Handlooms are the second largest employment generating sector in the country, next only to agriculture. Around 31.45 lakh weavers' households and 68.86 lakh artisan households continue to make a living today, due to the support of a civil society which respects the importance of preserving India's traditional heritage. Handlooms and handicrafts are a source of livelihood for around 32 million people, a majority of them belonging to economically impoverished Backward Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Minorities.
The handlooms and handicrafts sector has withstood several crises since the British colonial era and the subsequent neglect of Indian government. The abolition of the All India Handloom Board (AIHB) on 27 July this year, and the All India Handicrafts Board on 4 August, by the central government, is another instance of this neglect, and reveals the present regime's partisan favouritism towards big industries and the capitalist lobby rather than the employment generating informal sector. The abolition of these institutions mars the welfare orientation of the current government and its goals of "sabka vikas" and "sabka saath", considering that even the British rulers didn't deny their importance in protecting the handloom sector.
Despite the lack of government support, the handlooms and handicrafts sectors have made significant contributions to India's economy: [In the previous financial year] while handicrafts earned Rs 36,7898 crore through exports and Rs 12,678 crore in the domestic market, handlooms earned Rs 2,280.18 crore in exports and Rs 2,75,000 crore in domestic trade.
The All India Handloom Board (AIHB) was established on the recommendations of a Fact Finding Committee constituted in 1941 to study the serious setbacks faced by handlooms during 1914-1940. The Committee, tasked with suggesting measures to protect the handloom sector, submitted its report in 1942.
The 1942 Report observed that the crisis in the sector was due to severe shortage of yarn (raw material) required by handlooms and obstacles in the supply of cotton from abroad during World War I; and the "Boycott Foreign Goods" call given by national leaders of the Indian freedom struggle on 7 August 1905.
The crisis deepened with Swadeshi Mills forced to produce cloth from handmade yarn and sell it in the local market. On the other hand, the British dumped textiles made in Manchester mills in the Indian market, while the British East India Company simultaneously imposed taxes to wipe out Indian handlooms and the Swadeshi Movement. The handloom sector suffered untold misery with loss of work, as they struggled to sell handloom cloth in a local market that had been flooded with mill cloth. At the same time, India was facing a severe drought and agrarian crisis as well. Many handloom weavers unable to make a living could not leave the sector as there was no industry in India that could absorb them at that time. The overall crisis was so severe that the colonial government could not avoid talking to the leaders of the handloom sector in 1940, finally appointing the Fact Finding Committee in 1941.
In its 1942 report, the Committee recommended appointing the All India Handloom Board, stressing the need for a bridge between the government and handloom weavers to understand the issues faced by the sector, to advise better means and arrangements to develop supply of raw material, marketing, handloom cloth production, Research & Development Centres to ensure improvement in the standard of living of the handloom weavers in the country. It also recommended the reservation of certain cloth products exclusively to handlooms to avoid competition with mills " particularly products made of coarse yarn like chadders, towels, dhoti with ¼-inch border, saris with 2-½ inch border, etc. The Government of India subsequently passed the Cotton Textile (Control) Order in 1948 and subsequent legislations with protective measures based on these very recommendations of the Fact Finding Committee's 1942 report to "prohibit" production of these varieties of cloth by mills.
The Indian Parliament, adopting the Industrial Policy Resolution on 6 April 1948, stressed on rural economic development through cottage, village and small scale industries, for the generation of employment and development of rural India. Further, the Cottage Industries Board (CIB) was established by the government of India to promote the rural economy through cottage and small scale industries, providing large number jobs for lower investment. Besides, the Standing Handloom Committee was clubbed with the CIB.
The All India Handloom Board and All India Handicrafts Board were separated from the Cottage Industry Board in 1952 to retain due importance for and prioritise the concerns and issues of handloom weavers and artisans. These sectors engaged women to a large extent and functioned as an agency of their empowerment, thanks to the tireless efforts of national leaders of the freedom struggle like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar, who worked as the warp and the weft of the mission to preserve the handlooms and handicrafts of India. Because of Chattopadhyay and Jayakar, the handicrafts and handloom sector grew to access improved marketing avenues, supply of raw material, and R&D Centres.
The abolition of the All India Handloom and Handicrafts Boards signals the government's departure from the national fostering of the traditional value of production. The abolition of these boards suggests that the government is withdrawing its responsibility to the sector that's struggling to retain its presence in the local and global markets despite the adverse situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when it should be extending great support to a sector that employs a large section of the population, the government is pampering capital-intensive mega-enterprises at the cost of people-intensive traditional and informal sectors that provide livelihoods to the poorer sections across the country. Withdrawal of government responsibility to handlooms and handicrafts also amounts to a denial of state and central government support to uphold the Constitutional provisions of the right to livelihood, under Articles 41, 43, and 43 (A).
The timing of the withdrawal and increased neglect of the sectors at a moment when sales of handlooms and handicrafts in domestic and export markets are growing, means the government intends to provide impetus to industrial capitalist lobbies to capture the informal sector. Per capita handloom cloth consumption increased to 31.85 meters in 2016-17, which marks a 12.66 percent growth from 2015-16. Handicrafts and handlooms have great potential in the export market, which the big capitalists plan to capture.
Self-reliant and independent artisans and weavers who are currently living with pride despite low incomes are going to be forced to work for mechanised production units in the near future as their autonomous enterprises are starved and discriminated against, with the current government policies of neglect and deprivation. The handlooms and handicrafts of the country are likely to be wiped out with the threat of changes that the central government wants to thrust on the informal sector.
The abolition of the handloom and handicraft boards are not sudden moves, but intensification of government policies pursued from 2013-14 to 2020-21, characterised by the decline in budget allocations " from Rs 6,018 crore (15.77 percent) to Rs 485 crore (13.80 percent) for the handloom sector. During the same period, budget allocations for handicrafts have increased from 6.28 percent to 11.05 percent. This slight increase, however, was far lower than the proportion of growth of the handloom and handicraft sectors in terms of employment and exports. Discrimination towards this sector reveals that artisans and handloom weavers are not as important to the government as the industrial capital lobby, which is why there is no mention of handlooms and handicrafts [being] allotted any share of government assistance under the Rs 20 lakh crore economic revival plan of the Atmanirbharta Mission announced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current moves of the government are likely to push the traditional and informal sectors of the country into deep crisis, just like the British colonial powers pushed the weavers into unemployment, poverty and starvation.
While the Indian Merchants Act 1889 imposed restrictions on the use of khadi yarn by mills into a punishable act, the Governor General approved a legislation in continuation of that passed by the Indian Legislature on 13 March 1934. Mahatma Gandhi assessed the importance of handlooms and started the Khadi Movement as a symbol of resistance to foreign rule. Hand spun yarn and cloth produced on the handlooms alone was considered as handloom; no product made on machine or motor power was considered national and handloom. Gandhi also encouraged organisations at the grassroots level to boycott foreign cloth as the British Raj was buying cotton from India at low prices and selling the cloth subsequently manufactured at high cost. Gandhi's speech on 22 July 1921 dwells on khadi as an integral part of the independence struggle, and its symbol. Similarly the slogan of "Boycott Foreign Goods" against Manchester-produced commodities (mill cloth, soaps, cigarettes, oils, etc) brought together Indian masses into one national identity cutting across caste, religion, etc.
Boycott Foreign Goods was a strategy to ensure that the Hindus and Muslims do not divide into separate factions but fight collectively against the colonial powers with a focused objective of protecting the handlooms. Deeply touched by the plight of handlooms fraught by the shortage of raw material and crisis in the markets, Mahatma Gandhi gave the clarion call for a 'Bonfire of foreign cloth' and 'Boycott of foreign cloth'. On 31 July 1921, in front of Elphinstone Mill, foreign cloth was burned and Indians were asked to wear only handlooms.
Coming to the present context, the only difference is that the rulers then were British and now they are Indians.
There are no efforts to support the handlooms and handicrafts from the government side when they are competing with power-loom fabrics and machine-made crafts in the local markets at lower prices. On the other side, there is sloganeering and campaigning around 'Make in India', 'Vocal for Local' etc, but unless there is a call from the Prime Minister on boycotting foreign power-loom fabrics and machine-made crafts, these campaigns and slogans don't carry any meaningful message. Otherwise, history will repeat itself, where weavers and artisans have to bear the brunt of an unimaginable economic crisis. Already during this coronavirus lockdown, two from Andhra Pradesh and 12 from Telangana have died by suicide; there is not yet any clear information on how many such suicides have happened in the country.
If handloom weavers and artisans have to overcome this situation, the government has to immediately announce an economic package for them as part of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan on the pro rata basis of dependent population. The Handloom and Handicraft Boards have to be immediately revived and put back into action. Instead of filling these with political appointments who have little awareness about the sectors, capable persons who have rich experience in the field must be appointed as Board members, which alone reflects the government's commitment towards the cause of handlooms and handicrafts.
The Boards have to function as the facilitators between the weavers and artisans, their representatives and the government and prepare as well as implement plans for supply of raw material, providing credit support and market linkages, and enable weavers and artisans to access various welfare measures announced by the government. The way the British taxed handlooms, the present GST on handlooms and handicrafts should be abolished and adequate funds must be allocated in the plan budgets. The government should treat this as their immediate responsibility as opposed to waiving huge loans given to big corporates.
Last but not least, civil society has to make an unflinching effort in planning measures to reduce unemployment and sustain the rural economy, which in turn will obviate the present social and political crises and ultimately protect the weavers and artisans who are tirelessly competing with mechanised industry.
Macherla Mohan Rao is the president of the National Federation of Handlooms and Handicrafts