Looming disaster

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

A silk saree being woven, in Dharmavaram, Anantapur district.-PHOTOGRAPHS: NEETA DESHPANDE

A silk saree being woven, in Dharmavaram, Anantapur district.-PHOTOGRAPHS: NEETA DESHPANDE

Handloom weavers in Andhra Pradesh are in a crisis brought on by policy blindness and the emphasis on powerlooms.

WHEN P. Pulliah, a weaver in the traditional cotton handloom centre of Chirala in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, describes the sarees he crafts, thread by delicate thread, his face lights up with joy. He animatedly explains that the sarees have a border on both sides. And they are fully embellished, he says with a pride palpable in his voice. This pleasure in his work, though, is only a temporary reprieve from the crisis in his life. A few minutes later in the conversation, while narrating the story of his life, Pulliah breaks down. The 62-year-old man earns a monthly income of only about Rs.1,500, because of which he has to go hungry some four days in a month. When he regains his composure, he puts it quite simply: When prices are high and our wages so low, how can we eat every day?

According to the handloom census of India 2009-10, the average earning of rural and urban households dependent on weaving and allied activities in Andhra Pradesh is about Rs.28,000 a year, or Rs.75 a day. Hunger and malnourishment stalk them as they struggle to keep body and soul together. In Chirala, this crisis is even more acute among older people who weave plain cloth, which is less remunerative, and who cannot persist with the daily grind when ill health plagues them. Migrant weavers, who do not own a loom or a house and work in weaving sheds run by master weavers, endure the severest exploitation in terms of low wages and poor working and living conditions.

Andhra Pradesh is home to 1.77 lakh households involved in weaving and allied activities, according to the 2009-10 handloom census report. They constitute a significant 12 per cent of about 15 lakh households involved in commercial handloom work across the country. This census counts as a handloom household unit every household that has one or more members involved in weaving or ancillary work even for one day in the year. On the one hand, this is an unrealistic method for arriving at the actual effective employment in the handloom sector and overestimates the total number of active weaver households. On the other hand, those familiar with the handloom sector in Andhra Pradesh emphasise that a significant number of weavers in the State have been left out of the count and argue that the census underestimates the total number of weaver households.

A demographic profile of families working in the handloom sector in the State is indicative of the deep crisis in their lives. About 88 per cent of these households in Andhra Pradesh have below poverty line (BPL) cards; 42 per cent of workers have never attended school; and the State records the highest level of indebtedness among handloom households, with 47 per cent or 0.8 lakh households in the red. Most loans are taken from master weavers, and these trap weavers in a lifelong cycle of exploitation and poverty. However, some experts argue that the handloom sector has survived because master weavers, who raise the investment, without access to institutional finance, respond to changes in market conditions. Nevertheless, weavers are paid extremely low wages.

Such exploitation, coupled with disastrous government policies favouring mills and powerlooms, has pushed weavers into conditions of destitution, malnutrition and starvation. Spurts in yarn prices unmatched by an increase in product prices lead to wage cuts, which are often the last straw. Crushed under mounting debts, some weavers take their own lives. In reply to a question in the Legislative Council in February 2011, P. Shankar Rao, who was then the Textiles Minister for Andhra Pradesh, said that 441 weavers had committed suicide in the State in the previous six years.

Government policies regarding the handloom sector have been marked by discrimination and callous neglect, favouring mills and powerlooms while paying lip service to handlooms. From the very outset, independent India hurtled along a path of industrialisation which went hand in hand with the centralisation of the economy. The potential of khadi handspun and handwoven cloth which occupied a place of pre-eminence in Gandhi's vision for resuscitating the village economy, was killed in independent India by its governments. Unable to deny the significance of khadi in India's struggle for freedom, governments accorded a marginal level of protection to khadi and handloom. However, without any genuine commitment, this grudging gesture towards khadi and handloom was steadily eroded.

The 1985 textile policy favouring powerlooms and mills did away with the limited protection provided to the handloom sector. Moreover, the crumbs thrown to the sector in the form of the 1985 Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act have never reached their intended beneficiaries. The Act, which reserved 22 varieties of cloth products exclusively for weaving on handlooms, was obstructed in the Supreme Court by the powerful mill and powerloom lobbies, which obtained a stay. After the stay was lifted in 1993, officialdom dodged the implementation of the Act. As a result, the handloom sector continues to be vulnerable to poaching by the powerloom sector, which peddles imitations of handloom products. Moreover, the Act was diluted in 1996 by reducing the number of reserved varieties to 11.

Globalisation and liberalisation worsened the plight of weavers. The export-oriented textile policy of 2000, based on the report of the Satyam Committee, liberalised controls and regulations at the cost of the handloom sector. This policy, which aims to make India a global player in textile markets, not only ignores the minimal needs of weavers but also discriminates against them. And most recently, the Draft National Fibre Policy 2010-11 merely regurgitates old empty policy statements in favour of the handloom sector. According to D. Narasimha Reddy, an independent textile policy analyst based in Hyderabad, this policy is clearly opting for man-made fibres-related growth and cannot be termed as a fibre neutral policy. It does not even attempt to understand the condition of handloom weavers, and has nothing to say about enhancing their competitiveness.

Largely unaware of these policy machinations, weaver households doggedly eke out a living in the face of tremendous odds. K. Venkatasubbiah from Epurapalem panchayat in Chirala does not know the retail price of the beautiful super buta' cotton sarees he weaves. Venkatasubbiah owns three looms, two of which are operated by him and his wife, Sujatha. The third loom is worked by the couple's 15-year-old daughter, Parvathi, who could only study up to the fourth standard. Despite the family working every day of the week from dawn to dusk, their combined income adds up to a meagre Rs.4,000 a month. Their thatched house is dilapidated and exposed to the elements, and they can afford to cook pappu (dal) only once a week. We have no financial support, says Venkatasubbiah. If I can get a loan, I can purchase yarn myself instead of depending on the master weaver and earn more.

Pulugujju Suresh of the Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy (CHIP) in Chirala said: When prices of raw materials including yarn increase, hunger becomes more widespread among weavers across the board. The families this writer interviewed in Chirala and Mangalagiri, a cotton-weaving centre in Guntur district, are all suffering from hunger or malnutrition. The households suffering from malnutrition eat rice, with just dal once or twice a week and vegetables on other days, or with only dal on most days, foregoing vegetables completely or cooking them very occasionally. The households suffering from hunger have to go without food four to eight days a month, or cook only one meal a day, going hungry at other meal times.

U. Nagasivakumari from Epurapalem panchayat in Chirala, who weaves in a shed under a master weaver, said her family ate green leafy vegetables twice a week because they were cheap, bought sambar from an eatery if they had three or four rupees, and drank water at meal times on days when they had no money. During the 2010 monsoon, Nagasivakumari's family starved for five days because the kaccha shed where she wove was flooded and work had to stop. Munniah, who works in the same shed and started weaving in 1963 at the age of 15, has faced food deprivation throughout his life. He explained that the crisis was ever present but was particularly severe in the summers and in the rainy season. Since powerlooms became operational, Munniah has not eaten three meals a day. Sixty-year-old A. Chudamani from Thotavaripalem weaver's colony in Chirala cooks in the mornings; he eats in the evenings only if there are leftovers from the daytime meal.

Such hardship forces weavers to abandon the loom for more remunerative work. According to the report of the handloom census of India 2009-10, the number of weaver households in Andhra Pradesh decreased from 1.5 lakh in 1995 to 1.3 lakh in 2010. All over India, the number of weaver households fell from 25.25 lakh in 1995 to 22.68 lakh in 2010. Given that the overall population is growing, this decrease in the number of weaver households is indicative of a deep crisis in the handloom sector.

In desperation, weavers in Chirala are turning to unskilled work such as construction and agricultural labour, which actually fetches more money. According to CHIP, there were about 28,000 handlooms in Chirala in 2004. Today, this number has reduced to less than 15,000. Everyone in the handloom industry, from the weaver to the master weaver, thinks it is dying, says Pulugujju Suresh. Local sources point out that about 150 male weavers are working as construction labourers and painters in places near Chirala, earning Rs.250 a day. Female weavers are working as agricultural labourers, earning Rs.100 a day. Twenty-eight-year-old B. Sheshagiri stopped weaving three years ago because he could not make ends meet with the monthly Rs.3,000 he and his wife earned. Now, he travels to Ongole, the district headquarters located 50 kilometres from Chirala, every day on the Pinakini Express and earns Rs. 250 a day from painting. Fifty-one-year-old K. Balaji from Thotavaripalem in Chirala, who earned Rs.50 a day when he wove under a master weaver, now mixes cement and lifts heavy sacks of construction materials in Ongole to earn Rs.250 a day some three days a week when he can find work. He emphasises that the problems in the handloom sector are because of powerloom and mill-made cloth.

The proprietor of Shyamal Handlooms in Chirala, V.S. Rao, throws light on the crisis. Yarn prices have doubled over the last two years. Handloom weavers require yarn in hank form for dyeing, but traders and powerloom weavers grab the subsidised hank yarn. There is a market for handloom products, but the quality has to be maintained. In 2003, the government favoured spinning mills by reducing the hank yarn obligation. Instead of the mandatory 50 per cent of the yarn that the mills had to pack in hank form, they now had to pack 40 per cent in this form. In any event, spinning mills have never bothered to abide by this obligation since its introduction in 1974.

According to D. Narasimha Reddy, With low wages and returns over the years, handloom weavers have become heavily indebted and highly vulnerable to the slightest change in raw material prices, especially those of cotton yarn. They do not have cash resources, adequate buffers or price accommodating mechanisms to respond to a rise in yarn prices. Despite repeated protests by weavers, yarn exports continue to hike up prices and jeopardise their livelihoods. Additionally, falling budget allocations, poor infrastructure, and lack of access to markets and investment make their lives vulnerable.

In Dharmavaram, a silk handloom centre in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, 19-year-old weaver C. Gauri shoulders the responsibility of making ends meet for her family of four. Since she took her tenth standard examination in March 2009, she has not touched a book. Her elder sister, Lalitha, who is handicapped, and her mother, Narayanamma, help with the preparatory work for weaving. The girls' father, C. Nagesh, having spent a lifetime weaving intricate designs, is now partially blind. Lalitha has applied for one job after another, but corruption and demands for recommendation letters from officials always got in the way. Now, with her younger sister, Gauri, soon to be married off, her mind is weighed down by a singular anxiety: how will she take care of her aged parents?

Lalitha's anxiety, Sheshagiri's lack of opportunities, Parvathi's lost childhood, Munniah's poverty, Pulliah's tenacity and courage to live with dignity against all odds: these threads run through the lives of all weavers. Crafting a development paradigm to meet their basic needs requires political and societal will. Perhaps, to begin with, we must realise that behind the beauty of every handloom saree lurks the plight of a weaver who has been denied the justice he or she deserves.

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