Why Are We So Determined to Deny Indians the Cloth They Prefer?

Gunjan Jain
Grist Media

Kabiraj is one of the last four Bomkai weavers in Odisha. In the front room of his small brick-and-mortar home in the center of Bomkai village in Berhampur district, the source of this rare and original weave, sits the pit loom on which his textiles are woven. Tall and well built, Kabiraj is a weaver of the Patra Tanti caste from the Vaishnav community, crafting Bomkai designs perfected over generations. Worked on an extremely primitive pit loom with no extra attachments, weaving a Bomkai sari is like doing hand embroidery on a loom, forming a delicate and elaborate tapestry.

It takes Kabiraj 7-10 days to complete a regular Bomkai sari and up to a month for an intricate silk one. In the last five years, the price of cotton yarn and silk yarn has tripled while his earnings have not grown at the same rate. A highly skilled worker whose weaves are works of art, he doesn't earn anywhere near commensurate pay. He makes about four cotton saris a month and earns around Rs 8,000 for them - enough to provide his family with three meals a day, but not enough to send his two children to a good school.

In his village, Kabiraj has become a rarity. Most handloom weavers have migrated to Surat or Tamil Nadu in search of work. To most people with a hazy idea of handlooms it would seem like a romantic lie to hear that Kabiraj likes and chooses to work in handlooms. A particular set of circumstances allows Kabiraj to continue - and it isn't quite what you think.

There is a common myth among government policymakers on the handloom industry - including officials in the Directorate of Handlooms and the Ministry of Textiles at the center and state levels - that it's only urban markets and exports that can save the handloom industry. As they see it, that's where the money lies. This is problematic because it is also clear that there are strong, thriving local markets in some states that remain independent of outside pressures to a large degree. And these local markets provide real answers for the future of handloom (and Kabiraj's future).

Urban markets are important to the handloom industry, but let us not forget that most of our population lives in villages and in smaller towns (the 2011 Census shows that 83.3 crore Indians live in rural areas - that's 68.84 percent of the population), and that the market for handloom products in urban areas is a niche one. It is as if the policy makers are deciding on behalf of most Indians that they should no longer wear or use the cloth they prefer.

Another myth, even more puzzling than the first, is that India's handloom industry, the largest in the world, is a 'sunset' industry. But the facts indicate that the handloom industry continues to grow and be profitable - in 2009, handloom exports were worth 264.8 million dollars, and in 2011 this rose by 44.6 percent to 554 million dollars. According to the 2009-10 Handloom Census, there are 43.32 lakh people (although I believe this is a conservative figure) working as weavers or in allied activities - pre-loom activities such as preparing yarn, dyeing it, preparing the warp, spinning bobbins for the weft, etc. and in post-loom activities such as applying starch, rolling and ironing. The handloom sector remains India's second-largest employer after agriculture.

In May 2013, the Ministry of Textiles submitted a proposal to the government seeking to change the definition of the term 'handloom' so that products made on mechanized looms could also be classified as handloom products and sold for the same premium price. In the face of fierce opposition by weavers, handloom activists and concerned organizations, in January 2014 the government said it would not push this agenda. But with a powerful, organized powerloom lobby, it's likely we haven't heard the last of this idea.

The market today is being inundated with powerloom and mill-made goods, sold at the same premium price that handloom textiles command. India even imports cheap lookalike handloom saris all the way from China!

The Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 reserved 22 textile items to be produced exclusively by the handloom industry. Ten years later, this number was reduced to 11. Powerlooms openly violate the Act, while experts such as Dr. D Narasimha Reddy of the Chetana Society, Hyderabad point out that enforcement of the Act would do a great deal to support the handloom industry.

The powerful powerloom lobby remains the biggest threat to weavers and allied workers, for whom handlooms can mean more than just a livelihood. Handloom textiles are woven manually on looms that do not require electricity. It is a largely rural practice, with 87 percent of household units - according to the Census - engaged in handloom activities lying in rural areas. Making one product, such as a sari, involves work by at least six to ten people (sometimes an entire family),

Let's look at the employment figures. In India, powerloom produces 62 percent production of all textiles and provides employment to 70 lakh weavers. Handloom, on the other hand, contributes to 11.28 percent production and provides employment to 43.32 lakh weavers - and so is a much more efficient employer than powerloom. Of handloom's employees, 77 percent are women (10.13 percent SC, 18.12 percent ST, 45 percent OBC, and 1 percent other). The women are the main stakeholders in the sector, which empowers them and allows them financial independence.

The powerloom industry provides valuable employment, but it's important that the roles of the powerloom and handloom industries in the market are kept separate. What will happen to the highly skilled population dependent on handlooms when you merge their products with those created by machines operated by a largely semi-skilled workforce?

I've seen cases where till some years back, weavers' wages had not increased in the last 20 years - in Nuapatna village in Cuttack district of Odisha, most weavers abandoned their craft as a result. The cause for this is startling.

Despite the fact that India is the world's third-largest producer of cotton and the second-largest producer of silk, most of it is exported. Hence, weavers are forced to buy imported yarn, the price of which is significantly higher. So in the last five years, weavers say the approximate cost of local cotton yarn has risen from around Rs 1,200 to around Rs 3,600 for a bundle (4.5 kg), while that of mulberry silk has quadrupled from around Rs 900 to around Rs 3,600 per kg. Local desi tussar yarn has risen from around Rs 1,000 to around Rs 4,000 per kg, while tussar from Korea costs around Rs. 4,800 per kg. The price of the end product can be controlled by the market or fixed by the government, but traders instead ensure they get their margin by lowering the wages of the weaver.

The handloom industry is still a profitable one, but it is going down the same route as agriculture where farmers are caught in a debt trap, being made to buy all their inputs from fertilizer to seed from large companies such as Monsanto. The government isn't hammering away at the right nail - rather than check the price of yarn or set a minimum wage for weavers, it's now giving out loans and credit cards to weavers, leading them down the same doomed path as farmers.

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Almost every state in India produces unique handloom products: Pashmina shawls from Kashmir, Banarasi brocade from Uttar Pradesh, Chanderis from Madhya Pradesh, Patan patolas from Gujarat, Ikats and Jala work from Odisha, Kalamkari, Uppadas and Ikats from Andhra, Jamdani from West Bengal, Kanjeevarams from Tamil Nadu, and so on. In Odisha, where I work, practically every district has unique handloom products and a key reason why the industry keeps going is that to a large extent, weavers still have access to local markets and do not depend only on outside buyers.

Gandhi recognized that alienation and exploitation often occur when production and consumption are divorced from their social and cultural context, and that local enterprise is a way to avoid these problems: "Swadeshi is that spirit in us which requires us to serve our immediate neighbors before others, and to use things produced in our neighborhood in preference to those more remote. So doing, we serve humanity to the best of our capacity. We cannot serve humanity by neglecting our neighbors."

Handloom haats, held much in the same way as vegetable mandis, still prevail across India. In districts in Odisha, for example, anyone from an individual weaver like Kabiraj to a cooperative society to a trader can sell his or her wares at these handloom haats. To a large extent, there is no hierarchy within these markets and there are no conditions placed on who can sell. Access to the market, in this case, can lie directly with the weaver - the product doesn't pass through multiple hands and the profits are made straight from the customer. 

Western Odisha is known for its cotton and silk ikats - famously called Sambhalpuris - and the main handloom hub there, the Balijodi Haat, still does business of Rs 1-2 crore every Friday - all the while 'serving its neighbors'. Held on an open field, the weekly haat sees weavers from Odisha and neighboring states sell items such as yarn, saris, dhotis, dress material, bed covers, etc. Business begins in the early morning when traders arrive to snap up items in bulk and continues through the day. Apart from doing roaring business, the sense of pride among small sellers there is palpable - with direct access to the market, it's also an important platform for feedback and encouragement. Given that revenue streams into the same area where the products are made which further strengthens the local economy, the haat's decentralized model - right from producing yarn down to selling the products - is a very good one to look into.

Similar models exist in other states. Malkha, a type of khadi, is produced through a decentralized model in Andhra promoted by Uzramma (founder of the non-profit research center Dastkar Andhra), from the procuring of cotton yarn to producing handspun, natural dye and marketing. The Developing Ecologically Sustainable Industry (DESI) Trust in Karnataka, run by theater personality T Prasanna, also promotes such models that have proved extremely successful. These are the models we need to take forward and replicate.

Instead, the current market for handlooms has been growing further and further away from the weaver - with plenty of push from misguided textile policies. Although weaving is a highly skilled craft, the demands of the current market have meant that instead of being recognized as artists, weavers have been pushed to produce as mere laborers. The urban market dictates a different aesthetic entirely, which sometimes makes it difficult to allow weavers to design their own pieces - it merely requires them to produce material to suit a prescribed template. In westernized cities, elaborate traditional motifs are giving way to simpler, more minimalist designs and traditional skills are gradually slipping away - weaving a fish motif, for example, takes considerably more skill than it does to weave a straight line.

Apart from traders and middlemen inserting themselves into the process of selling handloom products, government schemes - handed out like lollipops to weavers and formulated by bureaucrats and officials with insufficient knowledge of the handloom sector - have disturbed the decentralized systems already in place.

The Janata Cloth Scheme, for instance, which was abolished in 1996, was meant to provide employment to weavers who were not part of cooperatives while providing cloth at lower rates to the poor. Weavers were only required to put in low-skilled work to produce poor quality cloth, with the result that the government was unable to market these goods. The scheme was meant to help people in the handloom industry produce more at subsidized rates for better prices, but it became a huge part of the problem - rather than strengthening the local market, the government took it away. It moved the platform for handlooms away from villages and small towns to urban centers. The market moved to bigger cities, to boutique stores and to foreign countries.

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I remember jokingly asking Kabiraj one day why he didn't move to Bangalore or Surat in search of work, considering he would have made as much money breaking stones. He laughed and replied that he would have, and was certainly was tempted to, but it just wasn't the way he wanted to live his life. He said that in cities, he only saw pollution and poor living conditions. To him, living a healthy lifestyle and being with his family outweighed the temptation to earn more. 

The main reason why the Bomkai weave has survived is its very strong link to the local culture. It is a thick cotton sari that works well in the hot, humid climate of Odisha, and the motifs on the borders are drawn from their immediate surroundings: kumbha (temple spires), dalimba (pomegranate) and nagabandh (snakes intertwined) are some examples. Pallu motifs use kalera (bitter gourd), mayura (peacocks), rookha (wooden lampstands), domboru (drums), and so on. The formulae for weaving these motifs differ across families, preserved in the form of rhymes handed down from ancestors. In earlier times, when weavers had creative control over their work, no two Bomkais would ever be alike. 

Bomkai saris are deeply linked to cultural practices in Berhampur district, which has a local deity called Thakurani, said to be a combination of Durga and Kalika. Every year in April they have the Thakurani jatra, for which the head priest and priestess wear red and black Bomkai cloth - colours said to represent Durga and Kalika. Around this time, the Bomkai village's four weavers know they have a definite market for their products. Berhampur, being close to Andhra, also sees several communities in the vicinity head here for its Bomkai saris, since some wear it as a traditional wedding sari.

In Cuttack district lies the village of Nuapatna, where silk ikat is woven. The khandua patterns and local silk weaves - especially the calligraphic ikat pieces containing different verses from the Gita Govinda written by the poet Jayadev - are linked with the Jagannath cult, and a lot of the saris there are woven for the Jagannath temple in Puri or the different Jagannath temples in the area. Produced within a specific context and with influences traced directly to local culture, some handloom weaves are strong markers of identity.

When it comes to the younger generation of weavers, there aren't many who are willing to take up this traditional occupation as their first choice. Failed by an abysmal education system, which makes them look down on traditional occupations without leaving them equipped to succeed in others, I've often seen youngsters leave their villages for jobs in the mechanized industry. But not being qualified enough for good jobs in the mining or steel industries, they end up breaking stones or working as security guards or, ironically, operating powerlooms before realizing that they can earn more from handlooms.

In Gopalpur village, where tussar silk is woven into saris, I met Babuli, who is around 21 years old. His father is a highly skilled weaver who earns well for himself. But Babuli, who believed that weaving was beneath him and that his education could get him a better job, left for Bangalore. While his father kept trying to persuade him to return and work with him, since he knew handloom weaving, Babuli found that his working conditions while doing machine embroidery on saris were poor and extremely exploitative. Most of the Rs 7,000 per month that he earned was spent on food, lodging and other living expenses. He even began to get nosebleeds without being able to figure out the cause. After just two and half a months of trying to make it in Bangalore, he went home to Gopalpur to work as a weaver. Just last year, he won a state award for a sari he created - it's given him a feeling of dignity, and now he's proud to be a fulltime handloom weaver. He's clear that it's what he wants to do for the rest of his life.

Mechanized looms have taken away the dignity of weaving to a large degree. If a weaver can earn the same amount of money for breaking stones under the NREGA as he does for weaving handloom, no one recognizes his work for the highly skilled occupation that it is. Protecting local knowledge and the environment has to be factored in when we talk of the industry.

Along the coastal belt of north Orissa belt, there's a strong tussar industry, where districts have Adivasi communities involved in collecting tussar silk cocoons. The women there are financially independent because they spin thigh-reel yarn on their own. The problem is that many skilled weavers are forced to make plain tussar yardage to feed the export market. Their products are supplied mostly to Champa in Jharkand, from where tussar thans are exported in bulk. They still get good wages, but by catering more to their local markets, they'll be able to meet local demands, experiment more, and keep their skills alive.

Several tribal communities in the region manage to work while living sustainably with nature. I don't mean this in a romanticized way. They give back as much as they take from nature and maintain that careful balance. I once asked a member of the Dongria Kondh tribe in the Niyamgiri hills (who are Odisha's only tribal community who do hand embroidery), if he didn't want development. He replied that his community lived healthy, sustainable lives without having to depend on the outside world and was skeptical of the idea of development.

Our development model for the handloom industry is deeply flawed. The so-called 'sunset' handloom industry continues to grow at an encouraging rate. The challenge lies in bringing more weavers into this environmentally sustainable practice. We, as conscious consumers, and the government at the policy level, have to rethink the way we approach handlooms.

Gunjan Jain is a handloom researcher and designer who has been working with weavers in Odisha for the last seven years. She runs the handloom design studio Vriksh and can be reached here.