Known for its three primary silks " Muga, Eri (Endi) and Pat (mulberry silk) " Assam has a rich textile tradition that also embodies its colourful cultural heritage. Having said that, there is an existential crisis for the state's handloom sector that lies subtly hidden beneath the hue of expensive silk and the intricate designs showcasing the craft of the weaver. Of late, the novel coronavirus has only made it worse.
COVID-19 strikes deep into Assam handloom sector
For the handloom sector in Assam, the period prior to Rongali Bihu or the Bohag Bihu, which heralds the beginning of the Assamese New Year and the arrival of spring, is a major season to make the bulk of the business for the year. Better the business during the March-April period, higher is the chance of sustenance throughout the year. Weddings provide for another major source of income but they are off and on. This year the lockdown that came into effect from 24 March due to the novel coronavirus was a bolt from the blue for the industry. It has now led to questions of survivability.
"During the Rongali Bihu period, we sell around 10,000 Rihas for Nachani (female Bihu dancers) as many of them compete in Bihu competitions across the state. Sale of Muga, Pat Mekhela-Chador took a hit because all the weddings have been postponed. The Rongali Bihu season is the main period for us to reach the break-even point. Neither there is production nor there are sales," said Diganta Bharali, a member of the managing committee of the Pragjyotish Industrial Weaving Cooperative Society Ltd, in Sualkuchi.
For the uninitiated, Mekhela is a kind of sarong draped from waist downwards while the chador "has one end tucked into the upper portion of the Mekhela and the rest draped over and around the rest of the body." Riha is part of the three-piece Assamese traditional garment worn with the Mekhela chador. The Riha and the Mekhela-Chador form the traditional dress for Assamese women.
Basudev Baishya, who is the secretary of the Pragjyotish Industrial Weaving Cooperative Society Ltd managing committee, is shocked by the huge financial loss.
"Our work stopped just ahead of Bohag Bihu and we are facing a huge loss. When the lockdown was announced on 24 March our preparation for the Bihu sale was going on in full swing. During the Bihu season, we sell a minimum of 40,000 Gamosha (a piece of rectangular shape cloth, around 2 feet in width and 4 feet in height and a symbol of showing respect to elder ones and part and parcel of Rongali Bihu) usually. This time leave alone supplying to other wholesale buyers, we could not even supply even to our own branches. Since the Bihu was approaching we placed massive orders to our weavers. As it was season time our production was at the highest level. The weavers managed to finish the products but they got stuck at the godowns because of the lockdown. The markets were closed. There was no transportation available," said Baishya.
Handlooms lying idle at the Pragjyotish Industrial Weaving Cooperative Society Ltd factory in Sualkuchi. Image courtesy Diganta Bharali
"Few products also could not be completed due to the lockdown. Seasons like Rongali Bihu, weddings are critical for us. The financial burden is huge on us. We have to pay the labour charge to our weavers, then there is Rongali Bihu bonus and now we are also giving them money because of the tough times," he said.
The Pragjyotish Industrial Weaving Cooperative Society Ltd has two outlets of its own in Sualkuchi (part of Kamrup Rural district) and in Guwahati. Apart from that, it supplies to different outlets in Upper Assam.
"Normally the practice is a shop owner from Jorhat, Dibrugarh or Sivasagar will contact us before the Bihu season and order with us an array of products. Depending on the availability of the stock and our capability to supply the product within a mutually agreed timeframe we seal the deal," Baishya said.
"Accordingly the person comes to us to take the stock or we courier it. This time these customers were completely blocked out because of the lockdown. Even the branches in Guwhati and Sualkuchi had to be closed down because of the lockdown. So our sale in this peak period is nil. Normally, during Bihu and prior to it, our business is around Rs 20-25 lakh. This time it did not even start," he said.
Hoping for government intervention
Being a registered handloom society, the Pragjyotish Industrial Weaving Cooperative Society Ltd is hoping for government intervention.
"We have conveyed our condition to the handloom department. The assistant director could not give us a definitive answer because of the prevalent uncertainty. But he assured us that he will hold a meeting at the earliest," Baishya said.
Assam introduced the concept of Handloom Weavers' Cooperative Society under the Assam Cooperative Societies Act, 1949, (Act-1 of 1951) for the organised development of the handloom weaving sector by developing a three-tier co-operative system. This comprises (1) Apex Level Society (2) Regional Level/District Level Society (3) Primary Weavers Cooperative Society.
As per government data, there are about 4,012 Primary Weavers Cooperative Societies which are directly involved in the production of handloom fabrics. A managing committee of 15 members formed as per the provision of the Bye-Law under amended Assam Cooperative Act, 2007 runs the society. Each society has a minimum of 100 weaver members.
There is fear among these that their workers might soon quit because of the hardships.
"For now, we have discussed in our managing committee and gave them (weavers) token money so that they are with us. Usually, the payment for work is based on the nature of the work. If the design is simple the making charge is less and if the design is intricate the charges are more because of the effort and time needed. We pay Rs 1,000, Rs 1,500, Rs 3,000 etc. depending on the nature of the work. Some may take two days, some four and some may even finish it in one-and-half days depending on the urgency," the managing committee secretary said.
"We have 100 weavers with us. Usually, we get financial help from ARTFED (Assam Apex Weavers and Artisans Co-operative Federation Ltd), NABARD once a year basis. However, in 2018, we received an amount of Rs 1,37,000 from the government and nothing after that," he said.
Although the neighbours are stepping in now to help the weavers, Bharali fears that this scarcity will soon demotivate the weavers.
"Neighbours are helping the weavers with food etc. but for those whose livelihood is dependent on a handloom, they have been deeply affected. Their source of income has stopped. The government needs to intervene immediately. We need to give salary to our employees. If we cannot sell our products how can we pay salaries? We need to pay rent for our outlets. We need revenue for that," he said.
For the government to immediately put remedial measures in place is going to be a tough ask as well.
"Detailed remedial measures can be chalked out only after the lockdown is over at least partially if not completely. We will need time for that," Kabita Deka, director, Directorate of Handloom and Textiles, Assam and chief executive officer, Assam Khadi Village and Industries Board told Firstpost.
The government is, however, trying to mitigate the crisis with some stopgap arrangements
"We are trying to make masks out of the Gamochas. Committees for that are also formed in the districts. Earlier the idea was that we will hold a Gamocha Mela (exhibition) and put them up for sale. Since we could not hold the exhibition (because of the lockdown) and also did not get the desired quantity (because production had to be stopped), we are trying to salvage the situation a bit by making masks out of the stock we have. This will provide some reprieve to our weavers," she said.
"We are coordinating with self-help groups who are under the Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission because we will have to stitch to make those masks out of Gamocha. We don't have sewing machines for that. The assistant directors of the handloom and textiles department in each district are appointed as member-secretaries of those committees under the chairpersonship of the chief executive officer, Zilla Parishad of each district. At least the weavers will earn something out of that," Deka said.
Individual enterprises in dire straits
Apart from the registered handloom societies, the individually owned handloom businesses are also facing a staggering financial loss. A textile graduate Anjan Barua, who works as a designer in his wife's boutique Kahua D'Handloom Cafe in Guwahati, painted a grim picture.
"We don't buy products from others and sell them. We give our own design to the weavers. We dye the threads on our own and give them to weavers in villages. Now the thing is since transportation is not there, everything has stopped. Missing the Bohag Bihu season is a substantial loss for us. Money is stuck at different levels. Earlier a system of credit existed. This is now crumbling. Unless the deal is in cash it is not happening these days. It is a kind of deadlock situation," said Barua.
Due to the lockdown, the unavailability of courier services has a direct impact on the handloom sector in the state.
"I send the thread to Majuli where most my weavers are via post but that is no longer possible now because of the lockdown. The parcel reached Jorhat on 20 March but since the ferry services to Majuli stopped there is no forward movement of the consignment," he said. "Another worry is because of the current crisis weddings are getting postponed. I have a few weavers in Sualkuchi where they deal with Pat silk and mostly work on wedding orders. That is a big market for Pat silk which is being severely hit."
Although the weavers have their handlooms at home, the shortage of raw materials has halted the work.
"It has hit our finances hard. Our customers are now focussing on stacking up essentials rather than spending money on luxurious attire. Usually, prior to the Bihu, we sell products worth a minimum of Rs 1 lakh within a month. Most of my customers are from outside Assam and without courier services it is impossible to send the product. Leave alone sending it to them, I can't even go to my shop," Barua said.
One of the weavers in Majuli who is associated with Kahua D'Handloom Cafe described how the lockdown has affected work.
"I am facing a lot of troubles. My work was going on in 12 handlooms which suddenly stopped due to the shortage of raw material. The raw material is stuck in the post office. Neither can I complete my work nor can I send my finished product. I have 20-25 people who work with me. Now no one can complete their work because there is no raw material to work with," said Ricky Doley from Maharichuk village under Garmur Thana in Majuli district of Assam.
Majuli is the world's largest riverine island on the river Brahmaputra and is connected by ferries to Jorhat district on the southern side and to the Lakhimpur district on the northern side.
Naturenomics award winner Narmohan Das, whose area of expertise lies in the production of the Eri Ahimsa silk, has also been affected by the lockdown.
"My business has been affected more by the lockdown than by the Rongali Bihu season. Because of the lockdown, I am unable to meet my weavers. Our work has practically stopped because I am unable to supply the raw material to the weavers. Usually, I visit my weavers every day to give raw materials or pay any advance if they need it and bring back the finished products. I make sure that I visit them daily which I am unable to do now. The weavers are facing a big problem. Although I gave them whatever financial assistance I could when the lockdown was announced now the contact has been only over phones. If I go out now it will feel like I have violated the law. It is a small place and everyone would notice it. It won't give a good impression," said Das.
According to Textiles 360°, "Ahimsa silk, also known as peace silk or non-violent silk, refers to any type of silk that is produced without harming or killing the silkworms. This is in contrast to conventional silk, where 3,000 caterpillars are killed to create one pound of silk. Ahimsa silk is not only environmentally friendly, vegan and ethical, it's also extremely luxurious in terms of the drape and texture of the fabric."
Associated with the Eri business for the last 21 years, Das has two clusters of villages under him -- one for the rearing of the silkworm and the other for making the yarn from the cocoon and the weavers. Those for worm rearing are situated in and around the Assam-Meghalaya border involving 80 individuals who rear the worm for both Ahimsa and non-Ahimsa silk.
"To be categorised as Ahimsa silk, the worm has to be reared in a non-violent manner. When we rear Eri as Ahimsa silk a metre of that cloth cannot be sold below Rs 3,500. The price of non-Ahimsa will cost Rs 1,000 a metre. If you consider it right from the rearing till it becomes a metre of Eri fabric, the production of Ahimsa silk is time-consuming and costly. The real Ahimsa Eri has a classic look," he said explaining the complexity of the process.
Not only apparels, but Eri is also used to make floor mats, yoga mats among other things. Das has a regular flow of customers from within the country and abroad which he now fears might be affected because the novel coronavirus has hit the tourism sector hard.
"My factory, my rearing and weaving clusters are not far from my home. People from other places in India like Bangaluru, Delhi or Mumbai or even from overseas come down to my place to place orders. I have no presence on the internet. Whatever publicity I have, has been generated through my network of customers. There are individuals who shopped for Rs 1 lakh, Rs 50,000, Rs 10,000 and so on depending on what they buy and what they can afford to," he said.
There are many people from abroad who actually travel to Das' place to gather knowledge of the procedure. "They stay with us to see the whole process. They also buy our products," Das said. "Only recently a party came from the Netherlands came looking for Eri Yoga mat just ahead of the lockdown when the coronavirus started grabbing headlines. I got their order ready but could not send the consignment yet as there is no courier service available now."
How long will Das be able to sustain his workforce of over 500 without business is something that agonises him.
"I have 140 weavers under me and 380 individuals for hand spinning apart from the 80 involved in rearing. I am also worried about what work should I give to my weavers. I should also be able to sell them. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, none of my weavers had to sit idle. I will continue to support them till the time I have capital on my hand but without selling my products from where will I generate my capital. Then I will be forced to tell them to search for other avenues," he said.
Trapped in a crevice
The COVID-19 nightmare is only the latest in the series of the many that the handloom sector in Assam has already been plagued with. Although the handloom sector employs people only next to agriculture in rural Assam, "the biggest problem being faced by the sector is that the handloom weavers being unorganized face problems in supplying their products of large orders in time due to the absence of systematized production wherein they may cater to the stringent quality and timely delivery. This adversely affects the market of hand-woven products."
The flooding of the market with goods from the power loom sector which are cheap imitations of the real ones has made hand weaving financially nearly unviable.
"Cheap machine imitation of the traditional, ethnic and bona fide attire by some so-called established names is the biggest threat for us. This not only hurts the whole handloom industry but also threatens the very edifice of Assamese culture. The real Gamocha costs around Rs 700 but a machine-made one is available for Rs 100," said Barua.
The scarcity of raw material is another big hazard.
"There has already been a scarcity of non-Ahimsa cocoon. More than one-third of it is sent to Bihar. They have workers, handlooms and mills. Not only Bihar, people from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Karnataka etc. also come for the cocoon. Moreover, in other states, labour is cheap compared to ours. Because they have a good infrastructure, they have the capacity to capture a big market. In Bihar, the daily wage for handloom workers is between Rs 100-Rs 120 whereas, in Assam, the minimum is Rs 400. Even the indigenous population making Mekhela-Sador in Assam is dwindling and the gap is slowly getting filled up by people from West Bengal and Bangladesh. Poor knowledge of silk among many ethnic Assamese is also a huge reason to blame," said Das.
Challenges to rebuild
The only option that the handloom industry in Assam is left with is a hope that things will improve.
"I am still hopeful that we will be able to revive the situation. Despite my optimism, one factor is surely there that there will have to be a circulation of money. If people get stuck with survival needs then it is going to be difficult. In so many places vegetables have perished, fish are buried in pits. Someone from Sualkuchi told me since our items are non-perishable we will be able to sell them at one point in time. That way I am hopeful," said Barua.
"Even then, I don't think we are getting out of the crisis anytime soon. It will take at least a year. A lot of innovation will be required to overcome this. Most of our products are priced over Rs 6,000. The economic condition of the people will be a big factor to determine the speed of our revival. For a common person, it will be hard to invest Rs 6,000 only on a dress," he said.
For a person who is not associated with the internet world like Das, the task of rebuilding his business is going to be even more daunting.
"My whole establishment is like a chain. It is a network of weavers, customers national and international which has now been broken in no time. Rebuilding it will take time. That's my biggest worry. The international customers can afford to pay more and once they appreciate they make sure they visit again. Now with the tourism sector being hurt, I am worried that this category of customers will slip away from me," he said.
The handloom community in Assam knows the importance of the lockdown, which only got extended till 3 May, as the only weapon to fight the novel coronavirus. But as they stand with the people and the government, somewhere within, their fear is that the virus may spare their lives but not their livelihoods.