Handlooms Are Dying – and It's Because of Our Failure to Protect Them

Decades of poorly-implemented protection policies and the growth of power loom imitations has led to the slow downfall of the handloom sector.

Courtesy: Dastkar Andhra

Courtesy: Dastkar Andhra

The position of handlooms in the socio-political arena and the sector’s annual contribution to the economy cannot be objectively stated. The reasons are hidden in narratives of productivity and efficiency, and fuelled by the discourse of progress and development. These factors have hampered growth in the handloom industry and pushed it into the margins. The growth in power looms, now supplying more than 70% of Indian textiles, according to textile ministry statistics, came on the heels of a systematic destruction of the handloom industry. This included power loom users claiming the subsidies earmarked for handlooms in the early decades after independence, as years of field work has shown. Then there was the illegal encroachment of handloom markets through perfect imitations of handloom products. Subsequent to liberalisation, there was no need for any subterfuge as the removal of import restrictions and deregulation of industries gave a big boost to the power loom and mill sectors.

In discussions on growth in the textile sector, handloom rarely finds a place. But this did not stop successive policy makers and statesmen from using handloom when they need to talk about cultural heritage and invoking khadi in the name of the freedom struggle.

The richness of the symbolic value of khadi is evident in the metaphors evoked by the current government. Using handloom and khadi interchangeably, the state is trying to push away the central issues that affect growth in both sectors.

Handloom weaving is present mostly in rural areas and is primarily a household activity. However, it does not imply that weavers are independent producers. Some weavers work in cooperative societies where they are shareholders. When these societies fail to provide work, weavers approach local master weavers, who are engaged in the production and trading of handlooms. The cooperative society or the master weaver generally supplies yarn and dyes to the weavers. Access to market is in the hands of either the cooperative society or the master weaver. There is also a small third category of weavers, who do not own looms and work in sheds organised by the master weaver. Handloom weaving is spread across many states in the country and is in considerable decline in some of them. For instance, many districts in Telangana have seen a decrease in weaving activities, while the coastal belt in Andhra Pradesh continues to be strong in handloom weaving. Most districts in Karnataka saw a steady drop in the number of handlooms. Same is the case in Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh. It is interesting to note the parallel growth in power looms in all the areas where handlooms weakened.

Changes in the industry have a long history, pre-dating the independence movement. Major changes were seen in the 19th century, when mill-spun yarn and cloth from Britain impacted the production of hand-spun yarn and handloom cloth. Weavers lost markets for yarn and cloth as they had to compete with a faster mode of production, hitherto unseen, which was independent of human agency. The result was the increasing indebtedness of weavers to both moneylenders and yarn dealers. Committees appointed by the colonial rulers recommended forming cooperatives to protect the interests of the weavers. More committees were constituted as the issues in the handloom industry refused to go away. The industry received a morale boost when Gandhi made khadi the symbol of the freedom struggle and handloom weaving one of the core aspects of self-reliance. After independence, the industry was seen both as an employment provider in large parts of rural India and a vehicle to protect cultural heritage. This did not however, prevent it from being branded a sunset industry in need of subsidies and protection. The industry was seen to provide employment to a large number of people but not viewed as a catalyst to boost the growth of the economy. It is important to keep in mind this contradictory image of the industry that largely influenced the policy framework in independent India.

Behind the failure to protect handloom’s identity

A cursory look at the various legislations made to protect handlooms shows the shifting importance given to the industry by the state. In 1950, when India emerged as a republic, the central government declared the production of several handloom products as the prerogative of the handloom sector. Traditional products like border saris, dhotis and bedsheets were reserved exclusively for handlooms. The reservation order combined the unique character of handloom production with its labour-intensive nature and sought to preserve handloom identity while becoming a cloth of the masses. Unfortunately, inefficient implementation of the order slowly led to the mushrooming of power looms in the decentralised sector, which produced perfect imitations of handloom.

Meanwhile, the state maintained a conscientious attitude through the formation of several committees that were appointed to look into the issues affecting the handloom sector. The Ashok Mehta Committee appointed by the central government in 1964 suggested that the production of saris should remain the exclusive prerogative of the handloom sector. A decade later, the high-powered Sivaraman Committee in its report pointed out that every new power loom made six handlooms redundant and led to large scale unemployment in the rural areas. It clearly stated that the manufacture of handloom goods is a cottage industry, as one person cannot carry out the entire process of production. The committee opined that as a rural industry, the handloom sector is providing a livelihood to a considerable number of the rural population. The verdicts of these various committees strengthened the argument for a special legislation to protect handlooms. Finally, the Handloom Reservation Act came into existence in 1985.

It may seem peculiar that the large narrative of policy framework revolves around the aspect of reservations for certain handloom varieties either as a means to protect distinctive identities or to prevent machine-made imitations usurping the place of handloom or even as a measure of increasing growth in the handloom sector. This should be seen in the backdrop of the phenomenal increase in power looms in the strongholds of handloom and the direct impact on the survival of the handloom sector. From the beginning of policy making in independent India, the two industries were positioned in a competitive way. But the interesting fact is that power looms grew under the protection offered to handlooms. There are many factors that contributed to this growth. For instance, until 1955, the power loom was clubbed with handloom under the same excise Act and was eligible for duty exemption under this Act. According to the Act, exemption was given to units with less than five looms. Power loom units took advantage of this clause and dispersed their units to evade duty. There was a stipulation for power loom units to register but the regulation of power looms was largely ineffective. Specific provisions for handloom were always availed by the power loom sector too. For example, under the Hank Yarn Obligation Act, it is mandated that 60% (now reduced to 40%) of all spinning mill production should be in the form of hank yarn, which is the form in which handloom needs the yarn. After lobbying from mills, the government subsidy for hank yarn was used by the power loom industry. This kind of contravention was possible as power loom owners had formed strong alliances with the state and local political interests.

By 1974, when the exemption to power loom units with less than five looms was revoked, the growth of power looms and their domination over handlooms was complete. By the early 1980s, power looms were supplying one-third of the total textile requirements in the country. From the 1985 textile policy, it is clear that emphasis shifted from expanding the potential for employment in rural areas to increasing productivity through modernising technology.

Credit: Dastkar Andhra

Credit: Dastkar Andhra

Changing policy discourse 

If numbers could tell a story, the reduction in number of handloom weavers over decades make a significant point. Official surveys published by the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms) suggest the number of weaver families reduced from 124 lakhs in the 1970s to 64 lakhs in 1995, and further down to 44 lakhs in 2010. The failure of the various methods adopted to protect the handloom sector is clear from this sharp decline in numbers. Why did the Reservation Act not succeed in preventing growth in imitations from power looms? Why did the ‘handloom mark’ (constituted in 2000) fail to establish the distinction between the power loom and handlooms? Why did the state allow power loom interests to govern the interests of the handloom department? For instance, in all the annual exhibitions for promoting exports in the Handloom Promotion Council, very few handloom organisations are represented in comparison to power looms. In the annual state-sponsored exhibitions promoted with much fanfare, more than 50% of the stalls exclusively exhibit power loom products. Two major causes can be highlighted. One is the evident lack of political will on the part of the government and a growing indifference to the objective of protecting rural livelihoods. The other is the growing belief that the market is the space where competencies will be tested and the best will eventually win.

But it is a fact that the markets could not catalyse growth so as to generate adequate employment opportunities and provide alternatives to those who lost their traditional livelihoods. This is clear from the continuous migration of people across the country from the rural areas to the few urban spaces available. Though the unemployment rate has stabilised over the past few years to 5-6%, the creation of employment in the non-farm sector has decreased. If we observe the data for employment generation, which is available from 2009, the projection for 2016-17 looks very bleak. As the president recently stated, there is a need to generate 115 million non-farm jobs over the next decade to gainfully employ the emerging workforce in the country. However, all these daunting statistics have not managed to shake the state’s belief in the power of the market. The acute agrarian distress and growing migration of farmers, not to forget the increasing suicides of farmers across the country, has not shaken the belief in the market as the provider of solutions. This conviction has added strength to the state policy of withdrawing from many public sectors and increasing the share of private players. In this situation, factors like increasing growth in employment and lending a hand to sectors supporting existing livelihoods no longer form a part of the state policy discourse.

Coming back to the handloom sector, the 1985 textile policy can be seen as a watershed of sorts. It heralded revolutionary changes in attitudes towards the unorganised sector, cottage industries and industries based on traditional technologies. The proclaimed objective became one of increasing textile production, and employment generation became an argument that merely supports this primary objective This policy changed the classification of weavers from being a cooperative weaver or an independent weaver, to a weaver who weaves coarse cloth earning low wages or a weaver weaving fine cloth earning higher wages. Based on this division, it was recommended that the weaver weaving coarse cloth should shift either to the power loom or out of the weaving profession. The play of the market is evident in this policy formulation, which assumes that a weaver with better wages will survive while others would have to migrate. With a clear emphasis on increasing productivity, this policy sought deregulation of textile mills.

In a way, the 1985 policy forms the foundation for all the subsequent articulations on this sector till date. From then on, efficiency, productivity and healthy competition between the three sectors (mill, handloom, and power loom) became the parameters for assessing the fitness of the sector. 

What happened to handloom production in the meanwhile?

While the policy environment was swinging between two radical vocabularies, there have been significant changes that impacted the nature of production that was unique to handloom. Hand weaving has developed distinctive techniques based on natural resource availability and capacity for innovation and skills of the local people over several decades. The entry of standardised mill yarn by the 1840s altered the unique identity of handloom irrevocably. Also, the depletion of natural resources forced certain changes. The use of synthetic yarn in the place of natural fibre and using power looms to produce well-recognised handloom products has played havoc with regional identities. From the famous Benares silks to Kanjeevarams in the south, cheap imitations have robbed handloom identities. In addition, easy access to synthetic dyes has mean that natural indigo and alizarin have been replaced by chemical complements which are then passed off as natural dyes. Take the famous Ilkal saree from Karnataka, which used natural indigo for its rich blues and greens and natural material for black colour. They use only synthetic dyes now. The reduction in cultivation of indigo is one of the chief factors. In Bagru block printing, although natural materials like madder, indigo, pomegranate rind and turmeric are still used, they are replaced by synthetic supplements due to ease of availability and use. Ajrakh printing from Gujarat and Rajasthan was similar though the colours from Gujarat were supposed to be brighter due to the quality of the water. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, the quality of the water seems to have changed, affecting the dyeing in Ajrakh printing.

The product identity linked to a particular place is no longer sacrosanct (there are Benaras sarees being made in Chirala; Orissa lookalike saris in some parts of Andhra Pradesh and so on), and copies on power looms are made everywhere. In this situation, without a proper evaluation of the old legislation and its efficacy, new protections in the form of the Geographic Indication Act (GI) and handloom mark are mooted by the state. The hypothesis that the weaver left at the lower rung in the value chain will benefit from GI is also offered as an additional incentive, which is not supported by any sustainable arguments. How will market premium (if we assume GI protection does increase overall profits) reach weavers? By the very structure of decentralised production, the weaver is left with the task of weaving while marketing/trading remains outside his or her domain. In this scenario, it seems unlikely that GI-related benefits will trickle down to the weaver.

The case of Mangalagiri 

Mangalagiri in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, which was a thriving hub for hand weaving, has seen a rapid decline in the number of weavers in the past two decades. This reality stands out more prominently in Mangalgiri than in other regions because this deterioration happened when Mangalagiri products were in high demand. Approximate figures gleaned from conversations in Guntur suggest there were about 20,000 weavers in Mangalgiri in the early 1990s; that number is estimated to have come down by nearly 75% and only about 6,000 active handloom weavers can be found here today. Though there are no power looms in the region, power looms in Tamil Nadu and a few regions in Andhra Pradesh duplicate Mangalgiri products and sell them in handloom markets and state-sponsored exhibitions. The failure in the implementation of the Handloom Reservation Act, 1985 is evident in this case, as it could not manage to take punitive measures in the face of flagrant violations. The enforcement department pleads lack of adequate security for the inspectors on the field, lack of personnel to carry out inspections and certain loopholes in the law taken advantage of by the offenders as reasons for their failure. While there is some merit in all these causes, the lack of will coupled with an indifferent attitude and equally indifferent monitoring mechanisms that check the performance of these departments are major reasons for the total failure of the Act in protecting handloom identity. The famous Mangalgiri Nizam border, which also had a GI recognition, was not able to survive the challenges posed by power loom imitations.

The competition from power looms for Mangalgiri came at a time when cotton yarn rates started spiralling. The mills started hoarding the 60s count yarn which is crucial for Mangalgiri fabric. The hike in cotton yarn prices began around the year 2004. There was no decline in the prices of yarn for over five years. Between April 2009 and October 2010, the prices doubled for all the counts that handloom usually consumes and for which there is a vigorous market. This sealed the fate of the Mangalgiri weavers and mass-scale migration out of weaving was seen. The Mangalgiri story is getting worse, given the fact that it is also one of those regions that is going to be taken over by the government of Andhra Pradesh for building the new state capital (Mangalagiri-Thulluru-Tadepalli). Though the project is not currently affecting the weaving villages, real estate which will develop in the surrounding areas will be a major threat to pre-loom units of dyeing and sizing.

Credit: Dastkar Andhra

Credit: Dastkar Andhra

The story today

In addition to the Handloom Reservation Act, the government brought in handloom marks in 2000, the Geographical Indicator Act in 2003 and most recently in 2015 the All India Handloom Brand in an effort to promote handlooms. The objective of growth is sought to be achieved by providing a unique identification for handloom products, thus protecting it from mechanical imitations. The various markers seek to provide a collective identity for handloom and promote its distinctive character thus improve its marketability. Most of the schemes in handloom (except the welfare ones) are geared to address the need for support in marketing through some kind of reservation or brand development. The only exception is the cluster scheme devised a decade back which purports to catalyse growth in the sector through interventions in infrastructure, training in new designs, new technologies and so on.

The prime minister’s call for declaring August 7 as World Handloom Day in 2015 comes at a critical time for the sector. Apart from the regular hardships faced by the sector, the past three years have been particularly difficult. First there was the move in 2013 by the central government to change the definition of handloom. The intention ostensibly was to remove drudgery in handloom and sought to obliterate the distinction between handloom and power loom. Under severe opposition from the handloom lobby, the government dropped the idea. In 2014, there was another idea to scrap or revise the Handloom Reservation Act. Again, this was postponed after hectic lobbying by activists, handloom organisations and weavers. Moving from framing policies which protect the sector to a thinking which presupposes handloom can survive only by competing in the mainstream market, we can see the policies for handloom have come full circle. 

Today, the danger is not to specific product identities but to handloom itself. Current state policies show a marked inclination to move towards highly centralised mills controlling all processes under one roof, in the name of economies of scale. But this should not result in destroying the decentralised production units to shape the inputs according to the needs of the producer. The argument to support decentralised industries cannot be using the same economic logic extended to centralised production. We need to open our minds to new possibilities. If we consider a centralised mechanical production unit, everyone can only be a worker, a cog in the wheel and can never aspire to being an owner of a product (unless supported by capital). In contrast, traditional modes of production are organically structured where the process and product are integrally linked to the producer.

If the handloom mark is meant to counter power loom imitations, it would be more helpful instead if we brand power loom products, especially the handloom varieties which are usually imitated. This is the only way out, as there are no fool-proof methods to certify handlooms. The ‘power loom mark’, if strictly implemented, would directly benefit hundreds of low- to medium-skilled handloom weavers producing for the middle market, which is highly price sensitive.

The power loom imitation might be cheaper, but it is not the real thing. There is also a responsibility that the customer should be taking – to find the genuine handloom product and not be swayed by the concerns of price alone. Handloom products are the genuine ‘Make in India’ product, though that is not the only reason they should be supported. It is the product of a diverse and decentralised modes of production that involve considerable skill and provide substantial livelihoods. It has been and continues to be an important part of the economy. Most important of all, the different traditions of handloom have been an integral part of the heritage of this country.

Finally, we cannot ignore the growing indifference of consumers towards the identity and origin of any product. The people who need to connect to unique identities have adopted the anonymity of the city as their personal identity. Our attempt seems to be to connect such people (consumers) to identities lost in time due to the migration of weavers, depletion of natural resources, changes in the raw material and so on. In this backdrop, it does not seem strange that so many of the GI registrations are initiated by the government and put in place by their departments. The identity is no longer owned by the weaving community of that region nor is it recognised as a unique product by the consumer. Then it is left to the state, which initiated the brand to come forward to take the ownership.

In order to reverse these processes and reclaim ownership, at least from the consumer end, we should stop believing that large-scale production of pure handlooms in India is just an emotional idea. If we observe handloom businesses across the country, we will be able to see that it is a good business proposition. There is no decrease in demand for pure handlooms (in cotton, silk and wool) at the international as well as national level. No other nation in the world is able to meet this demand, because no other nation has as many working handlooms as we have. Instead of destroying this rich heritage, we should build it as a proud national industry.

B. Syama Sundari is coordinator, policy research and advocacy, Dastkar Andhra. Dastkar Andhra provides policy and advocacy support and invests in research and training to promote handloom weaving as a viable rural livelihood.