The unholy hammering of Smriti Irani from the moment she was assigned the ministry of human resource development in 2014, and her shift to the ministry of textiles in 2016 has created a very ugly mix of misogynist nuances, tones of elitist intellectual superiority and antagonism towards anything that moves away from the clutch of Left circles.
Even if there may be fears about unscientific theories being propagated or texts being changed, it is difficult for the Left and Congress elements in society to fully accept that they have been democratically displaced, and the new regime has a full mandate to present new ideas, people and policies.
Apart from other things, Smriti Irani also suffered for her perceived closeness to the prime minister. Not only has the PM proved that no one can claim that, but has also shown he is capable of assessing performance and doing the needful. However, media ugliness showed up beyond the bounds of reason when the ministry of textiles was highlighted as a “demotion” in the latest ministerial reshuffle. The media painted textiles as the boondocks of political opportunity, a punishment for an errant minister. Santosh Gangwar, who was minister of state for petroleum and chemicals, science and technology, and parliamentary affairs — all fairly “meaty” assignments — in the earlier NDA government was never shown as having being “downsized” when he was appointed the textiles minister by Narendra Modi. The ministry of textiles was, unfortunately, demoted by her attackers to undermine Irani. Apart from the unwarranted virulence towards any woman in public life who is not morally or financially corrupt, it was downright unfair to undermine the immense scope for good work that lies before her on the textiles landscape. It should be a very creative challenge for a woman who has displayed dynamism and pro-activeness, not always to people’s liking.
Skill India, Make in India, Start-up, Stand-up India, Mudra loans and many other job creation programmes point to the massive need for providing employment opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers. These have to spread across many professions and disciplines. The ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship is focusing mainly on skills that are required in major industrial and infrastructure projects. This ministry has also identified gaps in skill areas that need to be filled across many sectors, including handicrafts, handlooms and the textile industry in general. If the silo system is broken down completely the domain knowledge of ministries can be shared seamlessly and training programmes can match skill needs. This does not happen easily because ministries work at their own pace.
From the beginning, the ministry handling textiles recognised the primary need for “employment” as the very foundation of its policies. It was suddenly changed in 1985, during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the PM, when polyester became the new buzz word and corporate pressure ensured that the “production of cheaper cloth for the masses” became the priority, with “employment” taking second place in the textiles policy. Big mechanised looms came into factories and power looms took over in small worksheds. Handlooms received only token support in the form of half-hearted reservations and quotas, and even subsidised eyeglasses for weavers with faulty vision.
Recently, the textiles ministry celebrated the receipt of hefty financial support to become competitive in the export of garments. Indian factories were at a big price disadvantage compared to Bangladesh, Taiwan and China. Also, Indian labour laws earlier discouraged garment manufacturers from setting up establishments larger than for 100 workers. The competition had anything from 10,000 to 30,000 workers, and was consequently able to accept large orders. Now, workers in India will be paid higher wages but can be on contract. The government must ensure better working conditions to prevent tragedies like the incident in Bangladesh where factory workers died in a fire.
The pathway for the Indian garment industry, which is highly labour intensive, and particularly attractive to women workers, can be carefully guided to achieve great heights. Here, crafts like wood, brass, beads, tied dye, shell work and embroidery can be geared to provide embellishments and accessories that can make Indian textiles stand out. With a number of trained Indian fashion designers already in the field, the synergy can be geared for success.
Handloom weavers are constantly portrayed by the elite patrons as miserable, languishing victims. This is not the case across the board. There are excellent success stories of weavers in every part of the country who have taken their lives into their own hands and built a good handmade textile business with traditional skills. They are proud and self-reliant. Many small economically viable handloom development projects have been undertaken by different non-profit agencies which can serve as models if replicated with commitment. For handlooms, we need to re-adjust and look at several multi-layered niche markets domestically rather than mass produced standardised requirements of the export market. UP, where the forthcoming political bhumi lies ahead for Irani, is home to thousands of weavers and artisans who need attention and uplift, not based on subsidies, but based on improved capacity building. There is huge potential for creating sustainable employment in this sector and it will surely benefit from the new minister’s affinity for action, that is if others do not try to constantly trip her up.