Lend a hand to the weavers

The perception of drudgery needs to be reviewed first because half the hassle for handloom weavers and their families comes from lack of basic services and poor delivery of entitlements

Living traditions that are neither precariously poised on the verge of extinction nor languishing, and not thriving either, are notoriously difficult to fit into the mould of policy and prescriptions. Especially so when every weaver worth his name declares himself to be an “artist” rather than a humble artisan.

It is almost pardonable that the guardians of the heritage, especially the ministry of textiles — confronted with the formidable task of creating policy for this bewildering variety of fabrics and its producers — has settled for using the formula of “continual improvement”. Chased by the spectre of modernisation, the ministry has been, since May this year, set on the modernisation-reduction of drudgery journey plus a new definition. It has loaded “improving living conditions of handloom weavers,” on to the same review exercise, which is puzzling, since all schemes promoted by the ministry are intended for precisely this purpose. Is the review, re-definition and categorisation of “small power loom units/weavers into a separate group” an admission that despite the heroic efforts of the ministry the schemes for handlooms and power looms have not worked?
If that indeed is the case, then the quest for answers to the problems of this vast and varied sector has to begin with an acknowledgement that handlooms and power looms are distinct and different sectors. The perception of drudgery needs to be reviewed first because half the hassle for handloom weavers and their families, especially the women, comes from lack of basic services and poor delivery of entitlements. The hazards of the power loom sector, especially the deafening noise needs to be acknowledged in order to appreciate that modernisation and mechanisation imposes a cost on the weavers and their families. In other words, machines and modernisation are not instant and infallible remedies. And then, there is the incontrovertible fact that reviews undertaken by the Centre cannot be meaningful without regional consultations, since handlooms and power looms are administered by the state governments.
There are 43.32 lakh people directly and indirectly employed by the handloom sector, of which 77.90 per cent are women, 10.13 per cent belong to the Schedule Caste, 18.12 per cent to the Schedule Tribes and 45.18 per cent to Other Backward Classes. Together with handicrafts, the hand-made sector in India provides employment to about 112.18 lakh people. It has been famously described as the second-largest employer after agriculture. And yet, there are concerns about the sustainability of handloom, which reveals the paradox that the sector poses: It is an export earner and provides over 16 per cent of the clothing for India’s 1.2 billion population.
Apart from the famous and protected heritage textiles like Benaras brocade and saris, Kanchipuram silk, Bagru prints, Bomkkai saris, Baluchari and dozens of other such exquisite products enjoy, even the ordinary gamcha has a tradition and a distinction that identifies it as a product of some obscure place but special to those who use it and care about it.
Across India, virtually every community of weavers adds a little something to the hand-woven product which asserts itself as a distinctive gharana, marked by its “khasiyat”. The weavers are, therefore, as individualistic as the designs and though the tradition by itself is homogenous, the product has bewildering variety. Recognised as a “timeless facet” of India’s heritage, the mechanisation-modernisation formula could end up by being injurious to the health of heritage.
The struggle to keep the tradition alive is not helped by fears that it is in danger of being encroached upon by power looms and mills that can “replicate” the “look” at a much lower cost. The concern voiced is not by cultural or craft activists; it is the office of development commissioner of the handlooms (DCH) that has these fears, expressed in the context of popularising the handloom mark as a symbol of “assured originality”. The encroachment by power looms with its capacity to produce tawdry lookalikes is a fear shared by weavers like Swadesh Bhaumik of Santipore in Nadia, West Bengal, where the 500-year-old weave, guarded by a geographical indications is nevertheless vulnerable to power loom piracy. If both the protector (DCH) and the victim (handloom weavers) are assailed, then guaranteeing a future for handlooms requires a rethink of policy and strategy.
The obvious solution is to create a policy and strategy only for handlooms, one that recognises its uniqueness and potential as a contemporary, new-age fabric that satisfies the demands of a low-carbon footprint and sustainability.
It was striking that none of the weavers or the technologists, who were innovators as well, complained about the “drudgery” involved in handloom production. What they said instead was breathtakingly simple: adaptation of existing machines to reduce the labour involved, which is very different from a proposal from the ministry of textiles that despite being shot down for now keeps bobbing back to life on the unspecified “modernisation” to reduce “drudgery”. Inability to distinguish between better machines that do not contaminate and so corrupt the handloom’s uniqueness and motorisation is just one of the reasons why an entirely separate handloom policy is necessary to simultaneously protect the tradition and promote its efficiency as a sector.
If programmes within an independent handloom policy could address the issues that weavers believe would improve their quality of work and life, the fears of undue encroachment and sunset industry would be minimised. As mostly rural inhabitants, the weavers want better housing (about half of them live in kuchcha homes), sanitation, water, electricity, healthcare and education services. As artisans they need marketing and design support, easier access to hank yarn, better dyes, easier credit, technological inputs at the doorstep and generally less hassle to do their creative-industrial best. This is not a tall order; it is a demand for greater administrative efficiency on the part of the state governments delivering the targeted schemes of the Centre for the benefit of the weavers.
A handloom policy that retrieves the hand-woven cloth and hand-spun yarn from the perception of it as a second-class product and restoring to it the identity, dignity and viability and, in fact, presents an alternative is needed.

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata

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