The move to redefine 'handloom' is in the interest of powerloom operators who will be able to corner benefits meant for weavers
“Any loom, other than powerloom; and includes any hybrid loom on which, at least one process for weaving requires manual intervention or human energy for production.”
(The new definition of handloom proposed by Ministry of Textiles)
The textile industry in India comprises three sectors — the mill, the powerloom and the handloom. Of the total textile production in the country, powerlooms contribute 61.32 per cent, the mills 3.34 per cent and handlooms 11.28 per cent.
The recent proposal for the change of definition of handlooms offers different things to these different sectors. The powerloom industry, for instance, can now claim the status of handloom, as including one manual process in production is not a difficult proposition. With this small revision, the benefits and budgets allocated for handlooms can be accessed legitimately by the powerloom sector. It might as well be a quiet end for the handloom sector as far as state support is concerned. It is being done in a subtle manner and has been justified by the Textile Ministry as stated in this press report: “Experience over the years has shown that the numbers of handlooms as well as handloom weavers are declining sharply, and especially the younger generation is not willing to continue or enter into this profession owing to low generation of income and hard labour required to operate looms, a ministry official said (…) A substantial population of handloom weavers are still living in poor conditions” (Indian Express, May 27, 2013).
The handloom census conducted by the government in 2010 did in fact show a decline in total looms and a reduction of new entries into the sector. This did not, however, motivate the officials and policy makers to debate the reasons for the decline. There was no initiative to speak to weaver representatives, co-operatives and other players in the handloom sector to understand the issues and evolve a plan to address the problems. The existing 44 lakh weavers continue to be targeted with the same schemes and welfare measures. Considerable migration from the sector, also evidenced by the census, proves that earlier schemes and measures have not improved their condition either.
The cluster scheme for handloom weavers that was introduced in 2008 is an excellent example of this. In its five years of existence it has not bettered the skills of the weavers, has not improved the connectivity to markets and definitely has not built appropriate infrastructure for increasing efficiency in the sector. Instead of coalescing different schemes into the single cluster scheme as was done through the projects announced in the 12th Five-Year Plan, it would have been better to design schemes that would approach the issue differently.
The real problem is in the identification of factors affecting production in the handloom industry. There is no sincerity of purpose to understand the concerns from the point of view of that industry. Take the case of infrastructure: it is evident that the needs of a decentralised production like in the handloom industry will have to be specialised. Centralised infrastructure will work only for certain processes, while the rest of the processes have to be handled differently. This does not reflect in the design of any of the schemes promoting infrastructure.
Now, two years after the census results, we hear an announcement from the Ministry which spells death for the handloom industry. The new move, according to officials, would enable the existing handloom weavers to upgrade (read mechanise) their looms without losing the benefits available to handloom weavers under various government schemes. Ostensibly, this move is to rescue “poor” handloom weavers from drudgery but history shows that the various schemes floated by the Department of Handlooms in the name of upgrades have never yielded any positive result.
The introduction of frame looms and stand looms is a classic example of this. These were introduced two decades ago as alternatives to pit looms but both have yielded poor results due to technical problems. There was never an assessment of the difficulties faced by the weaver in adapting to the new looms. The failure only added more baggage to the travails of the handloom weaver, who continues to be characterised as backward and resistant to change. It is safe to conclude that the new move of changing the ‘definition of handloom’ is not directed at helping the handloom weaver, but at bringing the powerloom into the orbit of handlooms.
Was there an existing confusion as to what defines handloom? If there was, it was not voiced in any forum, nor did it come for discussion during the several pre-budget consultations with stakeholders in the Planning Commission.
It is a fact that the textile sector is not doing well, that exports are declining and India has not been able to take advantage of the declining presence of China in the global textile market. There are multiple factors affecting the Indian textile industry: allowing duty-free import of garments and failure to curb increasing raw material costs, coupled with weak demand from overseas markets due to the global economic slowdown, are some.
The allegation of failure to service large orders in the export market should apply only to the powerloom sector, which plays the key role in textile exports. The role of the handloom industry in blocking achievements of scale in the textile industry is purely imaginary. All the issues affecting the textile industry cannot be laid at the door of handlooms, and redefining the sector to increase the stake of powerloom is a poor solution. It is time that the government put an end to paying lip service to the sector and conducted an impartial assessment of the contribution of handlooms to the domestic market. They need to evaluate the function of handloom in preventing migrations from the rural areas, creating skilled employment opportunities in the villages. Handloom should be supported on its own merits and not as a burden of heritage to be carried into the 21st century.
(The writer is associated with Dastkar Andhra, a voluntary organisation working to promote handloom weaving as a viable rural livelihood. She is the co-author of the book Traditional Industry in the New Market Economy: Cotton Handlooms of Andhra Pradesh. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)