Crisis in Varanasi: Suicide and starvation among weavers - JANUARY 2007
A few nights ago a BBC World TV broadcast focussed on the plight of weavers in Varanasi facing the impact of Chinese “Benares brocade saris” imported at a fraction of local prices. It was a powerful report, featuring the voice of weavers and their families caught in this latest expression of the free trade regime. The broadcast was juxtaposed with our discussions in New Delhi on the Unesco Seal of Excellence. We were reminded of how hollow craft awards can be when the quality of life in craft communities remains such a contrast with the quality of their products.
The few of us met to consider what response might be possible from those of us who profess a concern for the future of craft communities and their values. Rta Kapur Chishti, Rahul Jain, Vijaya Rajan and I met for a brief discussion. We also had inputs from Martand Singh, Rajeev Sethi, Manju Nirula and colleagues from overseas participating in the Unesco jury.
While the report from Varanasi is fresh, the problem is not. We understood that Martand Singh, Rta and others had brought this threat to the attention of Indian authorities well before this country signed the WTO agreement. Indeed, the indifference of Government to the threat may have led Martand to resign from the committee set up to discuss the implications of adherence to the WTO regime. Some have heard from senior officials that situations like Varanasi are inevitable and the future is with mass production not hand production. Last year, it was ‘Kutchi’ embroidery imported from China that exercised some attention. In the south, weavers from Tamil Nadu have been imported by China in recent months so that our Southern traditions can be pirated. ‘Indian’ craft products from China abound in world markets. While competition is inevitable whether we like it or not, the inability to prepare and respond seems to be an Indian hallmark. So, what can we do as a small group of activist for those in Varanasi and elsewhere that competition will effect?
Our discussions suggested two needs. One is at the humanitarian level of relief and sustenance in terms of survival, health and nutrition. The second is to protect Indian quality: our finest craft skills need immediate protection, which means reaching the weavers at the apex of a pyramidal supply chain. While we may not be able to secure a very large number of weavers outside the highest range of quality, protecting the finest masters and their looms could be the best insurance possible for the survival of excellence. The suggestion was made to raise an amount (initially perhaps Rs. 2 crores) that could help provide activity to a selection of ‘adopted’ looms in Varanasi (and perhaps elsewhere) that represent the Indian quality that must be preserved for future generations. Rta feels identifying such looms could be quickly done, utilising the field investigations that have already taken place. NGOs like ourselves could be the channel for protecting these looms and the communities which depend upon them. The active participation of the trade was recommended, difficult though this may seem in the light of current attitudes and past experience.
Simultaneously, working with authorities, NGOs and activists in and around Varanasi, one could attempt a relief fund to address immediate survival needs of families affected by death, debt and starvation.
For the longer term, a business and advocacy model is needed that can understand and address the issue of Indian hand skills in the current regime of world trade. For this, we need allies from the ranks of economists and business leaders. A first attempt could be through Dr Sudarshan Iyengar of the Gujarat Vidhyapeeth. Outreach to leaders in the silk trade will be imperative.
A discussion was held with Smt. Swaroop, Chief Financial Advisor to the Ministry of Textiles. She has suggested a meeting next month, after we have been able to put together an approach and examine current Government of India schemes that are meant to address situations like the current one.
Let me have your feedback and let us see if we can put something together in the next few days that could be of some use to the weavers and their families. Admittedly, ours may be a drop in the ocean of misery. Yet this problem is not going to vanish. Indeed, it will reappear time and again. We had better acquire some ability to understand and address it. Perhaps you could suggest other stakeholders (including trade leaders) who could be involved, and ways in which public attention can continue to be focussed on the challenge to crafts of the new trade regime.