Why Are We Denying Indians the Cloth They Prefer?

For years people have been saying that handloom is an unprofitable, ‘sunset’ industry that can only be saved by the urban market. But local demand for handloom remains robust and exports are growing. The truth is that we’re killing our local talent and artistry by focusing only on what we want to consume in the cities and ignoring what most Indians really want to buy and use.


Kabiraj is one of the last four Bomkai weavers in Odisha. In the front room of his small brick-and-mortar home in the center of Bomkai village in Berhampur district, the source of this rare and original weave, sits the pit loom on which his textiles are woven. Tall and well built, Kabiraj is a weaver of the Patra Tanti caste from the Vaishnav community, crafting Bomkai designs perfected over generations. Worked on an extremely primitive pit loom with no extra attachments, weaving a Bomkai sari is like doing hand embroidery on a loom, forming a delicate and elaborate tapestry.

It takes Kabiraj 7-10 days to complete a regular Bomkai sari and up to a month for an intricate silk one. In the last five years, the price of cotton yarn and silk yarn has tripled while his earnings have not grown at the same rate. A highly skilled worker whose weaves are works of art, he doesn’t earn anywhere near commensurate pay. He makes about four cotton saris a month and earns around Rs 8,000 for them – enough to provide his family with three meals a day, but not enough to send his two children to a good school.

In his village, Kabiraj has become a rarity. Most handloom weavers have migrated to Surat or Tamil Nadu in search of work. To most people with a hazy idea of handlooms it would seem like a romantic lie to hear that Kabiraj likes and chooses to work in handlooms. A particular set of circumstances allows Kabiraj to continue – and it isn’t quite what you think.

There is a common myth among government policymakers on the handloom industry – including officials in the Directorate of Handlooms and the Ministry of Textiles at the center and state levels – that it’s only urban markets and exports that can save the handloom industry. As they see it, that’s where the money lies. This is problematic because it is also clear that there are strong, thriving local markets in some states that remain independent of outside pressures to a large degree. And these local markets provide real answers for the future of handloom (and Kabiraj’s future).

Urban markets are important to the handloom industry, but let us not forget that most of our population lives in villages and in smaller towns (the 2011 Census shows that 83.3 crore Indians live in rural areas – that’s 68.84 percent of the population), and that the market for handloom products in urban areas is a niche one. It is as if the policy makers are deciding on behalf of most Indians that they should no longer wear or use the cloth they prefer.

Another myth, even more puzzling than the first, is that India’s handloom industry, the largest in the world, is a ‘sunset’ industry. But the facts indicate that the handloom industry continues to grow and be profitable – in 2009, handloom exports were worth 264.8 million dollars, and in 2011 this rose by 44.6 percent to 554 million dollars. According to the 2009-10 Handloom Census, there are 43.32 lakh people (although I believe this is a conservative figure) working as weavers or in allied activities – pre-loom activities such as preparing yarn, dyeing it, preparing the warp, spinning bobbins for the weft, etc. and in post-loom activities such as applying starch, rolling and ironing. The handloom sector remains India’s second-largest employer after agriculture.

In May 2013, the Ministry of Textiles submitted a proposal to the government seeking to change the definition of the term ‘handloom’ so that products made on mechanized looms could also be classified as handloom products and sold for the same premium price. In the face of fierce opposition by weavers, handloom activists and concerned organizations, in January 2014 the government said it would not push this agenda. But with a powerful, organized powerloom lobby, it’s likely we haven’t heard the last of this idea.

The market today is being inundated with powerloom and mill-made goods, sold at the same premium price that handloom textiles command. India even imports cheap lookalike handloom saris all the way from China!

The Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 reserved 22 textile items to be produced exclusively by the handloom industry. Ten years later, this number was reduced to 11. Powerlooms openly violate the Act, while experts such as Dr. D Narasimha Reddy of the Chetana Society, Hyderabad point out that enforcement of the Act would do a great deal to support the handloom industry.

The powerful powerloom lobby remains the biggest threat to weavers and allied workers, for whom handlooms can mean more than just a livelihood. Handloom textiles are woven manually on looms that do not require electricity. It is a largely rural practice, with 87 percent of household units – according to the Census – engaged in handloom activities lying in rural areas. Making one product, such as a sari, involves work by at least six to ten people (sometimes an entire family),

Let’s look at the employment figures. In India, powerloom produces 62 percent production of all textiles and provides employment to 70 lakh weavers. Handloom, on the other hand, contributes to 11.28 percent production and provides employment to 43.32 lakh weavers – and so is a much more efficient employer than powerloom. Of handloom’s employees, 77 percent are women (10.13 percent SC, 18.12 percent ST, 45 percent OBC, and 1 percent other). The women are the main stakeholders in the sector, which empowers them and allows them financial independence.

The powerloom industry provides valuable employment, but it’s important that the roles of the powerloom and handloom industries in the market are kept separate. What will happen to the highly skilled population dependent on handlooms when you merge their products with those created by machines operated by a largely semi-skilled workforce?

I’ve seen cases where till some years back, weavers’ wages had not increased in the last 20 years – in Nuapatna village in Cuttack district of Odisha, most weavers abandoned their craft as a result. The cause for this is startling.

Despite the fact that India is the world’s third-largest producer of cotton and the second-largest producer of silk, most of it is exported. Hence, weavers are forced to buy imported yarn, the price of which is significantly higher. So in the last five years, weavers say the approximate cost of local cotton yarn has risen from around Rs 1,200 to around Rs 3,600 for a bundle (4.5 kg), while that of mulberry silk has quadrupled from around Rs 900 to around Rs 3,600 per kg. Local desi tussar yarn has risen from around Rs 1,000 to around Rs 4,000 per kg, while tussar from Korea costs around Rs. 4,800 per kg. The price of the end product can be controlled by the market or fixed by the government, but traders instead ensure they get their margin by lowering the wages of the weaver.

The handloom industry is still a profitable one, but it is going down the same route as agriculture where farmers are caught in a debt trap, being made to buy all their inputs from fertilizer to seed from large companies such as Monsanto. The government isn’t hammering away at the right nail – rather than check the price of yarn or set a minimum wage for weavers, it’s now giving out loans and credit cards to weavers, leading them down the same doomed path as farmers.

Read the full piece by Gunjan Jain»

(Originally published on Yahoo! Originals on Feb 26, 2014)

2 Responses to “Why Are We Denying Indians the Cloth They Prefer?”

  • dear vriksh ! i read ur article and i can understand the plight of our weaving community . i would like to have two traditional hand woven bomkai sarees from kaviraj ji . but how can i place an order ? will u help me ?

    thank u .

    • Dear Jayaprabha,

      Thankyou. Ofcourse we have bomkais for you. I’ll mail you the details.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *