Print edition : October 22, 2004

A Frontline investigation in four districts of Andhra Pradesh shows that the policies and initiatives of successive governments have driven the handloom and traditional powerloom sectors into a deep crisis, leaving the weavers with little live lihood options.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR in Medak, Karimnagar, Nalgonda and Anantapur districts

IT is 10 a.m. in Hindupur, a town in Andhra Pradesh's Anantapur district, famous for its Dharmavaram silk saris. A stifling silence pervades the town where all the handlooms have gone quiet. Suddenly the silence is broken by a burst of crackers. Quickly people come out of their homes in ones and twos and head for the town hall where P. Madhu, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament, studying the silk handloom industry in Andhra Pradesh, has called an impromptu public meeting. Over 1,000 anxious weavers fill the hall and those unable to get in cling on to the windows. The atmosphere in the hall is tense as the weavers, who have had no employment for the last few months, hope to find a way out of their misery. They have had no work, no sources to borrow any more, no food.

A handloom worker in Hindupur, Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh.-MURALI KUMAR

The once prosperous silk weaving region, where some 70,000 looms functioned in good old times, now has a mere 2,300 powerlooms spinning out silk saris for prices that are a third of what they would cost if made on handlooms. The present predicament is a repeat of the crisis that the cotton handloom sector faced in the early 1990s and then in the traditional powerloom units towards the end of that decade, brought about by the unthinking implementation of the policies of liberalisation and globalisation. Unable to compete with the 2,300 powerlooms, which were set up with the encouragement of the State government, the handloom weavers now face starvation and death. In the last one year, some 30 weavers are reported to have committed suicide or died of starvation in towns such as Hindupur, Mudirudupalli and Somandapalli.

A Frontline investigation in the districts of Medak (specifically Dubakka town), Karimnagar (Sircilla), Nalgonda (Pochampalli and Koyyallagudam) and Anantapur (Hindupur and Dharmavaram) show that the policies and initiatives of the government have pushed the handloom (both cotton and silk) and the traditional powerloom sectors deep into crisis. Rising yarn prices, falling employment opportunities, declining wage rates, shrinking markets and idling looms are its consequences. According to Andhra Pradesh Handloom Workers' Union general secretary K. Santa Rao, hardly 20 per cent of the over four lakh looms - 80 per cent of them under master weavers - in the State are working; and most of these only partially. The government's thrust on increasing productivity led to its encouraging jet and water looms, which are 10 times more productive than the traditional powerlooms - these in turn, are six times more productive than handlooms. While in the early 1990s the government encouraged traditional powerlooms precipitating a serious crisis in the handloom sector, it is now pitching jet and water looms against powerlooms, endangering the latter.

Moreover, the government has systematically withdrawn itself from the responsibility of providing the weavers market guarantee or access to inputs at a reasonable price. Rather than finding lasting solutions, it has been providing welfare measures that have accentuated the weavers' problems and driven lakhs of them out of employment. The government is trying to offer a single "welfare package" to a highly diverse and disparate industry with each region of the State having problems that are as different as their product, quality, design, market, inputs, source of competition and so on.

While for the units weaving Dharmavaram silk saris the main issue is that of implementing the Handloom Reservation Act, powerloom units in Sircilla face high input cost, for the cotton handloom units in Dubakka it is lack of markets, and for the units in Pochampalli and Koyyallagudam areas, specialising in tie-and-dye varieties, it is the high cost, shrinking market and duplication by powerlooms (see separate stories). If some cooperative societies in the coastal areas (such as K.J. Puram, Angara, Pulugurtha, Pasalapudi, Adalampalli, Sivala, Muramunda and Peddapuram) have been doing well it is because they have a good local market; the only thing is that they need to be sustained. But the government hopes to address all these problems with a common "welfare package".

According to Rashtriya Cheyneta Karmika Samakhya president Mohan Rao, in Andhra Pradesh over four lakh weaver families rely directly on weaving, with an equal number indirectly dependent on it. Close to 80 per cent of the weavers work under master weavers and the rest with the 1,099 cooperative societies. According to him, the crisis of the weaving sector in Andhra Pradesh can be traced to the unorganised and disparate nature of the industry.

Most of the problems the weavers face today can be traced to the 1990s when the government vigorously pursued the policies of liberalisation. With a thrust on increasing production, powerlooms were encouraged to upgrade technology and funds were allotted for upgradation. They were also provided subsidies to import looms. But this approach failed as the policy-makers had not looked at the issue comprehensively. For instance, the yarn from the extra-long staple cotton grown in India is not suitable for the imported looms. Similarly, they did not consider the availability of power and water, which are required to run the imported jet and water looms. The mismatch between the imported looms and the infrastructure became painfully apparent when weavers died of starvation or committed suicide.

The predominant theory was that small units were unviable and that big clusters needed to be encouraged. But the textile and apparel parks were neither useful to the weavers nor did they solve their problems. Unable to take on the big powerlooms, the small units began making products reserved for the handloom sector - saris, dhotis and so on - and copying the designs - ikkat, for instance. This further affected the handlooms.

The only handloom centres that have survived this onslaught are those in the coastal belt - Chirala, Mangalagiri, Venkatagiri, Pedana, Ghantasala, Mori, Pondur and so on - which weave products for the middle class and for local markets.

There is a distinct differentiation in handloom products and designs across regions. For example, the coastal areas specialise in tie-and-dye saris, the Telengana region in furnishings with rich ikkat designs and so on. But mills and powerlooms are copying and duplicating these varieties using screen-printing and selling them at much lower costs. Handlooms are unable to compete in such price wars.

P. Madhu, CPI(M) MP, addressing handloom workers in Hindupur on September 3.-MURALI KUMAR

Says Mohan Rao: "The Union Budget allocation for handlooms - Rs. 250 crores - is inadequate; most of this is used to set up textile and apparel parks that hardly help the weavers. The government must also stop making ad hoc, irrelevant and meaningless interventions. For instance, it spent a huge amount on a handloom design scheme by involving big designers from Delhi. But little came out of it. The government must think in terms of a comprehensive policy linking, say, design, investment and innovation with the market and so on."

Narrating the crisis in Dharmavaram and Hindupur, where silk saris worth over Rs.100 crores are lying unsold in the godowns, the United Action Committee of the Akilantra Pattu Cheyneta Karmiga Sangam (formed recently to raise a unified voice against the government policies that have rendered them jobless) leader G. Ravi says: "Powerlooms have been functioning in this area since 1985 producing items not reserved for handlooms. But in 1996, the TDP government encouraged powerlooms to be set up in our area and gave them subsidy, loans and looms. In blatant violation of the Reservation Act, the powerlooms copied our designs and made silk saris that looked very similar to the Dharmavaram handloom saris. As the powerlooms could sell their saris at a third to half of our prices, there were no takers for the handloom silk saris. The systematic erosion of our market space led to the suicides of some 30 weavers in the area."

"Worse, the powerlooms are passing of their saris as handlooms. By this move not only are they encroaching into our territory, but are also evading the 4 per cent sales tax levied on powerloom saris, making their products still cheaper. Their production expenses are less thanks to the cost cut they get by the 50 per cent power subsidy," he added. The powerlooms also illegally import silk from China (a fact confirmed by P. Subbaya, a powerloom owner in Hindupur). Also, while the powerlooms are allowed to weave materials that are 33 inches (82 cm) wide, they weave 45-inch saris. The powerloom weavers also enrol for government-run courses calling themselves handloom weavers.

According to weaver D. Usha, who has not had work for the last two months, the situation is even more grave now as there is no fall-back mechanism. The drought-like conditions of the last three to four years have dried up work on farms. This, according to Santa Rao, points to an important issue - that the government needs to look comprehensively at the weavers' problem and not adopt a piece-meal, fire-fighting approach.

Says United Action Committee's S. Ameer Basha: "Unless the government clears stocks, the over eight lakh handloom weavers in Anantapur district are doomed." More important, he says, the government should earnestly implement the Handloom Reservation Act. This one move, he feels, can change the lives of millions of handloom weavers.

According to Santa Rao, stocks worth Rs.70 crores are piled up in the cooperative sector alone. The State government has agreed to purchase stocks worth Rs.10 crores, which is inadequate. According to Santa Rao, successive governments in the State have effectively decimated the cooperative societies. Of the 11,000 societies, hardly 600 exist now. Of the 600, hardly 100 function and that too only partially. Says Santa Rao: "While the crisis in the cotton handloom sector has been there for quite some time now, that in the silk industry is new."

The handloom weavers of the Dharmavaram region are therefore planning to launch an agitation to highlight their problems. As P. Ramanujaneyulu of the United Action Committee says: "The handloom weavers of this region are particularly agitated as they see their powerloom-owning neighbours prosper even as their condition deteriorates."

WHAT is the way forward?

To begin with, according to Santa Rao, the perception that handloom is an industry dependent on government subsidy needs to go, particularly given that over 80 per cent of the weavers in the State are under master weavers and without any access to government welfare schemes. There is also a need to have an independent handloom policy; now it is part of the National Textile Policy.

According to B. Syamasundari of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople, there is a huge demand for handloom products and there also exists the capacity, in terms of skill and resources, to meet this demand. But the problem is the gap between the two, primarily because support structures such as marketing channels, research, credit and training facility have not evolved to keep pace with the rise in demand.

Facilitating structures need to be evolved. For instance, most handloom clusters are outside main trading centres. Physical infrastructure such as access to roads, an efficient public transportation system and so on need to be provided. This will improve the weavers' market access dramatically.

Similarly, there is no regulatory mechanism to control prices of raw material such as yarn, dyes and chemicals. Credit facility also needs to be strengthened. Only with such policies can the handlooms survive.

Product or design development should emphasise each region's strengths - for example, tie-and-dye ikkat designs of Pochampalli, or handloom silk saris of Dharmavaram. Projecting an identity for each region can play an important role in capturing larger markets and avoiding intra-industry competition.

According to Dastkar's Seemanthini Niranjana, the more serious problem is that, very often, market information does not flow freely down to the primary producer. This is particularly true in informal marketing channels and private trade networks. This lack of transparency makes it impossible to replicate growth strategies and assess growth potential.

It is well known that the wage structure in the handloom industry is very disparate, and depends on factors such as the product and the production channel (cooperative or master weaver). A coherent labour and wage policy is essential if successful marketing practices are to translate into stable livelihoods for the primary producers.

Not only is the handloom industry disparate, but it also has to fight for market space with the mills and powerlooms. This creates imbalances, particularly when powerlooms imitate handloom products in total disregard of the Handloom Reservation Act. Thus, a regulatory framework - consisting of civil society and producer groups and state representatives - is important particularly given the varied and often clashing interests of the different players.

At a powerloom unit in Hindupur.-MURALI KUMAR

Given the diversity of the handloom industry, there cannot be one model that can be replicated throughout the State. Development models can be evolved for each weaving region only through engagement with the field.

If handlooms and traditional powerlooms are to be revived, a change in the government's thinking is crucial. Some of the specific suggestions on what the government can do, which came up during Frontline's field visits, are:

The government should lift stocks regularly; input prices should be regulated, ensuring availability at reasonable prices; the Handloom Reservation Act should be implemented strictly; weavers should have, like farmers, a minimum support price as the sector provides employment to millions of people; market guarantee, and not welfare measures; local markets needs to be created and developed; the cut in excise duty on yarn needs to be passed on to the weavers; livery (for government use) orders should be given to the handlooms and traditional powerlooms; the government should provide primary producers information on changing market tastes; the government should set up production (to give direct employment to weavers) and purchase centres (to lift stocks directly) in every weaving region; it should provide export assistance to products with a distinctive identity such as the Pochampalli saris, and also give cooperative societies and small merchants opportunities to attend exhibitions and fairs abroad; the Andhra Pradesh Textiles Development Corporation (APTEX) should be revived; minimum wages should be implemented; bank loans at subsidised rates should be given to weavers with sheds and looms; a detailed record of weavers and region-specific problems should be maintained; the hank yarn obligation (50 per cent till 2003, but reduced to 40 per cent thereafter) of the spinning mills should be enforced; yarn depots need to be set up in different regions to save transport costs; a yarn bank will also help the weavers get yarn when they need it; the government should supply the cooperatives dyed and quality yarn to maintain standards; APCO must reduce its margin from 45 per cent to make products from cooperative societies competitive; and the product and markets need to be integrated across the State.

Most important, the governments at the Centre and in the State need to change the perception of handlooms as an entity refusing to change, using obsolete technology and catering only to the poor. There is a need to come out with an independent policy for the handloom sector.

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