Silence of the looms

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Dubakka once had over 1,500 looms producing traditional cotton saris. Now the figure has fallen to 700, as its products have become uncompetitive in the market.

DUBAKKA, the once prosperous handloom centre in Andhra Pradesh's Medak district, is enveloped in an eerie silence. There is no rhythmic sounds of the shuttles, no tricycles trundling down the narrow and winding lanes loaded with grey and coloured yarn, no activity in the cooperative society. The mandal headquarters town is yet to recover from the suicide of 32-year-old A. Anjaneyalu, who consumed poison on March 13. Twenty suicide cases have been reported among the handloom weavers over the last four years. Many more have gone unreported. The situation for the weavers is desperate.

At Dubakka, worried weavers.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Yet, Minister for Handlooms and Textiles Padala Bhoomanna maintains: "Suicides are normal in Andhra Pradesh. It should be discouraged and the weaver families should be told that life is a struggle."

The crisis in Dubakka started with the 1985 Textile Policy. Though the policy recommended protection of the handloom sector - by reserving 22 items for it (brought down to 11 in 1996 on the recommendation of the Mira Seth Committee) and by providing it with adequate hank yarn with mills having to make 50 per cent of the output in the hank form - it was biased towards the "commercially viable powerlooms". This led to a mushrooming of powerlooms - registered and unregistered - that posed stiff competition to the handlooms. It costs Rs.280 to weave a tie-and-dye Pochampalli sari on handlooms, but only Rs..60 on a powerloom. The market for Dubakka handlooms began to disappear.

Dubakka, which had over 1,500 looms producing traditional cotton saris - under the structure of the cooperative, master weaver and independent looms - saw the figure fall to 700 as its products became uncompetitive in the market. Unable to get work, many weavers went to Bhiwandi, Solapur and Surat in search of jobs.

Only weavers who under the cooperative fold (the Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society, set up in 1949 with 2,340 members, is the only society in Dubakka and one of the oldest in the region) produced the coarse Janata cloth (26x26 saris and dhotis) survived the 1985 Textile Policy. The work was simple - even older people could weave Janata cloth - and the weavers earned up to Rs.1,500 a month. But this happy situation did not last.

A woman with the picture of a weaver in Dubakka who took his own life by hanging. His wife (at right) has taken to rolling beedis to eke out a living.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

In the massive export drive the Centre launched in 1991, cotton and yarn exports started increasing. This led to a sharp increase in yarn prices and pushed up the cost of production. Many master and independent weavers stopped, or reduced, work. The number of working looms in Dubakka dropped to 350.

Mamidala Lakshmi at work.-K. RAMESH BABU

With a fall in the market for the coarse variety of saris, the Dubakka looms shifted to the superior 2x120 double count tie-and-dye Pochampalli variety, for which there was demand. Work became difficult as the designs were intricate. Older people could not cope and lost jobs. It also took more time now to weave a sari - three days against two earlier. Wages for weaving a sari also declined from Rs.120 to Rs.80. Men took to weaving the tie-and-dye variety, while women took to rolling beedis (on account of a workers' agitation in Maharashtra, many beedi unit owners, taking advantage of the situation in the northern Telengana region, had set up shop in this area).

If the weavers of Dubakka survived though their incomes had fallen, it was because the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Cooperative Society (APCO) provided them work and alsalso lifted their products. However, those dependent on master weavers were not so lucky. For them, work and wages dropped. And even for those dependent on the primary cooperative society, things began to go wrong as APCO started defaulting on payment, until the society virtually collapsed in 1996 after the Janata cloth scheme was abolished. After that the Dubakka handloom industry never recovered. Of the 2,340 members of the cooperative society in Dubakka, only 41 get work. Even that has been possible because of the Rs.4-lakh loan taken by the society from the National Handloom Development Centre.

From 1996, it has been an uphill task for the handloom weavers and their families. G. Bhoomayya, a master weaver who owns 10 looms and has been weaving for the last 45 years, says he has never seen such a crisis. Six of his looms are idle for the last two years. With the four working looms, he is just breaking even. M. Parasuramulu, an independent weaver who used to earn Rs.1,800 a month until 1997, hardly earns Rs.640 now, the lowest in 30 years.

K. Santa Rao, general secretary, Andhra Pradesh Handloom Weavers' Union.-K. RAMESH BABU

As in Sircilla, several weavers from Dubakka migrated to places such as Solapur and Bhiwandi and even Surat in search of jobs. But in vain. Debts mounted and with it the pressure to repay the loans. With the breakdown of all coping mechanisms, and with no alternative employment, some men began committing suicide. Says Communist Party of India (Marxist) State general secretary B.V. Raghavulu: "This is a clear case of the systematic erosion of entitlements."

Silk weaving has been affected by the handloom crisis. According to former secretary of the Pochampalli Handloom Cooperative Society A. Bhikshapali, a third of the 10,000 looms in Pochampalli are not functioning. Pochampalli, which produces one of the finest varieties of silk saris in the country, has never witnessed such a downtrend before.

B.V. Raghavulu, general secretary of the State Committee of the CPI(M).-K. RAMESH BABU

Apart from the collapse of APCO, the organisational structure of the master weavers is responsible for the downfall of handlooms in the State. According to Rashtriya Cheyneta Karmika Samakhya president Mohan Rao, one of the major problems with the fall in demand is the inability of handlooms to adapt to changing consumer tastes. And this is primarily because, unlike in Tamil Nadu, the master weavers here are highly fragmented, mostly small and medium-scale operators with little reach or contact in the input and output markets. Thus, the handloom products soon became uncompetitive. Also, while the government's policies aimed at export markets, they did nothing to shore up the domestic market. Says B. Uzramma of the Independent Handloom Research Group: "There is an excellent market for handloom products, if only the government took some interest and invested a little in infrastructure and research, which would yield tremendous returns in terms of employment generation, increasing the value of output and exports."

After a report in the local press in February of suicides, a team from the Andhra Pradesh Handloom Workers Union - consisting of its general secretary K. Santa Rao, Medak district general secretary G. Jai Raju and Siddipet unit secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Ch. Mallesh - visited the town. The union also organised a dharna in Hyderabad on March 3. According to Santa Rao, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has promised, as part of the Weavers' Revival Package, to disburse part of APCO's dues to the primary cooperative societies. But, says senior CPI(M) leader and former Andhra Pradesh Handloom Workers' Union president K. Satyanarayana: "The government has made many such promises in the past."

Unless State government's intervention is immediate, decisive and extensive, more lives will be lost in Dubakka.

ALETI ANJANEYALU (32) of Dubakka consumed poison and died on March 13, 2001. He worked for a cooperative society and sometimes for master weavers producing tie-and-dye saris since the age of 15. In 1986-87, he earned Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,200 a month, a good income by his standards. He got married in 1987 and begot a girl child the next year. He incurred a huge expenditure on two functions - the naming and ear-piercing ceremonies - for the child, as is the custom in his community. He borrowed over Rs.4,000 and was soon caught in the debt trap. He also had a son the next year.

Anjaneyulu's family.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The weaving work began declining since the mid-1990s and he even had to take a wage cut. His monthly income in 1997 fell to less than Rs.800. At this time he was paying an interest of Rs.450 on the loans he had taken and a house rent of Rs.200. Anjaneyalu was forced to borrow more. The family was not assured of even a frugal meal.

In 1998, his wife had some gynaecological problems and was advised hysterectomy. Anjaneyalu was forced to borrow Rs.10,000 for the surgery. Thereafter his debts mounted to over Rs.50,000 and there was pressure to repay.

On March 13 four lenders met Anjaneyalu at his house and demanded that he repay the amount. Ashamed and depressed, Anjaneyalu consumed poison that evening and died on way to the hospital.

V. KESHAVULU (45) of Dubakka consumed poison in November 1999. A member of the cooperative society, Keshavulu wove the tie-and-dye Pochampalli saris and earned over Rs.1,500 a month until mid-1997. With some savings and borrowings, he and his wife, Rangavva, managed to get their daughter married and also buy a handloom.

Rangavva with a picture of Keshavulu.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

But tragedy struck them in 1998 as work and wages started falling. APCO stopped procuring saris from the primary cooperative society, stocks mounted and the society was unable to give its members regular work. The family started borrowing and by mid-1999 had accumulated a debt of Rs.50,000. Pressured by the lenders to repay the loan and with no hope of getting regular work, Keshavulu, depressed, ended his life.

The lenders took away the loom. Now Rangavva has taken to rolling beedis and earns Rs.500 a month. But she is also exploited. For every 1,000 beedis, she has to purchase 600 gm of tobacco powder and 750 gm of tendu leaves, which together cost Rs.20. Invariably, she says, the owner cheats her on the actual weight, forcing her to buy more leaves and powder.

Says a stoic Rangavva: "Death is the only way out for us in Dubakka."

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