More power to skilled hands

CULTURAL SYMBOL: “Indian handloom is more than a potential global economic force; it is also our identity.” Picture shows handloom weavers at work in Thiruengoimalai near Thottiyam in Tiruchi district, Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Last month, >Gajendra Singh, a farmer, hanged himself in New Delhi. His death attracted massive attention as it happened so publicly, in front of the hundreds of people gathered there for Aam Aadmi Party’s rally against the Land Acquisition Bill. Such attention is rare, given that rural India mostly goes unnoticed, despite comprising 60 per cent of the country’s workforce.

Also going unnoticed is another pending disaster that could affect millions of rural Indians — there is a plan to repeal the Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, which has been protecting traditional handloom weaves, especially sarees, from being copied by machine-made and powerloom competitors. It is a small, but important, protection for handloom weavers, who otherwise struggle to survive in a market where their yarn, designs and markets are all under attack.

When someone threatens to raze the Taj Mahal to build a temple, we are angry, but we are also confident that such madness will never happen. Yet, when another piece of India’s heritage is threatened, most of us don’t even know about it. This is because handloom weavers attract few TRPs or a rightful share of government attention and investment.

Protecting weavers

The powerloom lobby has been agitating rather successfully for the >Handloom Act to be withdrawn. Meetings and consultations have been held, largely without the inclusion of handloom sector representatives. Even their queries and concerns have gone unanswered. A spirited intervention in Parliament by BJP MP Kirron Kher brought a hurried assurance from the Textile Minister that the Act would remain, but there has been no subsequent government confirmation of this. Meanwhile, an online petition, ‘Save Handlooms — Don’t repeal the Handloom Reservation Act!’ has received 15,000 signatories in less than a week, demonstrating that even the urban young on social media care for handlooms, belying reports to the contrary.

One powerloom lobbyist at a meeting allegedly said, “We have progressed from the firewood chula to gas and electric stoves. If we hang on to technologies from our grandparents’ times, it is a mark of regression. Our children will laugh at us”. Another claimed that “customers prefer cheaper powerloom sarees”. This is factually incorrect. Obviously, the market has shifted from rural to urban, but handlooms are growing, and there are figures to prove it. And it is noteworthy that the growth is despite enormous problems faced by weavers in yarn procurement, credit, and market access.

Over the last five years, the demand for handlooms has actually increased. Sales figures and footfalls at handloom expos and exhibitions organised by Dastkar, Sanatkada, Dilli Haat, and the Crafts Councils bear witness to this. A weaving group in Bihar comprising former bonded labourers now sells several crores worth of handloom tussar saris annually. Its only problem is the lack of a regular source of tussar silk cocoons. At the other end of the spectrum, designers like Ritu Kumar, Abraham & Thakore, and Sanjay Garg, and stores like Anokhi, Bandhej and Bailou have all built hugely successful careers on handloom.

Fabindia consumes 11.2 million metres of handloom fabric a year, 10 lakh metres a month at a total value of Rs. 112 crore. It generates 100,000 man-days of employment and creates over 86,000 jobs, compared to 34 jobs for 24 lakh metres in the mill sector. There are an estimated 20 million handloom workers (this includes pre-loom and post-loom processes), compared to three million in the IT industry. Globally too, as understanding of the eco-friendly attributes and design virtuosity of handweaves grows, more buyers are looking to India. Given this, it would be tragic if, instead of investing more, we seek to destroy a sector that promises not just revenues but also jobs in the rural sector. All India needs to become a global handloom hub is infrastructure, investment and planning.

Strength, not weakness

Handlooms are dismissed as cultural dinosaurs — primitive technologies irrelevant in a modern economy. This view ignores that Indian handlooms are not just the largest source of employment and income generation after agriculture, but also the one area of skill, creativity and expertise where India is way ahead of the world. In the 17th century, Francois Pyrard de Laval wrote “Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China… is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian Looms”. At that time, five million yards of cloth were dispatched annually from just one port in Coromandal. India grew fabulously rich on the proceeds. Handlooms are India’s strength, not weakness.

Besides, handlooms have a low carbon footprint, as they require minimum infrastructure, technology and power.

To say that we don’t need handlooms because we have powerlooms is like saying we don’t need tandoors because we have microwave ovens. It is absurd because each serves a distinct purpose. The handloom creates distinctive weaves and designs that no powerloom can replicate. As one person who signed the online petition wrote, “Handloom is like wearing your culture, why would we want to let go of that?”

The Handloom Act is toothless and seldom enforced, but it is still a deterrent. Rather than repeal it, we should be trying to give it more teeth.

At one Dastkar bazaar, someone asked an 80-year-old Manipuri woman wearing handloom if she didn’t feel cold. She replied, “I’ve spun this out of my own hands; my mother and sisters have woven it. My mother learnt it from her mother, and her mother from hers, and her mother from hers. The warmth of so many hands has gone into this. Generations of my family’s women enfold me. How can I be cold?”

Indian handloom is more than a potential global economic force; it is also our identity. As another young petitioner put it, “How we treat our craftspeople represents our values. For a party that claims to speak for Indian culture, perhaps this should matter more than who eats beef or who reads what book.”

If we remove protection and incentives for handloom weavers, we would be left bereft of our past.

(Laila Tyabji is the founder of Dastkar.)

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 9:40:15 AM |

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