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Warped and weft
What Varanasi’s weavers want from their Lok Sabha representative.
This is probably the first time weavers’ needs are an issue that must be addressed by 77 candidates in a parliamentary election. Weavers number over 1.5 crore, yet Parliament has never had a strong voice for them. Only a Congress Rajya Sabha MP from Andhra Pradesh regularly raised questions about suicides by handloom weavers in the early 1990s. Across the country, weaver’s cooperatives exist largely on paper. Powerloom cloth is sold as handloom. Highly skilled weavers survive, but the much larger number of semi-skilled weavers are sinking. Some survive by selling their own blood. This latest tragedy happened in Varanasi, which today is attracting worldwide attention for other reasons.
The history of Varanasi’s weavers is intricately woven into the very fabric of Varanasi society. Just as local pollution has affected the Ganga, the ecosystem of Varanasi’s handloom weavers has been harmed. The main reasons for the handloom crisis are: one, fluctuating costs of Chinese silk yarn, controlled by local cartels; two, computerised powerlooms replacing handlooms; three, lack of regular electricity, leaving worksheds in darkness; four, bad sewerage systems causing gutters to overflow and flood the pit loom areas; five, changes in local and global market preferences, leaving sari-width looms idle; six, dumping of cheap foreign textiles, encroaching on markets for textiles made by semi-skilled weavers.
This sector’s problems belong to the weaver’s community as a whole. It is not a case of communities divided by religious politics but sharing the same problems. Of immediate concern should be the condition of weavers at the lower end of the ladder. They are victims of market changes, exploitation, power cuts and fluctuating yarn prices. It is imperative that no candidate or party attempt to tear apart this carefully woven, centuries-old tradition of harmony, propagated even in the 14th century by no less than Sant Kabir.
Despite Rs 70 crore for the development of “mega clusters” from the Union finance minister for his constituency in Tamil Nadu, and for Varanasi, because of the Congress vice president’s visit, the situation for the majority of weavers has worsened. The assessment made by those working within the handloom sector in Varanasi is that silk weaving earlier provided a livelihoods for about 700,000 people. This has now been reduced to about 2,50,000. The government claims that 75,000 looms are working in Varanasi, but weavers laugh this off, saying no survey has been conducted in the last 15 years. At least 40 per cent of looms in and around Varanasi are idle. On average, a weaver earns just Rs 50-60 a day. Approximately 50,000 people are out of work in Varanasi because of globalisation and the “China” factor. In 2006, imports of textiles from China amounted to 10 lakh metres. This has now crossed 9 crore metres. Surat’s textile mills copy the Varanasi sari on their machines. Chinese machines, referred to by some weavers as the “Chinese Dragon”, are copying even the traditional zardozi of Varanasi. When India is the second-largest silk producer in the world, it is criminal to allow cartels to manipulate prices of Chinese yarn and allow the monopoly of yarn banks by traders and big exporters with the help of local politicians.
Weavers are part of a long tradition and an old network of relationships. They count everyone, from the spinner to the customer, as part of an inextricably linked chain. Rigid, piecemeal government solutions riddled with corruption have made weavers lose faith. Issues that need to be addressed by Varanasi’s elected representative must include the needs of the producer of raw material. Because of the over-emphasis on exports, small, independent weavers are left out of government schemes to help handlooms. Small schemes that can target specific problems are replaced by big ones that require “big” implementers with access and influence. The scheme to certify handloom products is weighted in favour of the big man rather than the small, who cannot pay the fee. Certification itself is prone to corruption encouraged by the powerloom lobby.
Weavers want training and financial assistance to upgrade looms, and relief from fluctuations in yarn prices. Yarn producers should be encouraged to tie up with weavers’ groups. An upgraded, tourist-friendly haat (“weavers only” marketplace) could be set up in Varanasi. Small weavers could sell their products directly to customers here. Start-up funds and independent business plans could be framed to help small handloom weavers in the country buy raw material, invest in modern looms, obtain design inputs and pay the rent to hire a stall at the haat once a week. This would protect them from succumbing to exploitative traders.
A senior weaver once related a story: a goat and her kid were tethered to a tree near a jungle. The goat asked a bunch of monkeys sitting on the tree above whether they would protect her kid from the tiger if it came out of the jungle. The monkeys assured all their help and told the goat not to worry. Sure enough, a while later the tiger arrived. The monkeys screeched and shouted, jumping back and forth from tree to tree. This had no effect on the tiger, which took away the kid and ate it. The goat cried piteously and asked the monkeys what happened to their assurances. The monkeys answered, “Well, we said we would do something. We did!” This was his description of government interventions in their lives.
There is an urgent need to protect and sustain employment for those with traditional textile skills from the vagaries of the global market. Varanasi’s future political representative must recognise and alter that.
The writer, former president of the Samata Party, is founder and president, Dastkari Haat Samiti