A great tradition in decline

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The handloom sector is in tatters, but if the government extends its support other branches of the textile industry receive, handlooms can transform themselves into engines of rural revitalisation.

FOR an industry that clothed not just the country but the entire world for a thousand years, it took less than a hundred years to end up in tatters. This is the story of India's handloom industry, fragments of whose earliest creations were found in the excavations of Mohenjodaro.

According to a note, `Growth Prospects of the Cotton Handloom Industry in India in the 21st Century', by Dastkar Andhra, a Hyderabad-based organisation that helps preserve and sustain handlooms in Andhra Pradesh, Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century A.D., put the value of the annual cotton fabric trade between India and Rome at a hundred million sesteres (equal then to Rs.15 million). He felt that India was draining Rome of its gold.

Suleiman, an Arab trader who visited Kozhikode (Calicut) in 851 A.D., wrote in his diary about the exquisite quality of Indian handlooms: "Garments are made in so extraordinary a manner that nowhere else are the like to be seen. These garments are woven to that degree of fineness that they may be drawn through a ring of middling size".

Tome Pires, a Portuguese traveller of the 16th century, is said to have written in 1515 about the ships that sail from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast to Malacca: "The ships carried goods worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados, carrying cloth of thirty different sorts."

Several block-printed and dyed fabrics from Gujarat, found in the tombs of Fostat in Egypt, are proof that India exported cotton fabrics to Egypt in the early medieval period. In the 13th century, Indian fabrics were bartered for spices from Indonesia.

Towards the end of the 17th century, the British East India Company exported Indian fabrics to other countries. According to Francois Pyrard de Laval, a French traveller of the 17th century, "the Indian cotton fabrics clothed everyone - from Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, from head to foot". Before the introduction of mechanised spinning in the early 19th century, all Indian cottons and silks were only hand woven.

Preserved in museums around the world, including London's Victoria and Albert Museum, are samples of Indian handmade fabrics, including that found in the ruins of Mohenjodaro. But many expressions of this traditional skill - Sambalpuri of Orissa, Jamdhani of West Bengal, Leheria of Gujarat, Paithan of Maharashtra, Ikkat of Andhra Pradesh and the triple-ply silks of Kancheepuram (Tamil Nadu) - are vibrantly alive today.

Though every State is home to a range of unique fabrics in hundreds of designs, colours and textures, kept alive by over 13 million weaver families, Indian fabrics constitute less than 2 per cent of the world textile trade. From despatching rich varieties of cotton fabrics to the four corners of the globe, the country is now reduced to supplying the cheapest "grey sheeting". Even this is competitive because of the low wages paid to the weavers, who have demonstrated enormous resilience and sustained the industry by squeezing themselves. Only, there seems no scope for the weavers to squeeze themselves any further.

Is this the best that can be done for the once-famed cotton textile industry of this country? "No," says Uzramma of Dastkar Andhra, who has been trying to preserve the rich varieties of handlooms for over two decades. She adds: "Ours is the only major household-based cotton textile industry in the world. We have millions of skilled weavers capable of weaving and making looms and accessories. We grow our own cotton and make our own yarn. Handloom is the most diversified, flexible and decentralised and the least capital- and energy-requiring livelihood system in India." These advantages can be the foundation of a large and sustainable textile industry that has the potential to supply to the domestic and foreign markets without depending on imports for knowledge, machinery or raw material.

Says Uzramma: "The main advantage is the availability of local markets for handlooms." Many producer-regions, she says, are closely linked to their local markets, and some like Chirala in Andhra Pradesh, supply to distant but specific markets through complex trade and credit linkages. She argues that cotton handlooms can be made to grow rapidly by leveraging the major assets. Only, there must be policies to encourage and support the strengths of the industry.

The handloom industry is still the largest employer in the country after agriculture, with over 13 million weaver families drawing sustenance from it, apart from the loom- and reel-makers, dyers, warp-winders, sizers and other support specialists. The industry is not confined to traditional weaving castes either. When handloom thrives in a region, many non-weaving castes tend to take it up. For example, in Yemmiganur mandal of Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh, after a natural calamity in the 1950s, weaving was introduced to farmers as an income-generating activity. Today, weaving is the main occupation of fishermen and toddy-tappers there.

According to Seemanthini Niranjan of Dastkar Andhra, apart from its size, the other strengths of the handloom industry are its low overhead and capital needs, its variety and regional specialisation, and its smooth skill-transfer mechanisms during times of technology change. The main weakness of the industry is that the major institutions providing inputs - credit, research, technology, management and market development - are centralised and hence unable to reach the dispersed and largely home-based industry.

At home, with a handloom, at Kayyalagudem. Household production can provide stable livelihoods for a large number of weavers' families.

The domestic market for handloom cloth, Seemanthini argues, cuts across social and economic strata of society and handloom is preferred both in urban and in rural areas. This is reflected in the increase in handloom production over the years. According to the Compendium of Textile Statistics 2000, published by the Office of the Textile Commissioner, though the production of handloom cloth as a percentage of textile production dropped from 24 per cent in 1980-81 to 20 per cent in 1999-2000, the actual production went up from 3,109 million square metres to 7,352 million square metres. And, during the same period, mill production fell from 36 per cent to 4 per cent, from 4,533 million square metres to 1,714 million square metres.

Yet, the National Textile Policy, 2000, based on the Satyam Committee recommendations, lays emphasis "on export-oriented production to carve a niche in the international market". It also recommends the conversion of 50 per cent of the handloom weavers, who produce plain, low-end products, to powerloom weaving.

According to Mohan Rao, president, Rashtriya Cheyneta Karmika Samakhya (the largest independent weavers' organisation in Andhra Pradesh), the main problem of the handloom sector stems from the fact that "government policies focus on exports rather than improving domestic demand".

K. Srinivasulu, Reader in the Department of Political Science at Osmania University, says that the flaw with the Satyam Committee report is primarily in "the way it looked at the handloom industry - on the basis of the quality of cloth woven rather than the production structure". Says Uzramma: "Most problems of the handloom industry arise because the government refuses to understand the complex nature of the industry and see the great potential of the sector."

According to B. Syamasundari, a Hyderabad-based independent researcher working on handlooms, in the era of globalisation, when the market is flooded with textiles from China and other countries, the regional specialisation of handlooms, of which the list is endless, can be used to provide a well-defined product identity. For example, the Mangalgiri-bordered fabric, which was the rage in the 1960s, is still much in demand. Syamasundari argues that the identities of handloom fabrics must be respected, protected and reinforced. She asks: "Why does the government stand by and allow the intellectual property rights of handloom producers to be violated through the large-scale duplication of handloom products by powerlooms?"

According to Uzramma, historically, specific regional products find niche markets abroad. For example, the modern version of the real Madras handkerchief (a variant of the traditional Andhra Pradesh telia rumal) has a large market in Nigeria as it resembles the designs used in that country's ceremonial dress. Consequently, up to early 1995, 15,000 looms in the Chirala area wove only this fabric, for the Nigerian market. With an average output of three metres a day, 200 working days a year, and at an ex-loom price of Rs.75 a metre, this works out to an annual production of nine million metres, at Rs.67.5 crores. This is just one product, for just one niche market, from just one mandal.

Uzramma is pained by the fact that no effort has been made to create information flows between buyers and sellers. According to her, because of this the weavers do not know for what the fabric is used, or how it goes from Chirala to Nigeria, and whether the product is being copied by powerlooms. The lack of a free flow of information has resulted in a fall in the number of looms that make real Madras handkerchief in and around Chirala from 15,000 to about 2,000. According to Mohan Rao, if the information gap is plugged, the potential of handlooms can be realised.

Seemanthini explodes the myth that handloom fabrics are more expensive to produce than powerloom or mill fabrics. She argues that mill-made synthetic fabrics may be sold at a fraction of the cost of cotton handlooms, but the hidden costs of mill production, such as disease-causing pollution and the social cost of industrial concentrations, need to be factored in when calculating costs. She further argues that taking into account the power tariff, which is an important factor in the current powerloom recession, handloom is a cost-effective mode of textile production, primarily because of its low capital cost and the environmental and social advantages of dispersed production.

POWERLOOMS have witnessed a lot of changes in production technology. As newer, and more expensive technologies, mostly imported, are introduced in the powerloom sector, the cost of its products will inevitably increase. On the other hand, the fact that handlooms are family-based, and dispersed and employ low-energy processes strengthens the sector.

Says Uzramma: "The variety and price range of cotton handlooms are amazing - from the expensive fine fabrics worn by the elite and collected by international museums, to household linen and home wear for the ordinary people." Between a towel at Rs.20 a metre and a Chanderi, Jamdhani or Gadwal sari at over Rs.10,000, are the home wear and household linen, used and worn by the middle class. The main advantages of using cotton handloom fabrics for home wear are the softness of the texture, the ability to absorb sweat and the fine drape.

While fabrics at either end of the spectrum are marketed well, those used by the large majority of middle-class families are not. According to Uzramma, the main reason for not tapping the urban middle-class market is that the entrepreneurs, either from the traditional weaving families (for example, in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) or from the textile trading families (as in West Bengal), have largely restricted their focus to high-value fabrics that would give them high returns from relatively low volumes. At the lower end, the low-count, ordinary, daily-wear cotton sari is much in demand in the rural areas, and bedsheets, towels and lungis are sold through local master weavers. Though the cooperatives supply local markets as well as urban users with quality cotton fabrics at reasonable rates, the middle class largely remains outside the marketing net. This market, says Uzramma, offers great potential that can be exploited using the inherent strengths of the handloom industry.

She further argues that there is no reason why attractive designs and colours should be confined to the elite market. On the contrary, it is possible and practical to have diversity and specificity also in coarse fabrics at the lower end of the price spectrum. More than complex weaves and fine fabrics, it is these simple fabrics that have good potential in both domestic and foreign markets. Concentrating on these plain fabrics is advantageous also because they are made by a large number of weavers and production can easily be increased with no major infrastructure development. Though these fabrics are now substituted by powerloom products and mill-made synthetics because of their lower prices, there is certainly a preference for handloom products because of their unique qualities. According to Seemanthini, most powerloom fabrics are anyway passed off as handloom products, making a mockery of the Handloom Reservation Act, 1950.

According to government officials in charge of implementing the Handloom Reservation Act, the law cannot be implemented because of some technical jugglery resorted to by mills and powerlooms. For example, though the ikkat (tie and dye) fabric is reserved for handlooms, the mills can easily copy by using 45 per cent blended fibres. According to Seemanthini, this loophole can be plugged by reserving entire categories of products such as bordered saris, dhotis, lungis and towels for the handloom sector. Instead of finding ways of plugging the loopholes in the Act, the government suggests in its approach paper to the Tenth Plan: "As reservations are uneconomical in the wake of liberalisation, they should be phased out."

In this context, Uzramma says: "The State should encourage the formation of producer-institutions on the lines of dairy cooperatives and self-help groups." These independent groups, which can monitor the implementation of the Handloom Reservation Act, can also develop a production base that will be responsive to market preferences. The state can link up this production base to the market through new marketing mechanisms.

This will also give an outlet to the infinite variety of designs that are now dependent on the whims of the trade entrepreneur, who also controls market access, raw material supply and finance. To make the best use of his investment, the entrepreneur restricts the colours and designs to the fast selling items. `Designer' creations are restricted to the niche market, while the `mass market' gets undifferentiated products. The role of the designer in the production/marketing chain has to be re-defined to support, and strengthen, the large and dispersed producer base.

Rosemary Crill, a senior curator in charge of the textiles collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is concerned about the fall in demand for handlooms in India. Speaking to this correspondent at the V&A Museum last year, she said: "Handlooms can be revived and sustained in India by the government aggressively creating markets for it within the country and providing design inputs for the weavers."

But the best of design would fail if the fabric is not of good quality, and this depends on the yarn. The true potential of handloom weaving will be realised if its decentralised mode can be supported by the dispersed production of cotton yarn. For its primary raw material, the industry now depends on spinning mills that cater mainly to machine spinning, and only incidentally to handlooms. The underlying assumption is that there is no difference between the yarn needed for machine weaving and for handlooms. "This is not true," says Syamasundari. The higher speed and warp tensions of mechanical weaving need a strong yarn that can withstand the stress, while the slower speed and gentler operation of handlooms need yarn with fewer twists, which can be made on slow-speed, ring-frames at lower cost from local short-staple cottons. Modern high-speed spinning mills need cotton varieties specially grown for their staple length, to produce yarn with more twists necessary to withstand the strains of mechanised weaving. The combination of the new hybrid cotton varieties and mechanical processing destroys the distinct quality - the lustre, colour-holding capacity, absorbency, softness and durability - that Indian cotton fabrics were once famous for.

All government-sponsored research into cotton breeding since Independence has been to produce yarn best suited to machine weaving. There is a need to develop some varieties specific to handloom weaving. This, says Uzramma, can be done along with the development of technology for local, small-scale processing for ginning, which would eliminate the need for baling and blow-room processes, which are inevitable for baled cotton. According to her, baling was necessary when cotton had to be transported from India to Lancashire, U.K., but makes no sense now when cotton cultivation and weaving are done in proximity to each other. The baling process compresses fresh, clean, soft, naturally aligned cotton lint into a block as hard as wood, which is brought back to its original form through the energy-intensive blow-room and carding processes.

Unlike in cotton, technological improvements have taken place in handloom weaving. In the 19th century, the fly-shuttle was introduced, replacing the traditional throw-shuttle, and in the 20th century came the warping wheel that can lay 20 warps in the time it ordinarily takes to lay one. Now, some weaving centres use roller beams on which longer warps can be wound, and gears to ease the upward motion.

These technological improvements are manageable - in terms of cost and skill - by weaving clusters, weaving organisations, and individual weavers. They also negate the argument that the handloom is outdated and that weavers would be better off without the drudgery of its operation. In fact, the technology of the loom has the advantage of being affordable and accessible to large numbers of people who have no other work option.

If with all these advantages, and so many families depending on it, the industry is withering away, the government policy-making is also to blame. Seemanthini says the government uses aggregate data to compare the handloom industry with mills and powerlooms. Aggregate data do not reflect the diversity of handlooms - its diverse forms of local organisation, production patterns, or types of product in each State, region and district. Government policies have tended to establish and strengthen institutions based on aggregates. As a result, these institutions are seriously flawed, and have suppressed constructive initiatives attempted by primary producers themselves.

Says Uzramma: "By looking only at these flawed institutions, we tend to picture starvation and gloom." On the contrary, she says, there has been growth and innovation both within and outside the cooperative handloom sector, and these offer clues to the potential of the industry. Recently, some weaving centres such as Pochampalli in Andhra Pradesh witnessed growth with the use of new technologies and innovative marketing. According to Syamasundari, the role of the state in the new dispensation should be to encourage and sustain the success stories and help primary producers set up their own organisations, through easy access to credit and markets. There is also a need for detailed, region-specific research. According to Rosemary Crill, the government should not look at its policies as an exercise in supporting handlooms. Instead, handloom production must be made more challenging and interesting.

Says Uzramma: "The mistake the state has made is to look at the handloom industry as a basket case in need of welfare, with state-commissioned reports harping on the theme of the `power weaver' (powerlooms)." The condition of the handloom weavers is pitiable, and the reasons for the marginalisation of the skilled production force of a vibrant industry need to be probed. The primary producer in the handloom industry is a great asset to the powerloom and mill segments of the textile industry, too, as all branches of the textile industry have drawn labour from the skill banks of the weavers. According to Uzramma, with a fraction of the support that the state extends to other branches of the industry, handlooms can be transformed into an engine of rural revitalisation.

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