Cheap Chinese silk is choking indigenous sericulturists and weavers.

Mridula Srinivasan, a connoisseur of saris, has an enviable collection. She has been buying silk saris from reputed stores and crafts exhibitions for many years now. Yet, she seldom checks for the silk mark, a label assuring customers of the authenticity and quality of silk. “If the sari appeals to me and if it is not too heavy on the pocket, I buy it,” she says. If an expert on weaves does not check for the silk mark, it is not surprising that other customers remain unaware of the stamp or the difference between the coarse textures of Indian silk yarn and the smooth fine finish of the Chinese variant.

Chinese silk yarn, the lifeline of the Indian power loom industry, is now slowly creeping into the handloom sector. “Over 99 per cent of Bangalore silk saris are made with Chinese silk yarn,” says Ramananda Bashak, a master weaver from Fulia, Murshidabad, who specialises in cotton, muga and matka silk. Born into a family that served the Nawabs of Murshidabad, Bashak is the inheritor of a rich tradition of weaving. “Our family has been weaving silk for the past 500 years,” he proclaims proudly. However, things have changed. “My father wouldn’t have recognised the trade as it is now,” he laments. “Hardly anyone uses Indian-made mulberry silk anymore.”

Import of cheap silk yarn from China, Taiwan and Japan, while increasing power loom production, is threatening to push traditional handloom weavers into poverty. “At the end of the value chain is the weaver who does not get to market his product because there are middlemen. If the production from power looms increases, the producers and middlemen thrive. The power looms can easily reproduce simple designs. The weaver then is forced to design intricate patterns and very few finally thrive within this system,” explains N.A. Arivukkarasi, research scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who has co-authored a paper on structural changes in the silk weaving industry in the Arni region of Tamil Nadu.

Chinese silk yarn lends itself well to power looms as it is lighter and smoother with less winding breakage than its Indian counterpart. “Silk thread comprises 18 to 20 filaments. The filament count fluctuates between 10 and 20 in the Indian variety, making weaving difficult,” explains Bashak. The same yarn is also capable of withstanding the heat from power looms which Indian silk cannot do.

“Indian silk is produced in households with few systems of quality control. Unlike China, we haven’t adopted technology or disease control measures. Hence the uniformity of the thread suffers,” Bashak says. While he can make four inches of cloth with Indian silk, with the same quantity of Chinese silk, he makes four hands of cloth, he says.

Chinese silk yarn, says weaver Ashok Kumar Das from West Bengal, is ‘fine’ and of ‘good quality’ but in terms of durability, Indian silk yarn is far superior.

The cost of Chinese silk yarn has nearly doubled from Rs.1750 per kilo in August 2010 to Rs.3600 in 2013, making it unaffordable for the traditional weaving population. With power looms’ production capacity, traditional weavers, especially in Bangalore and Varanasi, are struggling to keep pace.

The 30 per cent drop in the number of traditional weavers from 1995 to 2010 is a testimony to the extent of this problem. “I know many weavers who have been in this profession for over 50 years, but no one wants their children to take to this,” says Selvaganesh, a Korvai weaver from Thanjavur. “The pay is low and weavers work for long hours.”

Besides, there is also a threat posed by counterfeit Benaras saris made in China. “In China, saris that look very similar to traditional Benaras silk saris are made. These were brought to Benaras and sold at a much cheaper rate. Looms were deserted and many weavers committed suicide,” says Sabita Radhakrishna, textile designer and member of Crafts Council of India. Since 2002, more than 175 Benaras weavers have committed suicide, reports the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights.

Counterfeit products can only be sold in the market when weavers share their millennia-old technical know-how with outsiders. But they cannot be blamed for being ‘traitors.’ They are paid much more for sharing this knowledge than when they practise their skills here, says Sabita.

“In the old days, royals offered patronage to them. The Mughals paid them very well. The decline set in when the British came and began to exploit them. How can we expect them to stay here and continue in a profession that gives them nothing?”

The problem has been exacerbated with raw Chinese silk yarn being dumped in the Indian market. India has slapped 149 anti-dumping cases against China till now. This accounts for more than 50 per cent of the cases that India has filed against all foreign countries. In order to protect the domestic industry from cheap imports, the Government in 2012 extended the anti-dumping duty on silk imports, first imposed in 2006 and extended in 2011, further.

In spite of all this, there is a denial of the threat that Chinese silk yarn poses. An official from the Handlooms, Handicrafts, Khadi and Textiles Department, Tamil Nadu Government, calls the threat “exaggerated” and “not a serious threat at all.”

“Earlier people cared about durability when they bought a sari,” the official says. “Now people buy silk saris frequently. They don’t care whether it’s Chinese silk or Indian silk, they just want something that looks good. The silk industry is forced to keep up with their needs and produces low-cost saris,” he explains.

Pradeep Pillai, a designer based in Delhi, agrees that the demand for silk saris has risen, but says this is only in cities. The demand has reduced in villages and it is this challenge that requires attention, he says. “Originally there were different weaving belts in India using different kinds of silk. Now that everyone uses the same yarn, how will there be any variation in products?” he asks.

From the 1995 ban on Chinese silk imports which led to smuggling through the Nepal-Kolkata-New Delhi route, to the 2001 de-regulation of imports under WTO regulations, the government’s response has been erratic. Import duty is currently now a high-stakes battle between the sericulture and weaver lobby with the 10 percentage point increase in import duty in Budget 2012-13 benefitting sericulture, while starving weavers of cheap Chinese silk yarn.

“Controlling the flow of Chinese silk yarn into the market through import duty is not sufficient to solve these problems,” says Arivukkarasi. “Production of handloom saris in the domestic market must also be raised. But the biggest issue in India is that the Government categorises handlooms as a craft and not as a livelihood. If this is treated as a profession, then things might change.”

The insidious threat has hit only certain regions. “The use of Chinese silk yarn has hit weavers in Bangalore and Benaras the most and a very small number of weavers in Tamil Nadu,” says a government official. Will it swamp other parts of the country too? Only time will tell.

Import duty regimes

The saga began in 1995 when H.D.Deve Gowda banned Chinese silk yarn imports. The move was seen as a sop to the Karnataka silk growers, Gowda’s home state, since the absence of Chinese silk yarn was supposed to spur the demand for Indian silk yarn.

In reality, however, smuggling became rampant owing to the superior quality of Chinese silk and its indispensability in power looms. The ban was lifted in 1998.

In 2001, under the Negotiation on non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) agreement of the WTO, India abolished its quantitative restrictions on silk imports, including plain Chinese crepe fabric, a suitable substitute for Indian silk fabrics. Import had jumped by 2005. China, however, wasn’t tied to NAMA.

Protests from weavers and silk traders installed an anti-dumping duty on Chinese silk yarn import in 2006. However, due to the power loom monopoly of Chinese silk yarn, and a measly 10 percent duty on import of finished silk products or fabrics, put the tariff regime in its grave.

In 2011-12, the import tariff on raw silk yarn was slashed from 30 percent to five percent after weavers struck work protesting high silk yarn prices. However, this hurt the sericulture industry, which had to be assuaged in 2012-13 budget, with the duty going up to 15 per cent.

The battle is being waged on two fronts. Domestically, the sericulture lobby wants import duties raised so that Chinese yarn costs more than the Indian variety while weavers want access to cheaper raw materials with lower duties. Internationally, though, China is way ahead of India, with its silk yarn indispensible for increasing power loom production and quality.

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