Print edition : October 22, 2004

Rising yarn prices, falling employment opportunities, declining wage rates and shrinking markets push weavers in the traditional sectors to the brink of disaster.

ON an average, two weavers have committed suicide every month in the last one year in Medak district, where over eight lakh families are dependent on weaving. According to Dubakka Weavers Cooperative Society president A. Chandramouli, all the 18 cooperative societies, each with 250-300 looms, are doing badly. Barely half of the total looms are working and even these are underutilised. Of the 562 members of the cooperative society in Dubakka, only 40 get work and that too not regularly. Some 200 families work outside the cooperative fold.

Handloom stocks at a weavers' cooperative society in Bhoodan Pochampalli village, Nalgonda district.-K. GAJENDRAN

According to G. Devaraj, Medak district secretary, Andhra Pradesh Weavers Association, the situation has gone from bad to worse. The future is uncertain. Many weaver families have migrated - most outside the State. Some have moved to Jogipet and Gajavelu to weave Gongali shawls. A few have changed their occupation. In Sadasivpet, barely 150 of the over 2,000 looms get work. In Dubakka, it is 40 out of over 1,000.

The main problems are: no market guarantee; non-implementation of the Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society Ltd. (APCO) norms; the government not procuring products from the cooperative societies; inadequate and poorly conceived welfare schemes; high and unstable yarn prices; and lack of market information.

The wage - Rs. 80 for a sari that takes a family two days to weave - is falling every year. APCO has stopped procuring saris and is asking the weavers to go to Netha Bazaars (government-run markets for handloom products) where the weavers are allowed to sell at a rebate of 10 per cent. Even there, of the 16,000 saris from Dubakka, only 360 were sold last month. Though Netha Bazaar is meant only for handlooms from cooperatives, products from the powerlooms and from private traders find their way there. Also, Netha Bazaars are unable to give subsidies or sell products on instalment basis to the buyers, who therefore seek the more flexible private markets.

Another reason for stock piling up in Dubakka is the government not procuring livery cloth (for government use) from the cooperatives; instead it gets them from mills.

The price of 2x120 mercerised yarn used in Dubakka is rising. Thus, while costs have risen, sari prices have fallen leading to drop in wages and employment.

Handloom weavers working on the ikkat design in Koyyallagudam.-K. GAJENDRAN

Adding to the market instability are the problems associated with APCO, on which the cooperatives in Dubakka rely to lift stocks (see box).

The weavers of Dubakka say that they can produce whatever the government wants at reasonable cost. But the government is withdrawing completely from the industry and has almost completely stopped procuring from the cooperatives. All that it is doing is formulating welfare measures for the weavers, which is not what they need. They need a production plan; market guarantee; purchase and production centres that will guarantee employment; and yarn at reasonable price.

With no other option, master weavers plan to shift production to low count cheap cotton saris for which they think there is a market. Without market guarantee, the master weavers are unwilling to sink in money into production.

Most weavers now work for master weavers, who are also unable to provide regular work. A weaver family of six to seven people, which earns around Rs.800-900 a month, is now barely able to get work. Many, including men, survive by rolling beedies for local companies. They get Rs.40-50 for 1,000 beedies. Even that work is falling as more people are getting into it.

According to Chandramouli, the welfare schemes are inadequate and poorly conceived. Unlike farmers, weavers get no ex-gratia payments in case of untoward incidents; thus, the family of a weaver who commits suicide gets Rs.5,000 from the Family Welfare Benefit Scheme. In the case of farmers, the payment is Rs.1.5 lakhs.

The textile park in Sircilla, Karimnagar district.-K. GAJENDRAN

In 2001, the TDP government sanctioned loans of Rs.20,000 each to the family of suicide victims. this now stands reduced to Rs.10,000 (Rs.7,000 subsidy, Rs.2,500 loan and Rs.500 weaver contribution). A hundred families, which were sanctioned the loan, have paid up their contribution of Rs.500, but are yet to get the money from the government. All welfare schemes such as training of weavers by the National Institute of Fashion Technology and so on have been useless since capital and market remained a mirage.

Under the Deenadayalu Hathgarga Prothsokyojan scheme, which was conceived by the State government soon after the 2001 crisis, Rs.16,500 - Rs.8,000 in cash, Rs.2,400 as training fee, and the rest as input such as yarn and zari - was to be given to every weaver family but without any market guarantee. Even this scheme has not been implemented properly in Dubakka.

Of the Rs.51 crores allocted for handlooms in the State budget, Rs.13 crores is being spent on such welfare schemes, which the weavers do not want.

Of the Rs.250 crores set aside for handlooms in the Union Budget, Rs.34 crores is being spent on the Deenadayalu scheme and Rs.25 crores for training.

The weavers of Dubakka feel that the government is shirking responsibility by merely announcing all these schemes. What they want from the government is a separate handloom policy.

SINCE Frontline's last visit to Sircilla in 2001, there have been 104 suicides and starvation deaths. Finished material worth some Rs.5 crores lie in godowns. Nearly 15,000 of the 20,000 looms are idle. For most weavers, beedi rolling is the only survival option. The 12 beedi companies around Sircilla provide work to over 10,000 weavers; only 60 per cent of them are members of the beedi rolling society, while the others do not get any benefit such as provident fund or insurance.

The Sircilla crisis was precipitated by rising yarn prices - 5 kg of 20 count yarn, which sold at Rs.340 two years ago, now costs Rs.520; the price of 5 kg of 26-count yarn has gone up from Rs.440 to Rs.620 now. While the product (cotton and polyester) price is not rising, the manufacturing cost is. Unable to compete with the products of the large, modern powerlooms, those from the traditional powerloom sector of Sircilla are fast disappearing.

After Frontline's 2001 report, a number of measures were announced by the State government, especially for Sircilla weavers. But none addressed the real problems nor did they provide a permanent solution; all were temporary measures. The only relief came in the form of ration and Anthyodaya cards (providing 35 kg of rice at Rs.3.50 a kg) that were given to the struggling weavers on a priority basis. But today, most weavers cannot afford even the subsidised rice.

For the weavers in Sircilla, work has shrunk and wages have fallen to below the 1995 levels. The wage agreement of Rs.55 a day is not followed. The only benefit is the 50 per cent power subsidy. But even this is cornered by the traders.

None of the packages - setting up textile parks, training weavers, providing power subsidy and starting apparel centres - worked out by the government after the 2001 crisis benefits the weavers. According to Rudra Sankariah, a former sarpanch of Sircilla, owing to the high capital cost, big powerloom owners from outside Andhra Pradesh such as from Bhiwandi (in Maharashtra) and Ahmedabed (in Gujarat) are invited to set up units in the textile parks. The apparel centres are only for garment making and do not benefit the weavers. Training centres without market or capital are of no use either. Even the loans given to buy looms under the Swarna Jayanti Rozgar Yojana with a subsidy of 25 per cent are largely cornered by the big loom owners.

The government is encouraging weavers to use the Technology Upgradation Fund (TUF). But without a market and capital, it is impossible to benefit from TUF.

The textile park, far from being of any use to the weavers, is in fact, detrimental to them. The Rs.7.73-crore facility on the outskirts of Sircilla, seeks to produce cloth using high-power jet looms that may leave the weavers without even the little work they now get. While 1,000 weavers may get jobs in the textile park, lakhs will be rendered jobless outside.

According to Sircilla Powerloom Workers Union president S. Mallesham, there are 20,000 powerlooms in Sircilla - 40 per cent weaving cotton cloth and the rest polyester. Some 8,000 looms have stopped work completely and the rest work partially. If all looms were busy, nearly 16 lakh metres of cloth would be produced every day.

Some 50 merchants in Hyderabad control the powerloom market in the State; 25 of them also own looms. The merchants or traders give job work to the master weavers, who, in turn, give work to the weavers.

The wage rate has been declining consistently for the last few years. From Rs.1.50 per metre four years ago, the wage is now 90 paise per metre. Of the 90 paise, the middlemen or master weavers who provide the looms and electricity take half the money.

The 50 per cent power subsidy provided by the government does not reach the loom owners or the weavers; it has, in fact, left them worse off. The traders or cloth merchants have reduced the cloth purchase price pointing to the subsidy provided to the master weavers. They have further cut prices (10 paise per metre) than the subsidy (7 paise per metre).

Setting up textile parks will not solve the weavers' problems; it is only for big industrialists. According to Mallesham, the government wants those who want to set up a composite high-speed loom inside the park to put in Rs.25 lakhs. Each loom can produce 500 metres a day. There are few here who can make such huge investments.

Four looms can produce 2,000 metres of cloth a day, employing two weavers. Thus each weaver will produce 1,000 metres a day, what takes 10 days on traditional powerlooms. Thus the productivity is 10 times more, but it also replaces lakhs of weavers.

The rare and exquisite skills of weavers are not protected and nurtured. For instance, Nalla Parandhamulu of Sircilla has been innovating and creating exquisite varieties since 1990. He weaves silk saris that weigh 50 gms and cotton ones that weigh 80 gms. He has sold over 300 such saris. Recently, he made a silk sari that fits inside a finger ring. In 1994, he started weaving triveni saris - a mixture of silk, cotton and polyester. He also makes shervanis and dresses in his looms without stitching; this needs an improvised loom, which he himself has designed. Since there was no market for his products, Nalla Parandhamulu took up beedi-rolling in 2001.

THE problems in Nalgonda district (where the famous Pochampalli silk saris are made) are very different from those in Sircilla or Dubakka. According to Pochampalli Handloom Weavers' Cooperative Society Secretary B. Yadagiri, in Nalgonda district there are 75 cooperative societies with 2,000 looms - 25 silk and the rest, cotton and silk mixed. Only five silk cooperative societies and 10 mixed ones are now working. Not one society is making profit.

Wages have fallen from Rs.2,500 a month two years ago to Rs.1,800 now because the rise in yarn price (nearly Rs.170 for 3 kg silk yarn in the last six months) has not met a similar rise in sari price. Thus the weavers receive the brunt of the decline in sales.

According to Mohan Rao, president of the Rashtriya Cheyneta Karmika Samakhya, the State has traditionally had a cooperative handloom sector. APCO was set up to buy from these cooperatives and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) was to refinance the cooperatives. NABARD gives cash credit to cooperative societies through the Andhra Pradesh Cooperative Bank (APCOB), which in turn lends to the District Central Cooperative Bank (DCCB), from which the societies get cash credit. As the cash credit flows through a number of channels, interest rates and service charges rise as also corrupt practices.

Also, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) guidelines for rural finance restructuring, the minimum lending amount is Rs.25,000. But most weavers need less than this and hence are unable to get loans.

Most societies work with low capital. So when the price of yarn or any input increases, they are affected severely. Unlike the general belief, most societies have shut shop not because of mismanagement but because of low working capital. The yearly renewal of the cash-credit facility depends on the annual turnover of the societies.

Another input they need is market information. Handloom weavers are very skilled, vibrant and ready to change products and designs. Thus, some societies in Krishna, East Godavari, Prakasam and Guntur districts are doing well by catering to the local markets with 80-count saris and 40x40 and 60x40 dress material. But regions dependent on outside markets, for instance Telengana, are badly affected.

According to D. Venkatesh, a merchant in Pochampalli, the major problems include razer-thin margins owing to high and increasing yarn price but stagnant sari price in the last 10 years. Powerlooms and mills copying the Pochampalli designs inflict another major blow.

According to Koyyallagudam Handloom Weavers' Cooperative Society manager M. Chandramouli, there are 1,500 looms in Koyyallagudam; hardly half of them are working; and none of them fully. They mainly produce tie-and-dye silk, mercerised cotton saris, dress material, furnishings and bed linen, some of which are exported abroad. This year there is no export order due to the high price of products and the hike in the service charge of Oxfam, an NGO facilitating exports. The price of a 5-kg yarn bundle has risen by Rs.200 in the last six months, squeezing margins. The society has stocks worth Rs.55 lakhs. Unless the government lifts stocks, says Chandramouli, "we are in trouble".

According to him, the problems also extend to getting good quality yarn at reasonable prices. Some of the other issues that need to be looked at are thrift fund and insurance. While the weavers regularly pay towards the thrift fund, the Centre and the State government have not paid up - the State since 1998 and the Centre since 2001. Similar is the case with the group insurance scheme. The amount paid by the weavers is lapsing as they are unable to pay now.

Chandramouli is sure that if the government allows cooperatives to sell stocks at a rebate of 20 per cent, sales will pick up, and if the Central and the State governments each give a 10 per cent subsidy (Rs.120 crores for the total production value of Rs.600 crores) the stocks can be cleared.

Says Chandramouli: "We have the Pochampalli brand name, if the government can give us international exposure we can do well."

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