Toy Power: When Earning Becomes Child’s Play

By Ajitha Menon, Womens Feature Service

Nanthoibi, 22, from Manipur, hated cutting and sewing. She was known to be something of a shirker. But there she was at Kolkata’s Institute of Toy Making Technology (ITMT), expected to cut, stitch, and stuff toys. A timely intervention by the ITMT faculty brought about a sea change in this young girl from Imphal. Today, Nanthoibi is the assembly line supervisor at the Kolkata stuffed toy production centre, and she enjoys her work and the responsibility it entails.

“It took us a while to realise that Nanthoibi had a natural mathematical ability. When we moved her to study production, we discovered that the girl’s amazing memory could instantly generate figures related to how much raw material was used by how many girls, how many toys were produced in how many hours, and so on. So we deputed her to production and she turned out to be a fantastic supervisor and thorough record keeper. Properly motivated human resource can work wonders,” observes Rajarshi Chakraborty, Director, ITMT.

ITMT is a government-supported registered society that runs training courses in toy manufacturing and toy business for the unemployed women from the Northeast. It also extends support for marketing the toys. About 150 girls are trained every year at ITMT, which was set up in 2001. Later, these girls find work at the production centres set up in their states as employment generation projects. “I came to know about the training course through a government official at Gangtok. After failing matriculation, I was just whiling away time. When I realised that this training was being given free of charge, I jumped at the chance,” recalls Tilarupa Chettri, 23, from Temkitarku village in Sikkim. Besides the training, ITMT also takes care of food and lodging for the three months of Basic and Advanced courses. The girls are also paid a token stipend.

The student expenses as well as the money for setting up of production centres comes from the government (central and state), which makes use of funds from the North East Development Council and North East Export Promotion Fund. “At present there are six production centres. One in Kolkata, one each in Gangtok (Sikkim) and Shillong (Meghalaya), two in Kohima (Nagaland) and one in Dimapur (Nagaland),” reveals Maimom Sanajaobi Devi, 21, from Manipur. On an average, every production centre generates up to 2,000 stuffed toys per day.

Sanajaobi, who hails from Thanmeiband Hijem Leikai village, has studied up to higher secondary. After showing great potential during her Basic and Advanced training, she was offered an internship and later a job at the Kolkata Production Centre. “I was sent to the Shillong Production Centre for three months to run the production process,” she says. Payment is decided on the basis of individual output – on an average everyone earns about Rs 4,000 (US$1=Rs 48.6) per month at the centres.

Besides the Northeast, now ITMT is in the process of setting up production centres in Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, too. It also has tie-ups with export companies that ensure a 100 per cent buy-back arrangement from the centres. ITMT facilitates sourcing of raw materials, design, logistics, quality control and marketing for the centres, which are run independently under government or local Self Help Group-NGO supervision. The institute only intervenes as a crisis management measure. The toys made are exported to Australia, Canada, USA and the Middle East. Toy exporters have tied up with the production centres through the intervention of ITMT.

The girls have the option to join as workers at different production centres or carry out the work on contract. “However, the actual production is always done at the centres. The different machines used for giving the toys their final shape are available only at the centres, so even contract workers have to come there to do their allotted work,” explains Jogeshwari Nongmaithem, 25, from village Bamonlikar in Manipur. Jogeshwari, who has studied up to higher secondary, is currently doing the Advanced Toy Making Course. “I am looking forward to returning to Manipur. There are plans to open a production centre in Imphal in January. I expect to be one of the first workers to join there,” she adds.

Though the programme at ITMT is open to girls from all the seven states of the Northeast plus Sikkim, currently most enrollments are from Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Sikkim. “Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh had each sent one batch of girls, but the follow through from the governments was weak. We are working towards more active participation with them,” informs Chakraborty. He adds, “My best students come from Nagaland. That’s why, ITMT has set up three production centres there, and is planning more.”

Most of these girls have escaped a life of fear, humiliation, waste and drudgery thanks to this opportunity. “We come from states which are disturbed. There is militancy. The region has seen no development. There are no industries. The prevalence of drug addiction is high. There is rampant HIV/AIDS. There is hardly any employment, nor are there career options,” says Inao Senjam Chanu, 24, a college dropout from Imphal. “Toy making has given us a focus, a commitment. We found a way to channelise our energy, our talent, and also earn and become independent. Children play with the toys we make, get emotionally attached to them. But for us, these toys have actually been life-savers,” she confesses.

Toy production involves designing, moulding, cutting, stitching, eye punching, stuffing, finishing, and spraying. It also requires quality control. The girls are trained in all the stages but later specialise in different segments. “By the end of the training, we are able to carry out assembly line production, using all the machines in the different stages with ease,” adds Inao, who has specialised in design and is currently working on creating a new line of toys for export to the US.

Most girls come from poor or middle class families, where little attention is paid to academics. Those coming from tribal communities, most of them matriarchal, are school or college dropouts, and marriage is not seen as mandatory. Some of them end up drifting into various addictions or are in danger of contracting debilitating diseases.

“Toy making is a healthy, happier option for us. We finally see a future, which is bright and independent. We enjoy the work. We get paid. We stay in hostels with our colleagues, which keeps us away from the social problems prevalent in the neighbourhood,” says Henchu Phom, 30, from Nian village in Nagaland. Henchu, whose father is a teacher and mother, a housewife, failed her secondary exams. She is currently undergoing Advanced Toy Making training.

“At the ITMT hostels life is regulated. Only the seniors are allowed to go out on their own. The juniors always go on shopping or entertainment trips as a team, escorted by faculty members. Earlier, many of us used to find this very stifling. But gradually we realised the benefits of self-discipline. We started appreciating the work hours, the satisfaction toy making brought us, the joy of receiving our stipend. We also developed respect for ourselves as well as our bodies,” says Wangol Sana, 24, from Khabam village in Manipur. She is the daughter of a farmer who breeds pigs. Her mother is a tailor. Sana has five siblings whose education has now become her responsibility.

Not everyone who completes the training, continues as a worker – some revert to their old lifestyles. But Chakraborty is more than satisfied. He says, “I am happy to say we are able to retain about 80 per cent of our students.”

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