The Crumbling Silk Industry in Post-Demonetisation Varanasi

There’s pain, both private and public, as dreams begin to shatter in the prime minister’s constituency post demonetisation.

A weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Jaymis Loveday/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Jaymis Loveday/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Magic realism is defined as what happens when a highly realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. Varanasi, that fascinating city where people go to die, is a metaphor for life itself. Beyond the ghats are mosaics of fascinating lanes and bylanes, the wafting sounds of chanting and at times classical music, varieties of spicy chaat (referred to as naashta) found nowhere else, and little chai shops visited by local wits and resident intellectuals.

One of them tells me that the “quack” has performed surgery without anesthesia and the whole country is on dialysis. But he ponders whether people have fully comprehended what has happened and what may happen in the future. He asks if the passion in this city has waned or if everyone is still in love with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He recites a poem, makes a philosophic point about dreams and despair, and puts another paan in his mouth.

Silken dreams

Varanasi is also the centre for the famed Banarasi silk saris, some of which are woven in villages around the town. Modi may remember that an exquisite cream coloured Banarasi silk, woven with gold and silver threads, was gifted to US first lady Michele Obama, during her visit with US President Barack Obama to India in January 2015. That sari took master weavers about three months to make.

Perhaps the prime minister remembers Jagdish Shah, a Gujrati businessman settled in Varanasi, who is chairman of the Benaras Vastra Udyog Sangh, who contributed generously to his 2014 campaign. Shah certainly remembers him; in fact his phone screensaver is a picture of himself with Modi. Shah’s business has taken a 70% hit, he has laid off thousands of workers and asks “If I can’t use my phone at my age beyond talking on it, how are the labour supposed to make transactions via phone?”

Shah has opened up bank accounts for around 70 weavers but says that they keep coming to him for help because they do not understand the banking process. He does not know how individuals, both poor and well off, or the entire silk sector can operate without cash.

He elaborates at length about how bureaucrats must have misled the prime minister, laying the blame at their door as he does not believe Modi would have “deliberately” made such a big mistake.

Taana baana

The process of creating a Banarasi silk sari is long and hard. First, the silk thread is brought from centres across the country, such as Bengaluru, Calcutta and Assam. Once this is procured, the next step is twisting the yarn, bleaching it and dying it in specific colours.

This process is done on the basis of length and width as the multicoloured threads are spread out to dry, a sight that can be seen in homes, parks and the lanes of Varanasi. The Hindi/Urdu phrase ‘taana baana’ used in poetry and literature by the likes of Kabir and Amir Khusro, derives from this process.

Mobin Akhtar and Ashraf Ali are among the six wokers who are drying the silk thread after colouring it in a small park. They were making around Rs 2500 a week in better times but have not been paid since the ‘notebandi’ was announced. They are working on credit for a manufacturer but are grateful that he has given them work in the face of waning orders.

The looms

Even before demonetisation, the Banaras silk industry was facing a crisis. Mass produced garments, competition from Chinese silk and weavers moving from operating handlooms to powerlooms, all presented a challenge to the old craft form that produced the classic silk saris.

In the old city one finds the master weavers working on the handlooms to produce the intricate pattern, woven with zari thread. Until about a decade ago there were about 100,000 handlooms in the city. Now the estimated numbers are around 35,000. Weavers get paid per piece – a different price for a scarf, a sari or a wall hanging – and depending on the intricacy, each piece could take anywhere from 15 days to three months (or more) to make.

Also read: Demonetisation: Voices From Varanasi, Modi’s Constituency

Until demonetisation hit them hard, many weavers had carried on because the traditional craft had been handed down to them through the generations. But their children have found it more lucrative to work with powerlooms in small factories that mass produce the cheaper silk saris.

Since weavers are paid per piece, it is hard to come up with an average for work on handlooms but its estimated to be about Rs 200 to Rs 300 per day, when the thread is given by the manufacturer who places an order for a specific design. On powerlooms, workers could earn around Rs 500 per day.

But post demonetisation, both types of looms have mostly stopped. Weavers are now getting desperate for work and many have no clue about running a bank account, let alone using digital payment platforms like PayTM.

Export house

The tragedy of Banaras silk is playing out in the small factory run by Jaishankar Mehta, a manufacturer, wholesaler and exporter of silk. He has the most high quality saris and wall hangings on display, many worth lakhs of rupees.

There are about 20 looms in his small factory and workers are busy on three. Each is working on different patterns, their feet moving the looms, the hand switching the thread. One of them explains how a parrot, a common motif in Indian design, involves switching three shades of thread. The parrot’s feathers are green, the beak is red and the feet are black.

Ashok Kumar, from the Rajbhar caste, is also a traditional weaver. Although Mehta says he pays around Rs 400 per day, Kumar mumbles that he actually ends up with Rs 200 but is grateful for the work. Next to him sits Ramzan Ahmed. He does not want to be disturbed and says he has no money and is reaching the end of his tether. Naseer Ahmed is the most eager to talk and says that if he works for a week he will finish a wall hanging for which he will get paid Rs 1400.

Hardly anyone is being paid since demonetisation, but weavers continue to live in hope. None of the three weavers have a bank account but say they hope Mehta will open accounts for them. Naseer wonders if it may be better for the weavers if the maalik pays into their accounts. But until then, he and the others are working for free. After all, Mehta has a genuine cash crunch but he is trying to keep some level of work going.

As I leave the factory, I realise that although workers have less work now, they may also be persevering through this crisis in the hopes of higher wages after a while. Manufacturers, however, say their business will not be viable if they have to make a shift to cheque payments, making the sari trade uneconomical and leading to the loss of more jobs in the silk industry.

What is certain is that the industy has been badly hit by demonetisation. Some say they can’t recover from such a bad year in a labour intensive industry where profit margins are slim. Others say they will ride out the crisis, which they expect to worsen before it becomes better.

One thing is for sure, no one knows what the future holds.

Saba Naqvi is a senior journalist and columnist.

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  • ashok759

    We have moved from a million mutinies to a million tragedies …