India has a very rich tradition of handloom weaving as well as spinning. When cloth is both hand spun and hand woven, this is called khadi, a name given by Mahatma Gandhi who launched a movement to popularize this cloth during the freedom movement of India to provide a local livelihood based alternative to imported mill cloth from Britain which was being imposed on people of India in highly unfair ways leading to the collapse of the livelihoods of weavers and spinners, even though the Indian textiles had been celebrated all over the world before colonial rule
When only weaving is done by hand but not spinning, this is called handloom cloth. Both khadi and handloom involve highly creative work whose importance has increased further in times of climate change as these also reduce fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions.
Recently the Indian government announced a scheme for artisans called PM-Vishwakarma but weavers were not included in this, even though they constitute the biggest number of artisans. This has led to expectations that there will be a separate new scheme for weavers and spinners and one hopes that this will be better conceptualized to be entirely in tune with what is most needed.
In addition the highly creative and ecologically protective work relating to vegetable based dyeing and hand-printing should also be promoted. It is very important to protect the special and intricate skills that exist with millions of persons and households in India regarding hand weaving, spinning and related work.
Unfortunately 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, but in addition it should be possible to create new livelihoods – full-time and part-time – in this sector.
According to official data given by the 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. Recent data shows that the number of handloom related livelihoods have been shrinking.
While the government says that khadi cloth production is increasing, several khadi activists feel that this increase is shown by including mill or powerloom produced cloth in khadi cloth, or mixing the two.
The handloom cloth production in some categories may be doing well but the gains go more to merchants and owners while the actual weavers continue to be exploited.
There are several examples of how non-implementation of existing protective provisions led to large-scale loss of livelihoods. Some categories of cloth were reserved for the handloom sector but this was not observed in actual practice. The yarn meant for providing to the handloom sector at a low price was diverted to power looms.
An expert on handlooms L. C. Jain estimated that during a single 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 power looms (each power loom 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. The actual employment available in handloom and khadi today is much less than the potential. Protective steps should be taken at least now to check the decline. 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.
Those who want to discourage such efforts say that this is unrealistic as the inevitable march of mechanization is bound to reduce the prospects for handloom and khadi. However 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 power looms. On the contrary, handlooms are ideally suited for such work. Clothes with multi colored 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 colors 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 colors.
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 emphasized that without hand-spinning as a base, handloom weavers will not 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 mechanized weaving (apart from spinning). Hence both hand-weaving as well as hand-spinning should be protected and promoted along with other related skills.
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.