Print edition : April 14, 2001

With no policy support from the Government, no means to invest in technology and no market-savvy master weavers to help them adapt to changing consumer tastes, the traditional weavers of Andhra Pradesh are increasingly driven to desperation and death.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR in Sircilla and Dubakka

THE thread of life is running out for the weavers of Andhra Pradesh. Marginalised, ironically, by government policies, and pushed into the vortex of unemployment, debt and starvation, handloom and traditional powerloom weavers have been driven to death. Unofficial figures of cases of suicide and starvation deaths in the last two years total over 400 and several weavers' organisations endorse this estimate. Frontline's investigations have confirmed 43 cases of suicide in the powerloom town of Sircilla in Karimnagar district in the past one year, and 20 cases in the handloom centre of Dubakka in Medak district during the past four years.

Weavers at work at Dubakka.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

But the State government has not put out any figure. The administration's reaction would seem to be marked by callousness and indifference. If Karimnagar Collector Debabratha Kantha is dismissive when he says "suicides in Andhra Pradesh are routine among farmers, powerloom or handloom weavers," Minister for Handlooms and Textiles Padala Bhoomanna, also a member of the Cabinet sub-committee set up to formulate short- and long-term plans to solve the weavers' problems, has a simple solution: "The powerloom owners must be discouraged from committing suicide as they do it only after getting into a financial mess."

Meanwhile, weavers continue to end their lives, unable to provide a square meal for the members of their families. Reports of poverty, starvation and death come in not only from the drought-prone northern Telengana districts of Karimnagar, Nalgonda and Medak, but also from the supposedly prosperous coastal districts of Guntur, Prakasam and Krishna. The official response to this stark reality is quibbling: "Check if ration has not been lifted by the family", or "if they are really starvation deaths, then should the women and children not have died first?"

The real villains of the piece are the successive governments at the Centre, or, more specifically, their textile policies. The textile policies since 1985, which seek to liberalise, modernise and privatise the industry, have systematically marginalised over 40 lakh handloom weavers who used to produce over 400 crore metres of cloth every year.

Only those States that managed to put in place policies that helped modernise and integrate the production processes, as did powerlooms in Maharashtra and Gujarat, or which had an effective system to help the sector to adapt quickly to changing market demand (as has happened in Tamil Nadu), managed to survive the market-centred approach. Unfortunately, the traditional weavers of Andhra Pradesh had neither the means to invest in modern technology nor market-savvy master weavers to help them adapt to changing consumer tastes. With their products becoming uncompetitive in the market, stocks mounted, availability of work began to decline and the weavers faced joblessness, mounting debt, starvation and, consequently, death.

For the weavers, the bad times started in the mid-1980s and the situation deteriorated by the mid-1990s. The number of handlooms fell from 5.29 lakhs in 1985 to 2.12 lakhs in 1998, and of these hardly a third were occupied. In Dubakka, for instance, less than 10 per cent of the 1,500 looms work today.

There are about 60,000 traditional powerlooms in the State. Over 60 per cent of the 40,000 powerlooms in the major centres of Chittoor, Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts have been lying idle since 1999. In Sircilla, of the 10,000 powerlooms (the unofficial figure is 12,000), 2,000 have been abandoned and another 2,000 sold at scrap value. Only some 6,000 are working and that too at less than 20 per cent of their capacity.

A powerloom abandoned in Sircilla.-K. RAMESH BABU

Sircilla and Dubakka are some 200 km from the hi-tech-driven State capital of Hyderabad. Equally ironic is the fact that Sircilla is the constituency of Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Ch. Vidya Sagar. Dubakka falls within the parliamentary constituency of BJP MP A. Narendra.

This correspondent visited Sircilla on March 13 and 14, and Dubakka on March 24. It was beyond doubt that the weavers were in the throes of a crisis and desperately needed help. Behind every related case of suicide there is a story of narrowing options, fewer coping mechanisms and growing despair.

The living conditions of the weavers' families, which are already below the poverty line, are deteriorating rapidly. (A study conducted by K. Rama Mohana Rao in Karimnagar district in 1983 showed that the average annual household income among the weavers was Rs.3,687, whereas the poverty line threshold was Rs.4,819.)

The major conclusions of this investigation are: First, the loss of market for powerloom products that began in 1997 continued unabated until there was practically no work for anyone in Sircilla. In Dubakka, the slide began in 1985 when powerlooms began to be encouraged by the government. The situation worsened in 1991 after the Centre began to push the liberalisation policies vigorously and launched a frenzied export drive, which covered cotton and yarn. The weavers' condition reached its nadir in 1996 when the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Cooperative Society (APCO) stopped the Janata cloth scheme. The last straw was the virtual collapse of APCO in 1998.

Secondly, there has been a systematic deterioration of living conditions: the weavers of Sircilla and Dubakka subsist on painfully low levels of nutrition intake and with almost no access to healthcare facilities. Poor nutrition seems to have made them susceptible to opportunistic infections. Desperate to provide food and medical attention to the family, the weavers would take loans. As the debts and the pressure to repay them mount, they go into depression. Some of them resort to suicide.

Thirdly, survival options are limited for them as farm work is scarce in these drought-prone areas. With the powerloom centres of Bhiwandi and Mumbai (in Maharashtra) as also Surat and Ahmedabad (in Gujarat) upgrading to jetlooms (one jetloom displaces 40 powerlooms), the weavers could no longer find jobs there during the lean periods in Andhra Pradesh. Thus the option of migration was also sealed.

Most important, recent government policies seem to have pushed the weavers over the edge. In Sircilla, the crisis was precipitated by a sharp increase in yarn prices, a steep rise in the power tariff, concessions provided for technology upgradation which bypassed the small and traditional powerlooms, and dumping by countries such as China and Thailand which led to a fall in the market for their textiles.

The Dubakka handlooms were affected additionally by competition from powerlooms, the government's failure to enforce the reservation of some varieties of cloth for production and the hank yarn obligation of mills, the stoppage of the Janata cloth scheme and the virtual collapse of APCO which owed large sums to the primary handloom cooperative societies.

The weavers are not new to crises. They overcame each one of them with remarkable resilience. But the latest crisis has gone on for far too long for them to reinvent themselves. The policies of the government in the 1990s, which essentially amounted to taxing the poor and pampering the rich, have spelt doom for an industry, once the hope for the drought-prone area.

State Minister for Handlooms and Textiles Padala Bhoomanna.-K. RAMESH BABU

The plight of the Telengana weavers is worse than the situation that prevailed in the coastal Andhra region in 1991, when a number of starvation deaths were reported. Then, the doughty champion of handloom weavers, the late Pragada Kotiah (MP and general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Handloom Weavers Congress), brought their plight to the public gaze and forced the government to take action (Frontline, December 6, 1991). (Subsequent Frontline studies had found that there were no starvation deaths among weavers of the region after 1991.) The Telengana weavers have nobody to take up cudgels on their behalf. The local press, which played an important role in exposing the deaths in 1991, has been virtually silent this time around.

On March 7, after the issue was raised in the Assembly, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu formed a Cabinet sub-committee consisting of Padala Bhoomanna, N. Kishtappa (Minister for Animal Husbandry), K. Vidyadhara (Minister for Major Industries) and B.V. Mohan Reddy (Minister for Transport) to inquire into the situation and suggest ways to solve the crisis. It is yet to visit Sircilla and Dubakka, although politicians of every hue have made a beeline for Sircilla. On March 27, the Chief Minister announced a package primarily aimed at revamping APCO. On April 6, he ordered the "immediate release of Rs.26 crores", a part of APCO's dues to the primary cooperative societies. The ex gratia payments of Rs.10,000 under the National Family Benefit Scheme, which were sanctioned by the district administration soon after the 38th suicide in Sircilla on March 13, have been stopped owing to "political interference". In the meantime, on April 2, a family of four committed suicide by consuming poison, and four days later a weaver set himself ablaze in Sircilla.

Government intervention, either by shoring up the demand for the weavers' output or by providing subsidies on inputs, would have provided a safety net for the 15,000 families in Sircilla and the over 10,000 families of Dubakka. On the contrary, even after the loss of several lives, the weavers of Andhra Pradesh have not received any substantive help.

Nagula Ravinder's mother, Mallava, holding his picture.-K. RAMESH BABU

NAGULA RAVINDER (36) hanged himself from the ceiling of his house on January 23. For this skilled weaver of Sircilla town, after 17 years of hard, but reasonably comfortable living, things began to change rapidly in 1997. Work became scarce, and by mid-1999 there was none. His visits to Bhiwandi (Maharashtra) and Surat (Gujarat) in search of job were not successful. In order to feed the family of five (including their two children and her mother-in-law), Ravinder's wife began rolling beedis. She earned Rs.16 a day for rolling 600 beedis. But the job was only for four days a week. Ravinder started taking loans and even sold his wealth of one gram of gold to the local money lender. Without any regular income, he was unable to clear even a part of the mounting debt. When people stopped lending, the family first reduced the food intake and eventually starved on the days his wife did not have work. When debts reached Rs.50,000 and there was no hope of repaying, his wife along with the children went away to her parents' place. With her went the meagre income of Rs.16 a day. Ravinder was naturally depressed.

On January 23, after four days of starvation, Ravinder and his mother, Mallava, decided to end their lives. Then, in a last-ditch attempt, Mallava went in search of work to an adjoining village. After a gruelling 10-km walk and an hour's pleading with a farmer, she got a job, to pick cotton. After a hard day's work and with Rs.15 in hand, Mallava returned home happy at the prospect of feeding her son, only to find him dead.

KOMATTI BHOOMAYYA, a 30-year-old weaver of Sircilla, set himself ablaze on July 27, 2000. Until 1992, his wife, Padma (24) and their three children - Shravanti (7), Shravani (6) and Raju (4) - survived on the Rs.300 to Rs.400 a week Bhoomayya made from weaving grey cotton cloth in a powerloom. But owing to a steep rise in yarn price and the subsequent increase in production cost, the demand for the cloth fell, and, consequently, his work suffered. Bhoomayya struggled to earn Rs.150 to Rs.200 a week.

Padma with her children.-K. RAMESH BABU

The blow came in 1997: the powerlooms of Maharashtra, which was a major market for the 26x26 counts grey cotton material and 80x80 counts polyester material produced in Sircilla, introduced high-speed jet looms. Every jet loom replaced 40 powerlooms. The Sircilla products became costly and the market for them fell. Bhoomayya was rendered jobless.

He managed to do some odd jobs at construction sites and earned Rs.100 a week - 50 per cent below the minimum level of consumption. With no valuables to sell, the family essentially subsisted on borrowings. His debts mounted to over Rs.30,000 and there was severe pressure to repay.

It was around this time that Raju fell ill. Bhoomayya was unable to provide medical care. He became acutely depressed and when Padma and the children were away, he set himself ablaze. Padma approached the Mandal Revenue Office to claim the ex gratia of Rs.10,000, which the State government gives the family of a deceased weaver. But the amount was denied as "her husband did not die naturally".

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