Feb 2, 2009

India - As the looms go silent in Benaras (G.Read)


Hands that wove magic with zari are pulling rickshaws to survive. A combination of mechanisation and duty-free import of silk yarn and fabric have ensured the ruin of the Benarasi weavers. The government needs to act now so that this vital heritage is not lost forever…


The Indian government increasingly signed away its rights to protect Indian products by inking agreements with the World Trade Organisation. Duties on imports were lowered or removed altogether...


Photo: K.R. Deepak

Stuff of dreams: Admiring the intricate zari work in a Benarasi saree.

In a bare village work shed a man sits quietly working on a loom. Look closer and you notice that he is actually sitting in a pit dug into the earthen floor. Hari Ram is middle-aged, non-descript but his fingers weave magic as he works the traditiona l pit-loom. A length of pink silk slowly emerges, shimmering with gold threads worked in elaborate mango motifs. He is weaving the traditional Benarasi saree for a bride to wear at her wedding. This silk is the stuff of dreams, of dowries, of rituals and sacred traditions.

A highly skilled weaver, Ram began learning his craft at the age of eight and spent years perfecting it. Weaving was a prized skill and fetched him good wages when he was young. But today thousands of Benaras weavers like Ram have little work and it fetches a pittance. Kumaoli village, where Ram lives, once had 70 looms. Today, there are four left.

In dozens of villages around the holy city handlooms lie dismantled, broken, decaying. The women and men who worked the looms have now been forced into manual work to survive. Hari Ram has no such option before him. Disabled in childhood, he can barely walk. The loom is his only lifeline.

Familiar story

Girija Devi learnt to process the silk yarn as a child, learnt to reel and dye it and fill the bobbins with multi-coloured threads. She learnt to sit at the loom and work motifs into the cloth for special designs. Often she would sit beside her husband or another weaver, jointly weaving elaborate lengths of silk or brocade. She recalls that in her grandmother’s days they worked with zari thread made of real gold and silver and even leftover bits of thread could be sold. Girija says weaver households used to be comfortably off, they could save a little and celebrate weddings with dhoom-dhaam (pomp). But the past few years have been downhill.

Since the work can no longer sustain households, Girija and other women like her, whose families own some land, now grow flowers for sale: yellow marigolds and white champa flowers for pooja on the ghats and in the temples of the holy city.

Girija is lucky that she has land and the support of the NGO Human Welfare Association (HWA) which helped her form a self-help group and organised credit so that she could invest in the flower business. The work ensures a steady income. Her children go to a private English medium school although she herself is uneducated. However, the majority of weavers have no land to fall back upon. All they have is the loom.

Usha Devi’s husband Pyarelal and his brother have switched to taking up the job of digging borewells. They also trade in cattle, using loans of Rs. 5000-10,000 from a self-help group to invest in buffaloes.

Forced into menial jobs

Madhuri, a supervisor of the Taana Baana self-help group set up by HWA says, “Weavers who had all their lives learnt only how to do maheen kaam (fine work) are being forced to do mota kaam (coarse work). Manual labour pays more, so weavers are now pulling rickshaws. It is better than starving.”

How did things come to such a pass? A fatal combination of mechanisation, computerisation and globalisation has ruined the handloom work of Benaras. Traditionally, people here wove only silk. Mulberry silk yarn was sourced from distant Karnataka and processed by weaver families in and around Benaras who used it to weave silk, brocade, tissue, crepe, organza and other fine materials on their handlooms. Traders from the city would come to the weaver families to buy their products. The weaver could command a decent price for his labour.

Then came the powerloom. Many rich traders set up powerlooms and copied the traditional Benarasi designs. A powerloom can churn out in one day a saree that may take a weaver 10 days to make on a handloom. Powerloom sarees are light weight and cheaper and most customers cannot tell the difference between powerloom and handloom fabric.

Globalisation compounded the problem. The Indian government increasingly signed away its rights to protect Indian products by inking agreements with the World Trade Organisation. Duties on imports were lowered or removed altogether. One consequence was the ballooning imports of cheap Chinese silk yarn which is too thin for use on the hand-loom. The cheap yarn gives the powerlooms an extra advantage.

In November 2008 angry weavers gathered in Benaras under the banner of the HWA and publicly burnt Chinese yarn and silk fabric, demanding that the government ban its import to save the handloom sector. The weavers have repeatedly raised their problems with the government of Uttar Pradesh as well as the central government, demanding both protection from imports and supportive schemes for handlooms. At a public hearing held in village Dulaipur Satpokhri of Chandauli district, over a hundred weavers gathered in late November 2008 to raise their concerns over the rapid loss of work and incomes.

Fayazuddin Ansari, one of a delegation of 15 people from Hamidpur village, said, “The market has grown so much but have our wages grown? We are bunkar mazdoor, (weaver-workers) we may make a shawl worth Rs. 50,000 but we get nothing for our labour.” Shakeelbhai of Katesar village said, “The wages are so poor even if we work for a week we still go hungry for two days.”

Several weavers stated that their problems began around 2001 with liberalisation of silk imports. Families that could once save enough to build a house or buy some land are now on the edge of survival.

Abdul Waheed, his long white beard orange with mehendi, regrets that small children now have to work instead of going to school. “People can no longer afford to marry off daughters. Who can raise 20,000 for a wedding in these tough times? Who can afford to buy a bike or a TV set to give in dowry? This dahej that has entered our society has also ruined us. People are being forced to borrow from the moneylenders. Money-lending is forbidden in Islam but many households are now in the moneylenders’ net. This is all the fault of the government and the big traders who refuse to pay proper wages.”

Said Babu Haji Sahab of Satpokhri, “Powerloom owners can raise loans of Rs. 20 lakhs from the banks. We may get at best Rs. 10,000 and pay a high interest rate of 10-15 per cent. The kisaan (farmer) gets subsidised electricity but we have to pay commercial rates. Today a couple working on a loom earn barely Rs. 80 a day after hours of backbreaking labour. Yet we don’t even get BPL cards for ration.”

Sabreen Zaman, the young burqa-clad principal of the school where the hearing was being conducted, testified to the plight of the weavers. “Ninety per cent of our students are from beenkari (weavers) households. Their families have no money. Some students have to study during the day and work at night. Many have been forced to quit school and go to work.”

Ayesha Begum from Dulhaipur was one of the few weaver women who found the courage to stand up on stage and speak. “Some 30 of us have come for this hearing. We are in great distress. There is little work and it is poorly paid. A week’s work fetches Rs. 200. Who can survive on that? When men cannot find work, women have to run the household somehow. We take in all kinds of piece work, we do embroidery now to survive.”

White-haired Noorunissa Begum of Milkipur was angry and harangued the audience, asking, “Why does the government only help the bade log (big people)? Why do they get the benefit of all the government schemes while we work so hard for so little?” she asked.

Journalist and activist Bharat Dogra urged the weavers to have fortitude and struggle for their rights. “Remember one thing, handloom is a great skill. It will survive. Let us decide this,” he said, reminding them that Gandhiji had led a successful movement for the revival of khadi. Dogra pointed out the absurdity of government policies which claim to give people education and skills but neglect artisan groups who already possess precious skills. “Teach your children the skills you possess,” he exhorted the weavers.

Loss of skills

The policy against child labour is unfortunately contributing to the de-skilling of the weaver community. The HWA has had to intervene in several cases where children have been picked up by the police for sitting on the loom. The weavers are now afraid to let their children learn to weave.

Yet, given the increasing destitution of the weavers, children and women are being forced to do other work. Walk into homes in Dulaipur and you will find women and girls bent over addas (long embroidery frames), painstakingly stitching glittering beads and baubles, stars and sequins on to readymade powerloom sarees procured from the city. The work is outsourced by the big traders who sell thousands of such pieces to markets all over the country. The women earn an average of Rs. 40 a day for 10 hours of work. “We taught ourselves to embroider,” says Noor Jehan, “at least we can feed our families with this work.”

Even the old are being forced to find work. In a large joint-family household in Dulaipur, from behind an unused loom, a proud old weaver reluctantly brings out a heap of cheap plastic flowers. “We string these into garlands for sale. It keeps us going,” he says resignedly.

* * *

Marginalised by globalisation: Benaras weavers protest duty-free importing of Chinese yarn and silk.

Imports destroy Indian silk
The decline of the Indian handloom industry is a fallout of the second phase of trade “reforms” in India. Between 2000 and 2005, the average annual growth rate of handloom production was a negative -6.99 per cent. Sericulture and handloom silk have suffered immensely, largely due to the import of cheap Chinese silk yarn and fabric.

According to Kumar Gautam of the Centre for Trade and Development, “The big blow to weavers came during 1999-2000, when the Indian Government allowed duty-free imports of Chinese plain crepe fabric. In 2001, India also abolished its quantitative restrictions on silk imports on demand from the WTO.”

Gautam notes that, “Between 2000-01 and 2004-05, imports of silk fabric into India more than doubled in value terms. In volume terms the cheap imports of silk fabric from China to India increased from 14.48 lakh metres in 2000-01 to 9.649 crore lakh metres in 2004-05 — a whopping increase of 6,560 per cent in just five years.”

Such imports are a disaster for sericulturists who grow silk cocoons. The States of Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where silk yarn is produced have been demanding anti-dumping duties to prevent the destruction of their sericulture.

Cheap silk yarn import has not helped the handloom weaver either. On the contrary, the advantage has gone to powerloom owners, as Chinese yarn is better suited to the powerloom.

In 2003, after protests from sericulturists, the Government of India imposed an anti-dumping duty on import of Chinese mulberry raw silk for five years, until January 2009. Tariffs were also imposed on other silk imports but duties on textiles remain low, so more textile rather than yarn is being imported.

Rampant import of silk fabric has destroyed demand for handloom silk cloth as it is more expensive. On average, while China silk costs $1-1.25 per metre, Indian silk costs $2.5-4 per metre. Previously the Benaras weaver used Bangalore silk, now 60 percent of the silk used in Benaras comes from China.

Benaras has some half a million handloom weavers. Its handloom industry generates revenue worth Rs. 4,000 crore annually and is a source of livelihoods for about 10 lakh people in the region.

There are several thousand retail and wholesale shops in Benaras that sell ‘Benarasi’ sarees. The gaddidars, the local traders, are rich and powerful men whose relationship with weavers has always been feudal and exploitative. The traders increasingly prefer to sell cheap powerloom sarees as there is more demand and fatter profits to be made from the higher turnover of such sarees. They do not value the skill and labour of the traditional weaver and pay a pittance for handloom silk products. Many gaddidars now own powerlooms.

The powerloom of course is a major competitor of the handloom weaver. One powerloom displaces 10 weavers. The result of competition from both imports and technology is starving weavers and a dying industry.

Activists accuse the Ministry of Texiles of neglecting handlooms. In 1997-98, the handloom sector was allocated 27.5 per cent of the total textile Budget. By 2006-07, this allocation dipped to 7.9 per cent. While khadi gets some support, silk handloom gets little. Dr Rajnikant of the Human Welfare Association (HWA) demands a separate ministry for the handloom sector. He also argues for the aggressive promotion of the Handloom Cluster Development and Handloom Mark and Silkmark schemes as well as Geographical Indicator protection for Benaras handlooms. HWA has organised public protest by weavers, burning Chinese silk and demanding a ban on dumping.

HWA also started the Taana Baana cooperative which provides livelihood to over a thousand weaver families, helping them with credit, design development and marketing support, as well as alternative income generating opportunities. It has a small retail outlet in Sarnath and a turnover of Rs. 70 lakh. But, given the scale of distress among the weavers, Taana Baana is at best a demonstration of what needs to be done for the industry as a whole.

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