In the absence of reforms, handloom weavers are fast losing out to technological progress in the textile sector

Recent widespread protests of handloom weavers across several parts of the country have emphasised that while several new threats have emerged for handloom-based livelihoods, government policy makers have not done much to help the weavers cope with the changing situation. Even the policy framework that already exists for the protection and promotion of handlooms is not being implemented sincerely. As a result the livelihood of lakhs of handloom weavers stares at an uncertain future.

The Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985 was enacted in 1986 as an important means of protecting the handloom sector by reserving certain products for the handloom sector. Poorly implemented in the first place, amendments and reforms that were needed in this law or its rules after the rapid spread of screen printing and technologies like the computers aided Embroidery Design System were also not made.

Mohan Rao, founder president of Rashtra Chenetha Jana Samakhya (RCJS), a leading federation of handloom weavers in Andhra Pradesh, says, “The spread of these new technologies is ruining the handloom sector by fraudulently duplicating the patterns of handloom products. This is threatening the livelihood of lakhs of hand-embroiders and block-printers.”

This occurred partly because a clear definition of certain processes was not provided in the law. Instead of correcting this shortcoming, amendments of the rules in 2008 worsened the situation by doing away with detailed descriptions that existed for several protected products.

Organisations of handloom weavers say that the Act is basically “an act to provide for reservation of certain articles for exclusive production by handlooms”; this legislation has to be implemented in this spirit so that certain areas of work remain reserved for handloom. Apart from amendments to cope with new technological developments, strict action should also be taken wherever corrupt practices or other considerations lead to violation of this protective law.

Secondly, handloom weavers have suffered as their basic raw material in the form of hank yarn is not provided to them properly. There are problems regarding quantity, quality and price. So weavers have been demanding that the spinning mills should fulfil their obligation to supply hank yarn properly. In addition, the government should also establish spinning units and silk reeling units in those areas where weavers are concentrated in significant numbers.

Another complaint of the handloom sector is that the share of the handloom sector in the overall allocation for the textile sector has declined significantly in recent times. It is only when there is a significant increase in the budgetary support that various schemes for the welfare of weavers, including insurance, distress relief and occupational heath will be able to have a significant impact.

In a recent review of the inherent strengths of handlooms, B.K. Sinha, former 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.

With the increasing emphasis on reducing green house gas emissions, the case for protecting handlooms and hand-spinning becomes stronger.