Handlooms And Khadi Can Promote Millions of Sustainable, Ecologically Protective Livelihoods


Handlooms Day ( August 7 ) is a good time to assert the need for a strong protective policy towards not just handlooms ( hand-woven cloth) but also towards cloth which is hand-spun as well as hand-woven ( called khadi in India). In this context we also need to make the wider point, as emphasized by Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly ,that in view of the special conditions of countries like India a policy of indiscriminate mechanization is not helpful. Secondly it is very important to protect the special and intricate craft and artisan skills that exist with millions of persons and households in India. In fact there is a strong case not just for protecting these skills but even for reviving some of these skills , one reason being that some occupations are inter-related and if due to neglect one skill is on the verge of being lost then several other related  jobs may also be threatened.

In the context of the most important consumer goods industry of textiles this means giving a special place of care and protection to khadi and handlooms. In recent years most reports about handloom weavers have spoken of decline and decay, debts and distress. Yet it is possible to envisage steps and solutions which can not only protect millions of  skilled livelihoods in handlooms and khadi, in addition it should be possible to create new livelihoods – full-time and part-time – in this sector.

Handloom cloth is cloth woven by hand, or cloth woven on manually operated looms (as distinct from electricity operated looms or powerlooms). Khadi is cloth which is on the one hand hand-woven (handloom) and in addition the yarn for weaving this cloth is also obtained by hand-spinning (for example on charkha or manually operated spinning wheel). Thus khadi is hand-woven plus hand-spun cloth.

Khadi has a very special significance in India as during the freedom movement Mahatma Gandhi gave great importance to Khadi as a symbol of India’s liberation (earlier India’s weavers had been ruined by unjust promotion of British mill-made cloth by colonial rulers).

According to official data given by Development Commissioner (Handlooms) of the Govt. of India, as per statistics available in 2007 handloom sector was next to agriculture in providing employment to about 6.5 million persons. However during the last 15 years there have been widespread reports of distress suffered by handloom weavers and  many of them being forced to leave their traditional livelihood.

One reason is  the lack of sincerity in several efforts to help the actual handloom weavers and spinners, as opposed to those who control the trade. In fact there are several examples of how non-implementation of existing protective provisions led to large-scale loss of livelihoods.

An expert on handlooms L. C. Jain estimated (in 1983) that during the previous decade 5.5 million handloom workers were rendered unemployed or their employment was adversely affected due to the displacement of 1386 thousand handlooms (each handloom providing part or full employment to 4 person) by 231 thousand powerlooms (each powerloom displaced six handlooms).

Similar massive loss of employment was seen in related areas such as the hand-printing industry. According to L. C. Jain, because machines were employed for 942 million meters of clothes over and above the 500 million meters at which their output would have been frozen, as recommended by the Research Advisory Panel (textile printing industry) an estimated 2,50,000 jobs opportunities have been lost in the economy.

So the situation today is what we see after several years of loss of livelihood opportunities. Hence the actual employment available in handloom and khadi today is much less than the potential. On the one hand millions of existing livelihoods can still be saved. On the other hand many more livelihoods can also be added if the causes which caused distress to weavers can be removed, as they still have their skills and can return to livelihood based on their traditional skills if given the opportunities. If the outlook for handloom and khadi is good, many artisans will also feel encouraged to teach family skills to the next generation. Hence this livelihood will continue to be nurtured.

However those who want to discourage such efforts say that this is unrealistic as the inevitable march of mechanisation is bound to reduce the prospects for handloom and khadi. However, in an expanding market of cloth production, higher production by the mechanised sector can co-exist with higher production by khadi and handlooms if the potential of the later is allowed to be properly realised. What is important to emphasise is that handloom and khadi have some inherent strengths and some types of cloth is best woven only on handlooms.

In a  review of the inherent strengths of handlooms, B.K. Sinha (former Development Commissioner, Handlooms) pointed out that due to manual operations several combinations are possible in handlooms with intricate designs. “The functional properties like drape, texture, strength, wrinkle resistance, dominant stability etc. can be ingeniously manipulated through appropriate designs, exclusive types of fabrics used, counts and twists of warps and yarns, thick density, type of weave, type of fashion and process employed in printing.” This review goes on to detail many kinds of clothes which are best woven on handlooms,

“The clothes made from extremely fine material i.e. yarn count with 100s and above which are delicate, can be woven more safely on the handloom owing to comparative lightness of jerks. The polish of the clothes interwoven with gold or silver thread, can be taken out by extremely frictional action of powerlooms. On the contrary, handlooms are ideally suited for such work. Clothes with multi coloured designs in which the weft is to be changed very frequently are most suited to handlooms. Clothes with embellishment in the border and heading and entire body with delicate designs in various colours which calls for individual schemes can be ideally woven on handlooms.

Many people who have been using khadi cloth for years say emphatically it is very healthy for skin, providing comfort in summer as well as in winter. With growing health consciousness, this can help to increase the demand for khadi in India as well as abroad. Also the undisputed fact that handloom and even more so khadi generates the most employment per metre of cloth can also be used to promote this cloth.

The consciousness for energy-conservation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasing. From this point of view hand-woven cloth has an obvious edge, particularly when it is also hand-spun. The eco-worth of these products can be increased further by the increasing use of vegetable colours.

Massive amounts of money are spent on imparting vocational education, including industrial skills in an institutional set-up. But in the informal set-up of handlooms and several related crafts and artisan skills, an informal structure exists  for imparting invaluable and intricate skills to the next generation without the government spending any money. Surely such traditional sustainable livelihoods based on beautiful skills need to be protected and promoted in a big way.

While protecting handloom weavers is important , the cause of hand-spinning is no less important. Somehow the schemes of handloom promotion have got delinked from hand-spinning, although Mahatma Gandhi had emphasised that without hand-spinning as a base, handloom weavers will never be able to ensure self reliant, sustainable development. They will remain dependent on mills for yarn, on suppliers who actually want the rapid development of mechanised weaving (apart from spinning).

There are several struggles in India to give a fair deal to handloom weavers. Now with the increasing emphasis on reducing GHG emissions, the case for protecting handlooms and hand-spinning becomes stronger as protectIon of precious human skills which do not involve the use of any commercial energy, fossil fuel use or the related GHG emissions has acquired a new strength, it can get more support than before.

If India can emerge as  the leading world centre for protecting hand-weaving and spinning this will be considered a very significant achievement. Despite all the harm suffered by handlooms in the recent past, this is still a possibility which if pursued sincerely can become a reality.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071.


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