In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi, the woes of handloom weavers, who suffered a big blow in the aftermath of demonetisation and, subsequently, Goods and Services Tax (GST), do not find mention in election speeches.
Owners of handloom units complain that by introducing GST, the government has “cleverly increased taxes in the garb of making taxation efficient and systematic” while harping on issues that have little to do with real problems this election season.
According to Union Textile Ministry data, Varanasi is home to at least 1,00,000 weavers and the ancient city also nestles around 80,000 handlooms within its confines. ‘Banarasi Sari’ is the most popular product of this small scale handloom industry — a cultural heritage recognised globally.
Rizwan Ahmed, 55, who is the owner of six power looms in the city’s Lallapura area, alleges that the arbitrary execution of economic policies has hit his business massively. “Earlier, we had to pay the Value Added Tax (VAT) and toll taxes if we had to send our products to cities like Delhi and Jaipur. Those taxes were much less than the GST filing, which we are required to do by 20th of every month. We do not receive our payments from traders for as long as 4-5 months, but the GST has to be paid every month without which the goods cannot be transported. The profit margin has shrunk to less than half of what we used to make before GST. I employ a labourer who assists the main workers. He earns a daily wage of 250-300 rupees per day. And that is equal to my profit for the day as well. Imagine, the owner and the labourer are earning almost the same amount. Things were way better before GST came into effect. The business was expanding,” he says.
Ahmed, who employs 12 workers in his factory, also complains about the tax structure not being business-friendly. “The disastrous effects of demonetisation are well-known. The entire handloom industry came to a screeching halt after PM Modi decided to make the country go cashless. But what is lesser known is the condition of Banaras’ weavers post-GST. The government has, in a way, introduced higher taxes in the garb of making the economy systematic,” says Ahmed.
The weavers’ complaints are contrasted by a report titled ‘Implication of GST for Indian Textiles Sector’, published by the Union Ministry of Textiles, which reads: “If applied uniformly, GST is likely to address all the major concerns of industry. It will eliminate any blockage of input taxes caused due to break of input tax credit chain. It will provide a level playing field to all segments of the textile industry. There will be a shift in tax burden from production to consumption as GST is a consumption tax. There will be significant simplification in compliance due to GSTN.”
Workers in Ahmed’s factory say it was expected that the government would talk of the problems faced by the local textile industry in the election season but the economic policies are not an election issue at all — “PM Modi holds lots of rallies and talks about patriotism, Pakistan, Army and what not, but there is no mention of things like demonetisation and GST. It’s as if nothing happened in the winter of 2016!”
Shalini Yadav, the Samajwadi Party candidate from Varanasi, echoes them. “Issues like sewage problems, the plight of Ganga, dismal state of local industries are not being addressed by PM Modi. Rafale is not an issue on the busy streets of Varanasi, it is the traffic jams. People here are getting water supply that reeks of sewage. Local weavers had suffered tremendous losses due to GST and demonetisation. Nobody from the BJP is talking about these issues at all,” she says.
On the contrary, Professor Sanjiv Srivastava, who teaches Political Science at Banaras Hindu University, believes that the persona of the Prime Minister has become so powerful in the past five years that issues like the effects of GST and note ban won’t make much of an impact in the elections that are slated for May 19. “There are opposing voices who are trying to raise issues that would, in their opinion, sideline BJP but the fact of the matter remains that people will ultimately vote for PM Modi’s image,” he says.
Talking about communal polarisation in Varanasi, Ahmed says this kind of politics is not good for the trade itself. “It is usually the case that the traders who buy our products are Hindus while the weavers hail from the Muslim Ansari community. We simply cannot be at loggerheads with each other and let our businesses suffer,” explains Ahmed.
Ramesh Sabarwal (name changed), a trader based in Godoliya area of Varanasi, singles out vote bank politics as the only factor that determines the outcome of elections in Varanasi. “GST, note ban and local issues, unfortunately, are not the factors that decide the election results here. It’s all about the caste equation and the consolidated Muslim vote bank. Be it Congress or BJP, no party can actually fight the elections on real issues. The style of politics has drastically changed since the last decade. It’s all about manipulation and winning the elections at any cost,” he says.
Situated at a distance of about 2.5 kilometers from the power loom hub Lallapura, the Madanpura area in Varanasi is home to a significant number of traditional handloom weavers who are predominantly Muslims. Jamal Nasir, 55, who operates seven handlooms in Madanpura area, remembers demonetisation with angst.
“The note ban hurt us tremendously. The business was hit so hard that we didn’t have enough money to feed our family. We have been in the weaving occupation for many generations. We were hoping that demonetisation will cost this government dearly in the elections but ever since this frenzy about Pakistan has surfaced, all issues have become redundant,” says Nasir.
Talking about government initiatives that aim at weavers’ welfare, Nasir states that the initiatives have a top-to-bottom approach. “The government recently came up with a ‘Trade Facilitation Centre’. These things don’t matter much to small-time weavers like us. Such schemes are for the traders who can afford to put up their shops in such places while our business is all about supplying material to these traders. We do not benefit from such schemes,” he says.
Nasir is joined by other members of the family who talk about similar problems. An 18-year-old member of his family, who didn’t want to be named, got up from his handloom and complained about the divisive politics being practiced in the city. “We are being ostracised from Varanasi. At the day of PM Modi’s roadshow in the city, while some Muslims were ready to greet the Prime Minister with garlands at a location which was about to be visited by Modi’s cavalcade, some BJP supporters started shouting anti-Muslim slogans,” the young man said.