The centuries old Indian handloom industry, spread across multiple and remote geographical terrains across the country, was in serious crisis for a long time and a combination of demonetization, GST and Covid have dealt it a death blow. The tragic reality of this sector, that employs thousands of rural artisans, runs deep but its wounds have been allowed to willfully simmer, especially since the coming of the BJP-government to power in Delhi seven years ago.

This is a largely informal industry, where the finest, most brilliant and sensitive of the nation’s craftspeople work, in dilapidated machines and subhuman conditions, celebrating centuries of inherited, meticulous and painstaking art forms, etched in archival memory.

The crisis has sharpened manifold, across the beleaguered handloom sector, since demonetisation was unleashed in late 2016 by the current government without a warning, followed by a repressive GST, which hit the entire small scale and informal industry in India.  This sector comprises the largest mass of unorganized workers, without basic, fundamental rights, floating in a cruel and exploitative market dominated by the predators of the neo-liberal economy, backed by the current regime as much as by the early UPA government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was a classical market fundamentalist.

The arrival of the deadly virus in the summer of 2020, followed by a draconian lockdown announced with no warning yet again, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, only worsened the suffering of the informal sector, including thousands of migrant workers, homeless, thirsty and emaciated, left to their destiny on scorching summer highways, escaping the pandemic, but eternally trapped in the vicious circle of joblessness and poverty. The handloom sector, like the rest of the informal sector, suffered yet another devastating blow to its struggling economy, with no government intervention or healing touch reaching out to them, or their families.

“No, it was not the pandemic or the lockdown, which first hit them so hard. It was demonetisation and GST,” says Delhi-based Jamal Kidwai, founder and catalyst behind Baragaon Weaves, a national weavers’ cooperative which has been trying to desperately protect and preserve this precious industry. “The pandemic simply turned the situation irreversible. So much so, in this damaged and dying craft sector, people have been reduced to abject poverty. With an average household monthly income of just about Rs 5000 per month, how do you presume these craftspeople can manage their existence? I mean this is even less than what landless farmers get from NREGA. And with the government just about refusing to look their way, while promoting new liberal and predator capitalists in the handloom and textile sector, it is has become almost impossible for them to survive or retain their trade. Most of their children, consequently, are therefore being pushed into the various kinds of exploitative, daily wage labour and mass migration.”

COVID Response Watch LogoAccording to him, among other factors, the absence of imported cotton from China has added to their woes. Despite the new and added interest in buying hand-made cotton products across a vast spectrum of conscious and educated sections in urban India, this stark absence of cotton supplies has resulted in the scarcity of the handloom sector’s fine, delicately woven, hand-made products in the market.

Besides, miscellaneous powerful business groups have entered the market in a big way, promoting only short-term market interests, that is, only the brands which can be quickly made and disposed off in the fast moving consumer market. That this is a valuable craft with an ancient and inherited history rooted in invaluable and rare art forms from around India, across various traditional communities, obviously, has no intrinsic value for them.

India makes 95 per cent of global hand-woven textiles and handlooms. Multiple communities have been traditionally associated with this craft, and, India, obviously, created the most superior and refined forms of such products. As per the latest All India Handloom Census of 2019-2020, India has over 3.5 million handloom workers currently, which has gone down drastically from 6.5 million in 1995-96. This includes the entire kaleidoscope of the informal industry — weavers, ancillary and other workers.

Let it be remembered that the handloom sector was also part of the Swadeshi ethos of the non-violent freedom struggle, led by Mahatma Gandhi, and cotton and charkha, while burning foreign products as an act of rebellion and defiance, were intrinsic part of this protracted struggle. Dumping handloom, by all successive regimes, despite the hollow rhetoric, has, therefore, amounted to dumping the intrinsic values of the freedom movement. The All India Handloom Board, created with great hope almost 30 years ago, has not really proved its mettle in protecting and preserving this dying small-scale industry. It was, unfortunately, dismantled two years ago for unknown reasons.

In an interview with experts, Vogue magazine highlighted this crisis.  According to Ramesh Menon, founder of Save the Loom, a non-profit venture working in the handloom industry: “Handlooms have been on a decline over the decades. This is a generational skill but lack of income and absence of dignity of labour are deterring the current generation from entering the industry. In the last 10 years alone, we have lost 8,00,000 weavers… The problems are layered. Despite multiple bodies, government schemes and funds geared at holistic change, long-term benefits don’t trickle down to the artisans. Handloom hubs like West Bengal, Orissa, Assam and Kerala are recurrently prone to natural disasters. For instance, nearly 48,000 weavers were affected by the Assam floods but there has been no campaign to safeguard them. Women make up 72 per cent of the workforce, and the immediate concern is hygienic working conditions with washrooms, natural light and airflow for them.”

According to Delhi-based curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul, “Indian handlooms are as diverse as our regional geographies and cultures. While they are declining in most parts of the country, they are also providing new means of employment and creative production (even if on relatively smaller scales) in other parts. Weavers can offer limitless potential as resources for innovation to designers if explored further. But weavers and practitioners of handlooms have to be given the dignity and recognition that they deserve. For far too long, their skills have been seen as mere tools for designers and artists. We also need their voices to be heard, rather than only those of facilitators who often represent and work with them. Further, both at the governmental and private level, regular gathering of statistical information is required to understand the real situation on ground with regards to production, markets and quality. This can be further leveraged for the creation of policies as well as local and national organisations which can stand for the handloom sector.”

According to the Handloom Census, 67 per cent of households employed in handloom work earn less than Rs 5,000 a month. This was stated by Smriti Zubin Irani, Minister of Textiles, in a written reply during a Rajya Sabha session. Just about 1 percent of handloom households are earning Rs 20,000 per month.

So how is the big industry going to help this beleaguered sector trapped in a terrible human and economic crisis since the pandemic and the lockdown? According to the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India, “brands” and retailers should delay their end-of-season sales offers. A similar approach is also applicable to apparel exporters, as many overseas buyers pushed them to ship goods at discounted rates before the lockdown.

Rakesh Biyani, of the association, CMAI, has been pitching for online sales. “There is no demand in the market, and as people follow social distancing, shopping is likely to be affected in the next three-four months.” he was quoted in the media,

According to him: “Now, manufacturers should produce only what is liked by customers, rather than an old practice to produce whatever they themselves liked. Small orders and quick deliveries will be the key for every segment of the domestic market.”

Small orders and quick deliveries! Online, digitalised, impersonal, detached, alienated, nameless, faceless, branded. A quick, disposable, consumer commodity like any other in the market.

So, whatever will happen to the great love and passion behind these kaleidoscopic folk art forms preserved through centuries? Clearly, when it comes to precious history of handloom, the predators of the corporate empire, only want its inevitable doom.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata


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