Despair, and hope

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

THE silk industry in India provides full-time or part-time employment to an estimated six million persons. This workforce is distributed amongst a chain of inter-dependent sectors - each uniquely labour- and skill-intensive - that make up the industry. T hey include the basically agriculture related processes of mulberry cultivation and cocoon rearing, the semi-mechanised processes of reeling and twisting, and the powerloom and handloom components of the weaving segment. The six million persons include a sizable segment of child labourers. The Central and State governments, and agencies that fund sericulture development, such as the World Bank and the Swiss Development Council, are being forced to acknowledge and address this fact, thanks to the growing voice against this illegal and unconscionable practice. It is not only in the reeling sector, described in the accompanying article as a "a child labour based economy", that children work. Cocoon rearing, twisting and weaving also employ a large number of children.

No agency, in the government sector or the private sector, has compiled reliable statistics of child labour in the different segments of the silk industry for the country as a whole. The Karnataka Human Development Report, 1999, quoting from a stu dy conducted by Human Rights Watch, estimated that of the 400,000 persons employed in the rearing of silk worms and production of silk thread, some 100,000 are children. Child labour under conditions of bondage is widespread in the twisting sector as wel l. "Twisting usually takes place in small factories with fifty to a few hundred spindles," the Report says (page 138). "These factories utilise bonded child labour. In one taluk alone, there are about one hundred twisting factories, together employing mo re than 8,000 children, all of them believed to be bonded."

A survey of a population of 34,423 persons (5,460 households in two taluks) in Ramanagaram and Channapatna taluks by the child rights organisation MAYA, revealed that there were 1,591 child labourers. The average percentage of child labourers to the tota l child population in this area was a little over 20 per cent.

IF purged of the retardatory pull of child labour, the sericulture industry remains a sector of great potential from the employment and income generation point of view. One hectare of mulberry planted generates a total of 13 jobs - for planting the mulbe rry, raising the silkworms, reeling, twisting, dyeing and weaving.

The changes made in the Exim policy in the post-liberalisation phase constitute a major challenge to the growth and sustainability of the sericulture industry in its present form. In October 1998, the Union Commerce Ministry under Ramakrishna Hegde liber alised silk yarn imports. The new policy allows the import of raw silk of Grade 2A and above against a Special Import Licence (SIL); the importer must provide guarantees for three times the c.i.f (cost including freight) value of the imports. The duty on silk was 40 per cent. (This was subsequently revised to 45 per cent.) The policy was opposed strongly by the farmers' and reelers' associations on the grounds that unrestricted imports would hit the domestic market for yarn and cocoon.

The fears of farmers were not unfounded, as developments on the production and price fronts over the next two years were to prove. Over the years 1998-99 and 1999-2000, there has been a falling trend in the area under mulberry cultivation, the production and costs of cocoon and the production and price of yarn. This period also saw a doubling of silk imports.

In 1998-99, the area under mulberry was 1.40 lakh hectares, but by 1999-2000, the figures fell to 1.20 lakh ha. The corresponding figures for cocoon production were 76,000 tonnes and 69,000 tonnes, while for silk yarn production the figures were 8,994 to nnes and 8,121 tonnes. If the average price of a kilogram of cocoons (multivoltine) was Rs. 77.49 in 1998-99, it fell to Rs. 69.79 in 1999-2000.

The average, per kilogram price of silk in 1998-99 was Rs.1,340 for filature-multivoltine and Rs.1,360 for filature- bivoltine. The corresponding figures for 1999-2000 were Rs.1,052 and Rs.1,150.

But when it comes to the import of silk, the figure rises from 2,903 tonnes in 1998-99 to 6,936 tonnes in 1999-2000. (These figures, provisional ones, were provided by the Central Silk Boards.)

"There was a general depression in the industry after the new policy began to take effect," said R.G. Nadadur, Commissioner for Sericulture, Government of Karnataka. "However, this coincided with some exciting new developments which have created a sense of optimism among farmers and others connected with the industry." According to Nadadur, a major scientific initiative in the bivoltine sector has recently borne fruit. Several new high-yielding varieties of mulberry that can be grown under rain-fed cond itions have been introduced by the Central Silk Research and Training Institute (CSRTI) in Mysore, and at the State government's Silk Research Institute at Talagatapura. "These are the V1 varieties at the CSTRI and the S series which has been developed a t our State institute in Talagatapura," said Nadadur. The next "set of gifts from our scientists", he said, constitutes a set of new races of bivoltine silkworm developed at the CSTRI in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA ). At the State level too, at least five new bivoltine races have been developed.

These new strains have taken yields to new heights. While the average yield for Karnataka has remained around 40 kg per 100 DFL (disease free laying), the new bivoltine varieties have got 100 kg for 100 DFL, according to Nadadur. This major bivoltine thr ust has already increased the production of bivoltine silk yarn (which is of a superior quality) to over 200 tonnes in Karnataka, as against the previous year's bivoltine yarn production of 125 tonnes. These increases are happening within an overall tren d of falling production and prices, but they indicate a revival in the industry, Nadadur feels. The Sericulture Department increased the distribution of high-quality bivoltine layings (the cluster of eggs from a single moth) from eight lakhs last year to 25 lakhs this year, while setting a somewhat optimistic target of one crore layings for the next year. "We are now set firmly on the path of production of high-quality silk yarn and in sufficient quantity. This will enable us to face successfully the ch allenge posed by the import of silk from China soon. It will also enable us to overcome the challenge that we will face in the world governed by WTO (World Trade Organisation) regulations, a few years from now," said Nadadur.

WHILE there has been a firming up in silk yarn prices in the last four months owing to the fall in Chinese domestic production, conditions in the industry remain depressed. What has been the impact of all this on the employment of children in the silk in dustry? The official position is that while there is no apparent connection between larger trends in the industry and child labour, there has in real terms been a significant drop in the numbers of children employed. "We get regular feedback from the gro und and thanks to the efforts of the government, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and the media, the numbers have dropped appreciably," said Nadadur. The number of children employed in the various processes of the sericulture industry in Karnataka h as come down from around 6,000 to 1,500 two months ago.

This is a statement that Sreeja, who coordinates the Bangalore-Rural Eradication of Child Labour Programme of MAYA, contests: "In Ramanagaram town itself, leave alone the rest of the taluk, the numbers of child workers we work with is 1,000-1,250. In the rest of the taluk there would be another 1,000-1,500 children working in sericulture. These are, in our view, gross underestimates." According to her, the numbers of working children have been on the increase over the lastast two years. This she attribu tes to the migration of labour from the dry, drought-prone areas of the State to Ramanagaram. "Child labour is the cheapest within this low wage force." The other reason for the increase in child labour, according to Sreeja, is the increase in the number s of filatures in the taluk, which are low-cost and can be set up with micro-credit facilities that government departments and schemes offer. These filature owners then employ child labour.

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