No New Sarees, Dresses Amid Lockdown Means Weavers Are Suffering

Above all else, the majority of handloom weavers do not have bank accounts. Financial inclusion is a must.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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“More than 25 handloom weavers who work for me have not had any work since the lockdown began. I don’t have raw material to give them,” says Kanhaiya Dewangan, a master weaver and trader of Kosa silk in Raigarh district, Chhattisgarh.

Far away in Srinagar Kashmir, Fayaz Ganiae and his family weave pashmina shawls and stoles. They have five looms in their house. “This is the first time in my life when all our five looms have gone silent. Kashmir has been in constant lockdown since August last year, but even then our two looms were always weaving.”

Gori Shankar lives in a village near Bikaner, Rajasthan and weaves woollen shawls. Shabana lives in Kaithun village, some 40 kms from Kota, Rajasthan. Both Shankar and Shabana are small weavers who have one loom in their house. They too haven’t had any work for last one month.

Dewangan, Fayaz, Shankar and Shabana epitomise the crisis being faced by millions of handloom weavers across India. After agriculture, handloom industry is the second largest sector of employment in India.

Looming Economic Crisis

The data published in the Fourth Handloom Census (2019-2020), Ministry of Textiles, Government of India, reflects the social and economic backwardness of the handloom weavers.

The lockdown is bound to bring more distress to the already vulnerable weavers.

According to the Census 2011, over three million (30 lakh) households are engaged in handloom weaving activities. More than 66 percent of handloom weaver households earn less than Rs 5000 a month, and 92 percent earn less than Rs 10000 per month.

Only 23 percent have bank accounts, and only three percent weavers have life or health insurance.

More than twenty percent weavers have never attended school, and only 10 percent have studied beyond high school. Over sixty percent handloom weavers are Dalit, tribals or belong to other marginalised communities. And 17 percent come from Muslim community. Almost 90 percent live in rural areas.

How Lockdown Is Killing Livelihoods

The lockdown will have far-reaching implications for the handloom industry. It has not only halted all weaving but also disrupted the supply chains. But the bigger fear is that even when the supply chain is restored, the demand will take a long time to revive.

And this collapse of supply-demand matrix will have terrible impact on the livelihood of millions of handloom weavers, who had just about recovered from the impact of demonetisation and GST.

Waseem is a master weaver and trader in Srinagar, and he says “I have 30 weavers working from me in Srinagar. March-October is the peak production time for pashmina but I have halted all production. I have given products worth lakhs to shopkeepers in Srinagar, Ladakh and Chandigarh. I know their shops are shut. How can I ask them for payment?”

Like Waseem, Dewangan from Raigarh says he is also stuck with huge stocks. “The shops where I supply are shut, and they owe me lakhs. I would maintain my cash flow by participating in exhibitions. Now all exhibitions stand cancelled.”

Both Waseem and Devangan provide work to over 50 household between them. They admit that given the huge stocks and uncertainty about payments, they are unable to give work to the weavers. Dewangan said that he has provided small financial help to some weavers for ration. Waseem also donated small sum to a weaver for a medical emergency. However, both say that these are small gestures on their part. If the lockdown continues, they may mange to survive but they fear the consequences for the small weavers.

Running Out of Money & Surviving On Govt-Provided Rations

Gori Shankar and Shabana, both from Rajasthan, represent the crisis being faced by small individual weavers. Shankar from Bikaner gets woollen yarn from Khadi Ashram in Bikaner. He weaves the shawls and gives it back to the Ashram and is paid by piece-rate. Sometimes he would buy the yarn from Bikaner, make the shawls and sell them in the market. He and his wife would earn around Rs 300-400 per day. “Now the Ashram is shut, and the market is also shut. We haven’t earned a single rupee since the lockdown began.”

Shankar has run out of money and survives on the free ration being provided by the government.

Shabana in Kota is part of the Self Help Group established by a social enterprise. Their group has a huge stock of Kota-Doria sarees and duppatas. The women of the group sell their products in various crafts exhibitions. Shabana says three major exhibitions in March and April have been cancelled. They have zero cash flow.

Financial Inclusion Is a Must

Handloom weavers operate in an eco-system that is informal and broken. These are unusual times, and radical short term measures are needed to support millions of poor handloom weavers.

First, as mentioned in the Handloom Survey, the majority of weavers do not have bank accounts.

So innovative ways need to be devised by which cash transfers are made to the weavers. In every weaving cluster across India, the state should set up hubs where cash could be handed out to weavers.

Second, raw material should be sent out to weaving clusters and distributed amongst the master craftsmen and individual weavers. Along with that, the government must purchase the finished products and immediate payment is made to the weaver.

Third, every state government purchases large quantities of fabric for upholstery for its hospitals, uniform for government school children, police and other personnel, and for other similar institutions. It should ensure that from now onwards all this fabric is woven by handloom weavers. This will ensure constant work for millions of weavers.

And fourth, the government and its various Khadi Bhandars must immediately purchase all the stock lying with the traders and small weavers. This will infuse cash in the system and revive the handloom weaving which has come to a standstill.

(Jamal Kidwai is the founder of social enterprise ‘Baragaon Weaves’. He tweets at @KidwaiJamal. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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