Hand-Spun, Hand-Woven Cloth Has A Wider Message—The Increasing Relevance of Khadi

mahatma gandhi

In most parts of world spinning and weaving of cloth has become entirely mechanized. There are a few examples here and there of weaving being done on handlooms ( handloom cloth) for particular types of cloth but spinning and related work like ginning has been almost entirely mechanized.

However in India during the freedom movement a special effort was made, largely under the  influence of Mahatma Gandhi, to revive and to persist with hand spun and hand woven cloth which is generally called khadi or khaddar in India. This did not appear practical to many people at the time this was initiated  but lo and behold! This soon became a mass movement with several million people involved in it and women contributing a lot in hand spinning work.

An immediate  relevance of this was to protect the rapidly eroding livelihoods which were suffering due to  unfair trade and unjust competition from imports  in a rigged system of imposed , colonial trade practices. In this context the concept of khadi needs to be seen as an integral part and companion of the wider concept of swadeshi.

However while in swadeshi the focus is more on protecting local from global , or giving precedence to what is produced in neighborhood in a regional context, in khadi the focus is more on technological aspects. Here the protest is more against indiscriminate mechanization and more particularly against the type of mechanization that snatches and takes away the livelihood of people. In course  of time new technology comes and new machines come.

However it is not inevitable that we should always opt for  the latest technology and machinery. Rather we need to explore and examine in a comprehensive way how useful this technology is for our conditions and our needs. We have to look not just at a single aspect like the capacity of a machine to produce more in less time using lesser number of workers, we have to look at various aspects like protection of livelihoods, quality of product, health, environment protection, who benefits from new technology , sustainability, self-reliance etc. Once such a comprehensive, careful, unbiased examination is made in participative ways, then it is possible that the choice for retaining the traditional technology, or for retaining this with some changes is made, or else  this is retained for some sectors and the new mechanized technology is adopted in other areas, or an intermediate technology is adopted.

In addition Khadi gives the message of giving more importance to protecting traditional livelihoods and skills. In fact when Mahatma  Gandhi first embarked on his quest  for promoting hand spun, hand woven cloth, the charkha or instrument used commonly in homes for spinning had already gone out of use and he had to launch a special effort for finding a good charkha, but he was so committed to the concept that he started from this near hopeless state to make khadi a movement  involving millions of people.

When the movement started picking up and its potential began to emerge , a mill-owner approached Gandhi and suggested to him that at least the spinning aspect should be allowed to remain with the mills and they will ensure that there is ready supply of yarn from mills for handlooms also. But instead of accepting this counsel, Mahatma Gandhi gave a timely warning to handloom weavers and khadi activists  not to be taken in by the promises of easy supply of their raw material by spinning mills, as this will make them dependent on mills and mill-owners will never want them to progress beyond a point as this will involve competition with their cloth. Hence he also emphasized the aspects of protecting the self-reliance and sustainability of  khadi.

But in fact hand-spun, hand-woven cloth is only one of the better known symbols of the wider khadi movement and concept which include a wide range of products based on traditional manual or lesser mechanized livelihoods. Khadi activities include a wide range of small and cottage-scale village as well as town and city based crafts, artisan work and  food-processing work. The sustainable, self-reliant, carefully planned and nurtured progress of all these khadi activities can contribute much to solving the problem of unemployment, while at the same time protecting valuable traditional skills, encouraging creativity to produce quality products of durable value, promoting aesthetics, protecting environment and reducing GHG emissions.

While khadi lives on today in India in the form of widely spread out retail outlets and production units, nevertheless there has been a steady reduction in commitment on the part of the government as well as several other institutions which could have done much more to promote khadi. Still there are some highly committed khadi activists, but on the whole the number of such sincere activists has been diminishing. On the other hand, there are reports of increasing corruption in Khadi institutions. To give an example of malpractices, mill and machine made goods may be falsely labeled as khadi to claim benefit of subsidies or other benefits available for khadi, while genuine producers may be deprived of their rightful market.

Despite all these problems,  thanks to the legacy of Gandhi and the freedom movement, there is still a wide base in India from where to improve and create a stronger khadi movement.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for present times ) and When the Two Streams Met ( freedom movement).




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