Offering a glimmer of change,the textiles ministry has suggested relaxing the definition of handloom. Some degree of mechanisation will be acceptable,so long as at least one process for weaving remains manual. The cabinet will consider the proposal,and if accepted,it would be a tacit admission of the follies of Indian textile policy thus far. The Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act,1985,which requires most mass-produced items to be produced by handloom,is a law made to be flouted. Mechanised processes have already crept in,and this proposed expansion of what handloom means is an acknowledgement of that fact.
In India,textiles are the biggest employer after farming. But through the decades,policy has been trapped in a romantic,craftsy ethos that insists on incentivising weavers to work by hand,rather than spurring them to produce on larger scale. They rely on state intervention to sell their work,rather than turning their work towards the markets needs. This skew affects the entire textiles sector. The governments benevolence is focused foremost on handloom,then powerloom and then large and organised mills,if at all. It should be the other way round most of our weavers,struggling to eke out a living,should be encouraged to use powerloom techniques,those who operate powerlooms should gradually move to producing on a bigger scale. Indias depressing exports story says it all after quota-based restrictions were eased in 2005,India should have been leading the list,competing only with China,given its advantages in raw material and skills. Instead,it is now trailing Bangladesh,Indonesia,Vietnam and others in terms of exporting to the US and EU. Its big textiles exporters cannot even use Indian fabric for bulk orders,because procuring material from many small suppliers would make for inconsistencies in shade or texture. Scale and competitiveness are sorely missing.
Of course,handlooms are beautiful things,a part of our living heritage. But they should be allowed to occupy a narrow niche,made and bought by those who care about them. They should also be allowed to evolve with the market,which can be trusted to preserve traditions if discerning consumers seek them out. This should not hold back the rest of the sector.