating that they would always be alert and ready to help in times of disaster.
“It’s time to repay these brave fishermen and their families by offering these saviours a ship full of gratitude,” says Lakshmi Menon, artist, designer, and social entrepreneur.
Lakshmi initiated a social campaign called FriendShip, along with Neenu Rathin, which says thank you to these fishermen in different ways. It includes a crowdsourced life insurance scheme and entrepreneurship opportunity for their families.
“There are 2.3 lakh fishermen in Kerala and 95 percent of the State’s population consume fish. It’s sad that we are not aware of the abject poverty they live in. The FriendShip campaign is a crowdsourced insurance campaign where those interested to help can pay a premium of Rs 24 for a policy cover of Rs 1 lakh. For this, we have tied up with New India Life Assurance Company and over 20,000 people have contacted us expressing their interest in the scheme,” she tells HerStory.
FriendShip does not just stop with insurance. “Gratitude is the attitude of the campaign. If anyone is interested, we can also give anyone the contact of a fisherman’s family if they would like to take it further and help them in whatever they need,” adds Lakshmi.
Also on the anvil is a self-reliant scheme for the fisherfolk. She explains, “Our plan is to open a centre where fisherfolk can bring in the fresh catch of the day, clean and package the fish, and deliver them to nearby apartments and houses with the help of an app. There will be a thorough quality check to ensure that the fish is fresh and not adulterated in any way. This is a business model that can be replicated anywhere in the State.”
Saying thanks with paper boats
The FriendShip campaign literally began on paper. As a symbolic representation of gratitude to the fisherfolk, Lakshmi approached schools to make 65,000 paper boats. Within two months, school students had made over two lakh boats, which will be seen as an art installation in partnership with the National Institute of Oceanography to be unveiled in December.
“Ideas keep swirling in my mind. I plan to approach corporate entities for sponsoring these boats, maybe at Rs 3 or Rs 5 per boat. The Kochouseph Chitillapilly Foundation has already come forward to sponsor 50 families and we are hoping this largesse continues,” says Lakshmi.
For Raksha Bandhan, Lakshmi has personally trained a group of survivors of sexual abuse from a shelter to make rakhis.
Her fashion design side has not been left behind in this FriendShip campaign. Her collection, “Weaves & Waves of Friendship”, draws parallels to the weaves of the fabric and the waves that ravaged Kerala last year. “Just think, the shuttle that creates the warp and the weft resembles a boat. So this is the coming together of the weaving and the fishing communities in a social fabric.”
Chekutty – a rag doll reflecting the resilient Malayali
Last year, a few days after the floods, in between the rehabilitation endeavours by the people of Kerala, a little rag doll called Chekutty stood out as the face of the fiery floods. It was not just a doll, but a movement that galvanised the people of Kerala into action and proved nothing is impossible - you just need to have the will to move forward.
Chekutty was made of soiled fabric salvaged from the textile village of Chendamangalam. “Everyone said that the sarees had to be burned as they would be of no use. I bought a few home, washed them, and fashioned a doll called Chekutty. In Malayalam, it meant cherinna athujeevacha kutty or a little kid who survived the mud. It also translated to Chendamangalam’s kutty. The kid came with all the stains and scars, the reflection of every Malayali who battled the floods,” says Lakshmi.
Along with Co-founder Gopinath Parayil of Blue Yonder, a travel company based in Kerala, Lakshmi launched Chekutty, and in a few days, it became the emotion of the Malayali. More than 50,000 volunteers and 260 schools contributed to building Chekutty as a symbol of hope of resilience. So much so, that the doll is still in great demand and has also been given away by organisations like the World Bank as gifts at conferences.
“A psychiatrist from a Kochi hospital told me that he used Chekutty to counsel children with suicidal tendencies. He told them, ‘if she can survive all the hardships and struggles, so can you’,” adds Lakshmi.
Always being part of a solution
The social entrepreneur actually shot in the limelight in 2015 with her company Pure Living’s Ammoommathiri or the Wicksdom initiative that created cotton lamp wicks rolled by impoverished senior citizens abandoned at old age homes. These wicks are sold to individuals and organisations and the entire money goes to its makers. Rolapena is another initiative that uses these women to make disposable pens from paper that grow into trees when disposed of.
As she is talking is to me, Lakshmi mulls setting up an installation inside Cochin International Airport that combines Chekutty and friendship. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and ideas – all for the greater good. How does she manage to do so much?
“The seed was sown in my childhood by my father who used to constantly remind me that I was born into a privileged family and that comes with a huge responsibility to give back to the community,” explains Lakshmi.
After completing her degree in Home Science from a Kottayam college, Lakshmi went on to pursue multiple qualifications in interior design and jewellery design from the US. Her jewellery was also showcased at New York Fashion Week and she worked briefly as an artist in a gallery in San Francisco when the idea for the eco-pen came up. She brought it to India as an enterprise model, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem by default. So, I have always wanted to be part of the solution. It is one wick, one pen or one paper boat that can always make a difference. I believe if you can’t do great things, you can do small things in a great way. Whatever you do, sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, but you never fail,” she adds.
We may all have written that cliched “There is no bigger ship than friendship” in our slam books while we were in school, but Lakshmi Menon is making us rethink friendship in different, effective ways so that we can make a difference in the world we live in.
For more details on the FriendShip campaign, visit www.makefriendship.org
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)