‘Babu, Write that the Weavers of Gorakhpur Have Been Destroyed’

The entry of Chinese players into the market in the 1990s selling cheap hosiery dealt a severe blow to a once-thriving industry in eastern Uttar Pradesh, made worse by the rise of cotton prices and non-inclusion of weavers in economic policies.

Representative image. Credit: jankie/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Representative image. Credit: jankie/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is the first in a series of reports on issues surrounding Indian weavers.

Khalilabad, Uttar Pradesh: Amid his daily grind, fruit peddler Abdul Rehman has stopped to take some rest in the shade for a while. He takes out some coins from his pocket and begins counting them. There must be Rs 10 or Rs 15 in all that he has earned from selling the fruits, of which just a few are left in the cart – two or three kilos of pomegranate and just as many apples.

He puts the money back in his pocket and looks up. I am standing right in front but he ignores me and fixes his gaze far away at something. On his face is a mixture of sadness and anger. For a few minutes, I stand there hesitant to speak but finally gather courage and approach him.

Dada, where is the weavers’ locality?” I ask.

He looks at me curiously and says, “What do you want to know? Look, that’s the cart over there. And here I am, sitting before you, selling fruit. That’s what has become of the weavers. What will you do with this information?”

“I want to write about them,” I reply.

Babu, write that the weavers have been destroyed,” comes his distressing response.

We are at the old Gorakhpur mohalla located in front of the main gate of Guru Gorakhnath temple. On either side of the temple premises, the locality of weavers is spread over an area of two or three kilometres. Rehman says that there was a time when the colony had around 6,000 factories. Now, only 25 or 30 remain. Rehman himself owned five loom machines and made good money. “I sell fruit to feed the children,” he says. “That [weaving] was our craft and provided employment to a couple of others too. Selling fruit is a necessity. How else would we survive?” He gets up and begins pushing his cart towards the locality.

A few steps ahead is a madarsa and attached to it is a small graveyard. The walls of the graveyard are quite high and freshly plastered. A huge hoarding is hanging from the wall. It seems someone decided to gift this decaying society a concrete-walled graveyard instead of a better life.

Mannan, a resident of the neighbourhood, had got a job as an engineer back in the 1980s. But since his ancestral trade fetched better money, he left his job and returned to his native place. He installed ten power looms and started his business along with his family members. Fifteen years later, the introduction of free market economy and liberalisation policy left the weaver community struggling for survival. All of Mannan’s ten looms were lost in a wave of international trade. Mannan belonged to a rich family and owned around 50

Fifteen years later, the introduction of free market economy and liberalisation policy left the weaver community struggling for survival. All of Mannan’s ten looms were lost in a wave of international trade. Mannan belonged to a rich family and owned around 50 bighas of land, all of which has now been sold. He stays at home now while his children are away looking for work in cities. He is full of remorse as he says, “Had I continued with my job as an engineer, life would not be so difficult. I would be getting pension.”

As we enter the locality, the sound of a power loom greets us. In a thatched house, a young man is weaving a sheet. “We have made connections in Nepal,” he tells us. “We weave cloth for making topis and gamchhas and sell it there. Some people even bring yarn from there. We make good money.”

When asked why the household weaver industry had shut down, Shamshad, who works on both power and handloom, says, “Cotton yarn prices rose higher than we could afford. The government no longer regulated these prices. The local cotton mills were rendered useless. Now, cotton comes from South India which is very costly. Ever since the new government was formed, what we used to get in Rs 500 is now being sold at Rs 700. Cotton is costly but no one is ready to buy the woven cloth at higher prices. As selling prices cannot match up to the cost, it incurs losses.”

“There are three types of weavers. Khadi weavers, and Banarsi saree weavers who use handlooms, and weavers who use power looms for texturised sarees and other kinds of cloth,” Waseem Akram, who has worked on both handloom and power loom, informs us.

Shamshad claims that there were nearly four lakh weavers in old Gorakhpur. “The problem started after 1995 when Chinese players entered the market and forced upon us cheap hosiery. Now, the cloth that we manufacture at a cost of Rs 100, China is selling at Rs 80. The government has left us to die.”

Addressing a rally on February 25, BSP supremo Mayawati said that if she gets voted to power, Purvanchal will be made a separate state and the issues of weavers will be addressed. But Mayawati is not the only one to make such a promise. Before being elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also promised to open the international market to weavers. But nothing was done in this regard during the last three years. Instead, cotton prices were hiked.

Handling the power loom in old Gorakhpur, another weaver, Yusuf says, “The people who are still associated with this business are in it just for the sake of honour. It was a matter of pride for us to have a factory in our home. We would install a couple of machines and employ others. Now, we are the owners and the labourers ourselves. We earn what a labourer was paid.”

Shamshad takes us to a large hall where 20 power looms stand, rusting. They haven’t been used in years. The deplorable condition of lakhs of workers who have been rendered unemployed is evident.

Sounds of power looms can be heard at every few steps in the locality. Weaving continues in some houses, but a large youth population of this weaver locality has left for the cities to work as rickshaw pullers, hawkers or labourers.

What is the main reason behind the destruction of the once thriving weaving business? “There are a lot of reasons,” says Waseem. “For instance, power cuts, the indifference of the government, the absence of a leader of the weaver community, communal riots due to which traders do not buy our goods, laborious work but nominal profits, no inclusion of weavers in economic policies and woven sarees wasting away in godowns owing to all the hurdles in export of garments. These are only a few of the issues that afflict the weaving business. If somehow a weaver manages to overcome these obstacles, the cheap sarees of Ahmedabad kill the trade.”

A teacher in old Gorakhpur, Ram Sevak, says, “Usually, Hindus are not involved in this business. But I took it up alongside teaching because it was a profitable business. But now everything is ruined. The beautiful world of weaving has been devastated.”

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.

This article was originally published on The Wire Hindi.