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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

How Lakhs of Livelihoods can be Protected and Promoted in Handlooms and Khadi

Monday 27 July 2009, by Bharat Dogra

In recent years most reports about handloom weavers have spoken of decline and decay, debts and distress. Yet it is possible to envisage steps and solutions which can not only protect lakhs of skilled livelihoods in handlooms and khadi, in addition it should be possible to create lakhs of new livelihoods—full-time and part-time—in this sector.

Handloom cloth is cloth woven by hand, or cloth woven on manually operated looms (as distinct from electricity operated looms or powerlooms). Khadi is cloth which is on the one hand hand-woven (handloom) and in addition the yarn for weaving this cloth is also obtained by hand-spinning (for example, on charkha or manually operated spinning wheel). Thus khadi is hand-woven plus hand-spun cloth.

Khadi has a very special significance in India as during the freedom movement Mahatma Gandhi gave great importance to khadi as a symbol of India’s liberation (earlier India’s weavers had been ruined by unjust promotion of British mill-made cloth by the colonial rulers).

Present and Potential Employment

According to official data given by Development Commissioner (handlooms) of the Government of India, as per statistics available in 2007 the handloom sector is next to agriculture in providing employment to about 6.5 million persons and produces about 6200 million sq. mt. cloth.

According to the Tenth Five-Year Plan document 2002-2007,

Handlooms are a part of India’s rich heritage and exemplify the country’s diversity and the artistry of the weavers. It plays a very important role in the economy. This sector is estimated to provide direct and indirect employment to about 2.5 million households and about 12.4 million weavers and others engaged in weaving and allied activities in 2001-02. This sector contributes nearly 19 per cent of the total cloth produced in the country.

Further, this document adds about the problems of this sector:

The handloom sector is facing a number of problems like obsolete technology and traditional production techniques, high price of hank yarn, inadequate availability of inputs like standardised dyes and chemicals in small packs, lack of new designs, inadequate training for upgradation of skills etc. and inadequate marketing intelligence and feedback. Besides, it suffers from disadvantages like unorganised structure, weak financial base of the weavers and bureaucritisation/politicisation of cooperatives.

What this routine description of problems does not state is that in many belts of handloom weaving, the crisis of weavers has reached such a situation that very significant numbers of weavers have been forced to give up their traditional skills and take up employment as construction workers, rickshaw-pullers, vendors etc.

The review of khadi cloth production in the Tenth Plan document also reaches a dismal conclusion,

Over the years, the production of khadi cloth has been on the decline. Hence employment in this area is also falling.

The reasons highlighted for the poor performance of khadi by this document include uncertainty over the continuation of the rebate policy for khadi, high stock of unsold khadi and mismatch in khadi production.

In fact if we review the performance of khadi and handloom sectors, as well as related artisan skills, then there are several examples of how non-implementation of the existing protective provisions led to large-scale loss of livelihoods.

An expert on handlooms, L.C. Jain, estimated (in 1983) that during the last decade 5.5 million handloom workers were rendered unemployed or their employment had been reduced due to the displacement of 1386 thousand handlooms (each handloom providing part or full employment to four persons) by 231 thousand powerlooms (each powerloom displaced six handlooms).

Similar massive loss of employment was seen in related areas such as the hand-printing industry. According to L.C. Jain, because machines were employed for 942 million metres of clothes over and above the 500 million metres at which their output would have been frozen, as recommended by the Research Advisory Panel (textile printing industry) an estimated 2,50,000 jobs opportunities have been lost in the economy.

So the situation today is what we see after several years of loss of livelihood opportunities. Hence the number of actual employment available in handloom and khadi today is much less than its potential. On the one hand lakhs of existing livelihoods can still be saved; on the other hand lakhs of livelihoods can also be added if the causes which resulted in distress to weavers can be removed, as they still have their skills and can return to livelihood based on their traditional skills if given the opportunities. If the outlook for handloom and khadi is good, many artisans will also feel encouraged to teach family skills to the next generation. Hence this livelihood will continue to be nurtured.

Inherent Strength

For many people who like to discourage such efforts, this is just an ideal as the inevitable march of mechanisation is bound to reduce the prospects for handloom and khadi. However, in an expanding market of cloth production, higher production by the mechanised sector can co-exist with higher production by khadi and handlooms if the potential of the latter is allowed to be properly realised. What is important to emphasise is that handloom and khadi have some inherent strengths and some types of cloth are best woven only on handlooms.

In a recent review of the inherent strengths of handlooms, B.K. Sinha (Development Commissioner, Handlooms) pointed out that due to manual operations several combinations are possible in handlooms with intricate designs.

The functional properties like drape, texture, strength, wrinkle resistance, dominant stability etc. can be ingeniously manipulated through appropriate designs, exclusive types of fabrics used, counts and twists of warps and yarns, thick density, type of weave, type of fashion and process employed in printing.

This review goes on to detail many kinds of clothes which are best woven on handlooms:

The clothes made from extremely fine material, that is, yarn, count with 100s and above which are delicate, can be woven more safely on the handloom owing to comparative lightness of jerks. The polish of the clothes interwoven with gold or silver thread, can be taken out by extremely frictional action of powerlooms. On the contrary, handlooms are ideally suited for such work. Clothes with multicoloured designs in which the weft is to be changed very frequently are most suited to handlooms. Clothes with embellishment in the border and heading and entire body with delicate designs in various colours which calls for individual schemes can be ideally woven on handlooms.

Short pieces of clothes having unique designs to meet individual tastes, which may not be economical for being produced on powerlooms/mills can be made by warp of short length with preferential colour on handlooms. Rough clothes of very low counts such as durries, floor coverings, rugs, etc. in which the tensile strength of the yarn is too low for the powerloom, can be done only through handlooms. Handloom has monopolistic position in the manufacture of checked and striped colour fabrics with numerous design and different weft colour, colour with fanciful yarns, durries, floor coverings, tapestries, etc. The necessity of using multiple box looms for giving more colour in the weft involves heavy cost in powerloom. Also insertion of multicoloured weft in different places, at comparatively short regular interval is difficult in powerlooms and mills, as it interferes in normal speed of loom. Handlooms are capable of producing most fanciful colours and designs in small quantities. Its flexibility of catering to very narrowly segmented market is advantageous to handlooms.

Many people who have been using khadi cloth for years say emphatically it is very healthy for skin, providing comfort in summer as well as in winter. With growing health consciousness, this can help to increase the demand for khadi in India as well as abroad. Also the undisputed fact that handloom and even more so khadi generates the most employment per metre of cloth can also be used to promote this cloth.

The consciousness for energy-conservation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasing. From this point of view hand-woven cloth has an obvious edge, particularly when is also hand-spun. The eco-worth of these products can be increased further by the increasing use of vegetable colours.

Massive amounts of money are spent on imparting vocational education, including industrial skills in an institutional set-up. But in the informal set-up of handlooms and several related crafts and artisan skills, an informal structure exists for imparting invaluable and intricate skills to the next generation without the government spending any money. Surely such traditional sustainable livelihoods based on beautiful skills need to be protected and promoted in a big way.

What Needs to be Done

Probably due to the impact of the Gandhian legacy inherited from the time of the freedom movement after independence the government set in place a series of measures for the protection and promotion of handlooms and khadi. For example, spinning mills were obliged to provide a part of production of yarn as hank yarn to handlooms at a fair price. Certain types of cloth were reserved for handlooms. But gradually these legislative measures were diluted and even what remained on paper was not implemented properly. It is important to strengthen these laws, widen their scope and above all to ensure their better implementation.

Mobilisation and organisation of weavers and related artisans can play a big role in creating conducive conditions for better implementation of protective laws and promotional schemes. In recent times as the crisis of weavers worsened in Varanasi and neighbouring districts, a well-organised effort by three organisations Banaras Bunkar Samiti, Human Welfare Association and Find Your Feet helped to draw widespread attention to their problems as well as take up the problems with government authorities.

While protecting handloom weavers is important, the cause of hand-spinning is no less important. Somehow the schemes of handloom promotion have got delinked from hand-spinning, although Gandhi had emphasised that without hand-spinning as a base, handloom weavers will never be able to ensure self-reliant, sustainable development. They will remain dependent on mills for yarn, on suppliers who actually want the rapid development of mechanised weaving (apart from spinning).

Although an infrastructure has been created for the promotion of khadi and several schemes are in place, the condition of hand-spinners (mostly women) is precarious; they are paid poorly and there are reports of corruption spoiling the good name of khadi institution too. So clearly much more remains to be done before the undoubted huge potential of protecting and promoting the livelihoods and skills of lakhs—perhaps millions—of artisans can be achieved.

The author is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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