Buildings that housed handloom units till 1990s are now book binding units, confectionaries and workshops

“As a young woman, the moment I got down from the city bus at Sellur stop the all pervading noise of handlooms used to give me a headache. Today, I hear the eerie silence of the once famous handloom units, that are now languishing in the company of cobwebs.” This is how T. Annalakshmi, a handloom worker, sums up the status of the industry.

From around 10, 000 looms and 12, 000 workers in the beginning of this century, the handloom industry in Sellur now employs around 1,000 workers in about 600 looms. The decline and fall began in November 1993, when a devastating flood submerged Sellur where many handlooms were not covered against natural calamity. With no help coming from anywhere, the units started to close down one by one and workers started to migrate to Karur, Chennimalai, Vellakoil and Tirupur. Those who migrated to Sellur from dry districts like Ramanathapuram have returned home. Hundreds and hundreds of handlooms have fallen silent. Even the residual work force favours other manual work, which fetches them a few hundreds a day. But those who still remain in the industry get wages between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000 a month, depending on the work they do.

Earning even this paltry sum has become difficult with the strike for wage revision, which began on May 25. T. Maheswari earns Rs. 1,500 a month. Her husband and daughter, who are also in the industry, chip in with Rs. 2,000 each. Every June, she is forced to take a loan of Rs. 10, 000 to Rs. 15, 000 from the self-help group, in which she is a member, to send her son to school. The loan is repaid at the rate of Rs. 250 a month. The family pays Rs. 1,000 for a single room house and a shocking electricity bill of around Rs. 500. “We do not attend family functions for fear of increasing our debts,” says Ms. Maheswari. Forty-three-year-old A. Gomathi, daughter of handloom workers, started working when she was seven years old. “We find it difficult to add vegetables in our daily menu. ‘Sambar' is rare in our households,” she says.

90 per cent is women

Over 90 per cent of the Sellur work force is women. They have virtually grown up hearing the noise of handlooms. “We slept under the handlooms and played around them as children. We do not want to go out of Sellur for employment. At the same time, we cannot involve our children in this dying industry,” says M. Selvi. These women earn around Rs. 60 per day but do not have work all through the year. When it rains it becomes more difficult. The Re one a kg rice provided in ration shops is godsend for them. However, they are not happy with the quality of rice supplied now. They are also dependent on the health insurance cover provided by the government. Even a cup of tea is a luxury for them. “Every day, four of us get together, pay Rs. 2 each for a cup of tea that costs Rs. 8 and share it,” says T. Annalakshmi.

The handloom workers start sending their children for work once they finish high school. One of the workers is happy that she sent her first daughter for work in a mill in Coimbatore district under the infamous ‘Sumangali Thittam.' “The mill management paid us Rs. 25, 000 after three years of work. I got her married with the money,” she says. In this background, the workers are looking up to the handloom manufacturers to enhance their wages.

S. Murugan, district secretary of handloom workers' union affiliated to the CITU, points out that the handloom industry has been affected by several factors that are beyond its control, as Sellur is predominantly export-dependent. The political or economic turmoil elsewhere directly affects the handloom industry here. About 50 per cent of the export order for about 40, 000 handlooms vanished when the Soviet Union broke away in 1986. The floods of November 3, 1993, sounded the death knell.

Then came the Pokran test, which led to the boycott of Indian goods, including handloom products by several countries.

In 2010, the number shrunk to 3,000 looms. The other factor, according to Mr. Murugan, is the reduction in list of goods reserved for handlooms, from 22 to 11 items. Now, the powerlooms are producing goods meant for the handloom sector, he says.

Explaining the predicament of the industry from the point of view of Sellur Handloom Textiles Manufacturers' Association, its president, G. Subash Chandra Bose, says that the industry is run by families without any government support. Rebates, subsidies and loan waiver available for cooperative handloom weavers' societies are not offered to the private sector. There is also the issue of wage revision and bonus cropping up once in two years. “We give 21 paise as bonus for every rupee earned by the employee every year. The minimum bonus payable, under government norms, is 8.33 per cent. Bonus is disbursed thrice a year – for three months during Pongal and local temple festival and for six months during Deepavali. We understand the plight of the workers and are ready to offer a reasonable revision this year,” he says.

Factors

The other factors that compound the woes of the Sellur handloom industry is the rising prices of yarn. In the last two years, the price of a five kg bundle of yarn has gone up from Rs. 600 to Rs. 1,000 due to power cut. The handloom units also find it difficult to compete with power looms. “A power loom produces 60 pieces of a particular variety of towel per day. In handloom, the workers can manage only five to six pieces,” explains Mr. Bose. Sellur products are also not able to compete with countries like China and Pakistan in the export market. “The government should think of providing incentives to the private handlooms also to ensure their survival,” says Mr. Bose.

The overriding factor here is shortage of skilled manpower. R. Sethuraman, who owned six looms and a yarn processing unit till 1995, is working in a handloom unit as a worker.

“I could not find anybody in the new generation to take up the units from me. Even my son could not run them successfully as he was not skilled,” says Mr. Sethuraman. There is no training centre to pass on the skills to the new generation.

The huge buildings that housed handloom units till the early 1990s now have turned into book binding units, confectionaries and workshops. If no effort is taken to stem the slide, the handloom will find a preeminent place in the local museum.

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