'Years of Neglect Pushing Us to Poverty': Banarasi Saree Weavers

Amidst lockdowns, inflation, and neglect, weavers of PM Modi's constituency, Varanasi, are struggling to survive.

My Report
4 min read

Video Producer: Maaz Hasan
Video Editor:
Sandeep Suman

The city of Ghats, Varanasi, is famously known for one of the world's finest silk sarees—the Banarasi sarees— the craft of which dates back to 14th century. In the narrow lanes of Varanasi, there are many small colonies of weavers who have preserved the ancient craft of making sarees.

Zakir Rehman, a resident of Varanasi, guides me through these lanes in which small factories have been running for centuries. Across these narrow lanes, I saw groups of elderly people sitting beside the fire to beat the chilling winter cold.

Upon asking, Shamin Ansari says, "We aren't sitting here just to beat the cold, but also because we don't have work." And further, in the conversation, he told me that he has been weaving Banarasi sarees for over four decades and his family is in the craft for 5-6 generations. He is now struggling for livelihood.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Banarasi saree weaves of Varanasi's Kasool Pura locality</p></div>

Banarasi saree weaves of Varanasi's Kasool Pura locality

Photo Credit: Saurabh Singh

"Things were not same when I began to weave sarees decades ago. Earlier, there were many facilities provided to weavers by the government. We were given platforms to sell our produce. But all of that has stopped. You can see, all of us are sitting here facing joblessness. We don’t have big business. This all we know and that's all we do."
Shamim Ansari, Weaver

The silk weaving neighbourhood comes under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's parliamentary constituency. Weavers say that even before the pandemic arrived, they were struggling for their livelihood. Lockdown turned out to be the final nail in the coffin as demand dropped to all-time low leaving the weavers no option but to leave the city to meet their ends.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Rolls of Banarasi Sarees ready to be sold</p></div>

Rolls of Banarasi Sarees ready to be sold

Photo credit: Saurabh Singh

"Earlier, workers from outside used to come for work to Varanasi, from Bihar, Bengal etc. Today, workers from Varanasi are migrating to Surat, Bengaluru. Today, in this locality of Kasol Pura, at least 200-300 weavers have gone to Surat, Gujarat, for their livelihood. They had no option but to leave their houses."
Shamim Ansari, Weaver

Moving further inside the colony through the narrow lanes, I met Shiv Prasad, a weaver, in a vacant plot that had boundary walls made with raw bricks. Prasad says, "During the lockdown, the saree mill owners had to take loans and sell their valuables to survive and pay for the rotis of weavers who were unable to go back to their homes during the lockdown."

The uncertainty and intermittency of lockdowns have also made the lives of the weavers very difficult.

"Today if machines are running for, let's say, 10-15 days and they stop for a week, then we run on losses. We will get the money only if we work. Nobody will give me an advance. And in that too, the cost of making is borne by the weavers only. Owners will give the raw material and pay only after getting the finished product. They pay in at least a week’s time. Generally, they pay in 15 days to a month."
Ali Ahmad, Weaver
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Mohammad Ahmad Ansari, a weaver, preparing sarees for a small order he recently received.</p></div>

Mohammad Ahmad Ansari, a weaver, preparing sarees for a small order he recently received.

Photo credit: Saurabh Singh

On one hand, if there is unpredictability over lockdown, then on the other hand, inflation is hitting them hard. Before the pandemic arrived, the threads used to cost around Rs 200-220, now it costs Rs 300-320.

"The raw material is getting expensive and we are unable to get the right cost of a saree. The market is good for a month or two and then there is nothing for a couple of years. We are poor. We weave in small quantities and somehow we are feeding ourselves."
Habibur Rehman, Weaver

Uttar Pradesh goes for elections from 10 February. The community of weavers complains that none of the political parties care for them or even think about working towards protecting this ancient craft. So, how much effort was taken to safeguard the craft? This shouldn't be taken just as a question but as a point to ponder over the lives of the weavers.

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

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