Nearly two weeks later,Varanasi and Bhadohi the hub of weavers will be voting to elect their members to UP Assembly. In Chaukia,a village located on Varanasi-Bhadohi border with a population of nearly 500,all one can hear is sound of the handlooms emanating from every household. Take a closer look,one finds no sign of adequate work.
The village is entirely dependent on carpet weaving. It is also virtually at the centre of the two hubs carpet sector in Bhadohi (Sant Ravi Das Nagar) and Banarasi silk sector in Varanasi. While Bhadohi is the biggest hub of hand-knotted carpet possibly in the world,the Banarasi silk sarees too need no introduction.
Both the sectors are currently dealing with a range of problems including global recession,competition and,most importantly,neglect from successive governments. The situation in silk sarees sector is slightly better on account of demand,but the difference between the two sectors is not much.
Not very far is the chowk,where a hoarding announces an exhibition of carpets in Germany. The road from Kapsethi from the National Highway Number 2 passing through Bhadohi is bumpy. There is no power in the village; pathways are in bad shape or simply absent.
For a belt accounting for nearly 75 per cent of the total countrys output in carpets and dealing with stiff competition from Belgian machine-made carpets,this should have been a serious matter. But none of the governments in the past 20-odd years have cared for things like a decent infrastructure that could have helped attract buyers. Varanasi,it must be noted,is a major tourist centre also.
Nostalgia among villagers of those-were-the-good-old-days then seemed natural. Ek woh samay tha jab mahajan hamein kehta rehta tha ki aur kaam karo…ab to humare paas samay hee samay hai aapse baat karne ke liye (There was a time when the local moneylenders would keep pushing us to work more. Now,I have all the time in the world to talk to you), says Bismillah,who is in his sixties. Bismillahs wry humour is a state of mind of carpet weavers in the entire Bhadohi belt.
Bismillah was talking about the time when Congress was in power both at the Centre and in the state through the better part of the 1980s. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and Narayan Dutt Tiwari was the Chief Minister for varying periods. That was also the time,when the belt came up as a major carpet hub,producing millions of weavers and more than 2,000 exporters in Varanasi,Bhadohi and Mirzapur,besides a few other districts of the state.
And it is the whiff of a similar arrangement that seems to have developed into a soft corner for the Congress this time around. Cycle aur haathi aapas mein satihen na,ta unke vote deke kaa hoi. Sarkar Congress ke bane ke chahee. Tabey kuchch hoi (Cycle and elephant will never come together. So,why waste our vote on them. Congress should come to power. Then only things will move), says Abdul Karim in chaste Bhojpuri. The villagers take the name of Indira Gandhi,Rajiv Gandhi,even Sonia Gandhi and,now Rahul,in almost the same breath.
Traditional Congress voters,the villagers had been voting for Samajwadi Party in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. But in 2009 Lok Sabha elections,they went with Mukhtar Ansari,who was then in BSP and was contesting from Varanasi. The simple reason: Ansari is one of their community member.
Most of the villages in the region usually follow the caste and community lines. Carpet weavers have never been able to assert themselves as a voting community, said Dr Rajni Kant of Human Welfare Association (HWA),a humanitarian organisation active in the region.
Not that every Congress move has been lapped up by the villagers. In fact,apart from the international competition,they are also fighting flight of labour due to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The sector as a whole has begun demanding training of women as skilled carpet weavers because they were less likely to move out of their houses in search of better livelihood. HWA and several other such organisations have been demanding that carpet weaving be made part of MGNREGS under skilled labour.
Nevertheless,it is the weavers package worth Rs 6,234 crores by the government in November 2011 that seems to have made quite a few hopeful and turn soft towards Congress,the grand old party. The package entails debt waiver and developing systems that would help them raise credit on easy terms and make availability of yarn at affordable rates possible.
The villagers do not understand its nitty-gritty. For that matter,they are not even aware that the package deals with saree weavers and not carpet weavers. Kuchch ta hoi (There must be something)! said Karim. Zahid Mohammad,a post-graduate jobless youth of the village,said: It has not been implemented yet. But if it is done properly many will benefit. As it is,we dont have jobs here.
In neighbouring Maharajpur village falling in Bhadohi,saree weaver Mushfiq,said: We have heard about the package. It is probably due to Election Commission that it is not getting implemented now. We are waiting for it. Work was not as regular as it used to be,but,of late,the demand for Banarasi sarees has been good,he said. However,he did not make it clear whether he would go with Congress. Let us see what others have to say, he said.
Exporters,the other end of the carpet spectrum,too are not opposed to the idea of something good being done for the carpet weavers. It goes both ways. Ultimately,we have to get the work done from them. But there are so many other things that are required to improve the export, said Izazuddin,an exporter living in Qazipur area of Bhadohi.
It was the Congress government that had given facilities like income tax exemption,duty drawback and other facilities associated with 100 per cent export oriented units. But,said Izazuddin,the facilities have either been withdrawn or reduced. Duty drawback provision is still there,but it is too less. IT exemption was taken away during the BJP regime at the Centre,though Congress did nothing to revive it, said Izazuddin. As for the state government,says Izazuddin,They think export sector has nothing to do with anything local.
The Congress has now promised integrated development of Varanasi and Bhadohi as carpet and tourism hub. Whether the Chaukia villagers will be able to understand the language of integrated development completely is a moot point. However,they do seem to realise that with Rahul in Uttar Pradesh and his mother holding the reins at the Centre,it could be a better scenario. Ek baar Rahul ke tehra deo ehar (Get Rahul to visit this region once again,somehow), says Karim wishfully,indicating that the Congress general secretarys one visit would change things around.