Though more people in India are in the textile sector, than in any other of the economy, bar agriculture, hostile and indifferent government policies are giving it short shrift

Handloom weavers from all over the country are on a 72-hour hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi from today in protest against the government’s textile policy. The protest is led by Rastra Cheneta Jana Samakhya, the State Handloom Weavers’ Union of Andhra Pradesh. Weavers from Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh are participating in it.

Some of the most pressing issues of the handloom industry relate to budget allocation and policy-making. Hence the protest is timed to coincide with the winter session of Parliament. Its aim is to draw national attention to the long-standing problems of this industry before the Budget Session. Meagre budgets for handlooms year after year have not recognised the significance of this industry in providing productive livelihoods in rural areas.

More people in India are in the textile sector than in any other of the economy, bar agriculture. Approximately, one out of 12 households in India derives its primary income from it. And the survival of one out of 60 Indian households (according to the founding president of the National Handloom Weavers Union, Macherla Mohan Rao) depends on the viability of the handloom economy.

Debt, intermediaries

However, thanks to indifferent, even hostile, policies by successive governments, handloom-weaving is in severe crisis today. In some States, the advent of intensified competition in the era of aggressive globalisation has forced scores of weavers to take their own lives. Even official estimates show that due to unbearable debt burdens, about a 1,000 weavers may have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh alone since 2002. According to the National Handloom Census of 2009-10, close to 60 per cent of India’s weavers today fall below the poverty line, and 80 per cent face high debts, being at the mercy of intermediaries who also double up as moneylenders, controlling access to both markets and raw materials. These key inputs have become increasingly more expensive since the advent of globalisation in the 1980s.

Mechanisation

From the colonial era, the handloom economy has had to face the consequences of State policies that have consistently promoted increasing mechanisation and automation. While the mill sector — in the throes of crippling debt — continues to find favour with governments ever willing to offer sops and subsidies (often in the name of scientific or technical advancement) to it, the handloom economy has consistently received third class treatment.

One metre out of every four of the country’s cloth is produced in the handloom economy, yet it gets just one rupee out of 20 spent by the government on the textile industry. Another way to comprehend the injustice is to remember that while one out of five people working in the textile sector as a whole is a handloom weaver, s/he gets just one government rupee for every Rs.20 allocated per worker in the mill sector (and even this is cornered by the captains of industry).

For reservation act

At the heart of the weavers’ demands is that the government redress the situation through the implementation of the Handloom Reservation Act, negated by blatant and illegal duplication of handlooms by powerlooms. They are also demanding their entitlement of higher allocation in the central budget and an assured, affordable supply of the key inputs of yarns and dyes.

The government has sought to address the weavers’ crisis by trying to orient the handloom industry towards the international economy. This is outrageous folly.

The truth is that the handloom economy is deeply rooted in local cultures, traditions and markets. To lose sight of this is to persist with the mindset that is the source of the handloom industry’s crisis. Such an outlook also betrays a poor understanding both of the unemployment in the country’s modern sectors as well as of the handloom economy’s capacity to meet the challenge of large-scale rural employment, if enlightened policies are followed.

Those protesting at Jantar Mantar from December 10 to 13 are there in the faith that the resolution of these issues lies in the strength of collective action by weavers from around the country.

(Vivek S. is a Hyderabad-based analyst. Aseem Shrivastava, a Delhi-based writer and economist, is the author, with Ashish Kothari, of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, Viking Penguin, New Delhi, 2012).

An error has been corrected in this article on December 10, 2012