Silent looms of Varanasi

Banarsi saris, once hand-woven in almost every household of Varanasi, are on their way out. The increasing use of power looms and the flood of China-made saris have left thousands of weavers jobless, report Anurag Tiwari and Sandeep Pandey

Weavers of Sajoi village in UP have swallowed their pride to become labourers. Work has been provided to them as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Weavers of Sajoi village in UP have swallowed their pride to become labourers. Work has been provided to them as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
Afsana, a weaver, and others of her community struggle to make ends meet because of the dip in demand for saris
Afsana, a weaver, and others of her community struggle to make ends meet because of the dip in demand for saris. Photos: WFS

The once-famous Banarsi saris of Varanasi and their makers are under threat from globalisation. The looms that used to clap in homes in and around the holy city are falling silent because work is simply vanishing. First came the power looms. They snatched away the jobs of hundreds of thousands. To make matters worse, China-made saris and silks then began to flood the market. While the Central Government's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) proscribes machines in work to be offered to the rural poor, there is no such law to protect the
sari artisans.

Today, the Muslim-dominated Daniyalpur and Dubkiyan villages in Chirai Gaon block of Varanasi district have been deeply affected by this trend. For generations, families here have woven the finest silk saris. Unfortunately, if five years ago a family of six members, including children, could produce a sari a week and earn Rs 500, today they get only Rs 400 for the same amount of work. Ironically, while the prices of all the essential commodities have risen, the wages of the artisans keep falling. They now get to weave no more than two or three saris per month, and that only because the designs are too intricate for the power looms to manage.

Two decades ago, Afsana, around 45, and other members of her community worked on a contract basis and were paid per sari by middlemen. Her earnings enabled the family to buy their own home in Daniyalpur. But the good times soon ended. Today, the family can often only afford to eat a few mashed potatoes with the sub-standard rice they get from the Public Distribution System (PDS). They have no other source of livelihood. They have not even considered the idea of working under NREGA (a government initiative to provide a guaranteed job for 100 days a year to one member of a family) because they think it below their dignity to do unskilled manual labour. "We would rather commit suicide than dig and carry earth as labourers," says Afsana. She smiles while she says this, bravely trying to hide her desperation.

No livelihood

On the other side of Varanasi, in the Araji line block, are Hindu families who had until some time ago also pursued the tradition of weaving Banarsi saris made of imitation silk. While the saris they made were cheaper and of a simpler design than those made by Afsana's family, their earnings were considerably higher. In fact, a family in Araji could earn almost Rs 400 per day. Today, they, too, have been displaced from the market. With changes in the child labour law and with the city of Surat emerging as a textile centre, weavers in Araji have lost their only source of earning a livelihood.

As their looms came to a standstill, this particular community did take refuge under NREGA. But there are problems. These weavers admit that they are not physically strong enough to do hard manual work as they were used to working only on looms. As a result, they are unable to meet the prescribed schedule of rates. Under NREGA, a worker gets Rs 100 for digging 100 cubic feet of earth in a day. The weavers, however, are not able to earn more than Rs 40 per day. Bela Devi, Savitri Devi, Prabhawati, Nagina, Nirmala, Chamela, Amrawati, Munta Devi, Sushila, Phulgena, Tara Devi and Malti Devi of Sajoi village now wonder how they are expected to feed their families on such low wages.

What makes matters worse is that women have been totally overlooked in the allocation of work. Among the list of 10,000 workers registered in Araji, who work under the job scheme, there are hardly 10 to 15 women. It has become the norm in UP not to include the names of women in the job cards given to families, although by law the job card should carry the names of all the adult members in a family who desire to work under the scheme.

It is the same story in village after village. Social audits of NREGA conducted in the four blocks of Hardoi and Unnao districts of central UP clearly revealed this reality. The women were just not aware that their names should rightfully figure on the job cards. The village development officer or pradhan (village head) issued the job cards only in the name of the male head of the family. Even families headed by women were not issued job cards. The officials were of the firm view that women would not work because, traditionally, they did not do work that involved digging. Yet, when the women themselves were interviewed, they all indicated that they wanted work.

Bias against women

In a couple of cases in Sitapur district, when women arrived at the work site demanding their right to work, the pradhans brought the work to a halt rather than including them.

Unlike in the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where women have exceeded the quota of 33 per cent reserved for them at some work sites under NREGA, there is a clear bias against women in UP. They are being systematically denied work. The implementing authorities fear that if women are not able to do enough work to meet the schedule of rates, then they would have difficulties completing their measurement books. However, this is just an excuse. The muster rolls and measurement books are still being fudged to indicate that more work is being done than is actually the case in order to siphon off money.

P.K. Jha, Commissioner of Allahabad zone, until recently, has shown how through innovative approaches women can be included in NREGA schemes and their work targets met. But this requires political will and a commitment to empower poor women. But both will and commitment are sadly lacking in a region that was once the home of the resplendent Banarsi sari. WFS