Over the past two years, people around the world have felt, endured, and resigned themselves to the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic. While many lives were taken by the virus, those who survived are left with long Covid, the after-effects of steroids, and economic deprivation across social sections. The story is much worse for those who were already struggling before the pandemic, like India’s weavers, who were choked after demonetisation, GST, Chinese yarns and higher power tariffs.
The weavers of eastern Uttar Pradesh, or Purvanchal, have been a perfect case study of government neglect and resultant hardships in terms of poverty and a struggling economy for decades. A news report on the condition of the weavers, published exactly 20 days before Narendra Modi became prime minister, read, “The Banarasi silk industry is hanging on by a thread and could be killed off within a generation by mass-produced garments and Chinese competition unless India’s next government steps in.”
The government stepped in, with the new prime minister laying the foundation of a Trade Facilitation Centre and Crafts Museum at Varanasi within six months of assuming office to make the handlooms and handicrafts industry market-oriented with the required support. How the prime minister’s schemes performed on the ground, especially during the pandemic, became the subject of a study by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). The report, titled “Purvanchal: Silence of the Looms”, is ground-based, featuring 204 detailed recorded interviews over 2020 and 2021 — the first two pandemic years — in Varanasi, Gorakhpur (Rasoolpur, Purana Gorakhnath), Azamgarh (Mubarakpur, Ibrahimpur, Shahpur) and Mau (Ghosi, Madhuban). The researchers spoke to people engaged in different aspects and stages of spinning and weaving. The study revealed how the artisanal weaving industry as well as the Zardosi (traditional embroidery) industry, which has been in a state of crisis for decades, slipped into further decline due to the sudden and unplanned first lockdown.
A news report on the condition of the weavers, published exactly 20 days before Narendra Modi became prime minister, read, “The Banarasi silk industry is hanging on by a thread and could be killed off within a generation”
“Specific to 2020-2021, the severe economic and structural blow due to work stoppages during Covid-19 lockdown has led to acute distress, indebtedness, beggary and hunger that any society and state should be ashamed of. “Neither the state government nor the centre has shown any sensitivity or responded to the crisis. Apart from acute impoverishment and hunger leading to indebtedness, the health denials, the denial (absence of access) to government schemes, and the absence of access to education have created a cycle of mistrust and loss of faith in an electoral government that is hitherto unprecedented,” says the report. The weavers who are wage workers or those who have just a few looms belong to communities like Muslim Ansari, Dalit, OBCs, while a few of the Muslims belong to more privileged castes. Today, a vast section of this artisanal industry is completely impoverished and invisible, the report underlines.
Misery in numbers
According to CJP’s findings, eastern UP’s handicrafts, handloom and power loom business faced an estimated loss of ₹3,000 crore during and after the lockdown, mainly due to the loss of demand from Europe and the UK, as these markets import the bulk of silk dress materials, sarees, scarves, dupattas, bedsheets, and cushion covers. Several factors, including the lack of access to central government schemes, trust deficit between citizens and the government, and communal factors, only worsened the crisis.
The centre’s much-lauded schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) fell flat. “Only 10 percent of the women among our respondents were even registered to get Ujjwala Gas under this scheme; the rest remain excluded, despite multiple attempts to apply for the same,” says the report. A staggering 52% of respondents do not have a bank account. Only 58% received cash transfers more than once among those who did.
A total of 165 (81%) families out of the 204 interviewees possessed ration cards, out of which only 111 (67%) families got rations twice during the lockdown — the first time it was free, the second time they had to purchase. Here also, there were alleged loopholes in the implementation of the scheme. People only got this for the first five to six months whereas according to the scheme, they were supposed to get it till November 2021, found the researchers. The free food grain scheme was subsequently extended to March 31, 2022.
The sorry state of affairs forced many to quit the profession they had inherited from their forefathers. Those who quit ended up working as daily-wage labour, autorickshaw drivers, carpenters, running roadside tea stalls, and as salespersons in shops owned by other people. Six persons out of the sample surveyed had no work following the lockdown. Many weavers, worried about the future of their children, have decided to not teach their children the traditional craft.
Women, at the receiving end
While the handloom industry has been particularly favourable for women’s empowerment, the survey found women artisans to be suffering more than their male counterparts during the pandemic.
Sixteen of the women surveyed were involved in weaving before the lockdown, but there was not a single woman working the looms after it. The data shows that 51% of women did not have any work after the lockdown.
With Uttar Pradesh as background, the survey also returned with data on deep-rooted class differences and communalism. It captured the economic boycott of Muslim women at work after the virus began spreading when terms like ‘corona jihad’ and super spreaders dominated the news coverage on national television in April and May 2020. The Muslim weaver community became collateral damage due to the deliberate distortion of facts and communally charged coverage.
The failure of state policy in providing financial and structural incentives to this industry has been a crucial factor in its steady decline. Even before the pandemic, the cottage power loom industry was adversely impacted due to policy ignorance and now it faces competition from large factories with 100 or 200 power looms.
Demonetisation (2016) followed by the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) dealt severe blows to the industry, which transacted business on trust, credit and post-dated cheques. “We see how, therefore, a deliberately negligent Central government policy was already, prior to the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown rendering all levels of this business vulnerable. The sharp economic crisis caused by the ill-thought-out lockdown was the last straw on the ailing camel’s back for the vast base of weavers who had been reduced to wage workers over decades,” says the CJP report.
The sorry state of affairs forced many to quit the profession they had inherited from their forefathers. Those who quit ended up working as daily-wage labour, autorickshaw drivers, carpenters, running roadside tea stalls
Eighty-nine percent of weavers from Eastern UP could not or did not approach the local or state government for a variety of relief measures, such as food rations, monetary assistance, inflated electricity bills, sewage-related and other civic problems, during the Covid-19 pandemic because of a trust deficit. The remaining 11% of weavers, who did approach the state government for help, were dissatisfied with the response.
Riaz Ul Haq, a weaver from the Kareemuddin Pusatti neighbourhood in Ghosi, Mau, got a Bunkar (weaver) card made by paying ₹100. He even filled out forms under the weavers’ assistance scheme yet did not receive a paisa. He has a Jan Dhan account, but the money received in it was a paltry sum. “I got ₹500 thrice. They are just fooling us all with their schemes,” says Haq. The Bunkar and Shilpi (artisan) cards were introduced as part of a government scheme to extend economic support to weavers and traditional artisans in the state. However, the implementation of the financial assistance scheme has been sporadic, with many eligible families still deprived of benefits, the report has found.
Handlooms are important
A significant sector for the economy, the handloom industry has the benefits of low capital investment, high potential for export and foreign exchange earnings, and linkage with the rural farm economy.
Sectors like transportation, marketing, and financial services also benefit along the chain. The sector generates jobs in rural, semi-urban and urban India. Nearly 15% of cloth production in India is from this sector. In the production of handwoven fabric, India constitutes 95% of global production. In 2019, the US was the major importer of Indian handloom products followed by the UK, Italy, and Germany.
Unlike other textile producers, the handloom sector in India has its own, robust supply chain. Many countries, as in Africa, produce cotton but don’t have processing industries, and a few like Sri Lanka, produce garments but don’t produce cotton. India has complete supply chains, from fibre production to consumption, across different fibres. The textile sector is also one of the oldest industries in the Indian economy, dating back several centuries. The industry is extremely varied, from small-scale, hand-spun and hand-woven textiles at one end to the capital-intensive, modern mills at the other. Exports of textiles stood at $22.89 billion between April 2021 and October 2021. India’s textiles industry has around 4.5 crore employed workers, including 35.22 lakh handloom workers across the country.
However, the huge potential and capable workforce of the industry could not get desired response and support from previous governments in terms of policies and fund allocations. With the economic reforms of the 1990s and the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Textile and Clothing (1995) came the trend of modernisation and automation in textiles. It resulted in the shifting of handloom subsidies to investment in automation. A report on the industry, with a focus on these and the Handloom Reservation Act and Hank Yarn Obligation, highlighted the adverse impact of government policies and priorities on the industry and its people.
This year’s budget also failed to bring cheer to the handloom sector. The allocation for the textile sector for 2022-23 is about ₹12,382.14 crore, which is about 8.1% higher than the revised budget allocation of 2021-22. However, no funds are allocated towards the Power Loom Promotion Scheme. Telangana Chief Minister K.
Chandrasekhar Rao called the recent Union Budget a big zero for the handloom sector with no support for weavers. Though the last budget announced textile parks, it failed to pull the handloom weavers from the clutches of unemployment and poverty. A few days ahead of the budget, the All India Handloom Rights Forum wrote another letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, explaining the hardships of handloom weavers and the burden they were experiencing due to GST and other taxes.
In earlier budgets and sector-related programmes, the government encouraged loans to drive the self-employment and self-reliance of weavers. “Earlier, the loans were sanctioned in the form of Weavers Credit Card (WCC). Now, the MUDRA platform has been adopted for providing concessional credit to handloom weavers and entrepreneurs. Till 31 December 2019, 18,057 loans were sanctioned with sanctioned amount of Rs. 96.57 crore,” said the Annual Report 2019-20 of the Ministry of Textiles.
However, these schemes have not helped the weaver community, says the CJP report. It mentions the Fourth All-India Handloom Census 2019-20 report, which points out that only 23% of the weavers across the country possess bank accounts, a major roadblock as the schemes are envisaged as a direct cash transfer to bank accounts.
A few days ahead of the budget, the All India Handloom Rights Forum wrote another letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, explaining the hardships of handloom weavers and the burden they were experiencing
All the respondents featured in the CJP report said that standing in a queue to open bank accounts for availing of the benefits under various schemes yielded little results. A staggering 52% of the respondents simply did not have an account and only 58% of the bank account holders received any cash transfer more than once. “The sudden and prolonged lockdown drove many weavers to starvation.
Many are so poor, no one wants to lend money to them. They were dependent entirely on food provided by NGOs during the lockdown,” said Mohammad Haneef from Lallapura, Varanasi.
Unfortunately, the condition of weavers is equally bad in other states such as Bihar, Odisha, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The current chaotic era has set “sustainability of the enterprise” as a priority, with many weavers, like in Mizoram, shifting to making products that sell like PPE kits. But, in Uttar Pradesh, weaver distress is a political and communal issue.
The Ministry of Textiles’ annual reports highlights the initiatives taken to boost Varanasi’s textile heritage — like the Central Cottage Industries Corporation (CCIC) awarding work to 322 weavers associated with the Common Facility Centre (CFC) and placing orders worth ₹314.58 lakh for marketing handloom items through CCIC emporia in 2018-19. But news reports and probing studies like the one conducted by the CJP suggest that the situation on the ground is dire and the traditional handloom industry in Purvanchal faces the threat of extinction.
It would be worth recalling that the famed muslin industry in Bangladesh vanished by the early 20th century after the colonial government started exporting the raw material and imported mill-produced fabric from Manchester and other industrial hubs in England. Till date, despite a number of attempts by international organisations, the muslin industry has not been revived because people no longer know how to weave the wispy fabric. A century later, a similar threat, albeit under different circumstances, threatens the world-famous handloom industry in Purvanchal as it fights serious survival challenges.