RECENTLY August 7 was declared ‘Handloom Day’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tamil Nadu. Indian handlooms have been famous through the ages, and even now, due to a few dynamic entrepreneurs, handwoven cottons, carpets and silks are making inroads into markets abroad. But the ordinary handloom weaver living in remote areas of Assam or West Bengal is under threat of extinction and is likely to shift to some other profession sooner or later. Modi’s own constituency of Banaras has many handloom weavers living in dire straits. He promised to revive handloom industry of Banaras but signs of revival are not visible yet.
The rest of India also has many handloom centres where fabrics of excellent quality can still be found and each state has its own cultural tradition of weaving. But the problems range from high raw material cost to the slow process of weaving that increases the price of the cloth produced by the handloom as compared to the power loom. The difference between handloom and power loom fabrics is sometimes hard to tell, and according to a report, 70 per cent of the fabrics sold as handloom are actually made on power looms. Better marketing, design as well as credit availability to handloom weavers are important for the revival of the handloom sector.
Handlooms are under the Government of India’s textile ministry and sometimes a really interested bureaucrat, with a deep understanding of the handloom sector, can bring about a change but then he/she gets transferred and you get a regular IAS officer who has no more than a routine interest in the sector. With this variable treatment of the deep problems of the sector, there is bound to be lack of innovations and focus. There has been progress in ‘cluster’ development and the government has set up 20 clusters for handloom weavers in different states across the country. But the needs of weavers have to be looked into in each state because they vary from state to state. Marketing and branding are very important and e-marketing of products through government portals will definitely revive the sector.
Some private entrepreneurs are producing fine handloom products for the upper strata of society, at prices unaffordable for the common person. There is no doubt that the variety, design, colours and textures offered by the handloom sector are quite unmatched by anything produced by power looms or the mill sector, but this is not true for cheaper varieties.
Most low-income groups buy power loom cloth and handloom has a small share of 11 to 12 per cent of the total fabric production, whereas power looms have a 60 per cent share. Power loom fabrics are cheaper and faster to produce. While a handloom fabric costs Rs 500 per metre, a power loom cloth would cost Rs 30 a metre. But the machinery used in handloom is much cheaper than power loom, which costs three times more.
Reservation of items for handlooms has become less and less popular, and now only 11 items are reserved for handloom under the Reservation and Articles for Production Act of 1985. Even the definition of handloom was going to be changed to include hybrid looms, on which at least one process of weaving required manual intervention or human energy for production. But the government has opposed the amendment and handloom stands for ‘any loom other than power loom’.
Saris are still reserved for the handloom sector, even as the power loom sector has been lobbying hard against such reservation. There has also been an attempt to ‘de-reserve’ all the items, which, according to some experts, would lead to the extinction of handlooms. But the government has said it has no intention of amending the reservation Act.
There is a good reason for preserving Indian handlooms because loom weaving is the second most important occupation in Indian villages, after agriculture, and employs 4.3 million people. Handloom production is also eco-friendly, has a small carbon footprint and is easy to install and operate. If it could be revived and made lucrative, it would lead to a slowdown in rural migration. Also 75 per cent of workers are women and 47 per cent are from BPL families. Most handloom workers are not able to sustain themselves from earnings from weaving and the average is a little above Rs 3,000 a month (2010 handloom census). They are forced to engage in other trades. For example, I came across master weavers in Bishnupur (West Bengal) who were weaving the famous Baluchari saris in complex Jacquard looms, but were also selling potatoes to enhance their earnings. Their children had migrated to towns and were not engaged in weaving.
The government’s allocation for the handloom sector has been going up and down and this year’s budget is Rs 440 crore. But the main problem is the implementation of various programmes for weavers which are aimed at giving them better access to subsidised raw materials and improve credit availability and marketing channels. There is often misuse and corruption in the delivery of the programmes — if the weavers’ woes are to be believed. The end result is that they remain cash-strapped and poor and have to borrow from the money lender. Some are perpetually in debt and end their lives when they cannot pay back.
There is a growing global demand for organic cotton cloth, which India can easily make. India exported a total of 6.9 billion square metres worth $372 million in 2013-14. Improvement in quality/design will enable Indian exporters to compete with others. Low price is not always important for niche markets abroad because consumers want fine handwoven fabrics. Also, there is a huge potential waiting to be tapped in markets in Africa and South America. Vegetable dyes, block printing and embroidered embellishments will lead to higher value addition and all handloom products should go through proper quality control which can be facilitated by the state governments. They should get into contracts with big global buyers’ chains. But as a renowned fashion designer told me recently: “Everything for the revival of handlooms is being done by the private sector and nothing much by the government.”
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