The handloom weaver and the Indian woman are linked. Saris worn on traditional occasions like weddings are of specific weaves and designs. Even if commercial sari establishments weave nine-yard extravaganzas depicting the Ramayana or a “kitsch” wedding sari with images of the bride and bridegroom woven into the pallav, they steadfastly adhere to traditional designs and motifs on a purely handwoven sari to offer their goddess when seeking her blessings. The gharchola of Gujarat, the Varanasi brocade, the Patan patola, the paithani of Maharashtra or the Sambalpuri ikat have been musts in every trousseau.
A meeting was called by the ministry of textiles — whose primary duty should be to focus on the largest number and most needy — to discuss amendments to the Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, and the introduction of mechanised processes. Only 20 people were invited, and most represented powerlooms. Handloom representatives were in a minority. The powerloom lobby demanded that saris be removed from the protected category to enable powerloom manufacturers to increase their incomes.
Handlooms have several advantages. Weaving on a handloom requires no power. Adaptable to design variations, low capital investments, flexible production and eco-friendly footprints, they can lead the way in the “Make in India” landscape. They preserve a vast variety of heritage skills unavailable elsewhere in the world. From cotton, silk and wool producers to dyers, spinners, weavers and those involved in other textile embellishment processes, they provide livelihoods to those skilled over centuries. Practitioners come under the skilled and semi-skilled categories now being assessed carefully, sector-wise, by the skill development ministry.
If its assessment is that 500 million need to be employed by 2020, it makes little sense to kill these traditionally skilled and employable workers for the sake of demands from competing powerloom/ polyester establishments.
It is well known that each worker in powerloom clusters supervises no less than four to six powerlooms, meaning they provide employment to 4,50,000 workers per shift. If calculated at three shifts per day, it adds up to 13,50,000 persons. Yet, the textile ministry projects the figure at 59,20,000. Increase in the share of powerloom production in the past five years has also been minimal, while handlooms contributed Rs 2,812 crore in exports in 2013-14. The government calculates only two persons working per handloom and uses faulty statistics, saying that 23.77 lakh looms exist, which adds up to 43.30 lakh persons, although the Sivaraman Committee report, among others, states that six persons are actually directly employed in handloom production. Realistically, there are around 1.2 crore persons employed. Production has also grown in comparison to powerlooms. Thus the demand by the powerloom lobby to dereserve the sari. Already, the south Indian lungi and many of the Kashmiri shawls have been taken over by powerlooms, despite so-called protection. Polyester look-alikes have further destroyed their cachet. Now there is an assault on the handloom sari, that elegant bastion of all undraped textiles.
In 2012, there was a move to alter the definition of handlooms to cleverly allow automatic machines to replace handlooms. The powerloom lobby proposed that if one of three processes was by hand it should be considered handloom. This would automatically favour powerlooms, since the loom action itself could be mechanised. However, new innovations by weavers’ service centres, like a pedal action to move the shuttle, removes drudgery without power. Many high-powered committees like the Sivaraman Committee, Abid Hussain Committee and a subcommittee of the advisory committee to the ministry have all upheld the possibility of upgrading handlooms to remove drudgery without resorting to mechanisation.
The intentions of consecutive governments are revealed by the actions of various agencies. Budget cuts on handlooms have been higher than in other sectors. State governments have other priorities and have not yet been invigorated by the prime minister’s concern for skill development by caring for handlooms. Infringement of the act attracts pathetically meagre penalties, sending an obvious message. Cluster programme funds for handlooms allow pneumatic jacquard lifting mechanisms — essentially powerloom technologies.
Young women in Karnataka have initiated a campaign called the #100sareepact, which seeks to promote sari-wearing among the younger generation. If even 25 per cent of the cosmopolitan female population of India commits to wearing handloom saris for just 100 days, women would strengthen handloom weavers, contributing to the preservation of India’s heritage, skills and the economic empowerment of this deprived section of society. Why is the government looking the other way?
Jaitly is former president of the Samata Party and a social activist. Mohanrao leads an organisation fighting for the rights of weavers in Andhra Pradesh.