Sericulture and weaving always have been traditional pursuits for the rural Assamese people, supplementing their agricultural incomes as well as fulfilling their personal requirements of cloth. Environmentally, Assam is the only place in the world suitable for producing all the four varieties of natural silks -- eri, muga, mulberry and tussar. Despite these distinct advantages of having a traditional cottage industry, eco-friendly climate for producing raw silks and availability of skilled man-power, the indigenous silk industry and its niche product for centuries ‘Assam silk’ is today struggling to survive.
Ostensibly the problem seems to be market oriented where the demand for Assam silk is diminishing because it is costlier in comparison to the silks from outside the State, particularly Benares. But this is misleading because cost wise there is not much difference in the prices of the fabrics produced in any of the noted silk manufacturing centers of the country including Sualkuchi when the fabrics are woven out of natural silk yarns. It is only when fabrics are woven out of natural silk yarns blended with cheap imported Chinese silk or artificial/synthetic silk yarns that a significant difference in the cost of the fabric occurs. Taking undue advantage of this cost difference and the customers’ ignorance unscrupulous traders have been indulging in profiteering by passing off blended products as pure silk fabrics. The worst sufferers of this duplicity are the silk weavers, who, for survival, are forced to make distress sales of their genuine products at throwaway prices to the bulk buyers/mahajans, who have a stranglehold on the market. This was the root cause of the recent disturbances in the silk town of Sualkuchi. Therefore the threat to Assam silk is not from Benarasi silk but from duplicate silk fabrics being sold as real silk, a trend which is not confined only to Assam. In reality there is a growing demand for all the varieties of Assam silk in the domestic, national and international markets.
For instance, the demand for muga, a monopoly of Assam, has been growing with its increasing popularity in India and abroad. It is now a high end fashion fabric commanding premium prices. The market for eri, another exclusive silk of Assam, which was earlier restricted because of its poor quality and limited uses, has also grown with improved technology appreciably upgrading the quality. Today eri is one of the most economic and durable silk fabrics with multiple uses. Its excellent thermal properties and suitability for blending with wool has also made it a popular fabric for the colder climes in India and abroad. Moreover eri is the only natural silk that does not involve the killing of a living organism as it is not extracted from larvae. It is therefore preferred all over the world by Buddhists and conservationists. Even though mulberry silk is not exclusive to Assam it is in demand among the connoisseurs of Assam “paat” because of its unique texture. Unfortunately the indigenous silk industry has not been able to exploit this market potential because of which it is in the doldrums.
A deficient production because of a shortage of silk yarns is the main reason for the inability to meet the growing demand. Against a total domestic demand for silk yarns of 26,000 tons (MT) the country produces only 18,370 MT. The shortfall is made up by imports from China and the less expensive synthetic silk yarns from Japan and Italy. The problem has been further aggravated by the decline in the production of mulberry silk; the most widely used natural silk, in Karnataka. Karnataka which is the biggest producer of mulberry silk in the country has seen a steady decline in its area of mulberry cultivation because of rapid urbanization, industrialization and a shortage of agricultural labour. Consequently prices of mulberry silk yarns have been skyrocketing and Assam which is heavily dependent on Mysore silk yarns for its production has been caught in this vicious cycle of decreasing supplies and increasing prices.
The only way to salvage the situation is to increase the State’s own production of silk yarns. In the long run this will curtail the dependence on imported yarns, ensure regular supply of yarns to the local weavers at reasonable rates and make the finished products more price competitive.
Fortunately, unlike Karnataka, the basic parameters for sericulture in the State are still favorable. The climate is still suitable for silk rearing, the cultivable areas are still untouched by urbanization or industrialization and a sizable section of the rural population is still involved in rearing and weaving. At present almost 20,000 hectares of land are in use for muga, mulberry and eri cultivation involving 2.6 lakh families in more than 10,000 villages of the State. While according to the 2012/2013 Economic Survey Report of Assam the State has 13 lakh handlooms which provide direct and indirect employment to around 25 lakh people. Utilized properly this dormant potential can transform the rural economy of Assam.
Even though every year both the State and Central governments initiate numerous schemes and spend huge amounts for the development of sericulture and weaving, the results have been disappointing. In 2011/2012 Assam produced a total of 2109 MT of raw silk as follows: Eri- 1976 MT, Muga- 115 MT and Mulberry- 18 MT. However the efforts have been grossly inadequate given the magnitude and gravity of the problem. Compare this to the fact that Assam had recorded a muga production of 95 MT way back in 1957; or Karnataka’s production of almost 10,000 MT of mulberry silk annually; or new entrant Andhra Pradesh’s annual output of mulberry silk of 4500 MT. Perhaps the enormity of the situation may be better understood from the fact that Sualkuchi alone has a yearly requirement of 2000 MT and 98 MT of mulberry and muga silk yarns respectively. Therefore all out efforts are needed to increase the output of silk yarns, particularly mulberry and muga, in the State.
For a start the entire sericulture and weaving sector must be better organized and streamlined from the grass-roots to the showroom so that the scope for the exploitation of farmers and weavers by middle men is removed. Some measures which can make a significant difference are increasing the acreage under sericulture, establishing modern infrastructure for sericulture and weaving, supply of quality seeds and feeds for silk worms, regular lab to field projects to educate farmers and weavers on scientific methods and new technology to improve quality and boost outputs, frequent grass-root level awareness programs about government schemes and funds with a single window service to avail these facilities, soft loans to farmers and weavers from banks to undertake schemes etc. These are some long term initiatives which if implemented properly can yield permanent results.
Agitations by beleaguered weavers for supply of subsidized yarns and free electricity, procurement of finished products at remunerative prices by government agencies, banning of silk fabrics from outside etc. are short terms measures that may provide temporary relief but will permanently cripple the indigenous silk industry as a whole. In the era of globalization and an open market economy the leitmotif should be more production and not more protection. To save Assam silk, perhaps Assam needs a sericulture revolution involving small silk growers just like the small growers revolution in tea.